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Monday, 16 March 2015

Original Sin

There are many hard theological doctrines: the doctrine of the Trinity is very hard. There is no way that you could arrive at this from first principles or by mere observation. The doctrine of Redemption is not easy – just how does it work? The doctrine of Creation is not hard at all; Science comes daily closer to a position from which Creation is the obvious answer. But the easiest doctrine to accept is the doctrine of Original Sin. Switch on the TV; buy a newspaper; examine your conscience. “The best of us is no damn good”, to quote West Side Story.

As the great Jonah Goldberg says, “We are made from the crooked timber of humanity,” (is he quoting?).

CS Lewis in Mere Christianity begins his argument by demonstrating that we all accept that there is a moral law and that we are all offenders. This is unarguable. We know it by introspection. The doctrine of Original Sin is fundamental to Christianity (and Judaism). The Genesis story dates the sin to our first parents. This may be an allegory. Whether or not it is an allegory is moot. Perhaps we are descendants of more primitive creatures – who may have been innocent of sin (as animals are). This we know of ourselves: that we offend against the Natural Law. We may be better at identifying sin in others than in ourselves – no surprise there.

A fundamental truth about human beings is a fundamental Christian doctrine. Rousseau denied it. Progressives deny it. Their fundamental assumption is patently wrong. For them, it is something corrupt in society that makes us do bad things. There is logical fallacy here. If we are fundamentally good, how can society be corrupt?

Our moral and political problem is this: how should society be ordered to eliminate (or, at least reduce) the consequences of bad behaviour? Clearly, according to the progressives, by eliminating corrupt institutions (for which they have no explanation, in view of their assumption that we are naturally ‘good’).

Facing the facts is always a smart policy. Here’s the fact: we are bad – not always but essentially. So, policy should always and everywhere to encourage good behaviour and to discourage bad behaviour, to arrange things so that good behaviour is always and everywhere rewarded – and vice versa. This is not to say that police forces and courts should punish the wicked (although this may be necessary) but that the consequences of feckless behaviour should be visited upon the feckless. We do the opposite, whether in the case of benefit claimants who choose not work or in the case of financial institutions which are bailed out after making disastrous decisions. Fecklessness should always and everywhere reap its own reward.

My fecklessness may have consequences for my family. Rescuing my family may entail duties on my neighbours. Rescuing me does not.

Here’s the point: people respond to incentives. If society rewards good behaviour (thrift, hard work and honesty), then people will be thrifty, work hard and will not routinely cheat each other. If we make it easy to be a free rider, some people (quite a lot) will take advantage. The welfare state makes us feel virtuous; by voting for it we persuade ourselves of our beneficence. The fact is that it is corrupting – encouraging vice in others is wicked. What is more, the resources to pay for our welfare state are looted from the most productive. This is simple theft. And it is spectacularly wasteful. If our youth were brought up to regard self-reliance as normal and noble, to regard self-indulgence as pitiful and shameful, nearly all adults would be real grownups. If we were a society of grownups, what limits would there be to our productivity and prosperity?  

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