Monday, June 14, 2010

Adam, Eve, and Moral Cheating

The more I think about it the more I become convinced that, in the old Christian bible story of the Garden of Eden, God punished Adam and Eve for what effect the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge had on them, rather than for the actual eating of the fruit. I am, of course, an atheist, but I have been thinking about this Christian legend because I believe I have found a parallel between the story and how people act in regards to ethics today.

To summarize the story succinctly, the story of the Garden of Eden is about the very first man and woman to come into existence, and how they committed a "sin" which caused them to get kicked out of the Garden and damn the rest of mankind with finite lifespans, the sensation of pain, having to work for sustenance, etc. According to the version of the story I've heard, the devil in the form of a snake with legs tempted Eve and convinced her to eat the fruit even after God explicitly warned both Adam and Eve not to, and then afterwards Eve convinced Adam to eat the fruit, by which then they both got cursed and kicked out of the Garden.

Omitting from discussion obvious contradictions -- such as how God's omniscience could not have foreseen what Adam and Eve were going to do, why his omnipotence could not have made the tree unattainable or else restorable, etc. -- I have been thinking that what God truly got angry about is that the fruit made Adam and Eve knowledgeable about the nature of good and evil, rather than the actual eating of the fruit. In fact, and this is another contradiction, it's downright foolish for God to have gotten angry for the consumption of the fruit: Since Adam and Even did not know about good and evil beforehand, how could they have known that eating the fruit was a bad thing to do and then act on moral principle?

If my analysis is correct, then knowledge here is being regarded as innately evil while ignorance is innately moral. So long as a man is ignorant, in this context, then he can achieve morality.

And in regards to a proper philosophy it is true that there is a difference between innocent mistakes vs. moral failings. An innocent mistake in the moral context is when one commits a self-destructive action due to honest, unwillful ignorance and is willing to correct one's errors and act accordingly (and follows through with that intention). A moral failing, however, is when one commits a self-destructive action while knowing in advance it is self-destructive, and could have acted otherwise. In addition, the immorality is intensified when one is unwilling to examine and/or correct the errors, and is engaging in willful ignorance.

I've noticed that in my own life some people engage in willful ignorance consistently, often, and regularly as a way of preventing themselves from having to own up to their immorality, possibly with the implicit intention of achieving the moral "purity" of Adam and Eve. (The dominant religion in my network of people is Christianity.) For instance, if I recall the specifics of the conversation correctly, I was once having a discussion with someone about the merits of a government program, and he was implicitly trying to tell me that it was practical while I was arguing against it. When he questioned me on my position, I posited a question with an obvious answer: "Where do you think the government gets its funding?" Immediately he widened his eyes, broke eye contact with me, and nervously said "--I don't know--"

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I started to explain how the government got its funding and was cut off in mid-sentence by an angry outburst. He snarled that I should be thankful that such programs are available for assistance, but when I started to explain that they do not achieve their intended purpose he told me he was incapable of doing anything about it and then ended the conversation, and perhaps even walked away from me.

Reflecting back, it's obvious to me now that he knew how the government funded its programs and had refused to think about whether or not they achieve their intended purposes; when I started making identifications for him he panicked and cut off the conversation before the issue could be fully clarified, thereby maintaining his self-inflicted "ignorance." Given that government programs for economic assistance are destined to fail -- what with ignorant, unspecialized politicians being in charge; wealth merely being transferred from one party to the next, and so on -- I wouldn't be surprised if he tried to defend his moral status by stating "I didn't know!" when a government program he supported fails. More likely, however, is that he'll continually keep himself in a haze and treat economic failures as metaphysical facts.

But then again I could be wrong. It can be very easy to make philosophical identifications in ethics on the level of broad abstractions, such as the particular one above, but extremely difficult to find where they apply in specific situations. Even if you spend several months to study and integrate the proper code of morality, it can still take years of applying its standards to find how it applies to particular men, and even then one could still make an error of judgment. Men are, after all, capable of dishonestly presenting their natures, though I suspect it cannot be kept up indefinitely.

As such, I don't exactly know whether or not the person in my example was utilizing evasion to keep himself morally pristine of the consequences of government programs or if he was just terrified of questioning and altering his premises. In his case, he utilizes a clusterflop of techniques in order to try and make himself exempt from scrutiny. For instance, he advocates determinism and claims metaphysical necessities when he's being morally condemned or feels uncomfortable at my condemning someone else, but when it is I he wishes to scrutinize he suddenly advocates freewill and believes man's choices are not metaphysical necessities.

Whatever the case, the particular technique of evading in order to be "innocently" ignorant of the nature of one's actions does not allow one to achieve the moral status of being innocently mistaken. This is an attempt to cheat morality; and, in addition to the nature of the person's actions, the person opens himself to be more intensely condemned for the nature of his evasions.

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