Knowing right from wrong is essential to moral judgment but also signals our loss of innocence. In the biblical creation story, knowledge of good and evil is the forbidden fruit that leads to mankind's downfall. In a sense, the original sin was its own punishment. By acquiring knowledge of good and evil, the man now knew he had done wrong and hid from God's presence, setting in motion the chain of events that resulted in his expulsion from paradise.
Would the man have been guilty of sin without this awareness of wrongdoing? In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes of an Inuit hunter who asked a missionary priest whether he would go to hell if he had not known about God and sin. No, the missionary assured him. "Then why did you tell me?" the Intuit demanded.
One is tempted to answer that the missionary could not supply a cure without first spreading the disease. However, there is ample evidence that human sin, by whatever name, is not among the deadly diseases that white men introduced to native populations. Eighteenth-century European intellectuals romanticized the idea of a "noble savage" uncorrupted by civilization. However, this view seemed most firmly entrenched among those who were farthest removed from actual contact with these supposedly pristine primitives.
Ben Franklin, who frequently played on his own rustic reputation by parading around Paris in a coonskin cap, weighed in on the topic with a somewhat tongue-and-cheek essay entitled "Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America," published in 1784 while he was envoy to France. In it, Franklin related the story of Susquehanna Indian chiefs who patiently listened to a Swedish missionary expounding on forbidden fruit and the doctrine of original sin. "It is indeed bad to eat apples," their spokesman responded politely. "It is better to make them all into cider."
The curious thing about innocence is that it is usually glimpsed only from afar or in the rearview mirror -- and never in oneself. We are as apt to project innocence onto others as evil, suggesting in both cases that the original quality must reside somewhere within ourselves. Innocence exists not in a state of nature but in a state of grace. The knowledge of good and evil has no place in God's kingdom. It is not that we are incapable of wrong but that there is only the overwhelming awareness of God's single purpose unfolding in creation, making all such distinctions superfluous.