Was Jesus an Effective Altruist? (Part. 2)

Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler (used)

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.

8 thoughts on “Was Jesus an Effective Altruist? (Part. 2)

  1. One could argue as follows: The principle of effectiveness is a key part of morality *only if* one can distinguish very effective from very ineffective actions. In order to distinguish very effective from very ineffective actions, one needs a lot of empirical knowledge. The amount of empirical knowledge which is necessary to turn the principle of effectiveness into a *key* part of morality has only become available in the 21st century.

    If this is so, it could allow us to say:

    — Jesus *did* know the moral fact “The principle of effectiveness is a key part of morality whenever a lot of empirical knowledge about effectiveness is available”

    — Given that a lot of empirical knowledge about effectiveness was not accessed/accessible to him and his listeners, the principle of effectiveness was not a *key* part of morality back then.

    Thus, Jesus apparent lack of regard for effectiveness would still be explained by limits to omniscience. But it would be limits to empirical rather than moral knowledge.

    (Note: While this line of reasoning questions whether effectiveness was a *key* principle in Jesus’ time, it is consistent with effectiveness being relevant *to some extent* in Jesus’ time. And: Jesus can be interpreted to endorse the idea that effectiveness is relevant to some extent. He does so, for example, in the parable of the talents. And the endorsement is also visible in the story of the alabaster jar: Jesus’ response to the disciples indicates that he doesn’t find their reasoning odd; to the contrary, he even seems to agree with their general logic (“…the poor you have always with you…”) — he only resisted how/whether the reasoning applies to this specific case).

    P.S.: I think the above reasoning may be especially important in case we take Jesus’ moral teaching (and large swaths of the bible, possibly excluding the Mosaic laws) *not* to consist in a systematic exposition of universally valid principles which can be captured in simple propositions. If Jesus’ and most of the bible’s moral teachings *rather* consist in reports about singular individuals in singular situations making progress in their relationship with God and the world (where these reports are meant to inspire & change us and indirectly & implicitly teach us about (possibly highly complex) principles), then the differences between these singular situations and our current situation becomes more relevant.

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    1. Thanks Dominic. I think your comment really adds a satisfying extra piece to the argument!

      Still the argument you present requires Jesus to have only been directing his teaching at his immediate listeners. If he knew that his teaching would be transmitted to those in future generations who would have access to sufficient information to make meaningful use of the principles of effectiveness then wouldn’t it have been important for him to teach it for their benefit?

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    2. It would be interesting to compare Jesus’ teachings to Mozi, who lived even earlier and whose beliefs are sometimes analogized to Christianity. It seems to me (though I’m not an expert on either) that Mozi’s teachings and actions were substantially more similar to modern EA principles than Jesus’; I’m consequently skeptical that EA principles can only be implemented with modern levels of empirical knowledge.

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  2. On this part: “If he knew that his teaching would be transmitted to those in future generations who would have access to sufficient information to make meaningful use of the principles of effectiveness then wouldn’t it have been important for him to teach it for their benefit?”

    Yes, I agree.
    Though: a large part of the Bible’s teaching seems to be of the following form: specific people learn something about their own journey in their specific time and place — and I as a 21st century Christian glean something from that by transferring the underlying lesson to my time and place. Thus, we can indirectly learn something from Jesus *even if* his message was only directed to his immediate listeners.
    Still, I think you’re right: if passing on messages to future generations works *by* giving specific guidance into the specific situations of his immediate listeners, then it shouldn’t be made *too* hard to extract generally valid key principles from the specific situations he gave guidance for. And thus I agree with your point.

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  3. I really liked Part I, but I found Part II pretty unconvincing, though I did appreciate the point that Jesus wouldn’t have access to all relevant factual knowledge (which I hadn’t thought of before).

    Thoughts I had:

    1. The argument seems to rely on pretty detailed/explicit models of the nature of Jesus’ cognition and epistemology. I’m not sure it makes sense for mortals to try to model a divine entity: it would be easy to fall into a wrong-way reduction in general (which EAs are already biased towards), and the Bible seems to warn against this approach (e.g. Matthew 11:25). It seems very likely that we could reach more accurate conclusions by relying on intuition, but
    I suspect the intuitions of most Christians conflict with those of EAs.

    2. I’m uncomfortable with resolving a potential inconsistency between the Bible and one’s moral beliefs by saying that Jesus didn’t divinely access morally relevant facts, and then remained ignorant of them due to cultural context. Doing so seems like a dangerous epistemic strategy,because it doesn’t depend on any specifics of the belief in question. For instance, I’m not sure how you could distinguish “Jesus didn’t access the importance of effectiveness” from e.g. “Jesus didn’t access the importance of rational egoism because he didn’t read Ayn Rand” in a principled manner.

    3. Regarding the last part of the post, we can use Bayes’ theorem, given a prior credence in the importance of e.g. “effectiveness”. With some basic assumptions about the nature of Jesus (and assuming that the Bible is inerrant), we can get a likelihood ratio by estimating the probability of an entity like Jesus performing the sum total of his Biblically-recorded actions in the world where a given statement about morality is true or false. In particular, I think Jesus’ actions and parables would have looked a lot different if the explicit beliefs and underlying intuitions shared by EAs were universally true & applicable.

    In this framing, the handwashing argument only suffices to prove that P(Jesus’ life|EA is true) > 0, by showing that there exist morally relevant facts which Jesus doesn’t explicitly mention. However, that doesn’t really address the main concern: P(the Gospels|EA is true) < P(the Gospels|EA is not true). I know I said explicit models were bad earlier; however, sensible use of explicit models seems to agree with the intuitive conclusion that Christians should be skeptical of some core EA beliefs.

    4. In general the article reads a bit like putting the bottom line first — i.e. starting with the claim that Jesus' teachings & example are compatible with EA, and then trying to find arguments to support it. Maybe that's a necessary part of being an "EA Christian" blog, but it made the arguments less persuasive for me.

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    1. Thanks Liam.

      In response to (4), I guess the project I’m working on goes something like this: I have reason to take my moral intuitions seriously and my moral intuitions strongly reflect EA ideas. I also have reasons to take the life of Jesus seriously as moral exemplar. The most attractive strategy then is to look into arguments which defend that these two apparently conflicting data points aren’t actually contradictory and so I can hold them both at the same time rather than discarding one or the other.

      I think this seems like a legitimate strategy, and it’s one commonly pursued in philosophy, but we do need to be wary of motivated reasoning whilst we’re doing it?

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