A History

by Lynn Hunt

The Enlightenment was a period of history when the influence and power of the Christian churches diminished, and can be blamed for the genocide and wars of the 19th and 20th century. This interesting book sheds light on this period of history. Consider the following quote:

Bentham objected to the idea that natural law was innate in the person and discoverable by reason. He therefore basically rejected the entire natural law tradition and with it natural rights. The principle of utility….served as the best measure of right and wrong. (location 1405)

What is utility and what is right and wrong? The principle of utility is that governments should strive to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Utility is the ability of a good to make a person happy. Utility can clearly be measured on an ordinal scale. In a Robinson Crusoe economy, if Man Friday spends his time hunting instead of fishing, the utility of meat is greater than the utility of fish for Friday. If Crusoe exchanges meat for fish with Friday, it means the utility of the fish is greater for Crusoe. But are there units of utility? If Friday is starving and steals a little meat from Crusoe, can you say Friday’s utility increased 5 units and Crusoe’s utility decrease only 1 unit?

Whether utilities are measured on a cardinal or ordinal scale sheds light on the questions of morality, right and wrong, and justice. If utilities are measured on an ordinal scale, utilities are clearly maximized if Crusoe and Friday cooperate with one another. If utilities are measured on a cardinal scale, it is not so clear. The hypothetical island may need a beast of burden, and slavery may be a just or moral arrangement. This raises the question of what the difference is between cooperation and slavery? In other words, what is coercion and force as opposed to free interactions between human beings. The doctrine of original sin sheds light on this question, and the author brings it up in her discussion of the change in laws about judicial torture and public punishment:

This tendency toward evil in mankind resulted from original sin, the Christian doctrine that all people have been innately predisposed to sin ever since Adam and Eve fell from God’s grace in the Garden of Eden.(location 1009)

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were like God because they possessed sanctifying grace. They were not subject to death or sickness, but they had bodies so they could communicate with one another. If they farmed the land, it was because they enjoyed the activity. They enjoyed eating, but did not suffer from hunger. Their communications were free because Adam could not affect Eve’s consciousness without her consent, and vice a versa. According Paradise Lost by John Milton, Eve committed the sin of disobedience and Adam the sin of being excessively fond of Eve, and they found themselves in the world we live in. In this world, we define cooperation/freedom and slavery/force in terms of utilities measured on an ordinal scale.

According to Thomas Aquinas, morality is based on the principle that humans are responsible for their actions. Moral laws are secondary principles. What determines right and wrong is the tiny voice inside our mind that we call conscience. Sinning doesn’t mean violating a moral law, it means not following your conscience. Sinning and morality relate to family life, and justice relates to the actions of governments. If the Robinson Crusoe economy is a model for family life, slavery is immoral. If it is a model for government, slavery is unjust.

The doctrine of original sin also sheds light on the question of property rights. There clearly was no property before the fall. God gave the Garden of Eden to both Adam and Eve. It follows that there was no property rights after the fall. Adam and Eve created property rights in their state of sin.