The Dumbest Professor Argument Ever: Sin is Good for You?

I admit it…I’ve been itching to write another “dumb professor” article for quite a while.  But I have a problem to confess.  As a conscientious collector of dumb professor arguments, I have very high standards for sheer stupidity.  Oh, there is no end to the stupid things professors will say against the Christian faith, and I could pick one every day like picking corn in an Indiana summer field, saying things like “Mabel, look’ee here, this corn kernel reminds me of a Richard Dawkins’ argument…now watch me eat it, like I’ll eat his ugly face” – I’m bold as brass about corn kernel metaphors – but for this blog I only want the pinnacle of stupidity.  I mean Bill Clinton’s moral compass meets George W. Bush’s brain stupid.  I want to find a dumb professor argument so dumb that you scream with agony as you read about it. I’m funny that way.

And, just as I was struggling to find the dumbest of the dumb professor arguments, the Heavens opened up and dropped it into my lap while I was reading a Social Psychology listserv. (This is not a common occurrence while reading a Social Psychology listserv; if you’re looking for some Heavens-Opening kinds of experiences, I’d suggest rather the book of John.  Still, God has a sense of humor and will sometimes surprise you!)  It is not possible to be more stupid than the argument you are about to read.  My only regret is wasting the best arguing day of my life when I am forty: For I’m quite sure life will never provide something as entertaining as this again, argument-wise.

And now, for your pleasure, I present to you Simon Laham’s book “The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good For You).”  In this book, he argues that the seven deadly sins long discussed by Christians as bad are actually goodGluttony?  Get some Cheetos, my friend, and find a couch…and upgrade your pant size.  Pride? Go ahead and feel superior to others, it’ll make you a better person.  And what’s a little anger among friends?  Envy?  Are you kidding? Envy’s all the rage for the truly morally superior. Sloth?  Heavens to Betsy, forget all this “work ethic” stuff you’ve been hearing about. Greed? Come on, anyone knows that greed is just the honest pursuit of happiness, right? It’s practically enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as a virtue! Think of the invisible hand, for crying out loud?

And so the American dream lives on. The dream that says you can lose weight by eating fattening foods; the dream that says you can make money by throwing it down a hole in Las Vegas; the dream that says you can sit around all day playing video games and have a fulfilling life, accomplishing many good things; the dream that says you can assuage your conscience by avoiding it; the dream that says you can get a better job by sleeping in everyday, that those crops will reap themselves; yes, the people who brought you Coca Cola and Christmas Greed have finally reached the pinnacle of stupidity: You can be a good person by being a bad person!  We’ve progressed beyond simply hoping our sin doesn’t matter (the old slogan: “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”) to hoping our sin is actually the path to goodness (the new slogan: “what happens in Vegas leads to Heaven”).  

Only, of course, it isn’t just the American dream – it’s the human dream.  Come on, admit it: There is a part of all of us that would like to believe Laham’s book.  I’d certainly like to.  Wouldn’t it be grand?  We can be a perfectly good person by giving in to our bad desires.  By simply doing whatever we want whenever we want to do it, we can make the world a better place. 

Christianity says that this sort of book will be appealing to us.  It says that we’ll want to believe we can go our own way and be both happy and good.  Way back in the third chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve looked at the forbidden fruit and it “looked good” to them.

Problem: It isn’t.  At least, not in the long term.  I’m not going to offer a point-by-point rebuttal here of Laham’s arguments (though it’s tempting to do so).  Instead, I’m going to tackle the larger picture he is painting with very broad brushstrokes. What I eventually will argue is that (a) social psychological research is more likely to suggest that resisting the seven deadly sins makes you happy in the long term, and (b) even if it didn’t, no one actually wants to live in a world where those sins are glorified.

But this blog post is already getting kinda bloated, so I’ll save those arguments for next week.  Stay tuned!

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4 Responses to The Dumbest Professor Argument Ever: Sin is Good for You?

  1. Uh-Oh says:

    This is a prime example of the logical absurdity of trying to entirely negate an argument by taking the completely opposite side and proposing it truest. Most of the time, like Aristotle proposed, answering with an extreme is usually a bad moral course.

    From an outsider Atheist perspective, I recognize some of the good concepts in the 7 Deadly Sins, which are (so I can remember): Wrath, Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, Greed, Envy, Pride. Sloth, Wrath, and Gluttony are particularly socially (and self) damaging, so everyone should agree on those as being vices. However, the rest are questionable really.

    For instance, Lust is often conflated with sexual desire itself. Obviously such desires are human impulse, and calling them a sin is more psychologically damaging than accepting them as being so. I’d say sexual desire is a good – and of course if the extreme exercise of sexual desire at the cost of social or personal well-being (like any good thing) we could call that bad ‘Lust’. Otherwise I’d call it a great thing! Greed in the same token can be said to come from a love of money and wealth, and that isn’t a bad thing for anyone. The extreme (like any extreme) is.

    Now Pride and Envy are trickier. Envy, as Christopher Hitchens noted, leads people to try to achieve more themselves. Envy can be a great motivating factor in getting people to be not Slothful and do something about their lot in life. Pride too ought to be exercised for one’s works, as if you don’t find your works and deeds valuable then are you not doing worthless things?

    The point is, if these are prohibitions against extremes, most of them work out well then. But prohibitions against healthy doses of these ‘Cardinal Sins’, in Aristotle’s concept of the medium (which is leaning towards one extreme or the other is the best), would be in my opinion morally objectionable.

  2. The Apologetic Professor says:

    Hi, Uh-Oh,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I actually agree with you on a couple of points, and there is some common ground here. There is also some disagreement (at least – if I understand you correctly). I’ll limit myself to a shorter comment than I otherwise might (and yes, this is kinda short for me), because my actual critique of Laham’s line of reasoning mostly comes next week. Feel free to chime in on that, too! I appreciate being kept on my toes.

    (1) Partially you are responding reasonably to my hyperbolic tendencies – I like to talk in extremes myself, even when such talk is not entirely justified. So on that score, I’m guilty as charged! And I’m sure you are at least half right in this sense: Laham’s book almost certainly deals much more complexly with the issue than I present here (or next week), probably more along the nuanced lines of the way you do in your comment. It is certainly true that I did paint his argument in very extreme terms. (Naturally, being human, I partially blame Laham himself – I mean, he did offer a really extreme title to his book!) So I’ll say that up front. (I’d also like to note something I already had in my post for next week: I haven’t read his book, only the website promoting the book. So keep that in mind, too: I’m attacking an idea more than I’m attacking his book per se).

    (2) Sometimes, I agreed with what you said at face value; but it seemed to me you were basically re-stating the Christian point of view. In some cases, you did not seem to me to be talking about the seven deadly sins at all. For example, take the sexual impulse. Christianity does not attack the sexual impulse as such – in fact, it has long defended its basic goodness over and against many pagan philosophies that tried to attack it. So when you say…

    “I’d say sexual desire is a good – and of course if the extreme exercise of sexual desire at the cost of social or personal well-being (like any good thing) we could call that bad ‘Lust’”

    …you have basically just stated the historical Christian position.

    Of course, Christianity would differ from (some) other points of view in saying that sexual desire was made for only one other person (e.g., in my case, my wife). So Christians might draw the line as to what “extreme” sexual behavior was at a different point than some other philosophies. And if the question is simply about what makes people happy, Christianity is clearly right – research suggests that people who abstain from sex except in marriage are happier than those that don’t.

    My larger point is this: Almost all sin is, in Christian thought, a corruption of some good instinct. (It is Buddhism and other such non-Christian philosophies that argue that “desire” itself is bad). There is nothing wrong with sexual desire, except when it is corrupted or misapplied. There is nothing wrong with enjoying eating, except when it hurts your own body (or others). There is nothing wrong with feeling good about one’s own painting, or song, or sculpture, or blog post – but there is something really wrong with feeling that your painting makes you superior to others and believing (wrongly) that you are capable of controlling everything about your world, because on this day you could control your paintbrush. THAT is pride; and it is a horrible thing, and it is not good for you. (That’s probably why research shows we don’t like that kind of prideful person – at all – when we meet them in reality.) The fact that Christianity attacks such things with passionate vigor is one of the things that makes me a Christian. That passion, though, is not directed at the healthy instincts, but rather at their corruptions.

    (3) Having said all that, if what you mean is a kind of universal endorsement of moral moderation, then I do completely disagree with you. Sex was meant for some contexts and not others (lust); we were meant to eat food but not to eat too much (gluttony); but some things were never meant to be at all. Some things are totally wrong and ought to be fought inside of each of us without qualification. The moderate approach doesn’t always work. One cannot have a “moderate” view of slavery – and the people that did have such a moderate, compromising spirit are the reason that slavery lasted so long in this nation. Extreme views (of the kind a moderate would deplore) are what stopped slavery. So I don’t take it as a truth that moderation is always good; it isn’t.

    (4) Just because something leads to a good consequence does not mean the thing itself is good. For example, you assume that because envy can sometimes overcome slothfulness, that envy itself therefore has some goodness. But envy itself does not have any positive qualities that I can see, and the fact that it may be used to overcome other evils is like saying that the Holocaust was good because it spurred people to action to overthrow Hitler. It may have had those good consequences – but those consequences do not make the Holocaust itself any less evil. Well, envy is bad, whether it occasionally has apparently good consequences or not.

    But, for all that, are its consequences good? Probably not. Even judged by the standard of human happiness, envy is almost certainly a psychological death wish, and people who use their envy to overcome sloth are probably some of the least happy people on earth.

    (5) Speaking of unhappy people wanting more stuff…let’s talk about greed. Greed is bad. You state that the “love of money and wealth…isn’t a bad thing for anyone.” What did you mean, exactly? Because even research by psychologists – published in the best journal in my own field – suggests that people who love money are less happy than those that don’t. (And that’s certainly my own experience – greed makes people unhappy). By any standard I can think of, greed isn’t good for people. (And it certainly isn’t good for the people who were stepped on to get the money, or the people that could have helped with the money if one wasn’t so greedy!)

    Don’t get me wrong: If all you meant by your statement about “love of money and wealth” is that you’d rather have money than be starving, Christianity (I think) has little bone to pick with you. But that’s not what greed means: Greed means a constant drive for wanting stuff you don’t need – a focus on wealth as an end point or goal. It isn’t a good end point – it’s a psychological hole with no bottom.

    (6) The idea that “calling something a sin” is “psychologically damaging” is itself an extreme idea that isn’t very defensible. From the context, I don’t think you meant that as an extreme statement across all contexts – so correct me if I’m overreaching here. I would agree with you, if what you meant was “calling something that is not actually wrong a sin, is bad for people.” Of course that’s true. And the Church has certainly done plenty of that kind of thing over the years (e.g., the Puritans thinking that children laughing was bad). I’m not defending that kind of thing. But there is this sort-of Freudian idea floating around that calling something sin IN GENERAL is a bad thing. But it isn’t. That idea is like saying that I should not tell a child who can barely dribble a basketball that she’s unlikely to be a professional basketball player, because it might upset her at the moment. OK, maybe it might – but it’s a true statement nonetheless, and she’ll be better off for realizing that truth (and accepting the temporary pain, if that’s what it takes) than she would if she spent her life pursuing a dream that will never happen. So, too, with calling something bad inside of me (or you or anyone) what it is – something bad. Maybe it is psychologically unpleasant – but better to know the truth and be done with it.

    Thanks for the comments!

  3. Uh-Oh says:

    I’ll respond in kind – I do enjoy debates and discussions like this, and I was a bit rushed on my last post so I wasn’t able to fully clarify my positions. I’ll just respond to your bullet points since that works well for organization:

    1) You can already tell I am one against moralistic extremes, as except for a very few rare cases that I can’t think of they are never optimal or healthy individually or socially. But I won’t rail against your hyperbole themselves, just as what I considered to be your arguments – I apologize if I confuse your position with a stylistic hyperbole.

    2) My general argument follows mostly along Aristotle’s concept of means and extremes in moral values, which is premised on something everyone (Christian or no) generally can observe: Virtues or premises taken to an extreme become Vices. Christian morality, as well as any long-lasting moral code system, basically agrees with this as you stated.

    The devil is in the details, and I would agree with you that where a moral code places the goal posts of ‘extreme’ is important. As you said, Christian morality would say anything beyond sexually desiring one person would be ‘Lust’ (like in Matthew 5:28 equating ‘lust in the heart’ with adultery). My argument against this is not based on happiness but on human biology – Humans, unless asexually desiring, will inevitably sexually desire more than one other person. It is inevitable that if you have eyes or any senses and come into contact with other human beings, you will have sexual thoughts, feelings, and impulses towards at least some of them. If you label this factual state as ‘Sin’, it is psychologically detrimental because people simply can’t help themselves, and if they could cease desiring others sexually altogether it would be a boring place indeed.

    In the larger picture, advising against indulging in the extremes of virtues is common in all long-lived moral systems. The difference then is what does that system deem as ‘extreme’, and I would say these extremes depend largely upon context in cultural, time, place, and even the situation itself. This is opposed to universal moral judgments such as the 7 Deadly Sins that state things like, “Pride is ALWAYS absolutely bad.” I’ll clarify that statement more in another of your points.

    3) First, I must make the clarification on what the ‘moderate’ view I am talking of, as it is a highly misinterpreted statement in Aristotelian philosophy. ‘Everything in moderation’ does NOT mean take the middle road in all things – as in, don’t be greedy or profligate, but be somewhere in lukewarm middle equally apart from both extremes. That makes for morality on the whole that is weak and apathetic. What it DOES recognize and promote is that the Virtue we are striving for (in this case even-handed generosity) lies somewhere between the two extremes (hence ‘moderate’), but almost always leaning towards one more than the other. A good example is that being Courageous is more akin to being Reckless than Cowardly.

    Thus, let us come to your disagreement with slavery. First, slavery itself is an action or institution and in itself amoral (just like the objects built by slavery was in themselves amoral – are the pyramids moral or immoral?), but the moral framework that constitutes it could be called Employment, and two extremes would could identify could be Absolute Slavery (Absolute work for employer with no pay or compensation to workers) on one end and ‘Absolute Free Love’ (No work for employer with absolute pay and compensation for workers) I suppose on the other – sometimes an extreme doesn’t have a name because of how absurd it is, so we make one up.

    Now, no society on earth has ever enacted either extreme entirely – Slavery sucked but wasn’t absolute in any case (i.e. no housing or food or tools or…), nor has there ever been employers that expect no work and pay all they can. So, now we can argue about where the Virtue of Good Employment lies. Societies all over the world and throughout time have considered this, and come to different conclusions based on their particular situations. More often than not in non-enslaving societies we stay more towards the middle in this case, leaning towards generous compensation in some jobs (health insurance + doodads) and more towards minor enslavement on the other (illegal immigrant exploitation). The point is this: Within the context of this moral system which I am talking about (and it is not totally perfect mind you, but works well for my point) no one every takes the ‘extreme’ Vice as a virtue, else society would collapse. Everything is relative, just as you recognize, and a matter of interpretation as opposed to in this case an universal law – Remember that in the USA slavery was both supported by and denounced by different interpretations of the Bible as well as secular opinions.

    4) First, we must avoid references to Hitler in a debate – it is a crude way to argue. Besides, the Holocaust was discovered at the end of WWII, and could not have possibly motivated the US to intervene (the Japanese did that with Pearl Harbor). But onto the point, I agree that bad things can lead to good things though that doesn’t make the bad things good – where we disagree is what we are calling the ‘bad thing’.

    You say Envy has absolutely no positive qualities. Perhaps this is a matter of definitions of Envy. In my definition Envy is the act of desiring what another person has in their position. Obviously this can, like many other human impulses, in its extreme lead to bad things like mental duress, stealing, sabotage, and so forth. However again ‘moderate Envy’ or lets call the Virtue ‘Ambition’ for this case unless we can think of a better one, can and does lead to great things – the fuel to fight Slothfulness (which again its Virtuous moderate position is Dutifulness, which is much closer to the opposite Vice of ‘Uptightness’ or whatever), the drive to achieve, and so on. I’d agree that if you are talking about that logical extreme that no one ever actually gets to, but I don’t think the Christian perspective is exactly that. Desiring anything of your fellow man’s to be your own is called the sin of Envy, and I would say that is an example of a weaker moral judgment on a potentially useful trait.

    In short, I think it is on one level a semantic gulf, but the core is that I do not agree with the Christian moral goalpost assignments on the whole.

    5) Allow me to clarify ‘love of money and wealth’. Again, in the extreme of Absolute Greed and Avarice it is bad – just like any extreme basically. So is Absolute Generosity and throwing away all wealth. No society could or would function on either. But a healthy appreciation or ‘love’ of money is the appreciation for the pen or the spade: It is a tool, and the love of the tool as a tool is a wonderful thing. With wealth one can accomplish many great things, alongside generating more wealth. The same can be said with the pen or the spade. This is close to if not the moderate position where that Virtue lies.

    Nevertheless, human beings are very greedy things. In the end everyone is self-interested, and we have to be since if we are not here then we won’t experience anything nor be able to act to better our interests and others we are interested in. Thus ‘Greed’ as the human drive toward self-interest is a power that, though it would be nice if we were on the whole more noble creatures, can be harassed for great works.

    I’ll give this example of a food drive in my high school years ago. The food drive was never really successful, ever. Maybe 100 pounds of food, if not less, would be collected across the entire school of a couple thousand students and staff. But my calculus class teacher had a brilliant plan. She told us she was having a competition between all her classes (4 or 5 of them) to raise the most food. The class that raised the most food would receive extra credit that would amount to half a letter grade. On top of that, only the students that contributed at least ten pounds of food would be included in that prize should their class win.

    She taught upper-division mathematics, and they were hard classes. The food started to pour in. Nearly everyone contributed at least 10 pounds of food, and others contributed much more – some even brought 50 – 100 pounds of food in every couple of days! By the end her few classes alone had raised thousands of pounds of food, and it was to my knowledge the most successful food drive we ever had.

    Now, what caused this? Basically it was a shift in interests. Yeah sure, everyone knows donating to the needy is a nice thing and all, but look at how successful that was. But once self-interest became involved, people donated in droves – not for the benefit of others but for themselves, yet think of all the needing people that it fed! That’s a great example of how selfish tendencies like natural Greed can be harnessed for great social benefit. It then becomes a nice debate about whether it was moral in the end, but that’s off-topic.

    I would say that the Christian ideal that Jesus preached, of abandoning of most is not all material wealth and discouraging the acquisition of vast riches would cause a great deal of social harm. It certain would benefit some people (the poor, I suppose), but it might destroy people as well. Thus I would say the moderate Virtue is somewhere between the wealth-greedy and the wealth-hating, so I’d call that wealth-loving or appreciating.

    6) Yes, what I meant by my statement is that calling what is not bad a sin, OR calling what is simply human nature a sin, is damaging. You equate sin with truth, as in you are saying you can recognize a ‘sin’ as a factual state or not. I would disagree, as morality is relative given context, culture, and situation.

    Let me get back to the Pride deal I mentioned earlier. In Greek society, and in Aristotle’s ‘Ethics’, there was a Virtue known as ‘High Mindedness’. It is very foreign to us in our society because of our Christian background, but High Mindedness means taking credit for your accomplishments and demanding recognition and honors justly due to it. It is Pride in the positive sense, and in fact the Greeks viewed Low Mindedness, the lower-extreme of being humble and not living up to your accomplishments truthfully no seeking out your just rewards for it, as a vice. They did also recognize the upper-extreme of Hubris or ‘bad’ Pride in that someone overreaching for praise and boosting over what accomplishments and character they’d actually made for themselves. Obviously this is in opposition to Christian morality, which states being Humble (very close to the Greek low minded extreme) is Virtue and anything close to High Mindedness and beyond is the sin of Pride. You would agree that Christianity would be right I am sure, but I recognize the value of High Mindedness as it is meant to be practiced – essentially it affirms your value as a human being and for what great deeds you have accomplished, and that it is reasonable to then receive just deserts for them. As opposed to what I’d see (an Atheist’s perspective) as a fairly degrading practice of self-defamation and groveling that occurs in some interpretations of the humble individual who is virtuous in the Christian ideal.

    I think the biggest beef I have with the concept of a divine sin is that it is naturally an absolute statement in Christian belief – it is truth, and it is universally true in all times and places. I think that is erroneous through ‘truthful’ observations such as I made above. The Greeks weren’t ‘wrong’ in my view about High Mindedness as a virtue, and neither is the Christian view that Humbleness is a virtue. It is wrong however to say that either one is universally true for all peoples and places in time and situation. Take for instance it being a sin to steal – it is on the Ten Commandments, and for the most part it works out quite well in a society. But what happens in the situation where someone has a gun that they own, and you know that they are going to kill many people with it (say that person says they’re going to the bathroom, and when they get out they’ll go on a rampage, as no doubt such people do…). The gun is just lying on the table next to you, and unless you get it out of his possession it will be used to commit murder. What do you do? Do you steal it from him or not? Most people would say they would steal it, but if we are talking absolute morality the question can’t really be addressed well – because stealing is absolutely wrong, just as being complicit in murder is absolutely wrong. But we generally pick the ‘lesser of evils’, which is more morally sound than taking no action at all. Same is true about lying to save people’s lives in that other example with Nazi’s or some other mean-fellow that will kill people you are protecting if you tell them the truth.

    What does that mean? It means that we naturally recognize that the situation alters what is morally acceptable or not. This renders the argument that there are absolute morality claims like stealing and lying as wrong to be incorrect. You could argue that there are some moral codes that are ‘infallible’, and perhaps there are. But the negation of even some of them in an absolute ‘truth’ claim system is a fairly heavy blow against it that needs to be answered.

  4. The Apologetic Professor says:

    Dear Uh-Oh,
    I do not have the time this week or next to give your thoughtful and excellent comment the time it is due. Apologies for that! I’m under some grant-related deadlines this month. (That’s also why it took me a while to get to this). But please keep those comments coming! I’m going to go ahead and post my next piece in the series (which has been written for some weeks now), and I’d love to get your thoughts on that.

    I’ll more likely deal with some of your comments above in subsequent posts because some of them would take a long time to discuss (which is high praise for your comment, really). But a few quick(er) clarifications are in order:

    (1) You were very gracious in offering an apology for confusing stylistic hyperbole for substantive arguments — but I take the blame! I’m the one that made the extreme statements, after all. (As an aside, my post for this week is even more ridiculous…don’t have time to edit…only to ask for some indulgence for the whimsical and hyberbolic way I write. My only justification is that I’m as likely to use that style in criticizing myself!)

    (2) I had a good laugh over your criticism about the Hitler reference — in fact, I was sheepish about using it, but I was in a hurry and could not think of a better example on the fly. So touche! There is a kind of a running joke that social psychologists cannot go a sentence without negatively referencing the Nazis in some way. (All the same, I think it is often a useful example, though overused, for the precise reason that few people disagree that the Holocaust was a horrible thing. So I don’t think it is crude generally, but certainly — as you note — not the best example for this context).

    (3) Now, to more substantive issues: Your reasons for arguing for the morality of sex with multiple persons are (and I can’t think of a better way to put this) unconvincing to me. Indeed, some very famous evolutionary atheists gave a name to your line of reasoning: “The Naturalistic Fallacy.” The fallacy is that because something is, that means that is how it should be. But that isn’t so. Just because something is, doesn’t mean it should be that way. But in any event, you are wrong, I think, in asserting that strong desires mean inevitability. They don’t — many people choose to deny those desires for their whole lives. (Indeed, people often say that what makes us human is our impulsive sex drive and so forth. But obviously that isn’t true. That’s not what makes us human, because most species have that. What makes us human is actually our ability to reason about our impulses at an abstract level, make judgments about them, and deny them based on those reasons).

    (4) I have some sympathy with you about Greed/Money/Etc. Being human, I naturally don’t like the idea of giving everything away, and there are passages in the Bible you could use to support your moderation point of view (not that you’d care to do so; I’m just pointing out that Christianity hasn’t always taken Christ’s advice literally in every circumstance). All the same, it is clearly more morally good to me to give your stuff away than to keep it. When I look inside of myself and ask WHY I don’t like Jesus’ teachings in this regard, I think it is not because of some moral principle, but because I prefer to keep stuff for myself. I think we should be wary of our own preferences when making moral judgments (See my post on “A Christian View of What We Happen to Like”). And I think the moral principle isn’t so easy to compromise. You are talking a lot about society (which is reasonable up to a point), but there is a difference between “consequences for society” (by which you seem to mean, people eat and such — a perfectly reasonable goal) and the moral state of an individual action. Morally speaking, it is better to give your stuff to a poor person than it is for you to keep it. And it would still be morally better even if you died, indeed even if you both died, indeed even if all of society died. But I realize that’s not an argument, but is in fact an irritating assertion by fiat which needs defense. And I don’t have time for a defense at the moment.

    (4a) Don’t get me wrong: I get the tension you discuss, and your points are very fair. I really like your food drive example — very clever and to the point. In fact, it’s why, politically speaking, I describe myself as a “philosophical Marxist but a practical Capitalist.” Marxism seems morally better, but it just doesn’t work for society because it always devolves into something worse. It mostly misunderstands what people are actually like (or so it seems to me). Capitalism makes allowances for human greed, the way humans actually are. But that doesn’t make greed itself right, and it doesn’t mean that if everyone behaved in a perfectly self-less way that society would fall apart — which is what you seem to implictly assert. It just means that everyone won’t behave morally, so it’s foolish to build a system around the fact that they will. (In fact, if everyone behaved in a perfectly self-less way, it is a virtual certainty that world hunger and most other problems would be solved almost within 6 months. Everyone would eat and be happy in that world, which your comment seems to imply would be a bad place to live. After all, if EVERYONE gave their stuff away, that means that I’d have plenty to eat, too…because my neighbor would provide for me). A judge and a prison are allowances for human vices, but that doesn’t make the vices right. (That’s not a great analogy, but I’m in a hurry!)

    (5) Your excellently nuanced analysis of the Greeks (etc.) was interesting! You’ve obviously thought more about that issue than I have. And I don’t entirely disagree, but I think you are at least partially wrong in saying such concepts are foreign to us. In fact, I think research is more likely to suggest we have exactly the opposite problem! Too much ego, not enough other-esteem. And yes, I would have to say that Christianity opposes the Greeks in some way based on your description — so we agree there, I think — and I am absolutely on the side of Christianity (and would be whether or not I was actually a Christian). But explaining why would take too long. Perhaps I’ll write another post. Sorry! Doesn’t do your comment justice.

    (6) Let’s distinguish. Is your problem with calling something a “sin” (because that implies God) or with calling something “bad” (which does not imply God)? Because of course, as you are an atheist I get the first thing. But are you really suggesting that we should not call (for example) brutal murder (done for fun) “bad”? Because even mostly atheistic psychologists at the APA would disagree with you, if that’s what you mean. And if you are not suggesting that, then what we disagree about isn’t the principle — we both agree that sometimes it is ok to say “that thing inside of you is bad” — we just disagree about where to draw the line as to what to call “bad.”

    But in any event, if you really do mean we shouldn’t ever call stuff inside of us “bad,” your perspective isn’t very helpful to me or to most of the people I know. It strikes me as very…I don’t know what the right word is…wishy-washy, maybe. (I don’t mean that to be as insulting as it sounds…I’m just trying to express how it strikes me). I prefer to get to the facts, and I don’t like sugar-coating. Lots of people in my world tell me, when bad stuff happens, that “everything will work out.” But that’s wrong, at least in terms of temporal circumstances. Stuff often doesn’t work out at all. Jesus is one of the few people in my world who tells me instead that “every day has trouble,” that trying to be good is like “carrying a cross.” I actually appreciate the straight-shooting. Well (and now to the point), I KNOW there is bad stuff inside of me — and whether you or other folks want to say it isn’t…that’s just not useful to me…at all. What I want to know is how it got there and how to get rid of it. Calling it “not bad” is about the least useful thing I can think of. So that’s the view from my little corner of the world.

    (6) I am going to write a separate piece at some point about absolute and conditional morality — I think you make a common mistake in your reasoning there (mistake is too harsh — I think you are partially right). Christians make it too, and many Christians would answer your statement by re-asserting that no conditional morality exists. By that’s not what Christianity actually teaches. But to your argument: In sum, conditional morality implies absolutes, so your attempt to get away from them is self-defeating (I have made this point before in a debate on this blog with Jack Shifflett, an excellent and incredibly thoughtful atheist like yourself; though I don’t think I made it very well there, and I’m not making it well here, either). All conditional reasoning is based on an “if-then” statement which itself implies some moral principle. (And BTW, if your main beef with Christianity is that you think in some circumstances “thou shalt not steal” should be broken, then in some sense Christianity agrees with you…the Bible itself makes allowances for the difference between stealing for greed and for starvation, for example).

    OK, I just gave my comment a quick read, and I want to say again that it doesn’t do your comment justice. While I mostly disagree with you, I think, I do appreciate the thought that went into your comment, and you raise some very fair points. I hope to have more time in the coming weeks to maybe address some of those reasonable points in more depth. But it won’t be for a couple of weeks at least. Thanks again!