Philosophical Naturalists Can’t Condemn Criminals

“Justice, sir, is the great interest of man on earth. It is the ligament which holds civilized beings and civilized nations together.”  — Daniel Webster, early American politician

When a wrong has been committed, it’s a normal, healthy human desire to want to see justice done. I am defining “justice” here as fair punishment that is proportional to the severity of the offense. As Thomas Jefferson said, “justice is instinct[ive] and innate; the moral sense is as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing and hearing.” Of course, there are times when mitigating circumstances justify (if I can use that term here) some amount of leniency or mercy. And, when *we* are on the receiving end, mercy sounds awfully good. But, generally speaking, justice is what we want and rightfully so.

The thing is, for a philosophical naturalist/materialist to be consistent with his own worldview, he can neither condemn a criminal nor seek justice. I have three reasons for making this claim (though there may be more), and they boil down to 1) biology, 2) determinism, and 3) a lack of moral grounding. To start us off, here are a few observations from Christian author & apologist Hank Hanegraaff:

“From a legal perspective, if human beings were merely material, they could not be held accountable this year for a crime committed last year, because physical identity changes over time. We are not the same people today that we were yesterday. Every day we lose millions of microscopic particles. In fact, every seven years or so, virtually every part of our material anatomy changes, apart from aspects of our neurological system. Therefore, from a purely material perspective, the person who previously committed a crime is presently not the same person. Yet a criminal who attempts to use this line of reasoning as a defense would not get very far. Such legal maneuvering simply does not fly even in an age of scientific enlightenment. Legally and intuitively, we recognize a sameness of soul that establishes personal identity over time.”

In other words, in demanding justice for crimes committed, the philosophical naturalist must borrow, however subconsciously, the supernaturalist’s concept of a non-physical soul in order to assume continuity of identity of the one on trial.

Hanegraaff then lays out the naturalist’s second problem…

“Freedom of the will presupposes that we are more than material robots. If I am merely material, my choices are a function of such factors as genetic makeup and brain chemistry. Therefore, my decisions are not free; they are fatalistically determined. The implications of such a notion are profound. In a worldview that embraces fatalistic determinism, I cannot be held morally accountable for my actions, since reward and punishment make sense only if we have freedom of the will. In a solely material world, reason itself is reduced to the status of a conditioned reflex. Moreover, the very concept of love is rendered meaningless. Rather than being an act of the will, love is relegated to a robotic procedure that is fatalistically determined by physical processes.”

We can, of course, replace ‘love’ in those last couple sentences with just about any emotion or psychological phenomenon. Those would include hate, greed, lust, jealousy, cruelty, or any longing for justice when Person A is injured in some way by Person B. The philosophical naturalist must accept that anyone who commits a crime — or any other act the naturalist deems to be “bad” — can’t help themselves, as they are just “dancing to their DNA”, as Richard Dawkins might put it.

What is “bad”, anyway? How did the philosophical naturalist decide what was bad/wrong vs. what is good/right? Some will tell you that the individual can decide what is good/right for himself, while others prefer the “society says” model. But, those are just versions of moral relativism, whereby good/right becomes merely one’s preference or opinion. In such a scenario, if a person (or his self-governing community) decides that lying, theft, rape, and murder are acceptable behaviors, then they are morally “good”… for them. If you think they are morally bad/wrong, that’s just your opinion. (Ironically, proponents of such a view will often judge your view as “bad” and tell you you should not say or believe that way.)

For more on this, I turn to another author/apologist, David Wood:

“If naturalism is true, there are no objective values (i.e., values that are valid independent of our opinions or preferences). Of course, in a naturalist’s world, human beings would still be free to value various things, such as life, money, freedom, pleasure, and so on. But in naturalism, such values are either personal (I like grape soda best), cultural (we like freedom of speech in the West), or a product of evolution (we should work for the good of our species). These values aren’t objective, however. There is no independent standard by which to judge that such values are more valid than their opposites. You may hate grape soda. Some cultures despise free speech. And while human beings clearly want to preserve our species, many competing species seek their own preservation, often at the expense of other species that are seeking their preservation. What makes human beings right when it comes to our values? Assuming naturalism is true, nothing makes our values right in any objective sense.”

Bottom line, then, is that the philosophical naturalist has no grounding for his “moral” preferences. Without valid grounding, there is no true basis for demanding justice for acts that are merely the outcomes of personal preferences or reflections of opinion. (Which, remember, were determined by the perpetrator’s genetics.) He can’t be blamed (or commended), let alone punished, for anything… period. In such a worldview, there can be no such thing as true criminal justice. The concept doesn’t even make sense.

The Christian worldview, on the other hand, includes the existence of the immortal human soul, which allows for continuity of identity over time. Christian orthodoxy also teaches that humans are not merely material robots; we do indeed have free will and are morally responsible for our thoughts and actions. And, of course, Christianity holds that objective moral law does exist and is grounded in the existence and character of the Moral Law Giver — i.e., the triune God of the Bible. This same God will also judge the living and the dead. Christians, therefore, have a strong foundation for condemning criminals for violation of moral laws and for believing in, advocating, and hoping for justice, both here on Earth and in the afterlife.

As we head into the Easter season, I can’t help but think of one particular Man who was executed ~2000 years ago, even though he had committed no crime. Jesus of Nazareth, the God-Man, who lived a perfectly sinless life, became the Lamb that was slain in our stead. When He died, He took on our sin, and His righteousness was imputed to those who did and would serve Him. He then rose from the dead and, weeks later, joined the Father in Heaven.

We all commit crimes against the Holy and Sovereign God. Some spit in His face when He offers redemption and continue to rebel against Him until their dying day and beyond. When He banishes them from His presence for all eternity, perfect justice will be carried out. They will get exactly what they want, and justice will be done. But, for those of us who know and serve Him, the Father “sees” only Christ’s righteousness and, thus, we obtain mercy from the just wrath of the Father.

“Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God…. The one who believes in the Son has eternal life, but the one who refuses to believe in the Son will not see life; instead, the wrath of God remains on him.”  — John 3:18,36 (HCSB)

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