The Sanctification Button

I have a browser extension installed on my work laptop that blocks my access to Reddit, Facebook, and other news and social media sites. My employer didn't install it; I did. I have the same extension installed at home, albeit blocking a more limited set of time-wasting sites. On its face, setting up a system that does nothing but restrict my future options seems like a waste of time. Wouldn't it be easier just to choose to not visit those sites at imprudent times? In theory, sure. But I don't trust my future self, and restraint is taxing. I'd have trouble explaining why. Admittedly it's weird, but I think I can assume that you, dear human reader, at least understand where I am coming from, regardless of how much you rely on such things yourself. In behavioral economics, we call these kinds of mechanisms "precommitments". Odysseus bound himself to the mast before sailing past the Sirens. Gamblers leave behind their checkbooks and credit cards before a casino vacation. I am one of many who find it prudent to occasionally bind my future actions, restrict my future options, or simply nudge my older self in a certain direction. There remain plenty of mistakes that I would like to prevent, but for which there is no mechanism to preempt. Inevitably, technology will improve; new products will become available. Some of these, like the browser blocker, will be increasingly capable precommittment tools. How far should you go with this? Artificial intelligence combined with cybernetics could make any undesirable behavior potentially preemptable. Leaving aside the technical difficulties, if you could not only end your ability to lie, cheat, and steal, but also gossip and insult, should you? Taken to its extreme, if there were a button that removed your ability to sin, would you push it?

The meaning of this question depends on your definition of sin. I'll approach this mostly from a Christian paradigm, because that's the sin I know, but the button question is applicable regardless of your worldview. We all believe in right and wrong, and there is pretty good overlap in our definitions. (If you wish to insist that there is no right and wrong, then I guess any old button will do.) Whatever your definition of sin, if you could eliminate your ability to commit wrong actions, only committing right actions forever, would you choose to do so?

The question is meant to be considered abstractly, but as mentioned in the opening paragraph, I think it is closer to reality than most people realize. Consider the following examples:

  • Developers today could develop an app that forced you to live within your budget. If such a system were made easy, would you direct deposit your paycheck into such a system?
  • Your phone can easily monitor your entire life, what you hear, what you see, what you say, what you do etc. It is not inconceivable to build an artificial intelligence that would publicly correct you every time you told a lie, whether spoken or typed. Would you install such an app?
  • The same phone AI could report you to the police if you ever stole something. Even if you hid the phone during the heist, it would know from your bank account records everything you owned and could tell if you possessed something that didn't belong to you. If stealing meant forever giving up your phone, I think you'd consider yourself forced into making an honest living.
  • Last I checked, adultery is the last consensual sexual sin that is still considered, well, a sin by almost everybody in America. Would you like to never want to be tempted to adultery? It would not take the most sophisticated cybernetics imaginable to disable your relatively primitive arousal function for anyone but your spouse.

Obviously, the fully functional button as described is out of reach for the foreseeable future. But thinking about the ultimate solution helps guide our understanding of the specific solutions that will arise over the next few decades. It allows us to discuss them abstractly without getting distracted by the details: how effective is it, how much effort is it, how much does it cost, what are the side effects, how will this be used by authorities. For the sake of argument, assume that it is free, it is voluntary, and it is flawless. Do you still push the button?

Does it matter if the button removes sinful actions, but doesn't touch thoughts? As a Christian, I care more about my thoughts than I do about my actions, or at least I should. My sinful actions are the expression of my sinful thoughts. The tangible negative consequences of sinful actions (physical pain, punishments by authorities, broken relationships, etc.) are actually good things; they bring me to confess and correct the attitudes behind the actions. If the button merely prevented sinful actions but did nothing within, then there is a argument that such a button would actually be deeply harmful to my soul. Would I bother to cultivate an attitude of appreciation and love toward my wife if I knew I would never snap at her anyway? Would I smile and make small talk and be helpful with the chores, while in my head is the cursing at how unfair or inconvenient everything is? The Bible describes heaven and hell as separated by a chasm, but if you wanted to imagine a collocated heaven and hell, you could consider a place where everyone's actions flow out of pure love and joy, but while some individuals cultivate an attitude of charity making all actions their own, others scream curses in their head through all eternity while looking out the eyes of a steadfastly polite and faithful, but ultimately zombie-like, friend.

How about if the button rejuvenated your attitudes also, so that evil thoughts were just as impossible as evil deeds? In one sense, this version doesn't seem as practical to me. Adjusting someone's thoughts to any practical precision will be out of the reach of cybernetics for quite awhile. But in another sense, this version of the button already exists. In fact, I've already chosen to push it by believing in Jesus Christ. The Bible offers an eternity without sin for those who choose to accept it. Even if the Bible turned out to be false, I've still chosen to push the button, albeit one that did not function as advertised. From a strictly Christian perspective it could be argued that one should not circumvent the saving work of Christ by pushing a button, but I think that is beside the point. The important aspect of the question is not the physical button, but whether or not one should choose to accept a mechanism that will purge sin from one's thoughts to a totality that could not be achieved through human effort alone. It is a mechanism not only permitted, not only encouraged, but mandated by scripture.

Fixing your actions without fixing your thoughts risks a prison, but does fixing your thoughts risk suicide? Defining what makes you you touches on a corner of philosophy that I'd rather not go into here. Interestingly, Christianity has an opinion on this question anyway. The Bible repeatedly says, yeah, kill the flesh, die to your sinful nature—that's the whole point—that's the only way the real you gets to be born. The idea is meant to be taken metaphorically rather than philosophically. Jesus makes other hyperbolic statements about the lengths we should go to remove sin from our lives, such as "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out." Compared to that, the free and flawless button I posited seems like the way to go. This doesn't mean that I endorse creating or pushing a sanctification button in the practical sense. Such a device or its cybernetic equivalent would necessarily be made by fallible humans and should be judged in that light. But the hypothetically, or perhaps theologically, flawless button—yes, I think I would.