For my write-up today on George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life, I’ll talk about Marsden’s summary on page 442 of Edwards’ views regarding moral responsibility.
Later in his life, Jonathan Edwards wrote works that were defending Calvinism, in a world that was becoming increasingly hostile towards it. There were authors in that period who were criticizing the doctrine that human beings were born with a morally corrupt nature and desperately needed God’s grace in order to become truly righteous. These authors also combated the notions that humans had inherited this corrupt nature and guilt from Adam, and that God chose only some people to be saved and was perfectly just to condemn the rest of humanity to hell. According to these authors, God gave all humans the natural capacity to be virtuous and to respond to God, which (if I’m not mistaken) may imply that a new birth was not necessary, for people got all that they needed for righteousness at their first birth.
A question that these authors asked was this: How can God condemn people for doing things that they cannot help? If a person is born with a sinful nature, is it his fault if he sins? If a person is cold to the things of God because God has not shed on her God’s grace, is God justified to condemn her for that? According to these authors, we are only morally responsible for what we can help. If we have no real choice to do good, how can God condemn us for that?
Edwards had a variety of responses to that: that we still do what we choose, even if there may be causes for our choices that are outside of our control; that the Bible teaches that we are guilty on account of original sin and need a new birth; etc. But I’d like to quote something that Marsden said on page 442:
“One can think of many instances, said Edwards, where people’s moral character make them unable to choose other than they do: ‘…A child of great duty and love to his parents, may be unable to be willing to kill his father. A very lascivious man, in case of certain opportunities and temptations…may be unable to forbear gratifying his lust…A very malicious man may be unable to exert benevolent acts to an enemy, or to desire his prosperity: yea, some may be so under the power of a vile disposition, that they may be unable to love those who are most worthy of their esteem and affection.’ Now, said Edwards, what indeed does common sense tell us about praise and blame in such cases? Clearly, we praise the virtuous woman whose character made her unable even to think of prostituting herself more highly than the woman who chose correctly but could hardly make up her mind. Or common sense does not excuse a man of a very haughty and vicious disposition because of his character…In fact[,] common sense rightly assigns virtue or vice to a virtuous or vicious character as well as to the acts that inevitably arise from that character. The theological counterpart was that God and Jesus were praiseworthy even though their characters were such that they could only do what was best.”
I think there’s something to what Edwards is saying: If a person is being a jerk towards me, I don’t excuse that person in my mind just because he has a jerk-ish disposition and is merely acting according to his character. At the same time, I do try to have compassion towards him because this disposition may be weighing him down, and he may find it difficult to act otherwise, due to a traumatic past, or temperament, or perhaps clinical depression. In my opinion, the latter approach, not judgmentalism, is the right mindset for me to have.
But do I believe that people cannot help what they do? I live in the world of psychology, therapy, and medication, so I am rather optimistic that people can get help to correct wrong behaviors and to pursue more healthy mindsets. I think that people should be held responsible for their actions, for there are actions that are destructive to other people and to society, and society would be remiss to let that slide. But I maintain that rehabilitation and treatment, not just punishment, are important. And, if religion can assist in this, I’m all for it, whether or not I totally agree with its doctrines.