If our actions are merely a byproduct of our environment, there can be no such things as justice or moral accountability.
A few months ago, writer and social critic Anthony Daniels (a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple) appeared on a podcast episode of Triggernometry to discuss "The Truth About Crime". I've mentioned his appearance in that episode once before. The hosts of the podcast asked Dr. Daniels what he thought was the root cause of crime. Daniels' answer was at once shrewd and subversive:
"The root cause of crime is the decision to commit it."
His answer was shrewd because it cut through the excuse-making psychological jargon that encrusts the way we think about moral agency in the 21st century. His answer was subversive because, in undermining exculpatory reasoning, he was subverting the popular basis for modern culture's inclination to justify pathological behavior.
The prevalent idea that we have each been programmed, by our experiences and environment, to behave in deterministic ways, is a complete overturning of thousands of years of moral understanding. The entirety of the western system of justice is built upon the idea that human moral agency is real -- that our acts are freely chosen. If our actions are merely a byproduct of our social or economic environment, there can be no such thing as justice or accountability.
Even the idea of acquired knowledge is suspect if we are inevitably just programmed by our environment. In such a case, knowledge is merely a random artifact of the events in our personal experience, and we therefore have no hope of speaking to universals. In fact, there are no universals, because each person's unique experience determines their actual reality. This is where we get all the current trendy bloviating about "my truth", "your truth" and "cultural appropriation", To say nothing of the sinister, dehumanizing idea that each of us is unable to understand and evaluate another person's actions because we haven't, ourselves, lived in precisely their circumstances. This kind of standpoint epistemology is just one of the more perverse progeny of environmental determinism.
If moral agency is not real - if we are all just programmed by our experiences and circumstances - then any concept of universal human nature is illusory. There can be no equality before the law, no justice, nor any true understanding of what it means to be a human being. On the other hand, if human nature is universal - if moral agency is real - then standards of human conduct and accountability are also universal and inevitably apply across all people, tribes, and nations.
Why does any of this matter? It seems so esoteric and heady, right?
Not so much.
What we believe about this issue shows up in practical and often devastating ways in every day life. Let me suggest just one example. When a child makes pathological moral choices, what is the root cause? Is it the child's own choices or is something "wrong" in the child's upbringing?
Truth be told, there's something "wrong" in every child's upbringing. Nevertheless, it is the child's own moral agency that is the "root cause" of all of his choices. If you believe that some mistake or deficiency in a child's environment explains his pathological behavior, then someone other than the child is to blame. Parents often engage in finger-pointing when a wayward child thumbs her nose at her parents' values. They do this because, whether they've thought about it explicitly or not, they are presupposing that it is something other than the child's own flawed interests and appetites that is animating the child's choices. The effect of this (often unexamined) assumption about human programmability is to drive a wedge into the parents relationship, and at the very moment of a crisis. After all, if the child is only a product of the environment he was raised in, one or both of the parents is to blame.
For a generation or more, a behavioral kind of environmental determinism has been widely accepted across much of evangelicalism. This has always been highly incongruent, since environmental determinism is so plainly at odds with the assumptions made in the bible about the origins of human misbehavior. This is especially true where child rearing is concerned. Many of the books written, between 1970 and now, presuppose that children can be programmed by parenting technique. Raising children who embrace their parents' faith, we have repeatedly been told, is just a matter of disciplining the right way, or of organizing the right activities, or memorizing enough bible verses. etc. etc.
Credulity must be our middle name.
Unfortunately, the fly in all this I-can-control-my-child ointment is, as Solzhentisyn famously observed, "the line separating good and evil passes through every human heart". Notwithstanding every constructive parenting technique, the wicked human heart is still a thing. The fantasy of human programmability eventually gives way to the reality of human agency. The affections of the heart have a curious and inevitable way of asserting themselves.
Perhaps we should have noticed God's own (surprising) lack of effectiveness in his own parenting of Adam and Eve. One suspects God's parenting technique in the garden of Eden was perfect. And yet, there was that unfortunate incident involving the fall, a cosmic moral catastrophe of the first order. Perhaps Adam and Eve hadn't been given enough chores, or memory verses to work on.
Gratitude, rather than pride, is actually a more proper response to any good choices made by our children. Faithful parenting is not an exercise in human programming but is, rather, an act of faithfulness to God, and to the obligations that God has placed on us as parents.
Alas, the evangelical attraction to the idea of human programmability has not confined itself to the question of parenting. It rears its head in other extremely unhelpful ways.
Over the last 3 years, I have been surprised by some celebrity evangelicals who have openly embraced many of the assumptions of critical race theory (CRT). CRT reflects, of course, a worldview with Marxist underpinnings. One of the central principles of CRT is that human cognition is inescapably tied to race. Even more specifically, it is tied to one's skin color. Under a CRT worldview, race is the defining lens through which everything is understood - nothing transcends this anatomical lens. You and I are stuck which whatever interpretational framework has been assigned to us by our skin color.
This is a uniquely toxic manifestation of the notion of human programmability. With CRT, the idea of programming humans using parenting technique has given way to the nonsensical idea that it is our pigment that predetermines the way we think and understand. Our ability to comprehend the world and other people is entirely a byproduct of the color of our skin, we are told by the CRT enthusiasts. On this basis, our skin color offers a magic key that unlocks an all-encompassing explanation for how we think and act. But this is simply just another way of denying that moral freedom is real.
The embrace of these ideas explains why leaders at some evangelical mission organizations have begun to scoff at the idea of racial color blindness, openly advocating against it. After all, if our grasp of the world is inextricably tied to our skin, then the long-standing ideal of color blindness is not just delusional, it is hopelessly naive. Not only that, but if human beings cannot perceive truth apart from their pigmented vantage point, then our ability even to understand the gospel must inevitably be colored (pun intended) by our skin.
In practice, modern evangelical leaders who embrace notions of racial determinism end up promoting a thoroughgoing race centricity and race consciousness in all human relationships. Race, for them, takes a front seat and defines everything about interpersonal relationships, even in Christ. After all, the cross of Christ is fine as far as it goes, but there is nothing about it that suggests that mankind's long history of focusing on externals might be misguided, right? I mean, when Jesus said, "Stop judging by appearances", surely he didn't mean all appearances.
Sarcasm aside, moral agency is a defining aspect of what it means to be human. The very premise of the creation story in Genesis, and the drama that subsequently unfolds there, presupposes that moral agency is real. Any concept of human programmability, by parents or race or circumstance or economics or whatever, necessarily amounts to a rejection of a central aspect of what it means to be human.
No doubt the current infatuation with CRT will eventually subside. It is laughably absurd on its face, so probably even the most craven celebrity pastor will eventually notice it has run out of juice. But the denial of moral agency will come back, and in another form. Being a foundational design principle of our existence, it is central to our God-given role of exercising dominion over the earth, and central to the very nature of our relationships with others. Our enemy will never want us to maintain clarity on this issue. Make no mistake.
So whenever the destructive popularity of CRT begins to subside, something else will no doubt take its place. We should expect that the dragon that stalks the world will almost certainly be back to continue his effort to distort our understanding of how we're made and what we're for.
"Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again." - J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
"When [Satan] lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies." - Jesus
"Be not afraid." - An angel of the Lord