What Bioethicists Can Learn from Calvinism

In the 1960s, the notion of social constructionism began to take hold: that antisocial behavior is mostly the fault of society, rather than the individual himself, and therefore that criminal justice should focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. One can’t, after all, be held responsible for his upbringing.

More recently, advances in genetics have revealed just how much behavior is heritable. We can say with somewhat more scientific certainty now that genes have much more power than social environment to determine patterns of behavior. The implication seems to be similar: one can’t be held responsible for his genes.

In both cases, defenders of free will and human agency have rushed to deny the basis of these fields, broken up occasionally by the all-too-rare honest attempt to grapple with the implications.

As it turns out, this is for the most part a rehashing of a very old debate, specifically the debate on original sin, and later on free will. It was a debate about theology – as the current debate is about science or sociology – but it was not a theological debate, just as the current debate is not a scientific or an sociological debate. Rather, it was a discussion about the implications of developments in theology. And those implications turn out to be very similar to the implications of today’s developments in genetics and sociology.

For this reason, despite the divergent subject matter, the current debate would benefit a great deal from the conceptual clarity that was hammered out of the earlier debate. Specifically, the distinction between natural inability and moral inability that came out of it will be crucial if we want to avoid discarding either human responsibility or scientific inquiry.

Original Sin and Total Depravity

The roots of the discussion go back at least 1,500 years, to Augustine versus Pelagius as the Church began to expand on the doctrine of original sin.

Original sin is the idea that humans are “born into” sin as a consequence of Adam’s sin of eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Paul argues in Romans 5:12 that “sin came into the world through one man” (i.e. Adam), hence the necessity of being redeemed by the “second Adam”.

Pelagius, from what we can gather (none of his actual writings survive), believed this doctrine diminished human agency. And without human agency, how could man be justly held responsible for his sins? Pelagius, therefore, denied the doctrine of original sin, and believed that “Adam’s sin affected him alone”. Each of us has the power in us to refrain from sin, and for this reason, whatever sin we do commit is entirely our own responsibility.

Augustine answered that original sin is, at base, not an action at all, but an orientation of the will away from the Good. And if a person’s will is oriented toward evil, it’s appropriate that he receive the consequences of that evil. Original sin orients the will, but responsibility attaches to the will itself. It’s not accurate to say that we are punished for Adam’s sin, but Adam’s sin does inevitably dispose us toward punishable actions. This inevitability is total depravity.

The principle here is that it doesn’t matter why the will desires what it desires. Of course the will is shaped by forces prior to and outside of itself. The leftist and the rightist are agreed that this fact implies a destruction of responsibility, differing only on whether it’s true or not. But, contra both, this fact cannot destroy responsibility. As Augustine teaches us, it’s a category error to think that the forces shaping the will have anything at all to do with responsibility for the actions of the will, one way or the other.

Natural and Moral Inability

The Church ended up siding with Augustine over Pelagius in the second Council of Orange. And for a while, the Augustinian principle was neglected. But a few centuries more than a thousand years later, after the rediscovery of Augustine by Luther and Calvin, this debate played out again in the Protestant world. No one, of course, wanted to be called a Pelagian. But the basic intuition of Pelagius was picked up by Jacob Arminius and his followers, with the Augustinian position defended by John Calvin and his followers.

Arminius jumped through a number of doctrinal hoops to reconcile the Augustinian doctrine of original sin with the Pelagian intuition on human responsibility, most importantly with his notion of prevenient grace. It’s true, he says, that our wills are irretrievably corrupted by sin. But God, in his omniscience, is able to see whether each person’s hypothetically uncorrupted will would choose to sin or not. God then respects this hypothetical choice, electing those to salvation whom he determines would have chosen him in the absence of sin. In this way Arminians can technically claim to hew to Augustinian orthodoxy, while still assigning to humans full responsibility for their actions. To do otherwise, they assert, would make the doctrine of election, by which God decrees who is saved and who is damned, capricious and unfair.

Though Arminianism is mainly a restatement of the Pelagian intuition on human responsibility, it did force Calvinists to explicate the notion of free will and human responsibility more clearly. Jonathan Edwards, in particular, answered the Arminian challenge by distinguising between natural inability versus moral inability. A natural inability, he argues, is something that imposes itself upon the agent. If I promise to be at the meeting at 5:00, but I’m robbed on the way over, I can’t be held responsible for my lateness. I had every intention of being on time, but something unforeseeable imposed itself upon me in a way that I can’t reasonably be expected to have accounted for.

A moral inability, on the other hand, is not an imposition upon the will, but a quality of the will. If I can’t be arsed to set an alarm clock and am consistently late to meetings, it is no defense to say “I’m unable to care.” Natural inability says “if I wanted to do it, I still couldn’t” – therefore responsibility is absolved. Moral inability says “if I wanted to do it, I could, but I can’t want to do it” – and therefore it makes sense to assign responsibility. The counterfactual is important, even if both circumstances impinge equally on the possibility of arriving on time.

Total depravity, Edwards argued, does indeed mean we are totally unable to refrain from sinning. But this is not a “devil made me do it” natural inability, such as would absolve one from responsibility, but a moral inability. The will is not circumvented, but corrupted, and therefore punishment is just.

Genetics as Moral Inability

The distinction between natural and moral inability is essential for grappling with the implications of behavioral heritability or social constructionism on ethics or public policy. In fact, as far as the question of responsibility is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether these correlations arise from genetics or environment or something else. Unless you’re willing to bite the Arminian bullet and believe in an entirely spiritualized metaphysical notion of the will, the will is necessarily shaped by something that was not in its own power. The fact that someone wills one thing rather than another can always, in principle, be traced back to some circumstance outside his own control.

It may be true, for example, that personality, or welfare dependency, or gambling, or violent crime, or any number of other things, are heritable and/or influenced by environment. In each case, it may be true that the offender is “unable”, in some sense, to work, or not to gamble, or to abstain from crime, and so on. But this is not a natural inability that absolves responsibility, as it would be if (for example) an injury prevented someone from working. These are not involuntary behaviors or limitations. Rather, what these correlations demonstrate is a moral inability, for which it’s fair to hold someone responsible.

The Atlantic, for example, recently ran a piece on psychopathic children. The author poses the rhetorical question, “if [the psychopathic child] fails to experience empathy or remorse because she lacks the neural equipment, can we say she is evil?” The obvious answer is – yes! If we can’t call psychopaths evil, who could we conceivably call evil? Psychopathy is not a natural inability to do right, an imposition on the otherwise upstanding will; it’s a moral inability, a corruption of the will. It bears repeating: there’s always some reason, whether neural or environmental, outside of his own control, that anyone is the way he is and not some other way. If we excuse psychopaths on this basis, what possible choice could we not excuse?

So much for the desert of punishment. As for merit, natural and moral (in)ability are also confused by people who talk of a “genetic lottery”, for example. That one has genes predisposing him to high conscientiousness does not mean he doesn’t “deserve” the fruits of his conscientiousness. And in terms of public policy, the demonstration of the heritability of earning power does not – contra what Charles Murray has occasionally suggested – imply the ethical desirability of increased redistribution. The distribution of wealth is not “arbitrary” because some people are predisposed to make better choices than others. If it were, and we were to reject it on that basis, what conceivable distribution would be non-arbitrary?

As research into the determinants of behavior throws back open the question of human responsibility, recognizing the precursors to this debate should bring much-needed conceptual clarity. The distinction between natural and moral inability, in particular, shows that we don’t have to choose between hard-nosed realism about the causes of human behavior on the one hand and common-sense notions of human responsibility on the other. It would be a tragedy indeed if we were forced to abandon one or the other.


Biology, Calvinism, Ethics, Augustine, Jonathan Edwards


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Hi, I'm C. Harwick, an economics PhD candidate in Virginia with an interest in monetary theory, institutional evolution, and folk music.

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