Thursday, June 13, 2013

What is the Default Afterlife?

I have been reading more Islamic law and continue to find it interesting. One issue implicit but not yet explicit in what I have read is the title of this post.

Islamic law classifies actions into five categories. An obligatory action is one which God will reward you for doing and punish you for not doing. A recommended action is one which you will be rewarded for doing but not punished for failing to do. A neutral action is one for which you are neither punished or rewarded, whether or not you do it. An abhorrent action is one which you are rewarded for not doing but not punished for doing. A forbidden action is one which you are rewarded for not doing, punished for doing.

Which sounds perfectly clear, unless you are an economist. To an economist, all costs are opportunity costs—the cost of doing X is the value of whatever you have to give up in order to do it. The cost of an A on the final might be a missed party the weekend before and several Friday evenings earlier in the quarter spent studying instead of going on dates.

From that point of view not being rewarded is a form of punishment, not being punished a form of reward. To make sense of the legal categories, one needs to somehow define a neutral point, a baseline, relative to which reward and punishment are measured. If you do nothing that deserves either punishment or reward, what happens to you when you die? Oblivion? Limbo? Heaven, but a tourist class version?

The same issue is raised by a different part of the law. Adult Muslims are obligated to obey Islamic law, subject to divine punishment if they don't. But the dominant philosophical position in Islamic law holds that one cannot tell by reason alone what is good and what is evil—it requires revelation. So what happens to someone who has never received God's word, having lived in a time and place with no prophet to deliver it and no transmission of the words of any past prophet?

In medieval Catholicism, the analogous question was the status of the virtuous pagan. Christ was necessary for salvation; what happened to people who lived decent lives but had the bad luck to be born before the incarnation? Dante's answer was that almost all such people ended up in a relatively pleasant part of Hell, where the only torture was separation from God. A special few were saved, by Christ (during the time between crucifixion and resurrection) coming down to Hell to fetch them out—the "harrowing of Hell."

The Muslim answer was more tolerant than the Christian, since it did not require the pagans to be virtuous. They did not obey God's commands, not having heard them, so did not get rewarded. But they were not responsible for disobeying the commands, not having heard them, so did not get punished. Even if they sinned.

Which gets us back to the question I started with. If they were neither rewarded nor punished, what happened to them when they died? What was the default afterlife?

And I cannot resist the temptation to end with a link to Rudyard Kipling's account of  the fate of someone who did nothing good or bad. Ever.

22 Comments:

At 12:41 AM, June 13, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ghaMy problem is what decides what a reward or punishment is?

 
At 3:16 AM, June 13, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Default is to be placed in Heaven. Here's the source from the Quran:

Quran 5:69 says (Arberry): “Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry, and the Christians, and those Sabeaans, whoso believes in God and the Last Day, and works righteousness–their wage waits them with their Lord, and no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow.”

 
At 5:50 AM, June 13, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On an unrelated note, since David Friedman is a fan of poetry, I will take this opportunity to let him know about Rapgenius:

http://rapgenius.com/artists/Rudyard-kipling

While it is incomplete in regards to Kipling, I'm expecting this model of crowd-sourced annotation to one day be a big part of ordinary life.

 
At 9:19 AM, June 13, 2013, Blogger Ryan Long said...

It's been years since I read the Qu'ran, and I only read it once, but I do recall there being a passage in which it is suggested that good people will find the Qu'ran naturally, over the course of their lives.

Also, the way OT prophets are describes suggests that a person can practice Islam without ever having read the Qu'ran, which is to say that as long as your life is consistent with its teachings, you are a Muslim be default.

Apologies to my Muslim friends if I am mistaken in the above. As I said, this is based purely on my recollection of having read an English translation of the Qu'ran many years ago.

 
At 9:19 AM, June 13, 2013, Blogger Ryan Long said...

Ugh. Sorry about the typos in that comment.

 
At 10:26 AM, June 13, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“To make sense of the legal categories, one needs to somehow define a neutral point, a baseline, relative to which reward and punishment are measured. If you do nothing that deserves either punishment or reward, what happens to you when you die?” Note, however, that a Muslim could not “do nothing that deserves either punishment or reward.” Assuming there actually are actions in the category “abhorrent,” he would have to be constantly *doing an abhorrent action*; otherwise his behavior would merit reward. In practice he would need some downtime—time when he was not *doing* anything--for example, sleeping (I assume this does not count as an “action”)—and then he would be piling up rewards, raising him above the baseline. Even worse, assuming there are, indeed, forbidden actions, he would constantly be behaving in a way that got him either punishment—doing the forbidden action—or reward—not doing it.

The baseline that is required by the Islamic scheme might better be thought of as the condition one would be in if his rewards and punishments exactly canceled out, rather than as the condition he would be in if he merited zero rewards and zero punishments. The net will be zero, though it is impossible for a Muslim to avoid a non-zero (positive) gross amount of merited reward (and very difficult to avoid a non-zero gross amount of merited punishment). (But, as you remark, a free pass is given to non-Muslims: the only category that applies to them is “neutral action.” So a life meriting zero reward and zero punishment is, after all, possible.)

By the way, does Allah net out a person’s balance before handing out his fate, or does He issue rewards and punishments for each action separately, as the behavior takes place? If the latter, there wouldn’t be any *further* reward or punishment due at one’s death (except that one’s dying action/inaction would have to be rewarded/punished posthumously); the individual would already have received his due. But perhaps there is fine print, according to which some rewards/punishments are issued on the spot, at the time of the action/inaction, while others are saved for after death. Is there, then, an Islamic purgatory, where some posthumous punishments are administered before the ultimate trip to heaven?

 
At 11:52 AM, June 13, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Quran 5:69 is talking about virtuous people of the book, not about the equivalent of virtuous pagans--people who have not received God's word from any prophet--let alone about non-virtuous pagans.

 
At 9:11 PM, June 13, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

R Long is correct---a person is born "muslim" as default---if this term is understood as a spiritual level and not as a label of a group of people. In Islam there is a concept called "fitra" which posits that all human beings are born inherently good and in a state of sumbisiion to God's laws---since God's laws include all the natural laws of creation---this means that a person who is "good" submits to the natural inclination/predisposition with which he was created---that is why being "bad" is against the "natural law/God's law" and against human nature. (see the psychological term "Moral Injury")

All blessings and trials in life are trials---blessings and trails can be a circumstance created by God or it can be a result of our action/inaction---in either case, it is a test. Whether we use our blessings for good and restrain from using for bad---and whether we go through trials with patience and constancy or use it as an excuse for anger and rebellion.....

Economics---The general principles of Islamic economics is based on "win-win"---that is the weak should be protected from exploitation without it becoming a deterrent to making a profit.(economic justice) That is why Interest is "haram" (not permissible) and other forms of making a profit---such as shares/partnerships etc are "halal"(permissible). This type of economics moves us away from a debt based economic structure.

@anonymous
reward/punishment---only comes after judgement---our actions are based on 3 categories---right belief, right intentions, right actions. If however, we make mistakes, then repentance and reform also gets you merits. When we have blessings from God such as wealth---then we are responsible for how we use it. If we use it for good---it is a merit---if we refuse to make use of this blessing (Hoarding) or use it for bad--it is a demerit. That is how we will be held accountable.

Anon

 
At 9:14 PM, June 13, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All blessings and trials in life are trials---this should be corrected as---all blessings and trials are a test
sorry for the mistake......

 
At 10:57 PM, June 13, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

"this means that a person who is "good" submits to the natural inclination/predisposition with which he was created"

There seems to be a conflict between that view and the Asha'arite position that one cannot know good and evil through human reason, but only by divine guidance. And, as I mentioned in the post, the (Shafi'i) text I've been reading discusses the case of someone who has never had the opportunity to get such guidance, there being no prophet in his time and place (nor, presumably, transmitted knowledge from a previous prophet). Its conclusion is that he is not guilty for sinning, since he had no way of knowing the laws he was breaking.

 
At 1:14 PM, June 14, 2013, Blogger Kevin said...

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a Jehovah's Witness. The way they explained it, if you hear the truth (JW version) and reject it, when you die you just cease to exist. There's no hell, just nothingness. If on the other hand you never hear the truth (JW version), then in the end times you will be resurrected from the dead and live on earth for another thousand years or so, during which time you can still choose to accept God.

I argued that they never should have preached to me, because if I get raised from the dead to find 144,000 JWs ruling the world I'll be a lot more inclined to believe than I am just listening to some guy who came to my door.

His response was that if I didn't believe him now, I would not believe even if I was raised from the dead. He pointed out that the Israelites turned to false gods immediately after God parted the Red Sea for them. I told him Moses wasn't winning any literary prizes for psychological realism lol.

 
At 9:49 PM, June 14, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

a)
“That is why Interest is "haram" (not permissible)”
That is why Muslim countries are so hopelessly poor. Europeans held those silly views during early Middle Ages too but managed to get rid of them eventually. And the flourishing banking (“usury”)industry ( first in Northern Italy then in the whole Western Europe) made capitalism possible.

b) The “neutral” actions are good by their nature ( whatever Koran says of it).
If a man is “neutral” he neither harms nor helps others.
But he helps himself! He can't not do it as long as he is live. Nobody can act against himself, it's just unthinkable. Consequences of his action ( bad health, financial ruin, quarrels with friends, etc.) are irrelevant. In every starting point of his action he is right and good b-e-c-a-u-s-e he thinks he is right and good!
In the peculiar “single-man” ethics only intentions count.
So, every “neutral” man is good and righteous per se.

 
At 12:30 PM, June 17, 2013, Blogger David Gordon said...

Suppose that a Muslim goes to heaven if he has accumulated in his life greater rewards than punishments, and goes to hell if he has accumulated greater punishments than rewards. Then, so long as it's the case in the actual world that no one's rewards and punishments are equal, no default afterlife is needed in the actual world. A default afterlife is needed only for any logically possible world in which a Muslim's rewards exactly balance his punishments.

 
At 1:16 PM, June 17, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

David Gordon:

The problem is much more practical for non-muslims who have never had the chance of becoming muslims -everyone who died before Mohammed was born and everyone who have never heard of him in their entire life. I don't know much about islam, but David's article suggests that according to the teaching of one of the muslim schools of thought, these people are unable to know what is good and what is evil, therefore none of their actions have any moral value, therefore they are exactly at that middle point no matter how they live. And therefore there should be a "default" afterlife for them. It is interesting that those people who have pondered about their dogma for their entire lives (muslim scholars) have not encountered this problem...or maybe they have and there is just noone here who has read the relevant articles (scriptures, verses, whatever they used...).

 
At 1:39 PM, June 17, 2013, Blogger David Gordon said...

Tibor Mach,

I meant my comment to apply only to the afterlife for Muslims, as described in David's post.

 
At 4:57 PM, June 17, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Tibor:

Muslims believe that there were lots of legitimate prophets before Mohammed, including Moses and Jesus, so the issue is limited to people who never got exposed to any prophet.

 
At 8:26 PM, June 17, 2013, Anonymous Rex Little said...

Is there any subset of Islam (or Christianity, for that matter) which believes that the default, or neutral, outcome is no afterlife at all?

 
At 9:57 PM, June 17, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

On the question of interest:

1. Islamic law permits a profit sharing arrangement where one partner provides the money, the other the labor, and each gets an agreed upon share of the profit. So without an evasion of the law you can get a form of interest, although not a form in which the lender gets a fixed return.

2. Christians, Jews and Muslims all developed legal devices to avoid the ban on interest. One of the Muslim devices was actually borrowed by the Christians, complete with their version of its Arabic name.

 
At 3:40 AM, June 18, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

David: Damn, I knew that, how could I forget it? :) Thank you for the reminder.


What was the name of the "loophole" that allowed for interest among muslims (and christians)?

 
At 5:30 AM, June 18, 2013, Anonymous Jim Rose said...

old laws and law makers are surprisingly sharp

one of armen alchian's favourite books for insight was The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I, by Sir Frederick Pollak and Frederick Maitland, 1898.

 
At 8:24 AM, June 20, 2013, Anonymous Socialkenny PUA said...

Great post David!

I've studied Islaam over a decade now, and out of the 3 main religions, islaam seems to be the most logical, although I'm an agnostic and sometimes atheist, having no religion.

The limbo seems to be the top answer in either religion, but it's pretty laughable the Christian's view on this.

 
At 3:41 AM, June 25, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ David
"this means that a person who is "good" submits to the natural inclination/predisposition with which he was created"

There seems to be a conflict between that view and the Asha'arite position that one cannot know good and evil through human reason, but only by divine guidance. And, as I mentioned in the post, the (Shafi'i) text I've been reading discusses the case of someone who has never had the opportunity to get such guidance, there being no prophet in his time and place (nor, presumably, transmitted knowledge from a previous prophet). Its conclusion is that he is not guilty for sinning, since he had no way of knowing the laws he was breaking.


---I don't see the conflict?

 

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