Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Infinite Sin, Infinite God: Addendum

In Infinite Sin, Infinite God I asked the question, Just what is meant when we are said to have an infinite obligation? I considered two possible responses, viz. we have an obligation to do something infinite, and we have an obligation to do a thing perfectly. But I now say that two other answers are possible. (iii) An infinite obligation is an obligation that extends through all future time. (iv) An infinite obligation is an obligation that is infinite in strength.

Let us consider each in turn.

An obligation that extends through all future time is of course infinite in a way. But its infinitude does not necessarily imply that its violation merits an infinite penalty. For any particular violation of that obligation need not itself extend through infinite time. Rather it might occur at a single point in time, and if so, it does not evince the kind of infinity found in the obligation.

What if the violation were never to cease? What if, for example, I were to never love God as I ought? Even if this were so, still the violation would never be infinite in time. It would in a certain sense grow but it would always remain finite. Thus even a violation that never ceases does not for that reason merit an infinite penalty.

Now let us turn to iv. What sense are we to make of talk of an obligation infinite in strength? Only one answer seems possible: an obligation is infinite in strength just if no other possible obligation can take precedence over it. For what can we mean when we say that one obligation is stronger than another than that the one takes precedence over the other? Plausibly our obligations to God are of this sort, for no matter how great is our obligation to one another, our obligation to God is greater still. Let us now ask whether the fact that our obligations to God can never be trumped entails that their violation merits an infinite penalty. Here I begin to loose my way. When we trade in talk of infinite strength for talk of precedence, we seem no longer to have any basis on which to judge just how harshly this or that violation should be treated. Of course we do have a basis on which to say that this violation should be treated more harshly than that, and thus we have a kind of relative penalty scale on which we can order possible violations. But we have no reason to say that a certain violation, considered in isolation, deserves just this penalty and no other. We have no way to fix any point on the scale.

Thus again we find that we have no reason to suppose that the violation of an infinite obligation requires an infinite penalty. A violation of our obligation to God, even though it can never be trumped, might still merit only a finite penalty. (Of course it would merit a greater penalty than a violation of any other sort of obligation, but this alone does not imply that the penalty merited must be infinite.) With this, SMITE collapses.

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