Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Stopped Me Just In time

Leah of Unequally Yoked has an interesting question about the decision to commit some sinful action versus actually carrying it out:
If someone has made up their mind to do something evil, is there any benefit to them if someone else prevents them from carrying out their intended action?...

Virtue ethics (my usual framework) suggest that nothing much is achieved for the perpetrator. Once you’ve psyched yourself up to do a bad thing and overridden your qualms, the damage to your character has been done; carrying out the crime isn’t marginally worse for your soul. I think Catholic moral teaching might come to the same conclusion, since the moral actor has already given deliberate and complete consent to the act based on full knowledge of the gravity of the act.

But my philosophical intuitions don’t quite jibe with that conclusion. I suspect that a lot of the time, we end up surprised by the gravity of what we’ve done – that people rarely give manage deliberate and complete consent based on full knowledge....
I think you're right that often someone who has decided to do something wrong hasn't, for whatever reason, really contemplated all of the consequences of the action, and so is saved from something if prevented from committing the act decided on.

I want to look at two additional ways in which behing stopped from committing a sin one had already decided to do would still have some moral benefit:

1) It seems to me that because we are not just a conscious will but also a body, that when we do something physically we commit to it and become attached to it in a way that just the mental decision to sin does not. In the Harry Potter example that's been discussed [spoiler warning]: Aside from any question of whether Draco really was mentally decided to kill Dumbledore, it seems to me that the physical act of killing the headmaster would have affected Draco in a deeper way than just the decision to do so. Although there's a culpability to decided to do an evil act, one isn't yet "someone who did that" with all the physical and mental sensations that come with that, until one actually does it. Similarly, say a married guy on a business trip asks a woman at a bar to come back to his hotel room with him, but then she turns him down or some practical circumstance prevents them from actually landing in bed together. Clearly, just by asking, he's betraying his wife in a very serious way. But it seems to me that actually completing the adultery is going to leave him much more attached to that sin, much more deeply in, than the unfulfilled decision.

2) In human experience, sin typically leads to more sin. People lie to cover up their transgressions. Hate breeds more hate. Violence leads to more violence, etc. Someone who's decided to commit some sin but is then stopped before carrying out the act may well not end up being drawn into the whole chain of related sins (lesser or greater) which would have followed in the wake of that first act.

Now clearly, the decision to sin is itself a sin. So it's not as if one is "saved from sinning" if physically prevented from carrying out the act that he or she has decided on. But I think that because we are both material and mental/spiritual creatures, being prevented from actually physically carrying out some sin decided on often does "save" us from something -- though it clearly doesn't render us innocent.

Now, where this would get very messy would be if the person committing the act actually thinks he has carried out the act. One of the things that makes Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well a morally ambiguous and in some ways unsatisfying play is that Count Bertram really does think that he was successfully committing adultery with the young Isabella when he was in fact sleeping with his wife. Even at the end of the play, when you get the big reveal that it was in fact his wife Helene he slept with and who is now carrying his child, the "happy ending" feels off because you get the sense that Bertram is still at heart disloyal to his wife. The "trick" didn't really work, in that while he was in fact sleeping with Helene, he thought it was Isabella and that is still who he really wants to be with, not his wife.


Roma locuta est said...

There is another point, similar to one you made. One could actually question whether or not someone who "decided to sin" but was stopped, even by powers beyond himself, has actually "decided to sin" at all. In other words, up until to commission of the sin itself, one could always back out.

Of course, this changes if the act itself was committed, but the intent of the act was not carried out: a man shoots a gun with the intent to kill, but turns out not to be a very good shot. This is the opposite of an accidental sin. We know that one cannot sin on accident, yet is it possible for one to "not sin" on accident? I think it is helpful to recall the three aspects of a sin: the act, the intent, and the circumstances. There are certain acts that are only sinful because of the circumstance and/or the intent. It is not sinful for me to give money for charity, yet if I do it with the intent of showing off for my friends, then this has an element of sin to it. It is not sinful for me to finish the dinner on my plate, but it might be sinful to do so in the presence of someone I know to be starving.

The example of a sin that was stopped seems to eliminate the "act" part of the trilogy. It is still sinful by circumstance and intent, and it is indeed sinful by a different act. For instance, if I shoot with the intent to kill, I am guilty of the sin of shooting with the intent to kill, yet I am not guilty of the isn of killing, something altogether different.

My two cents ....

HBanan said...

Re: Roma

And that's why the law has "Attempted murder" and "Murder" as separate charges. Because of course it matters quite a lot if the crime is actually committed or not.

In the case of the soul of the would-be assassin, I think there are many cases an intervention can lead to a realization of the wrong. A lot of sins are committed when a person is keyed up emotionally, and if he has time to calm down, he could be glad he didn't actually kill/cheat/steal. I personally find the area between temptation, speculation, decision, and action fairly blurry. That's not to take anything from the moral weight of sins of the heart, but actions, as Darwin said, have effects not just on other people but on us. Same with acts of virtue.

I know kids are considered different by a lot of people, but the Church considers a 7 year-old who deliberately breaks his brother's toy out of jealousy to be sinning, and I think the parent who intervened would clearly be doing a good job, not just to protect the brother's toy, but to protect the relationship between the two boys. Sin destroys relationships with God and between people, and intervention can indeed have a good effect.

Brandon said...

Virtues and vices, which are second-nature consistencies in action, take root by actually doing things; so another advantage that one gets from being stopped is that it restrains the spread of vice -- it can't stop vices related to thought, but it can impede the development of vices related to action. No single instance would do this; but the cumulative effect of it over a long time can be considerable.