by Alex Rattee
In a previous blog post I presented two arguments for why we should be hesitant about concluding that the life of Jesus counts against the validity of effective altruism. These were: (1) that Jesus may have been optimising over many different values and (2) that Jesus may have been optimising over the long-run, rather than short-run. These explanations give us reason to think that although Jesus might, at first glance, appear to be taking ineffective decisions, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Jesus was not following the principles of effectiveness.
In this post I will put forward another argument for why Jesus’ life need not count strongly against the principles of effectiveness. This argument is that it might be true that we ought to follow the principles of effectiveness even if Jesus himself did not follow them. This is because Jesus, in taking on flesh, may have chosen not to fully utilise his divine omniscience and instead may have limited himself, to some degree at least, to the knowledge acquisition process of humans. As a result, he may have never realised that the principles of effectiveness are a key part of morality, and as such, never acted or taught on them.
Jesus not utilizing his omniscience
It’s typical to think that in taking on flesh, God the Son did not actively utilize his full endowment of divine abilities. Instead he fully participated in the constraints of human life. As such, even though in his divinity he never experienced limitations, in his humanity he did. As a result, when he encountered the Woman at the Well, he experienced tiredness; when he fasted in the desert, he became genuinely hungry; and when he was nailed to the cross, he endured excruciating suffering. It is a core part of Christian theology to believe that Jesus embraced these sorts of limitations of human life.
The next question is whether these human constraints extend to Jesus not fully utilising his divine ability to believe all true facts and no false ones. It seems that the only coherent answer to this question is that he did not fully utilise his divine omniscience, for If we want to maintain that he did then we would have to believe that Jesus as a baby was fully cognisant of the laws of quantum mechanics. This seems implausible and this view is backed up scripturally when Luke 2:52 makes the clear point that Jesus had a normal human developmental progression: ‘Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man.’
So it seems that the Christian is not committed to Jesus fully utilising his divine omniscience. However, note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus was not in fact omniscient. Perhaps all the facts were available to him, but rather, he chose to only draw upon those that he had earned through his human exploits.
Another way Jesus may have had access to facts beyond the ken of a typical human is through his special relationship with God the Father. God the father might have chosen to reveal things to Jesus throughout his ministry. So in this sense Jesus may have had dual access to divine omniscience.
Jesus not accessing morally relevant facts
Suppose now, as many effective altruists believe, that considering effectiveness is a crucial part of doing altruism well. Might it be possible that the principle of effectiveness be a core part of morality done properly and that Jesus, in his humanity, would have not accessed this fact?
It certainly seems plausible that the principles of effectiveness applied to altruism would not have been one of the major ideas floating around in the conversations of first century Judea, and so Jesus is unlikely to have come across it from human sources. It might also be the case that, just as Jesus would not utilise his divine omniscience to ace a maths test, Jesus did not access his divine omniscience to learn about the importance of the principles of effectiveness either.
If Jesus did not access the fact that the principles of effectiveness were a crucial part of altruism done well, it would be no surprise that he was not acting and teaching on them either.
Objection: Jesus would have chosen to access morally relevant facts
I now want to examine a potential objection to my argument that says whilst Jesus might have chosen not to utilise his divine omniscience for certain areas, like maths tests, he would have always chosen to utilise it when he was making moral decisions where lots was at stake. So if the principles of effectiveness are important for morality then Jesus would have chosen to access them and act on them.
Whilst it certainly seems possible that Jesus would want to take a maximalist approach to the ‘self-emptying’ discussed in Philippians 2:7 and only take on the beliefs that a perfect human being could access, we know that Jesus did occasionally access facts beyond his human abilities: for instance, he accessed the fact that Peter would deny him three times and also the romantic history of the Woman at the Well. So why would Jesus access these types of facts about people but not moral principles?
One argument is that Jesus self-emptied himself so that he could be a moral role model for humans. However, if Jesus had accessed too many morally relevant facts that are beyond the ken of humans then this position as a genuine role model may be put into jeopardy. Therefore, withholding from accessing certain moral principles may have been an important part of fulfilling the function of the incarnation, whilst choosing to access facts about people did not jeopardize this aim and so was taken up.
Even if we are not convinced by the above, we need to proceed carefully, because clearly Jesus did not teach all morally relevant facts. He did not clarify whether there is a moral difference between doing and allowing harm and he did not teach us the importance of washing hands to stop the spread of diseases. So the Christian cannot commit themselves to saying that Jesus would have accessed and taught all morally relevant principles and facts.
This being the case, if it can be morally important to follow good hygiene practices to stop the spread of diseases and for Jesus not to access/transmit this truth then it also seems possible for the principles of effectiveness to be morally important and for Jesus to choose not to access/transmit them also. So it seems hard to target this argument at the principles of effectiveness in particular rather than just the plausibility of the moral perfection of Christ more generally.
Whilst I do not have a fully worked out justification for why Jesus chose not to access and speak out on a range of moral issues, it does not seem outside the realm of possibility that he may have had good reasons. One possibility is that God may have wanted to withhold teaching certain ethical facts to allow a greater possibility for humans to embark on richer ethical investigation themselves. Another possibility is that Jesus had a limited opportunity to teach and so had to be selective about what he was to teach on and for some reason decided to prioritise other topics.
Ultimately, if Jesus did have justifying reasons for not accessing and acting upon certain morally relevant facts then he would not be blameworthy for not teaching them and acting upon them.
There are still difficulties to resolve on my account in explaining why Jesus did not access more morally relevant facts. However, if the argument above is successful, it might be the case that we in the modern world who have been exposed to the importance of the principles of effectiveness ought to adopt them, even though Jesus never was and so never did.