Hypothetical Sin and Pure Evil

November 16, 2005 § 157 Comments

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. Being tempted is not bad in itself, but assent to an evil act is bad even if the circumstances never allow the act to be performed.

The “ticking bomb” scenario for justifying torture is like that. 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.

The Devil’s plan has a sort of dark beauty to it. He gets us to sin in terrible, grevious ways without giving us any of the real-world payoff. We don’t actually get to sleep with her. We don’t actually give the bad guys what they deserve and save the world. We don’t get the real-world goods toward which those sins are oriented (because every sin is oriented toward some lesser good). We just get the damnation that goes along with actually doing those things, if we assent to them in our minds. We get the evil and the evil alone.

Mark Shea is fond of saying that sin makes you stupid. I’ll extend that by saying that creating mental occasions of sin for ourselves, occasions which don’t exist in reality for us personally, is stupid even before we’ve pushed ourselves over the line of assent to the sin.

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.

Disputations’ advice and the fear of the Lord

November 11, 2005 § 1 Comment

Jeremiah wasn’t a prophet because he was ridiculed. He was ridiculed because he was a prophet. (And incidentally, the ridicule he endured was somewhat more substantial than being insulted on an Internet mailing list. Don’t be so quick to claim his mantle; God just might let you put it on.)


November 7, 2005 § 10 Comments

Mark Shea correctly points out that there are few (if any) things that we can denounce as “pure evil”. One of his frequent contexts in this observation is the religion of Islam. But we have to be careful about the premeses which underly this sort of observation. The contention that few things are purely 100% evil often itself rests on nominalist (and thus false) premeses.

There is a difference between saying that Islam is categorically evil (which is true) and saying that everything that every Moslem believes is 100% pure evil (which is false). When everyone is a nominalist we just have one error competing with another: to a nominalist there is no such thing as categorical evil, there are just things with greater or lesser evil densities. Thus the fixation (typically shared by both sides in discussions on Mark’s blog) on whether a thing is or is not pure evil, as if the question of pure evil were relevant or even particularly coherent.

Contra the nominalist, it is true that one cannot be a Moslem without believing in and having some degree of loyalty to evil things. The reason this is true is because Islam-qua-Islam is categorically (but not “a set containing only”) evil.

One of Mark’s commenters writes:

Yes, Islam is a “religion of the Book,” and like Protestantism, there are many different “versions” of it.

That doesn’t mean that “protestant” as a category has no meaning whatsoever, though. A protestant is a person who attempts to be a Christian while simultaneously rejecting the Catholic Church.

Islam is an objective thing, independent of what any of us – or any Moslem, for that matter – thinks about it. A Moslem is someone who has some degree of loylaty to (that is, faith in) Islam. And if a person has a degree of loyalty to Islam, then that person has a degree of loyalty to something which is categorically evil. Purity – that is, the density of particularly evil doctrines over a given group of doctrines within Islam – is irrelevant.

Of course we all have attachments to things which are categorically evil. To the extent my attachment to greed is weak, I am not a particularly good miser. And in this sense it is quite true that a Moslem who is not committed to Jihad is not a particularly good Moslem. (Though of course good here is used as a measure of loyalty to a thing independent of that thing’s objective moral goodness).

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