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.