He mistook it for a sin

October 21, 2013 § 28 Comments

Intrinsically immoral acts take place when an acting subject deliberately chooses an objectively immoral kind of behaviour.  Behaviours are objective, and many can be observed by a third party.

To a third party observer an objectively immoral action can be the result of a defect of the acting subject’s knowledge, or it can be the result of a defect in his will.  It is a moral evil when the defect resides in his will.

Consider a married man who sleeps with a woman who is not his wife.

Suppose he suffers from a defect of knowledge: that is, he really thinks that she is his wife.  In this case he is not guilty of moral evil.  But he has still chosen an objectively evil action: he made a mistake.  Legitimate mistakes are always accompanied by regret upon their discovery and never take on the status of a morally good act.  They at best remain, in the words of the Catholic magisterium, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good.  It is not a sin strictly speaking but it is still accompanied by regret and remorse.

If the man does know that the woman he is sleeping with is not his wife, then his choice of action suffers from a defect of will not of knowledge: his choice of action is sinful.

In order to know if the choice of an objectively immoral action is deliberate, we have to place ourselves into the perspective of the acting subject. Otherwise we can’t tell if the action was the result of a defect of knowledge or a defect of will.

But we can still categorize adultery as an objectively immoral behaviour, which no person can deliberately choose in full knowledge without committing moral wrong.

§ 28 Responses to He mistook it for a sin

  • Very well explained.

    Would we say that willful ignorance is a defect of the will and can change the character of an act from a mere mistake to a sin? Or does it remain a mistake? I would lean toward the former, but I’m no expert in moral theology, though I take great interest in it. I look forward to your take on it. Thanks.

  • Zippy says:

    unwobblingpivot:
    Yes, in that kind of case the sin consists in deliberately avoiding knowledge of right action in order to avoid concomitant responsibility. “Vincible ignorance” (as opposed to invincible ignorance) is the terminology used by the Church.

    If we love God we will keep His commandments. Deliberately avoiding knowledge of His commandments is a kind of commandment-breaking, like the soldier who turns off his radio so he can’t be ordered to do something he doesn’t want to do.

  • Prariepoly says:

    But you haven’t used an example of something that is a sin by any hermetically consistent definition. Adultery in scripture must specifically be a woman who breaks wedlock and the man that takes said woman. A married man could take and wed an unmarried woman without any hint of sin.

    Look at Judah and Tamar, she was righteous (or at least relatively so) to do what she did, and his unrighteousness was in not giving her to his son, his sleeping with her without knowing who she was wasn’t regarded as sin by any present.

    Sin cannot be in any way or degree be righteous. If you think otherwise you have quite the moral mess on your hands.

    Even if you appeal to the words of Christ a man taking a second woman is only adulterous if he put the first away. Even that isn’t a totally new idea as it echos some sentiments of Exodus 21:10. He has defrauded her by putting her away unjustly and given her cause to commit adultery as they are not, in truth, separated.

    He is addressing the oh so ‘Christian’ sin of getting rid of one woman in favour of another, rather than taking care of them both.

    The more interesting question is something that is intrinsically right and good a sin if ones knowledge mistakenly assumes it is sin? Is it a sin for a tee-tolling Protestant who honestly thinks all alcohol is sinful to drink wine? When I read the title ‘he mistook it for a sin’ I actually thought that was what you’d be talking about.

    It’s also worth noting that considering Leviticus 4:22 ect for rulers at least sins without knowledge still required a sacrifice. If he sinned without knowing he must offer a sacrifice for said sin. That seems to be a strong case for calling ‘sin’ a ‘sin’ weather or not the sinner is aware of what he or she was doing.

    I would assert that Romans makes an extensive case for sin still being sin even if you don’t know specifically that what you’re doing is a sin. But that’s rather more time consuming.

    At any rate I think the concept of culpability deserves mention here. I would assert that if a situation occurred where a woman slept with a man that was not her husband, but she thought he was, she would have sinned, but would not be culpable for said sin due to lack of knowledge.

    Bringing concepts of moral or immoral behaviour into the equation seems to dumb down the conversation as morals refer to more subjective rules of social or civilized behaviour, rather than weather or not something is a violation of Divine Law. They are objective only in the context of their own culture. Unless by ‘objective morals’ you mean nothing more or less than Divine Law, in which case ‘objectively immoral behaviour’ is exactly the same as ‘sin’, and no distinction can possibly be made.

  • Zippy says:

    Prariepoly:
    A married man could take and wed an unmarried woman without any hint of sin.

    No he can’t. Not if he is baptized Christian, at any rate. A pagan who is pagan by invincible ignorance might (or might not) be able to do so; but in any case he has bigger objective problems than his marital situation.

    Look at Judah and Tamar, she was righteous (or at least relatively so) to do what she did

    No she wasn’t. Where do (some) people get the idea that lying, pretending to be a prostitute, and having sex out of wedlock is “righteous”?

    At any rate I think the concept of culpability deserves mention here. I would assert that if a situation occurred where a woman slept with a man that was not her husband, but she thought he was, she would have sinned, but would not be culpable for said sin due to lack of knowledge.

    That’s really just a choice of label though. I address the substance of culpability in the OP: specifically I say that the acting subject is not sinning if he acts out of a defect of knowledge due to invincible ignorance. He is only culpable if he acts out of a defect of will – although there is also, as we discussed in the comments, such a thing as vincible ignorance which does not excuse. You can call a defect of knowledge due to invincible ignorance a “non-culpable sin” if you like. That labeling doesn’t change the substantive meaning.

  • Prariepoly says:

    No he can’t. Not if he is baptized Christian, at any rate.

    I did say that according to scripture such a thing was not a sin.

    It’s an interesting anachronism to assert that anyone in scripture would be a ‘baptized Christian’ in the Catholic sense of the words. At best the only cases would be after Acts, at which point the topic of marriage is rarely discussed (yes Corinthians and Timothy) . If you stretched it you could count those baptized by John, but those people didn’t necessarily even know Christ.

    A pagan who is pagan by invincible ignorance might (or might not) be able to do so

    Calling Israel pagan is also quite an interesting move, and well outside the scope of what that word traditionally means. I’m not sure what to do with someone that talks about objectivity and runs his own definitions like that…

    but in any case he has bigger objective problems than his marital situation.

    His martial problems would be the very definition of subjective, as polygamy has been objectively functional (or at least as functional as monogamy) in both scripture and history. His problem is in your mind, thus subjective.

    No she wasn’t. Where do (some) people get the idea that lying, pretending to be a prostitute, and having sex out of wedlock is “righteous”?

    Gen 38:26 And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.

    The text of scripture.

    I suppose that pretending to be a prostitute is fine in that it was only pretending and not actually being. Lieing in and of itself never has been wrong. False witness against someone is (such as malicious accusations, or treaty\oath-breaking). But non malicious dishonesty isn’t (such as lining about a surprise party). Cunning deception has its place too, both in Israeli tactics in scripture (spying ect) and in more recent times (lying to the Nazis to protect someone would be the normal example)

    If you wish to assert that lieing to Nazis to protect people is morally wrong I’d be happy to listen to your case though, esp if you have one from scripture.

    But the sex out of wedlock. I’d assert that was Judahs sin and not Tamars. Her marriage was his obligation, and he failed to deliver on it. Even then the sin is that she was once his sons, if she was not once his sons wife he could have taken her as one of his wives. This is Judah we’re talking about after all.

    That’s really just a choice of label though. I address the substance of culpability in the OP: specifically I say that the acting subject is not sinning if he acts out of a defect of knowledge due to invincible ignorance.

    Contrarily, I said he was sinning, but was not culpable for that sin. That is different than saying someone is not sinning.

    He is only culpable if he acts out of a defect of will – although there is also, as we discussed in the comments, such a thing as vincible ignorance which does not excuse.

    Agreed, certainly.

    You can call a defect of knowledge due to invincible ignorance a “non-culpable sin” if you like. That labeling doesn’t change the substantive meaning.

    I would assert that it does. A non-culpable sin still shows a carnal nature or mind and thus still places one at enmity with God. I pointed out that it still required sacrifice in Leviticus and would assert it still requires reconciliation for the Christian. However because the individual is not blame-worthy he is readily forgiven.

    To say it is not a sin would deny that any reconciliation was needed.

    That is to say, in the hypothetical of the spouse-that-didn’t-know, the damage would still be done and he would have to let his or her spouse know what happened and find ways to work though it and move one. Even though the sin was in ignorance its damage was still done. If there was no sin there would be no damage, where there is sin there is damage to humanity (if only to the soul).

  • Mike T says:

    No he can’t. Not if he is baptized Christian, at any rate.

    That doesn’t change the fact that polygyny is not objectively, intrinsically evil. It was part of the Mosaic Law which is irrefutible evidence that it is not intrinsically evil. The church may refuse to perform a blessing upon a polygynous marriage, but that doesn’t mean it is sinful.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    The church may refuse to perform a blessing upon a polygynous marriage, but that doesn’t mean it is sinful.

    Violation of natural law isn’t the only kind if sin. (Note that I merely
    stipulate, I don’t necessarily agree, that polygyny does not violate the natural law).

    Violation of Divine law is also sinful. Polygyny is always objectively immoral because everyone has an obligation to follow Christ, with all that that entails.

  • Mike T says:

    So what you’re saying is that God revealed a legal system to the Israelites that permitted objective evil to be done.

  • Zippy says:

    Prariepoly:
    You are obviously not Catholic, and arguing polygamy with non-Catholics is right up there, along with diving into a swimming pool of double-edged razorblades, among the things I am not interested in doing.

    Calling Israel pagan is also quite an interesting move, …

    I’ve defined my terms, including using “pagan” as a quick shorthand for all non-baptized non-Christians, in other discussions. I’ve even been accused of pithiness, on occasion. Welcome to the blog.

    I generally write about moral theology with Christians in mind, for a number of reasons. First among those reasons is that if any living person reading my blog is not a Christian, that is by far the first and largest moral ‘problem’ that needs to be addressed, eclipsing all others.

    Rationalizing away Tamar’s manifest sins is pretty typical of the kind of Christianity that has unmoored itself from the living Church. I would suggest that defenses of faux-prostitution, fornication, and lying (yes, lying) represent a reductio ad absurdam of the hermeneutic under which they are defended.

    To say it is not a sin would deny that any reconciliation was needed.

    No it doesn’t. I was quite explicit about that in the OP when I wrote:

    Legitimate mistakes are always accompanied by regret upon their discovery and never take on the status of a morally good act. They at best remain, in the words of the Catholic magisterium, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good. It is not a sin strictly speaking but it is still accompanied by regret and remorse.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    There was this little thing called the Incarnation that happened. Nobody reading my blog is an ancient Israelite, and defending polygamy “Because History!” is a non-starter. Everyone alive has a positive objective moral obligation to become a baptized Christian if they aren’t already — in fact that is their single most important objective moral obligation. And polygamy is morally wrong under the Divine law, because all Christian marriages are necessarily sacramental — or they are no marriages at all.

    That said, Tamar’s deception and fornication were objectively wrong under the natural law, and obviously so. Judah saying that her actions were “more just” than his own – a relative moral claim, not an absolute one – doesn’t change that. Murder is worse than theft, but that doesn’t make stealing morally licit.

  • Mike T says:

    You said always. That necessarily includes polygyny that had legal validity under the Mosaic Law, a system that God, not man, created. God could not create articles of law to give to Moses that are incompatible with the Divine Law because that would mean God could tell a man “I permit X” when X is against his will and nature. If polygyny was always, intrinsically evil then God could no more permit it than to say to Moses that He permits murder.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    “Always” means under every conceivable condition for anyone who could conceivably be reading this blog. If there are exceptions for Zorkons living on the fifth planet of Regulus Seven, that doesn’t impact the contention.

  • Zippy says:

    And by the way that should be clear from the context, because my “always” was explicitly derivative from my statement that everyone has a positive obligation to follow Christ.

  • Mike T says:

    Nobody reading my blog is an ancient Israelite, and defending polygamy “Because History!” is a non-starter.

    I am not defending polygyny so much as saying that you are factually wrong if you say it is intrinsically evil because God permitted it under the Mosaic Law. The fact that polygyny is actually regulated, not prohibited, under that law is significant. Though the force of that law may no longer apply to us today, it gives us rather significant insight into God’s will here.

    With regard to Christian marriage, it is I think more fundamental than that. Grace is neither a right nor a given. The first condition of that grace is a willingness to obey God’s perfect will (what God wants), not God’s imperfect will (what God tolerates). So the RCC is correct for saying a Christian may not practice polygyny, but not because it is intrinsically evil but rather because one cannot be a Christian and intentionally avoid the perfect will of God.

  • Mike T says:

    Well, then I can largely get behind what you said with the caveat that polygyny is not intrinsically evil.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    I am not defending polygyny so much as saying that you are factually wrong if you say it is intrinsically evil because God permitted it under the Mosaic Law.

    Then you aren’t paying attention to what I actually said, which I will now quote again in full:

    Violation of natural law isn’t the only kind if sin. (Note that I merely
    stipulate, I don’t necessarily agree, that polygyny does not violate the natural law).

    Violation of Divine law is also sinful. Polygyny is always objectively immoral because everyone has an obligation to follow Christ, with all that that entails.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    with the caveat that polygyny is not intrinsically evil.

    Behaviours which violate the Divine law are intrinsically evil.

  • Mike T says:

    Then you aren’t paying attention to what I actually said, which I will now quote again in full:

    Ok, since we’re going really slow here for my benefit, please explain how polygyny can be simultaneously tolerated in revelation to Moses and yet be against the Divine Law? I assume by Divine Law you mean the unchanging will of God regarding what is intrinsically good and evil.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    …please explain how polygyny can be simultaneously tolerated in revelation to Moses and yet be against the Divine Law?

    The same way divorce could be tolerated by Moses and condemned by Christ.

  • Mike T says:

    The same way divorce could be tolerated by Moses and condemned by Christ.

    That doesn’t answer how God can permit man to do intrinsic evil under a legal system He designed. God’s nature does not permit Him to authorize man to do evil. But then the lesson of Luke 9:51-56 didn’t stop the Pope from calling upon the faithful to slaughter the followers of Jan Hus wherevery they be found like good mujaheed.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    I wouldn’t presume to say how you yourself understand that fact that Moses tolerated divorce but Christ condemned it. But whatever route you take to get there, that will answer your other question of how Moses tolerated polygyny even though it is morally wrong.

    The New Testament is quite explicit that “Mosaic law tolerated X, therefore X is morally licit” is bad reasoning.

  • Mike T says:

    It would be more accurate to say that the New Testament is quite explicit that following the letter of the Mosaic Law with little to no heart for following the perfect will of God is not sufficient to be right with God. Since polygyny is against the perfect will of God, no one can simultaneously practice it and seek the perfect will of God (for very long anyway).

  • Prariepoly says:

    Mike T said

    That doesn’t change the fact that polygyny is not objectively, intrinsically evil. It was part of the Mosaic Law which is irrefutible evidence that it is not intrinsically evil. The church may refuse to perform a blessing upon a polygynous marriage, but that doesn’t mean it is sinful.

    Pithy, well said.


    You are obviously not Catholic, and arguing polygamy with non-Catholics is right up there, along with diving into a swimming pool of double-edged razorblades, among the things I am not interested in doing.

    Naturally so, as its a hopeless case if you are deprived of the ability to absolve yourself of reason and simply defer to the council of Trent. Generally appealing to the Early Church fathers is semi-effective naturally, but does not do the job as well as one would like given how much was allowed before the aforementioned council.

    I’ve seen some manosphere blog posts recently about how easy it is for people to essentially ‘turn off their reason’ when listening to experts. I should have bookmarked it as its pertinent here.

    I generally write about moral theology with Christians in mind, for a number of reasons. First among those reasons is that if any living person reading my blog is not a Christian, that is by far the first and largest moral ‘problem’ that needs to be addressed, eclipsing all others.

    Indeed moral theology is important. As is using terms properly. Redefining terms as if you where a hyperliberal re-constructionist trying to demonize something does nothing to your cause. Calling Israeli marriage ‘pagan’ is a blatant misuse of the word weather or not you chose to redefine it for your own purposes. Pagan has connotations of ‘unGodly’, which it seems you are trying to convey here, however by defining your terms as such you’re sidestepping the problem of Torah.


    Rationalizing away Tamar’s manifest sins is pretty typical of the kind of Christianity that has unmoored itself from the living Church. I would suggest that defenses of faux-prostitution, fornication, and lying (yes, lying) represent a reductio ad absurdam of the hermeneutic under which they are defended.

    Indeed, and having no respect for the actual text of scripture and how the situation was viewed when happened is pretty typical of any Christian group, charasatic or catholic, that is entirely unmounted from any real attempt at consitstant, objective morality. If a bull has, and the next bull may again, redefine morality you do not have any claim to objectivity.

    In so far as Jacob said she was right to do what she did, and neither God nor Moses intervened to commentate, we must accept she was right to do what she did. Failing to do that we allow our subjective morality to trump Divine law.

    No it doesn’t. I was quite explicit about that in the OP when I wrote:

    You misunderstand because you insist on defining your own terms and speaking your own language. I suppose there are leifs to be taken from Marx’s handbook, but this really shouldn’t be one of them.

    Regret and remorse are nothing in and of themselves, they may not even be for a legitimate wrong. What we are talking about is sin, strictly speaking, something that requires true and proper reconciliation. Not soft peddled ‘disorder of nature’ that is somehow not sin.

  • Prariepoly says:

    Now to the later stuff worth commenting on,

    And polygamy is morally wrong under the Divine law, because all Christian marriages are necessarily sacramental — or they are no marriages at all.

    One would be interested to see the words of Christ that specifically rewrote Gods idea of marriage. That is to say, words spoken outside the context of divorce actually dealing with polygamy. The ordination of Christ is what makes something a sacrament, so his words and his alone are relivent here.

    Judah saying that her actions were “more just” than his own – a relative moral claim, not an absolute one – doesn’t change that. Murder is worse than theft, but that doesn’t make stealing morally licit.

    It took you more than long enough to come up with that. In fact one would say that murder is more wrong than stealing, or that stealing is less wrong than murder. Neither thing is ‘just’ in any sense of the word, and that would would not be applied to it. There is no justice in theft, just as there is no justice in murder, neither can be called ‘more just’. There is merely less harm in theft.

    That can be applied even more to the scripture concept of Righteousness.

    I would be truely amused to see where you think Christ changed any thing relating to polygamy specifically. We all well know what he said on divorce, and the act of getting rid of one woman to take another is indeed morally reprehensible. But he says nothing on the matter outside of the context of that situation.

  • Zippy says:

    Prariepoly:
    Have a nice day!

  • Scott W. says:

    We must be close to All Saints day.

  • […] Beautiful are a unity.  Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Objectively evil behaviors are chosen because of defects of knowledge and/or defects of will.  But even in those cases where the defects are of knowledge, the person is better off coming to […]

  • […] as we’ve discussed before, defects of knowledge make it possible to do something evil unwittingly. Defects of knowledge also […]

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