Bob Seidensticker’s Silver Bullets: 28

So, after my painstaking work in going through his previous 27 entries, Bob Seidensticker has decided to add a 28th silver bullet argument.  This one focuses on the idea that people who end up in heaven will be aware, one presumes, of people who didn’t make it into Heaven, and thus are in Hell, and thus are suffering infinitely for their sins.  Some of these people will be loved ones.  The basic idea, then, is that it seems like no person that we would in no way imagine ourselves to be or that we would in any way want to be could enjoy Heaven knowing that others are damned to Hell, especially if those people were their loved ones.  The emotional reactions we should have, the argument claims, range from at least missing our friends and loved ones to being tormented at the thought of them being tormented.

Seidensticker lists a lot of theological reactions to this, which immediately strikes against this being a Silver Bullet argument for the same reason as many of the other purported bullets:  if there are a lot of theological responses, then it’s not an argument that you can essentially drop the mic on and walk away, as you have to deal with all of the theological responses first.  However, I think this one suffers from another common flaw in his Silver Bullets, which is that this argument cannot be the Silver Bullet argument because it relies on another argument being true first:  that the people who end up in Hell are not, in fact, people who deserve to be there.  If they deserve to be there, then any emotional reaction on our parts that suggests that they don’t deserve it would be a flaw in us, not in God or the idea of Heaven and Hell.  If as expected those who end up in Heaven are perfected, then we wouldn’t have those flaws and so wouldn’t have those feelings.  We would be able to properly assess the situation and, presumably, have the proper emotional reactions to them.

Now, I disagree with those theologians who say that we should look at the people in Hell with happiness for various reasons.  I don’t think that makes sense.  Their arguments tend to be emotional reactions the other way, where those in Heaven delight in being spared Hell.  If those who are in Heaven deserve to be there and those who are in Hell deserve to be there then all we could have is the more intellectual perception of that as fact:  we deserve to be in Heaven, and they deserve to be in Hell.  So we’d have a “calm passion” of understanding, not a hot passion of sadness or glee.

And this argument applies to loved ones as well.  While we might miss loved ones, in general we can and should understand if they cannot be with us for some reason.  And while we obviously would not want to see our loved ones suffer, being upset about them getting the punishment they deserve is indeed a huge flaw in us.  The parent lamenting the tough time their child is having in prison when they were legitimately convicted of murder is understandable, but clearly wrong.  So, again, once we have proper understanding and are perfected, then these things will not ruin our experience of Heaven, because we will be in a state where our flawed emotional states are, at least, taken away.

Now, some might argue that this makes us us not entirely human.  How can we live as beings that do not have emotion?  My answer is, of course, in my name.  I am Stoic-leaning, and so think that it is indeed true that more perfect beings do not have and are not susceptible to the whims of strong passions.  The main reason that Seidensticker and the people in his comment section find being that emotionless so disturbing is because they enjoy feeling those strong emotions.  Strong emotions feel good.  But that doesn’t mean that they’re right.  We can remain compassionate and merciful and caring without having to feel the extremely strong emotions that tend to accompany them.  And with that we would always in fact actually be merciful, compassionate and caring, without any risk of our emotions leading us astray.  While we might lose the pleasure of strong emotions, pleasure is not, ultimately, what makes life worthwhile.  And that would apply even more so in Heaven.  So we would never have pleasures that trump our virtues, and our path to the life and experience worth having.

Which leads to another argument:  what about Hitler?  If he repents, they argue, he could be in Heaven, while someone who, say, merely didn’t believe in God might be in Hell.  How can that be justified and how can can we be happy in a Heaven where that can happen?

To suss this out, we need to look at Virtue Ethics, because this argument depends on a clash between justice and mercy.  The argument is that justice clearly states that Hitler deserves to go to Hell if anyone does, but mercy is about pardoning people and rescuing them from the punishments that they clearly deserve.  So if God forgives Hitler, then who, in fact, could deserve to go to Hell?  And if God doesn’t or can’t, then He can’t be infinitely merciful either.  Yes, the actual arguments are presuming that Hitler will end up in Heaven for being at least nominally Catholic, but that’s not a safe presumption and if God can forgive what Hitler did, one would think that He would forgive someone who just happened to never be told about Christianity but was clearly willing to accept it once they found out about it.  So ultimately the argument, to be in any way sensible, has to boil down to a clash between justice and mercy.

Obviously, this again would be relying on another argument than the one Seidensticker claims is the silver bullet again.  But it’s worth looking at this from the angle of Virtue Ethics since the clearest way to do so is through that angle, since these sorts of clashes are part and parcel of Virtue Ethics.  After all, Virtue Ethics defines virtues like justice and mercy and compassion and so on and then asks us to go out in the world and act on them.  We thus immediately hit the issue of what we should do if one of those virtues demands on action and another demands a different action.

Obviously, we need a method to resolve such conflicts.  Perhaps that’s going to be a compromise position, where we’re a little less just and a little less merciful and some up with an ideal notion.  I don’t think that’s the right approach, though.  What I believe is that once we define what the virtues are, the proper understanding of them will show how they are always consistent with each other.  Thus, there can’t be any meaningful clash between them, properly understood.  So in this case, it’s entirely possible that what Hitler did was so bad that no repentance or act of contrition could spare him from his rightful punishment in Hell.  Thus, mercy could never demand it.  On the other hand, it is also possible that if he was properly repentant that he could indeed deserve mercy, and so justice could be suspended in that case.

But wait, you might ask, how can someone deserve mercy?  Isn’t mercy just ensuring that someone doesn’t get what they deserve?  Well, we can easily say that if Hitler arrived at the Pearly Gates and was still convinced that what he did was right and was completely unrepentant that he wouldn’t deserve mercy.  It seems clear, then, that at least a precondition for mercy is an acceptance that what you did was wrong and a willingness to make up for that.  Without that, then, you would not deserve mercy.  So mercy is not and cannot be unconditional.  So the question is if accepting that what you did was wrong and wanting to make up for it is enough to get mercy, or if there are cases where justice and other virtues can demand more from you, or make it so that the conditions required for mercy can never be met.  I lean towards the idea that mercy would trump the other virtues because it seems to me to be rather inconsistent to refuse to grant mercy to someone who is legitimately repentant and understands that what they did was wrong.  But I admit that the argument that there are some things that mercy cannot forgive and so that justice would demand that we still punish it is a pretty good one.

But does this apply to God?  After all, God is supposed to be infinite in all His properties, including His virtues.  So wouldn’t infinite justice imply that God always punishes actions to the level demanded by justice, and infinite mercy imply that God always relieves people of such punishments?  This returns to the comments above, as infinitely virtuous does not mean infinite in quantity, but instead infinite in perfection.  God would be perfect in His assessments of what is virtuous, including how to resolve potential clashes between virtues.  In line with my above analysis, that would mean knowing when mercy is the applicable virtue or when it’s justice.  And since I argue that we would be perfected in Heaven, we would know that as well, and so know who deserves Heaven and God’s mercy and who doesn’t.

You could reply that this depends on Virtue Ethics, but Virtue Ethics might not be correct.  However, the alternatives actually have an easier time with this because they don’t have explicit and individualize virtues to conflict with each other.  For them, for the most part, virtues are merely names for conditions defined by their overall moral project.  For example, in Utilitarianism mercy would be a name for a set of conditions where sparing someone from punishment provides a greater overall utility, and justice would be a name for a set of conditions where punishing them provides a greater overall utility.  Since these are all justified by utility, you are merciful when utility demands it and just when utility demands it, and utility cannot demand both mercy and justice by definition.  So, in general, properly understood, whatever we use to define things like justice and mercy, they cannot clash.  And so they cannot clash in a way that matters for the argument.

As noted, the main issue here is that this argument depends on other arguments being true.  Most atheists do think that no one deserves Hell — or, at least, that the people who Christianity says will end up in Hell deserve to be there — but that is indeed a separate and hotly contested argument.  This argument depends on that one, and so itself cannot be a silver bullet argument.

Seidensticker has made another post talking about takeaways from this argument.  I’ll make a separate post on that next time.

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One Response to “Bob Seidensticker’s Silver Bullets: 28”

  1. Lessons from the 28th Silver Bullet | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] after talking about his 28th Silver Bullet (that I covered last week), Bob Seidensticker decided to put up some philosophical lessons that followed from it.  So let me […]

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