Sunday, November 20, 2005

Sin in the heart

Zippy has a post up entitled "Hypothetical Sin and Pure Evil," in which he says,

"If you commit adultery with her in your mind, you have committed a sin even if she would never sleep with you in reality. The internal act of assent in your mind - that assent which says "if the circumstances allowed, I would do this" - is as much a sin as actually performing the act."

Excuse me but, Damn, that's a hard saying. Suppose my assent went only so far as to acknowledge that "if the circumstances allowed, I would like to do this. But I wouldn't." Would that get me off the hook? Or least provide some wiggle room?

He draws a further comparison between this kind of thinking and "the ticking bomb scenario for justifying torture":

You know the story: the bomb is ticking and federal agent Jack Bauer "must" torture someone to get information about it before it goes off. He's got to bite the bullet and do what those namby-pamby Christians who depend on him for their safety don't have the cajones to do, and the people he does it to are bad people anyway. They deserve what they get, and the lives of millions of innocents depend on them getting it from Jack.

Concluding that:

Hypotheticals can be a useful intellectual tool in many circumstances. But as a means to "test" a moral heresy - say the heresy that torture might be OK in certain circumstances - they are pure evil.

Under the assumption, I suppose, that when we engage difficulties in this way, what we're really trying to do is justify a course of action already contemplated; that is, we've already at least half-assented to a thing we know to be wrong.

Actually, Jack committed worse than torture in one episode. He put a bullet in the back of his superior's head, under threat from the bad guys that his failure to do so would compel them to release a virus into a city, resulting in the deaths of a million people. Though he had come through for Jack on several occasions, his superior was a bit of a twerpy bureaucrat, just decent enough to infuse his demise with a sense of tragedy, just oily enough that no one would miss him too much. Jack even says, before pulling the trigger, "God forgive me." Wiggle room.

Still, I was wondering what you would do in Jack's place.

UPDATE: Zippy now has 69 comments in his box to the above-linked post, most transpiring between him and a rather persistent sceptic who seems not at all susceptible to persuasion, and almost none of which have anything to do with the original subject matter. It's now about the "telos of sex," or, in plain English, whether or not contraception might be an evil. Still, it's interesting. A fellow named Brendon, whom I found to be quite sharp, pipes up near the end; and as for Zippy, well, piercing logic aside, he's one hell of a patient man.

2nd Update: It's up to 82 comments now. I even jumped in, to absolutely no effect. Someday I'll convert somebody to something.
[Make that 90, and counting][102, and not counting].


Anonymous said...

Suppose my assent went only so far as to acknowledge that "if the circumstances allowed, I would like to do this. But I wouldn't." Would that get me off the hook? Or least provide some wiggle room?

I think it makes all the difference, in all seriousness. A sin is a choice, not a temptation. A man can sin by choosing to, um, flirt with the near occasion, as it were, though that is of course a different sin from adultery in the mind - a sin of imprudence, I suppose. And what is imprudent will vary from man to man, to be sure.

The overall point to my post is that these hypothetical games people play are terrible, because they involve making evil choices without any of the payoff. Very rarely are these hypotheticals genuinely realistic possibilities for us personally (someone somewhere no doubt has to face them, but then we have to face our own actual temptations too). God hasn't put us in a position in which we have to face the difficult choice in actual reality, so why do we put ourselves in it hypothetically? An evil choice is always made in the pursuit of some good, even if some lesser good; but when the evil choice is made with respect to a hypothetical we get the evil choice all on its own, in pure form. When we do evil in order that good may come of it as a hypothetical, all we have is the evil choice standing all by itself, with none of the good results.

I watched some of the first season "24" DVD's and thought the show had potential (though the season finale was awful). But when season two started off with Jack executing a protected witness (he was a child molester and a Really Bad Guy, so we were supposed to buy the idea that he deserved it anyway), sawing off the witness' head with a hacksaw, and delivering the head it to the man he was a witness against as a way of getting an "in" as a double agent, I was all done.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

Who's Jack? What is Jack Bauer? Do I know this person? When did he do this thing? Was it justified? Seems that the dictum followed is that "One may not do evil that good shall result."

Every time I've tried to get good from evil, something has been horribly wrong. Probably being more serious than you intended, but I'd really like to know about this Jack person, whoever it is.



10:53 AM, November 21, 2005

Anonymous said...

First, Steven, Steven, Steven. You've got to lay aside for a while John of the Cross, Teresa of A. and all the others and immerse yourself in the violent, sexy, and generally sinful world of popular entertainment. Those others may lead you to prayer, inspire holiness, and make you an oveall better Christian, but the latter really gets the blood going. In other words it's more "fun." I'll return to your "doing evil that good may come" in a moment.

Zippy: As to the "adultery in the heart", you are more merciful than I expected, and more merciful than my reading of that scriptural passage would allow. I don't recall Christ including any such qualifiers as "if circumstances allowed, I would do it." He says only that to lust after a woman is to commit adultery in the heart. It is a counsel to purity, and a warning against its opposite. It is the lust that matters. There is a difference between wishing to do a thing and actually doing it, so perhaps His "in the heart" provides the wiggle room I'm looking for, but on this He offers no assurances.

Now as to the doomsday scenario (justifying torture or murder) you say: "Very rarely are these hypotheticals genuinely realistic possibilities for us personally...God hasn't put us in a position in which we have to face the difficult choice in actual reality, so why do we put ourselves in it hypothetically?"

Trusting that I am not misreading you, I would say these possibilities are quite real. It led us to war in Iraq, supposedly in self-defense against Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. It led a colonel in the U.S. Army (for which he is, or was, undergoing court martial) to put a gun to a terrorist's head and say, "Tell me what I want to know." The terrorist told, and, again supposedly, some lives were saved. It is the exact same sort of thinking that justified the Hiroshima bomb: we must kill several hundred thousands of them to save a million of our own. Under the assumption that these acts are evil, then I would say with Anscombe that those of us who personally condone them share in the guilt through "praise and flattery."

Steven objects (to Jack's action) on the classic grounds that "one may not do evil that good shall result." But suppose I offered the (hypothetical, :~)) rationale that Jack, in killing his superior, was acting in self-defense on behalf of innocent third parties (to the count of a million strong). Unlike the scenario with Saddam's WMD, he is not acting on the possibility that the bad guys will do the deed, but on a certainty, for they have already wiped out the patronage of an entire hotel to prove their bona fides. The death of Jack's superior, then, becomes the unintended evil consequence which must be subordinated to the larger good, as a doctor in removing the child of an ectopic pregnancy intends not to kill it but to save the mother. So my question remains: what would you do in Jack's place?

As to your giving up on the series "24", for God's sake, man, don't you know how to have fun? Jack's just doing what we'd like to do to the bad guys but can't because we know it's wrong.

Anonymous said...

Trusting that I am not misreading you, I would say these possibilities are quite real.

They may be real in the world for someone, but they are not your personal temptations (I'll wager) nor mine (I'll guarantee: no ticking bomb exists from which I could in principle personally save the world). If God has not allowed me to be led into that temptation, what other than vanity would prompt me to lead myself into it?

As for adultery in the heart, my interpretation (and it is mine, with all the fallibility that implies) is the only way I can make sense of the Church's teaching that being tempted is not a sin: that sin is a choice.

Ellyn said...

And now for something completely different...tag!

alicia said...

theology of the body
ephesians 5
and the first few chapters of genesis

William Luse said...

Steven, we'll let you off the hook. A paleontologist needs his feet. And your decision about the tube is no doubt a wise one.

Zippy, as much as I love you, I find your refusal to answer the question atypically evasive. When George Bush (or Jack Bauer) goes to war to save us from Saddam's ticking bombs, or Truman drops one of his own to save American lives, I am asked to lend my approval, or not, to these actions. This 'personalizing' of the temptation does not relieve me of any duty. As "any man's death diminishes me," so any man's sin might be my own. I am not really asking what you would (or hope you would) do, but what you should do. I was also hoping someone would demonstrate the error (for it is an error)of my analogy with the ectopic pregnancy. Oh well, unlike Jack Bauer, I have the leisure of patience.

Ellyn - there's no one I'd rather not disappoint but, forgive me, I simply don't have time to do it. I really am working hard at revising a novel and these moments at the blog are mere refreshment. Besides, after viewing your 'confession', I realized that any sort of honesty in the endeavor would send most of my readers fleeing in horror, except for a few semi-unregenerates like TSO who'd say, "Yeah? Tell me more."

Alicia - that's a bit cryptic for my unsubtle mind. Perhaps you could elaborate.

Anonymous said...

I am not really asking what you would (or hope you would) do, but what you should do.

We should never do evil in order that good may come of it. No torturing prisoners, even in the ticking bomb scenario. No Hiroshima. We do the right thing and trust in God's providence.

That is far easier said than done, of course. Thus my assault on hypotheticals, which for most of us, as a practical matter, are just near occasions of sin rather than dilemmas we actually face personally.

William Luse said...

Finally. So you and Steven are on the same page, as I figured you would be. Trusting in God's providence would certainly alter the plotline of "24", wouldn't it?

Since no one wants to deconstruct my pregnancy analogy, maybe I'll do it myself. If I have time.

Anonymous said...

Any comparison to Steven Riddle is quite flattering. I am a much lesser man than Steven, though; and not only do I know how to chamber a round without endangering my foot, I have a freezer filled with the results.

William Luse said...

I love the smell of gunpowder in the morning. And the taste of venison in winter.

alicia said...

when I can, I will find my notes and flesh it out
but I still have to wade through the comments over at zippy's

TS said...

The Zipster is on fire. Got to love his indefatiguability (sp). And Brendon came in there like out of nowhere, like a knight errant.

William Luse said...

Guess I'd better get back over there.

Anonymous said...

Good old Rob!!! I ceased posting at Disputations (I still read it though, Tom's an interesting fellow) after he called me a hate-filled bigot and a hypocritical Christian for using the term "Mohammedan" in lieu of "one who submits (to the will of God)".

William Luse said...

I think his liberalism is more precious to him than a genuine understanding of the reasoning behind Christian moral doctrine. "Mohammedan" will do nicely, just as "Christian" for us denotes the name of Him whose teachings we follow. I can't believe you let a commenter chase you away, though.