Montreal, March 15, 2009 • No 265


Bradley Doucet is QL's English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.






by Bradley Doucet


          Liberty is won and preserved not primarily with guns, but with ideas. Spreading freedom requires that we spread an understanding of the benefits freedom brings, that we explain to whoever will listen how freedom is really in everyone's best interest. In making the case for a truly free society, however, we will inevitably come up against a wide array of illiberal beliefs that keep others from embracing our vision of a better world. The more we seek to understand those beliefs, the better we will be able to counter them and address the concerns that underlie them. In this ongoing series, I address some of the issues we can expect to face, along with brief outlines of the kinds of responses I think can be helpful.


BELIEF # 23: We are all sinners

March 15, 2009

          Christianity, the religion with which I am most familiar, preaches that we are all born sinners. It really doesn’t seem fair, but we purportedly inherit guilt, or at least a sinful nature, from our first forefather, Adam. Adam disobeyed God and ate from the tree of knowledge. As punishment for this sin, God expelled Adam and Eve from paradise.

          Christian theologians eventually compiled a list of the worst transgressions, and called them the Seven Deadly Sins. If you are wealthy and go out for a nice expensive dinner and later head home for a little hanky-panky, you are guilty of three of the seven right there (greed, gluttony, and lust). If you’re hung over the next day and you sit around watching television, wishing you had soap-opera good looks and cursing your satellite provider when the signal kicks out, you’ve committed three more (sloth, envy, and wrath). I hope you’re proud of yourself. (Oops, that’s all seven.)

          Modernity has brought with it new sins. Last year, a Vatican Bishop made headlines by listing another set of seven. Among these is causing poverty through social injustice. “Social justice” is, of course, code for egalitarian results. If this is a sin, you should not merely feel compassion and a desire to help the poor; you should feel guilty as well. In some vague way, it is your fault that the squeegee punk is living in squalor. Society made him that way, and you are a part of society. It is your fault, too, that the multitudes in Zimbabwe are starving. You inherited that guilt, you see, from your colonialist ancestors. You also perpetuate it by exploiting them through the evil of globalization.

          Environmental degradation also made the Bishop’s new list. This is no surprise, as environmentalism is replete with religious symbolism. It imagines an idealized natural world in which humanity resided before industrialization, or even before agriculture. Humankind is seen as fallen, and the source of this fall is our audacious quest for control of our surroundings through the accumulation of knowledge. Pollution and resource depletion are seen not as problems to be solved but as wicked behaviour for which we should feel shame. There is a deity, Mother Earth, who punishes us for our sins. There are even warnings of apocalypse.

Let There Be Light

          All of these religious myths distort certain basic truths. Christianity ignores the fact that pleasure is a biological signal that you are doing something right. The things at which the Seven Deadlies aim—money, food, sex, leisure, and perhaps less obviously, competition, justice, and self-esteem—are by and large good things, if pursued rationally, with a sense of proportion. Colonialism was unjust and wrongheaded, sure, but it is a myth to pretend that developed nations are wealthy primarily because of conquest. In reality, we have our (relatively) liberal institutions and cultures to thank—and poor countries that embrace globalization do far better than those that reject it. Radical environmentalism, for its part, confounds a healthy desire for conservation with an all-encompassing creed that trumps all other considerations.

          In the old list, pride, which in one sense is a virtue (see “Ayn Rand, Human Flourishing, and Virtue Ethics” elsewhere in this issue of QL), is supposedly the worst of the sins. This is because it is the mother of all sins. In order to commit any of the other sins, and thus disobey God, one must first be proud enough to disobey.

          This gets at the heart of the matter, the purpose of all this talk of sin: obedience. People who feel guilty are more easily controlled. Who am I to question authority when I have lust in my heart? Who am I to stand up for myself when there are some people in the world who are too weak from malnutrition to stand? Who am I to rise up against an encroaching government when I use (gasp!) plastic bags?

Abandon All Guilt, Ye Who Enter Here

          Let me make it clear, if it isn’t already, that I am not advocating disregard for the world’s poor, or dumping toxic waste in playgrounds, or letting your anger run roughshod over every passerby who looks at you funny. I am saying rather that needless, unearned guilt only helps those in power manipulate you more effectively. You should feel guilt (and try to make amends) only if you personally have used force, fraud, or coercion against another human being. Otherwise, you should get over it.

          Indulging in unearned guilt will not help you figure out the best ways to help others escape poverty. (Declaring war on modernity, as radical environmentalists do, is certainly not the way.) Feeling guilty will not help you carry out a rational cost-benefit analysis of the trade-offs between pollution and production. And it will not help you incorporate pleasure into the best, most meaningful, most fulfilling life you can imagine. Feeling duty-bound to devote all of your energies to others will only breed resentment in the end.

          In contrast, if you are a happy, rational, productive person, you will contribute more to the world than any number of misguided bleeding hearts. You will work for your livelihood, providing society with products or services it requires. Secure in your ability to provide for your own, you will naturally feel generous toward others. You will challenge irrational beliefs, at least among your friends and family in the regular course of your days. A builder of cities, a destroyer of myths, you will also infect others with your contagious happiness, inspiring them to be happy, rational, and productive in turn. And, unwilling to accept unearned guilt, you will be a bulwark for the liberty of all.





22. Persuasion is force
21. Bankruptcies are bad for the economy
20. War is good for the economy
19. We don't care enough
18. Capitalism caused the Great Depression
17. Democracy is a cure-all
16. Self-sacrifice is good
15. Everyone is selfish—and that's bad

14. Free markets are utopian
13. Change is bad
12. You're either with us or against us
11. The environment is steadily deteriorating
10. Resources are limited
09. It's a small world
08. Morality must be enforced
07. The truth is obvious

06. Good intentions are enough
05. Charity must be enforced
04. We are our brothers' keepers
03. Theft can be justified
02. Order comes from above
01. Government is good