Original Sin as an Analogy to Moral Inheritance

In mainstream Christianity, there’s the concept of Original Sin.  Basically, Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge and all of human kind inherited this sin.  So we are sinful because of what our ancestors did a long time ago.

Does this work for other situations?  Well, in terms of slavory, for example, some people claim that there should be some compensatory justice because of what the majority did to minority groups a long time ago.  There is a sense of moral inheritance.  The current majority inherits a moral taint from their ancestors.  Now, I’m not here to debate reparations or anything like that.  But it seems to suggest that if one believes in Original Sin, then to be consistent, doesn’t make sense to believe in compensatory justice?  If not, isn’t that being hypocritical?

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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7 Responses to Original Sin as an Analogy to Moral Inheritance

  1. Nexus Six says:

    I have to argue this with religious positions I don’t personally believe. Well, let’s give it a try anyway 🙂
    The definition I found for compensatory justice was “The extent to which injured parties are compensated for their injuries by those who have injured them.” If that’s the case, whether or not a person is being consistent depends on your belief about the target of sin. Sin is the breach of laws that were made by god. Some people believe that these are different than human laws because you’re not sinning against other people, but rather god himself. So even if you murder somebody, you’re victimizing God. Not the guy you just stabbed. If you feel that way, then when you repent you have made the compensation to god and all is equal. Doesn’t help the people who have been effected, but the “victimized party” has been effectively served justice because you and god are now square. Because repentance is a fundamental tenant of Christianity, you must believe in that (seemingly odd to me) flavor of compensatory justice even if you don’t buy original sin for whatever reason.
    The other viewpoint where god lays down the laws but you can sin against your neighbor by coveting his wife, you aren’t actually required to believe in compensatory justice as defined above. You murder the guy, but as long as you repent, you’re forgiven and all is well, so you don’t actually _have_ to compensate the victim. Probably wouldn’t be an example of a “good Christian” if you didn’t compensate the victim, but it’s not technically necessary.

    • shaunmiller says:


      Yes sin is a breach of laws and anyone can sin. But the concept of Original Sin is different. Original Sin is passed down through generations. There’s a moral taint to anyone who was a descendant of Adam. But that’s basically everyone (with the exception of Jesus Christ and maybe Mary). Thus, everyone is born with Original Sin and they’re guilty because of what their ancestor did. It has nothing to do with you as an individual. It all has to do with what your ancestor did a long time ago. Thus, if this is the case. People who believe in Original Sin believe that moral tinges are passed on to their scions.

      Repentance only works for your own sins; it doesn’t cure the Original Sin. Only God’s grace can cover that. So yes, sins are individual; Original Sin is not.

      • Nexus Six says:

        So if repentance only works for your own sin, then the analogy doesn’t seem complete. The part about being morally tinged because of what my ancestors did makes sense. But because you said there’s nothing we can do to compensate for the original sin and that only God’s grace can cover that, I don’t see how it’s an analogy for other situations involving compensatory justice. The slavery example was a really good demonstration this new concept for me. As usual, I’m missing something very important and probably very obvious haha 🙂
        The topic is really interesting, so would you be willing to connect the dots for me?

  2. Nancy says:

    i was going to argue with you on the basis that protestants don’t believe in original sin, but in looking it up to see exactly who does, it seems that it’s really not clear. i think that most modern protestants don’t believe in it in quite the same way as most catholics do, and probably many modern christians don’t believe in it at all, in spite of what their doctrines may say. (though looking in the catechism in my book of common prayer, original sin is not addressed at all, which i think is evidence that episcopalians do not believe in it- http://anglicansonline.org/basics/catechism.html)
    regardless, i would say the same for this as i would for the slavery argument- compensatory justice only makes sense within a generation or two. if adam’s children or grandchildren could somehow have been compensated for his actions, that would be logical. otherwise it becomes silly.
    also, you’re assuming that most modern christians believe in the literal existence of adam and eve- i put it to you that many do not.
    also, even if compensatory justice were in order, wouldn’t the penal substitutionary atonement theology suggest that jesus was the compensatory justice?

  3. shaunmiller says:

    Nexus, think of it like this. I was only using the analogy of believing in Original Sin. I was saying that if one believes in Original Sin, then it seems to make sense that one must believe in moral inheritance. In a general form, it goes like this:

    S believes p.
    P deals with the concept of moral inheritance.
    Therefore, S believes in the concept of moral inheritance.

    Now, there are other forms of moral inheritance besides Original Sin. Most people who argue for reparations from slavery say that it’s because of what people did a long time ago. Thus, there is a sense of how the scions inherited a moral injustice and that needs to be rectified.

    So following the argument from above, what I’m saying is that if one believes in Original Sin, it seems to follow that one should also believe in reparations. And this is because they both have something in common: moral inheritance.

    Of course, the question now becomes, “but who believes in Original Sin?” That’s true. It does depend on the mind state of S. Now whether S is supposed to believe in Original Sin, that’s another argument.

    But you also bring out the idea that maybe Jesus was the way to bring atonement, and thus compensate for Original Sin. That’s a good argument. It makes me wonder why St. Augustine brought up the idea of Original Sin in the first place then. I’m not really extremely familiar with these Christian concepts but let’s take this analogy forward. If Jesus is the one that brings forth compensatory justice, doesn’t this imply that someone should be the one to compensate for reparations? Of course, this all assumes under this argument.

  4. Nexus Six says:

    Shaun, thanks for breaking it down into something like PL, it made me grasp that important and obvious point I was missing. As for Jesus being “the guy” to atone and how that relates to other situations, I’ve wondered about that myself. Because the moral tinge is inherited, should 1:1 or n:n relationships be preserved? Basically, if one guy caused problem x, does it follow that one person has to compensate for it, or can n people compensate? Also, as for the compensation itself it just an example of zero-sum where it’s fine as long as everything lost is equal to everything gained, regardless of who does what? Or maybe it’s non-constant-sum where the desired compensation either diminishes or becomes amplified over the generations?

    • shaunmiller says:

      As far as I know, most traditional philosophers say that justice doesn’t compound interest over the years. I don’t know that many philosophers that have talked about compensatory justice. Kant does talk about it but only in the context of capital punishment. I have written a bit about reparations here.

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