Original Sin and Christian Philosophy II: Presuppositions

As the title indicates, this post is part of a work in progress. Our project is to work toward a philosophically precise articulation of original sin, especially its nature and extent (and effects. The reader would do well to skim Original Sin & Christian Philosophy I). Thus far, I’ve turned up two well-written and informed articles relevant to the topic at hand. They are “Original Sin and Christian Philosophy” by Paul Copan, and “The Metaphysics of Original Sin” by Michael Rea (this post is heavily influenced by the latter). As always, please mention any others you recommend in the comments.
Obviously, I hold more than these four presuppositions; I’m only troubling myself with these four. Throughout this discussion I will assume the following:

(S1) All human beings (except, at most, four) suffer from a kind of corruption that makes it inevitable that they will fall into
sin, & this corruption is a consequence of the first sin of the first man.


(S2) All human beings (except, at most, four) are guilty from birth in the eyes of God, and this guilt is a consequence of the
first sin of the first man. (Rea, 1).

Now, the doctrine of original sin (DOS), I believe, includes both of these assumptions; if you lack either one, you aren’t, in my opinion, dealing with DOS. It is significant to note, however, that one may accept only (S2) as one’s DOS. What of these; are each acceptable?
Scripture supports the universality of human corruption as viewed by (S1) & (S2) above (see esp., Ps 14, 130:3, 143:2; Ecc 7:20; Is 53:6; Rom 3:9ff, 23, 5:12 ;Gal 3:22 ;Eph 2:3; 1 Jn 5:19). Even in the verses which do not explicitly do so, the universality of sin is assumed (Erickson, Christian Theology, 641). Consider also the reality of death as proof of this understanding of DOS: death is the explicit & direct result of sin, we all die (known from common experience), thus we are all affected. So, I accept the universality of DOS. Please note that while I am affirming that Scripture teaches we are connected to Adam’s sin, that is all I am presently doing; we have thus far said nothing of just how we are so connected. Also, as Copan notes: “We should distinguish between damage or consequences for one’s sin and the guilt of one’s sin. For example…the consequences of one man’s sin affects (the) well-being of the entire community” (p. 15, cf. Joshua 7 & 2 Sam 24:17).

Rea continues on to embrace

(MR) A person P is morally responsible for the obtaining of a state of affairs S only if S obtains (or obtained) and P could have
prevented S from obtaining (Rea, 3).

I am inclined to agree with him that this seems intuitively true; upon reflection I cannot disagree with it. But if we accept DOS, then it seems we have a problem with accepting (MR). Rea continues on to (successfully, I think) reconcile these two in his paper. His task frequently takes him out of the scope of ours, but along the way he is able to shed much light on our project. At any rate, if you are willing to flush (MR), then you will probably not enjoy the ensuing discussion. I might also recommend that you look a bit further into the issue, but in the end I suppose you are entitled to think whatever you like. Of course, many in the Reformed tradition do just this—they reject (MR).

I will also assume a libertarian account of human freedom. I realize there is much debate surrounding such a claim, but it is not my intention to entertain that debate in much detail here (but I look forward to doing so in future posts!). So, unless it absolutely infuriates you that I claim such a position, please refrain from promoting that debate for now.

Finally, I’d like to reiterate the importance of presuppositions (without launching a full-on Intro to Phil lecture). They’re important, trust me. I have not identified them all, in fact, I’m confident in my inability to identify every one of mine (a start would be the existence of God, an affirmation of certain of his qualities such as justness, and much more besides), but I think I’ve covered the essentially relevant ones. I know this is a short post that doesn’t really get into the meat of the issue, but I think it’s worthwhile for us consider these things first. More to come.


8 Responses to Original Sin and Christian Philosophy II: Presuppositions

  1. Xavier says:

    Let me make a quick point here. According to MR:

    (MR)= A person P is morally responsible for the obtaining of a state of affairs S only if S
    obtains (or obtained) and P could have prevented S from obtaining.

    It seems to me, however, one can construct a counter example to this: Let’s say a friend calls me on the phone one night and asks me to give him a ride from the local library to his house at 9pm that evening. As it so happens, however, my friend is unaware that I have already made an appointment with another acquaintance at 9pm. Further, I myself am unaware that my friend is actually intoxicated. I inform this friend that I will not be able to give him a ride and suggest that he should try someone else. My friend, intoxicated though he is, decides that he should drive home himself. He gets in the car, drives five miles and ends up in a fatal car accident.

    If MR is true, then it seems that I am in fact morally responsible for my friend being in a fatal car accident. And why not? Had I decided to give my friend a ride home, he probably would not have been dead. It is conceivable that I could have prevented the state of affairs of my friend being dead by simply acquiescing to his request.

    Yet it doesn’t seem right that I should be the one held morally responsible for my friends death even if I could have prevented it. MR as it stands does not seem to me a sufficient definition of moral responsibility.

  2. Keith says:

    This post has been removed by the author.

  3. Keith says:

    Xavier, thanks for the comment. I see where you’re coming from here, and I have a few responses:

    1. What kind of library does one drive to and get drunk at? Just kidding…

    Let me summarize your example:

    1. Friend calls you for a ride
    2. You cannot give him a ride
    3. Your friend is drunk
    4. You don’t know your friend is drunk.
    5. Friend decides to drive drunk and consequently dies

    First, (and I realize this is not framed as an argument) nothing in the story necessarily entails your guilt.

    Second, why does your friend die? Is it because you didn’t give him a ride, or because he drove drunk and wrecked? Why did he drive drunk? Is it because you didn’t give him a ride? Surely you don’t want to argue that If I don’t give my friend a ride, then it necessarily follows that he will drive drunk! (If it does, then I will never again ask you for a ride, because if I do ask and you cant provide the ride, then apparently I will drive drunk–and probably die!) Further, does driving drunk entail getting in a wreck and dying? Certainly not, people get away with it all the time. And your responsibility is irrelevant. What your example actually illustrates is the stupidity of drinking and driving.

    Third, your example does not correlate to (MR). Could you have prevented your friend from getting drunk? Well, in another (possible) world, yes; in the actual world (of your example), no. Similarly, could you have prevented bin Ladan’s actions? Well, theoretically you could have flown to his country and assassinated him before he committed any acts of terror. So, are you now responsible for such acts on his part since you didnt prevent them? Of course not. Logically, the examples are the fairly similar. These things are beyond your control, which does not satisfy the requirements of (MR).

    Consider: Bob the Islander lives in Madagascar. He has not heard the Gospel, and will consequently go to Hell upon his death. You could fly to his country on a mission trip, meet Bob, and lead him to Christ. If you don’t, are you responsible for his fate?

    The state of affairs from your example includes your friend getting drunk (out of your control), being at the library (out of your control), being drunk with access to a working vehicle (out of your control), deciding to drive drunk (out of your control), getting in a wreck (out of your control)…you get the point.

    So, let’s say when your friend called you said, “Sure, I’ll pick you up. The library is on the way to my appointment.” Now, you still don’t know he’s drunk; you figure he just needs a ride. You’re on your way to the library. In the meantime your friend decides not to wait for you, gets in his car, drives drunk, wrecks, and dies.


    When your friend calls (you don’t know he’s drunk) and says he needs a ride, you tell him you have another appointment. You didnt tell him that the other appointment is picking up a different friend (on the other side of town) who called and said she was drunk and thinking about driving herself home unless you can come get her. While driving to pick up friend #2, friend #1 drives drunk, wrecks and dies. Your fault? Obviously not.

    Clearly, you are not at fault in any of the 3 (including your own) cases; the obtaining states of affairs are beyond your control. You cannot prevent things that are beyond your control, and things beyond your control (by definition) do not satisy (MR).

    If your example said something like

    Your friend calls, tells you he is drunk and ready to go home. You answer (from across the table) and agree that you, too, are drunk and ready to go home. So, you both get in the car, drive drunk and die in a wreck.

    Then I would hold you both responsible, but that’s because the requirements of (MR) have been met.

  4. Clint says:

    Let me add something to this dialogue. (MR) seems a little unclear to me. Here are some of my observations:
    1) Does P have knowledge of S? How can one be morally obliged to something they are not aware of?
    2) Just because P “could” have prevented S from obtaining does not mean that he was morally obligated to do so. Let me explain. Does “could have prevented” include all logically possible state of affairs? “Could” does not entail “ought”. For example, it certainly is not logically impossible to say that J.P. Moreland could have prevented 9/11. If he could have prevented it(in this sense), then certainly he is responsible for it…because it obtained. Yet this seems intuitively false.

    These are just some thoughts to ponder. I have not read the works in question so I am probably either misunderstanding something or just philosophically inept. Let me know what you think!
    Maybe the word “reasonably” could be inserted before “could” in this definition. However, if it was, it might make the definition too subjective or open for interpretation.

  5. Keith says:

    This comment is for Xavier & Clint

    Xavier- While I do not feel compelled to reject MR, I have reflected on your comment further and identified what may be the culprit of misunderstanding between us. My first reading of your comment led me to believe one thing, while on second thought you may have been thinking something else. Ill explain below. Also, you said “MR as it stands does not seem to me a sufficient definition of moral responsibility.” I would agree with you here, but MR is not intended as a definition of moral responsibility; it is meant only as the condition that must be met for one to be morally responsible.

    Clint- thank you for your thoughts, again. As your comment is in line with my reconsideration of Xavier’s post, I’ll address you simultaneously.

    The problem seems to lie in one’s reading of “could have prevented S from obtaining.” As Clint has noted, there is some ambiguity in MR; if that is so, I believe it is in this phrase. I, too, am inclined to insert “reasonably” here, but agree that MR should not be stated in way that is open to much interpretation. So, what to do?

    My only suggestion is to leave MR as it now reads, and (1) understand the phrase “could have prevented S from obtaining” to presuppose that P has all relevant knowledge needed for preventing. We must realize that P cannot prevent that which she is unaware of, which is a large part of my rejection of Xavier’s example earlier. “Could (or its present, ‘can’)”, in my opinion, presupposes awareness. It is absurd to say that P “could have prevented” S without all the relevant knowledge; this, I claim, is not a problem for MR because this pharse of MR only makes sense when it presupposes such knowledge.

    This leads me to Clint’s observation, and to (2), which is: “could” does not entail “ought.” If this point is debateable, I will leave it up to Clint to defend it.

    I hope this helps us.

  6. Xavier says:

    Alright Keith, I think you’ve caught me with my pants down committing the fallacy of hasty reading. If I had been paying better attention I would have noticed that MR reads P “ONLY IF” Q. Thus, MR isn’t offering a definition of moral responsibility. It is simply stating a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for moral responsibility as all “P only if Q” statements do.

    I hereby rent my robes, heap coal upon my head, and repent in dust and ashes.

    That said, then I have no real objections.

  7. Stephen says:


    You (Y) And Xavier (X) Are teaching me (TM) the (t) Value of Using (VoU) Short Script (SS) to make my points. Or in other words, Y X TM t VoU SS. Reads like a list of NT Manuscripts, eh?
    I look forward to reading more from you guys…

  8. Keith says:

    Thank you, Stephen

    Yea, the short script gets confusing sometimes, but in the long run in makes the logic of arguments a bit easier to follow.
    Thanks for stopping by! Please do continue to check our blog; we’ve gotten busy with other projects recently, but we hope to return to the blog quickly.

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