Anselm on the badness of sin
December 16, 2009 — 10:51

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Virtue  Comments: 14

St. Anselm believes that the least of our sins puts us in an infinite debt to God and is infinitely bad. Anselm’s own argument for this thesis is uses some implicit premises. Here is my best reconstruction:

  1. (Premise) To sin is to oppose the will of God.
  2. (Premise) If it is not permissible to do A in order to preserve a good G, then A is at least as bad as the loss of G.
  3. (Premise) It is not permissible to oppose the will of God “even to preserve the whole of creation”, even “if there were more worlds as full of beings as this”, and even if “they increased to an infinite extent”.
  4. (Premise) The badness of the loss of the whole of creation if the whole of creation consisted of planets as full of beings as Earth and increased to an infinite extent would be infinite.
  5. (Premise) If something is at least as bad as an infinite bad, then it’s infinitely bad.
  6. To oppose the will of God is at least as bad as something infinitely bad. (2, 3 and 4)
  7. To oppose the will of God is infinitely bad. (5 and 6)
  8. Every sin is infinitely bad. (1 and 7)
  9. (Premise) To do something infinitely bad puts us in infinite debt.
  10. Every sin sin is infinitely bad and puts us in infinite debt. (8 and 9)

Probably the most obvious thing to worry about is the conjunction of (2) and (3). Premise (2) appears to be a consequentialist claim. Premise (3), on the other hand, is a premise that the Christian tradition does indeed endorse, but the Christian tradition is not a consequentialist tradition (witness St Augustine on lying and St Paul’s insistence that we do not do evil that good might come of it). Thus the argument brings together premises that originate in two competing moral theories, and it is unsurprising that when you do that, you can derive surprising things from their conjunction.

But this is too quick. For there is a lot of plausibility to the consequentialist intuition that Anselm invokes in (2). When one thinks about Augustine and Kant on lying, it “feels right” to say that they value honesty over life. On the side of Kant at least, this is mistaken. Kant’s objection to lying isn’t that honesty is a greater good than life, because Kant’s ethics is not centered on the good (at least not in a way that would make this statement work). So perhaps it is right to affirm the consequentialist intuition in (2) as well as the deontological intuition in (3). And if one does that, then one gets the view that certain actions are infinitely bad.

However, this approach is mistaken. For one does not do justice to both consequentialist and deontological intuitions by supposing that wrong actions are infinitely bad. For consider this situation: If you don’t kill an innocent person, a hundred other people will each kill one innocent person. (How can you set this up? One way is statistical. You know that if a certain temptation T is given to people, one percent of people will commit a murder. So you’re told that if you don’t kill one person, temptation T will be offered to 10,000 people.) Clearly the hundred murders are worse than one murder, and yet it’s wrong, according to the deontologist, to kill one innocent person. Moreover, this case is directly a counterexample to (2).

One might try to get out of this counterexample by denying that infinities can be compared. But if one does that, then one can no longer say things that mortal sin is worse than venial sin, and the like. Besides, one does want to be able to compare infinities. If I had a choice between preventing one stranger from committing one murder of a stranger and a hundred strangers from committing one murder apiece, obviously I should prevent the latter.

A different kind of objection to the argument would be that in (2), “at least as bad” should be read as “not less bad” (I am worried about cases of incommensurability). But if one makes the same replacement in (5), it is far from clear whether (5) remains true. For it may be that something is infinitely bad in an aesthetic way (say, an infinitely long bad novel) and something else is finitely bad in an incommensurable way (say, a toothache of finite length); the latter is not less bad than the former, but it does not follow that the latter is infinite.

Nonetheless, even though St Anselm’s argument for the infinite badness of sin fails, I think there are alternate ways to make the thesis plausible. But that’s a subject for another post (hopefully over the next couple of days).

Comments:
  • Mike Almeida

    Certainly, we could do the same thing with complying with the will of God, right? Let C be an instance of complying with the will of God. Since this instance C of complying with the will of God is something that I should do, no matter how infinitely bad the outcome, even if infinite numbers of people suffer unbearably for infinity, the moral weight of C is greater than all of that horror. But it would then have to follow that such a world–a world in which I comply with the will of God and these horrors follow–is perfectly possible and on balance positive. Add a couple more compliances with God’s will if you like, to get the world up to snuff.
    The reply cannot be that God would not actualize such a world, since the world is on balance positive. Throw in a few more compliances with God’s will (say, without corresponding horrors following from them, or with just a lot of finite horrors) and the world gets downright superb! I’m not sure there could be a clearer counterexample to premise (3) (or its positive counterpart).

    December 16, 2009 — 13:05
  • Mike Almeida

    But it would then have to follow that such a world–a world in which I comply with the will of God and these horrors follow–is perfectly possible and on balance positive.
    Let me clarify so that this does not sound consequentialist. Let Cn be an instance of complying with God’s will, let H be an infinity of horrible suffering for infinite numbers of people, and let J be an infinity of joy for infinite numbers of people such that |J| = |H| (we can get more fussy and assume some non-standard analysis infinity, if necessary, but it won’t affect the general point). It follows that a (C1 & H)-world is morally preferable to a J-world. Otherwise, the compliance with God’s will in C1 would not be worth H & ~J. Which of course it is by premise (3).

    December 16, 2009 — 14:54
  • jordan.nwc

    “Nonetheless, even though St Anselm’s argument for the infinite badness of sin fails, I think there are alternate ways to make the thesis plausible. But that’s a subject for another post (hopefully over the next couple of days).
    It seems a sad reality that the argument does not rely on the truth of the cross (at least in any direct and/or strong way). If the cross was not true, perhaps something close to Anselm’s thought would be the only the way to go – obviously, that’s not the case. I hope your future argument does not contain the same sad reality:)

    December 16, 2009 — 18:35
  • Andrew

    I hear Anscombe’s words ringing in my hear (or rather mind).
    What would this do to the distinction (at least acknowledged by Catholics) between venial and mortal sin? How could we draw such a distinction if all sin is infinitely bad? Would we claim that venial sin is infinitely bad, but some sins (i.e., venial) are able to be forgiven in a certain way which other sins (i.e., mortal sins) aren’t?

    December 16, 2009 — 20:28
  • Andrew: I think it’s quite possible to compare infinities. For instance, to cause two people pain for an infinite amount of time is worse than to cause the same pain to one person.

    December 16, 2009 — 22:42
  • Mike:
    It could be that complying is of no value or only finite value, but non-compliance would be of value negative infinity.

    December 16, 2009 — 22:50
  • Luke Gelinas

    Hi Alex,
    When you say, “to do something infinitely bad puts us in infinite debt,” it sounds like this involves blameworthiness. It seems possible to perform an infinitely bad act and only be responsible somewhat, or not at all. Maybe I’m not sure that opposing the will of God is sufficient for sin–God might be strongly opposed to my 3-year old stumbling upon a knife and doing great harm with it, but I’m not sure a 3-year old can sin. Or, if she can, I start thinking about denying the link between sin and blame.

    December 17, 2009 — 8:25
  • Mike Almeida

    It could be that complying is of no value or only finite value, but non-compliance would be of value negative infinity.
    Alex, I’m not sure that going to be possible, unless you reject the interdefinability of ~PA iff. O~A, where it is not permissible that A iff. it is obligatory that ~A. Premise (3) states,
    3.(Premise) It is not permissible to oppose the will of God “even to preserve the whole of creation”, even “if there were more worlds as full of beings as this”, and even if “they increased to an infinite extent”.
    And so could be rewritten as,
    3.(Premise) It is obligatory to not oppose the will of God “even to preserve the whole of creation”, even “if there were more worlds as full of beings as this”, and even if “they increased to an infinite extent”.
    which is just,
    3.(Premise) It is obligatory to comply with the will of God “even to [lose] the whole of creation”, even “if there were more worlds as full of beings as this”, and even if “they increased to an infinite extent”.
    So we get the result that a (C1 & L)-world is better than a J-world, that is a Compliance and Loss of infinite value world is preferred to an infinite joy world. This is not good news for this view. You could still adhere to the position, but the cost seems to be that even strong moral intuition counts for next to nothing.

    December 17, 2009 — 8:26
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Alex,
    You wrote, “It is not permissible to oppose the will of God “even to preserve the whole of creation”, even “if there were more worlds as full of beings as this”, and even if “they increased to an infinite extent”.”
    I suppose that I’d grant that it’s never permissible under any circumstances to oppose the will of God. Who could deny that? Why can’t I say also that there’s no possible world in which the consequences of my doing so would result in the loss of something of infinite value? It might be a sin to chew gum in the pews, eat meat with cheese, or to have sex the wrong way, or whatever, but it’s surely a disproportionate response for God to respond by destroying something of infinite value. (Or, are you assuming that there are no sins like this (i.e., sins such that it would be a disproportionate response to destroy all of creation even if it is infinitely good)?)
    Are you asking us to consider an impossible world if you ask us to consider a world where I sin by chewing gum in the pews and a consequence of my action is that a just God who would otherwise lack sufficient reason to destroy something of infinite value destroys something of infinite value in response?
    Or, are you asking us to consider the possible world where God already has adequate reason to destroy something of positive infinite value and our gum chewing in the pews does nothing to alter the balance of reasons in such a way that God now lacks an adequate reason to destroy something of positive infinite value? If that’s what you’re asking us to consider, I think that’s fine, but I think that won’t tell us much about the value of gum chewing in the pews.

    December 17, 2009 — 9:47
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Hey Alex,
    I wrote:
    “Why can’t I say also that there’s no possible world in which the consequences of my doing so would result in the loss of something of infinite value?”
    Should have written:
    “Why can’t I say also that there’s no possible world in which the consequences of my doing so would result in God’s causing the loss of something of infinite value when God didn’t already have adequate reason (or something vanishingly close to adequate reason) for bringing about that loss?”
    Sorry about that, I missed the bit about comparing infinities when I was scrolling up and down.

    December 17, 2009 — 10:03
  • Gordon Knight

    (Premise) It is not permissible to oppose the will of God “even to preserve the whole of creation”, even “if there were more worlds as full of beings as this”, and even if “they increased to an infinite extent”.
    Here is a reason:
    God necessarily wills what creates the most good.
    So, its never the case that acting against God’s will is an act that has overall worse consequences than any alternative to it.
    Or if you prefer deontological talk, God always wills that we do what is morally the right thing to do.
    I am assuming DCT is false of course.
    So then the infinite badness of sin does not follow from the fact that one is never justified disobeying God

    December 17, 2009 — 11:42
  • Mike:
    The interdefinability of permission or obligation doesn’t say much about the moral value or disvalue of the two.
    Consider the following four actions:
    (A) Slowly torturing one’s innocent best friend to death when doing so is likely to get one caught.
    (B) Painlessly killing someone who was convicted of raping one’s child when one could have easily done so without getting caught.
    (RA) Refraining from (A).
    (RB) Refraining from (B).
    Assume all the actions are done responsibly.
    Now, the moral disvalue of A is significantly greater than the moral disvalue of B. The person who does A responsibly is a truly awful person. The person who does B is a murderer, but does not rise to the level of the awfulness of the doer of A. So, maybe, Value(A) = -1000000. Value(B) = -10000.
    On the other hand, the moral value of RA is not very high. We all engage in RA quite regularly, and typically deserve but little praise for it. Maybe Value(RA) = 10.
    However, the moral value of RB is fairly high. We think it takes some serious moral restraint to refrain from B. So maybe Value(RB) = 1000.
    In any case, the following is clear: Value(A) < Value(B) and Value(RA) < Value(RB). Consequently, it cannot both be the case that Value(A) = -Value(RA) and that Value(B) = -Value(RB).
    Therefore, the fact that it would be really, really bad to do something does not give us reason to think it is a really, really good thing to refrain from it, though of course it is a good thing to refrain from it.

    December 17, 2009 — 11:52
  • Mike Almeida

    Therefore, the fact that it would be really, really bad to do something does not give us reason to think it is a really, really good thing to refrain from it, though of course it is a good thing to refrain from it.
    This is pretty interesting, but I’m not sure it addresses the worry. I’m told (premise 3) that I’m not permitted to oppose the will of God, and that opposing the will of God is in some sense infinitely disvaluable (or not worth doing even to prevent something that is infinitely disvaluable).
    3.(Premise) It is not permissible to oppose the will of God “even to preserve the whole of creation”, even “if there were more worlds as full of beings as this”, and even if “they increased to an infinite extent”.
    Let me simplify (3) in this way. I think we can agree that if (3) is true, then so is the simpler version.
    3.1 It is not permissible to oppose the will of God even if opposing it would be infinitely valuable, V.
    But (3.1) entails that,
    3.2 It is obligatory not to oppose the will of God even if opposing it would be infinitely valuable, V.
    But if I’m not opposing the will of God, then I’m complying with it.
    3.3 It is obligatory to comply with the will of God even if not complying would be infinitely valuable, V.
    But surely (3.3) entails that each compliance with the will of God has greater than infinite value. Suppose an instance of compliance C1 with the will of God had exactly the infinite value in V. It would then follow that C1 = (~C1 & V). But we know that C1 > (~C1 & V). So we know that C1 > V. And that’s all I need for the counterexample.

    December 17, 2009 — 14:28
  • Mike:
    I don’t think 3.1 is the right way to think about 3. I think that it would be closer to Anselm to say:
    3.1*. It is not permissible to oppose the will of God even if opposing it would result in something infinitely valuable.
    From this we get:
    3.3*. It is obligatory to comply with the will of God even if not complying would result in something infinitely valuable.
    However, 3.3* does not say “even if not complying would result in something infinitely valuable on balance“. It only says that “not complying would result in something infinitely valuable.” So at most the only conclusion we can draw from 3.3* is at best a disjunctive one:
    3.4*. Either complying with God’s will is infinitely valuable or not complying with God’s will is infinitely disvaluable.
    This could be another objection to Anselm: maybe he is not entitled to suppose that disobedience is infinitely bad; he is only entitled to suppose that either obedience is infinitely good or disobedience is infinitely bad.

    December 17, 2009 — 16:42