On the Saying “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”

Not sure if I hate the sin, but I hate this saying.

I have been thinking about the idea of autonomy developed by Immanuel Kant. For Kant, the thing which makes humans special (and deserving of dignity) is that they are able to choose for themselves their own conception of the good life. Not only can we choose a conception of the good life (the type of life we want to live), but we can revise that conception as life goes on.

As a philosopher, I should be able explain why this is the best argument. Not sure if I am up to that task. The best I can do for this post is to say that Kant’s view of autonomy and the good life expresses how I feel about freedom and morality better than anything else that I have read and contemplated.

This brings me to the underlying issue of the post: can one be a Mormon Kantian or a Kantian Mormon. I have briefly discussed this in a number of places with Russell Arben Fox and Nate Oman. Both think that it is not possible to reconcile Mormonism and Kantian liberalism. Well, guess what? I have decided that they are right (not on everything, just this point). However, this does not mean that I am no longer a Kantian. Also, it does not mean that I am no longer a Mormon. What is means is that I am no longer interested in justifying the existence of such thing as a theory of Kantian Mormonism (or Mormon Kantianism). I am a Kantian. I am a Mormon. Are these two aspects of my life a good fit? No. Do I care? Sort of. But it is who I am. Consistent? Nope. Authentic? Absolutely! This is what I have spent the last decade looking for and I think that I may have found it.

This also has pretty devastating implications for my Rawls project. Go figure.

Alright, back to the saying. “Love the sinner, Hate the Sin,” is a saying with great intentions. It is a way of saying “You can dislike a certain action, but you should be nice, even loving, to those that do it.” It seems to be most often used (lately, at least) within discussions about homosexuality. We should love homosexuals, but hate their homosexuality.

The problem that I see with this saying is that is seeks to separate the actions of the individual from the peaceful life-style they chose to live. Now, it is most likely the case that gays and lesbians do not choose to be homosexuals, but from my perspective (the Kantian-side of my confusion) it does not matter. If one chooses to be gay, or even chooses to live ones sexual orientation (rather than actively suppressing it), it is part of their basic humanity to choose to do so.

Now, you may be saying, “Well, of course they can choose to be gay, Baptist, atheist, or Utes.” But my argument goes farther. We should also respect them for their choices and show them the dignity that they deserve. By dignity I do not mean that we should merely not abuse or persecute them, but we should include them in our society as valued equal citizens. I will not get into the legal and policy implications of such an outlook here.

What about criminals and abusers?  Can’t people choose such paths as their conception of the good life? Well, this is where Kant draws a line. Those who show a blatant disregard for human dignity (particularly when it comes to acts of harm) should go to jail or otherwise be controlled be the state).

Many will point out that this saying has been used by many leaders of the Church. This is true. President Gordon B. Hinckley used it quite often. However, I think that this was in many ways a call for a loving approach to political and social disagreement.

When we look deeper, this attempt to separate individuals from the people that they really are fails. If we are to respect, value, and love, we have to respect the whole package, the whole person.

My philosophical journey has been a long one, not so much in years, but I feel that I have visited many places along the way.  At 33, I think that I have found my homes. I am a Mormon. I am a Kantian. I am also happy.

About Chris Henrichsen

Chris Henrichsen has moved Approaching Justice off of Patheos. Find his latest posts and the new Approaching Justice. Thanks!

  • http://www.feastuponthewordblog.org BrianJ

    A long time ago I also wrote about hating that saying, but I like how you expressed it better.

  • http://timesandseasons.org Dane Laverty

    I appreciate and agree with this entire piece. The line that struck me most, though, was “What is means is that I am no longer interested in justifying the existence of such thing as a theory of Kantian Mormonism…” I’m finding this to be the case with myself. I’m not enough of a philosopher to have read Kant, and I have no idea what Kantianism is, or why it’s incompatible with Mormonism. What I do know is that many of the mental conflicts I’ve worked to resolve over the past twenty years are becoming less relevant to me. And I’m fine with that. I’m becoming less concerned with developing a consistent mental model of the universe, and more concerned with developing a sustainably satisfying lifestyle. And, so far, it’s been a good transition.

  • http://www.imperfectpersuit.com Melynna

    Thanks for this. The initial post and comment #2 are both very helpful for me. I’m becoming less concerned with consistency myself and I think it’s a good thing. I’m too tired to expound in that, and you don’t know me anyway, but I wanted you to know that this post strikes me deeply in a very comforting way.

    You might also like Levinas. He focuses quite a bit on how we have basic obligations to each other, how we cannot see another without also feeling our responsibility toward them as a human being, both like us but unknowable.

  • http://samsbookjournal.wordpress.com Sam B.

    Interestingly, Chris, it looks like the saying has a long (and probably storied) history, and that it is far from unique to us. In his letter 211, St. Augustine writes, “Moreover, what I have now said in regard to abstaining from wanton looks should be carefully observed, with due love for the persons and hatred of the sin . . . .” (Go down to paragraph 11.) His context seems to be expelling unrepentant sinners from the body of the church.

    It doesn’t really change your analysis, and I agree that I don’t love the trite statement or its general contemporary use, but I have to admit, I had no idea the saying predated our compiled Bible. And, although I haven’t read much Augustine, my impression is that he didn’t subscribe to the cuddly Christianity most (including me) try to embrace today.

  • John Mansfield

    All pithy little sayings, even those that may be pretty much correct and valid, get a bit annoying the seventh time you’ve had them recited at you like a hammer.

  • http://alatterdayvoice.blogspot.com Paul

    Now, you may be saying, “Well, of course they can choose to be gay, Baptist, atheist, or Utes.” But my argument goes farther. We should also respect them for their choices and show them the dignity that they deserve. By dignity I do not mean that we should merely not abuse or persecute them, but we should include them in our society as valued equal citizens. I will not get into the legal and policy implications of such an outlook here.

    This paragraph nicely summarizes what I’ve been thinking about for some time. I know what I consider a sin. But I also recognize that others who do not share my values have a different view; if they really thought their choices to be sinful, they might behave differently. So while I might hate the sin, I dare not express it so, or else I run the risk of not loving the sinner.

  • Dallin

    Great post. I wonder if you could elaborate more on those discussions about Kantianism and Mormonism. Particularly, I’ve been reading and thinking about Kantian autonomy lately, and I wonder how much of his ideas have influenced our own thinking about agency. Thoughts?

  • http://www.millennialstar.org Ben Pratt

    I love you, Chris, but I hate this post. :)

    Actually it’s quite nice. I think part of the challenge of being in any position of responsibility (e.g. in a family or in the church) is figuring out how to balance respect for the dignity of another in one’s stewardship with the invitation to reach upward and be more than they currently are, for that implies that what currently are is in some way inferior to what they could become.

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com Jacob J

    We should love homosexuals, but hate their homosexuality.

    The phrase in the title is trite but it doesn’t really bother me. Part of the reason it doesn’t bother me is that I would never have interpreted it as applying to homosexuality in the way you have suggested above. After all, even the leadership of the church seems to have softened the rhetoric to embrace the idea that people cannot generally choose their sexuality. If homosexuality is a big part of a person’s identity and we agree that they cannot choose it then it makes it very difficult (even conceptually) to love the person while hating their homosexuality. I agree with your suggestion that the phrase is generally intended as a call for charity even with those we disagree or disapprove of.

    The lack of agreement on meta-ethics makes it very difficult to navigate controversial moral issues. If we had a basic meta-ethical framework to work from we could argue about homosexuality or gambling or face cards with some hope of making progress toward understanding whether these things are immoral and why. Unfortunately we do not.

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    Chris: It seems to be most often used (lately, at least) within discussions about homosexuality. We should love homosexuals, but hate their homosexuality.

    I think this is where your post derails Chris.

    First, it doesn’t seem to me that the phrase in question is “most often used within discussions about homosexuality”. But since we are only talking about how things “seem” I’ll leave it at that.

    Second, I don’t see intelligent Mormons ever saying “We should love homosexuals, but hate their homosexuality”. Rather, the discussion is normally centered around same-sex attraction and sexual behaviors. There is never talk of hating same-sex attraction from church leaders these days as far as I can tell. In fact same-sex attraction itself has not even been referred to as a sin in most recent discussions from Elder Oaks and Wickman. Gay sex is considered a sin of course but not same-sex attraction. As it turns out this is in harmony with the saying in question. It basically means: Love people even if you don’t love their specific behaviors.

  • http://www.imperfectpersuit.com Melynna

    In defense of the original post, I’ve very rarely heard that phrase brought up except in discussions about homosexuality. A lot of people seem to view homosexuality that way whether the church currently calls it a sin or not.

  • http://latterdaymainstreet.com/ Chino Blanco

    I agree with Geoff J. Intelligent Mormons always find some way of saying the saying in question in some other way.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    BrianJ,

    I would like a link if have one.

    Sam B.,

    I am not sure if I fully understand Augustine, but I tend to be opposed to his approach to Christianity.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Dallin,

    “…I’ve been reading and thinking about Kantian autonomy lately, and I wonder how much of his ideas have influenced our own thinking about agency. Thoughts?”

    I tend to think that LDS conceptions of agency reject the Kantian approach. Our idea of agency is the ability to choose between good and evil. I do not think that Kant has much of focus on evil and sin. Additionally, from a Kantian perspective, choices are moral to the extent that they do not go against the principle of humanity as an ends. They range of choices with Mormon Christianity is far more limited.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Geoff,

    “I think this is where your post derails Chris. ”

    Oooh, I like trainwrecks.

    I am not sure if one can completely detach sexual orientation/attraction from sex itself.

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    Chris: I am not sure if one can completely detach sexual orientation/attraction from sex itself.

    In this case why on earth couldn’t we? Your post is about the saying “Love the sinner, hate the sin”. It is not at all complicated to say same-sex attraction is not a sin in itself.

    (Of course the overall issue of orientation is not black and white either. If it were a binary issue there would be no such thing as bisexuality.)

  • http://www.feastuponthewordblog.org BrianJ
  • http://www.timesandseasons.org Matt Evans

    Chris, on the surface your post is about your dislike of the moral maxim to love sinners but hate sins, but I think it’s actually not about that maxim at all, but rather about your recognition that you define sin differently than others.

    For example, if you really think the moral maxim is invalid, and accept the moral you propose at the end of your post to “respect the whole package” then, if I understand you correctly, because actors can’t be separated from acts, you believe you must either love abuse or hate abusers. This seems unlikely to me, as I expect that you do in fact hate vandalism and child abuse but still attempt to respect, love and value vandals and child abusers.

    If that’s right, then you don’t object to the maxim, you object to its being applied in to acts you don’t consider sins.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com David J

    I am not sure if one can completely detach sexual orientation/attraction from sex itself.

    Thank you, Chris. My thoughts exactly.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Brian,

    Thanks for the link.

    David,

    Thanks for the support.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Geoff,

    “It is not at all complicated to say same-sex attraction is not a sin in itself.”

    This may be the case and I agree with this statement. I guess, I am trying to say that the life-style one chooses should be respected. This involves not just attraction but also the way in which they choose to express themselves in an intimate manner.

    I mention in the post that I think that most who use the phrase do so in a benevolent manner. However, this does not mean that it is not problematic for me (nor do I think you have to think that it problematic).

  • http://bycommonconsent.com Tracy M

    The first time I ever head this saying I was 29 and investigating the church. I was trying to work out my conflicts with having gay family members, and with what the church was telling me- and this trite platitude was all anyone could manage to say. Since then, it’s been like a mouth full of glass to me- and still is. And here you have summarized nicely- better than I have ever been able- how and why I hate this saying.

    The Kant stuff is, by and large, over my head- as are most conversations with Nate and RAF- but I really appreciate you examining your own position for nuance, and being okay with the seeming contradictions. I have arrived at the same juncture.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Matt said:

    “…I think it’s actually not about that maxim at all, but rather about your recognition that you define sin differently than others.”

    and

    “If that’s right, then you don’t object to the maxim, you object to its being applied in to acts you don’t consider sins.”

    I think Matt is right. The post is more about how my Kantian moral outlook lead me to a different perspective from what I view as a more typical Mormon outlook. The saying is just one example. The idea of loving sinners, but not their sins is not all bad. I just think it has a more limited scope. Something like that.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Tracy,

    Thanks.

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    Chris,

    I’m afraid I am not understanding your point. Are you basically saying “I wish gay sex weren’t considered a sin in the church”?

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    Oh I didn’t see your #23. I gather from your answer there that the answer to my question in #25 is yes.

  • http://bycommonconsent.com Tracy M

    I wish it wasn’t any bigger a deal that all the other sins we don’t really focus on… Gluttony anyone? Gossip? To me the real sin is casting out/losing good people because of myopic focus on one part of who they are.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    No, the Church may consider gay sex however it would like. I am saying that I think of it differently from other sins (particular those that cause harm to others). Additionally, my perpective on individual autonomy leads me to be uncomfortable with the saying (and as Matt points out, really just in certain instances).

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    Hey Chris,

    Just as an aside, doesn’t willfully failing to procreate run into problems with Kantian ethics? My understanding of Kant is limited but it seems to me that is the case…

  • Aaron Brown

    “I am not sure if one can completely detach sexual orientation/attraction from sex itself.”

    I have no idea what this sentence means. Care to elaborate?

  • Aaron Brown

    I personally have a problem with the word “hate” in “hate the sin” when applied to homosexual conduct (among other things, but not all things) because, even if I accept that consensual homosexual behavior is a “sin”, I recognize it as a behavior that flows from strongly-felt, unchosen desires, and which does not directly harm innocent third-parties. So perhaps we need to update this phrase with something less brutal than “hate”, so as to recognize that some sins are different than others (i.e., less deserving of the ire and contempt that “hate” seems to convey). Maybe “love the sinner, disapprove of the sin”? Admittedly, not as catchy. Ah well.

    Reading the title of the post, I expected an argument that the sin/sinner distinction is somehow incoherent, which wasn’t where you went with it, Chris. Yet, your comment that I quoted above makes me think you’ve got something to say in that regard, which I’d be interested to hear if you’re inclined to elaborate.

    At the end of the day, I’ve never been persuaded that the sin/sinner distinction, or orientation/act distinction, or whatever you want to call it, is at all incoherent or conceptually problematic. If one doesn’t like its application to, say, homosexuality, or anything else in particular, then by all means argue against those applications however you see fit. But I think trying to step back from engaging a particular controversy and attacking this sort of moral distinction in the abstract is a lost cause. (Not sure that’s something you’re inclined to do Chris, but I run into this all the time, so maybe I’m just seeing things …)

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Geoff, I do not think the categorical imperative requires every sexual encounter to be reproductive. Nor have I ever seen anyone use Kant to argue against birth control and condomns.

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    Are you dodging my question Chris? Let me ask it again: Doesn’t willfully failing to procreate run into problems with Kantian ethics?

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Aaron,

    You raise some good points. I think this post is probably a mistake. I should have addressed the Kantian/Mormon point in a different way. Also, I should probably avoid the homosexuality issue for a few more months. I need keep my ass from getting fired for 6 more weeks.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Geoff,

    Not that I am aware of.

  • djinn

    I think if the sin is bad enough to hate, hating the sinner is also perfectly fine. I think about adult sexual abuse of children here; I have two very good friends who were abused by their grandfathers, and another who was just badly mistreated by her father; they were all told that jurrasic phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner.” No. They get to hate the sinner. Sorry. THese are crimes with victims.

    When it comes to victimless behavior i.e., two people of matching matiing parts falling in love, there are no victims; there are no sinners; there is no one to hate.

    When

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    Ok. I was under the impression that part of Kant’s ethics was a basic “what if everyone did that?” question and if a behavior could not be universalized without dire consequences it might not be ethical.

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    I think if the sin is bad enough to hate, hating the sinner is also perfectly fine.

    I’m afraid this is just silly talk djinn. For instance one can hate adultery without hating the adulterer. Jesus made that abundantly clear.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Geoff,

    It is not whether we can universalize specific behaviors or even categories of behaviors, but whether we can universalize maxims or priniciples. Look, today is a day that needs to come to an end. I will respond with more explanation tomorrow (to you and Aaron).

  • Mark D.

    Both think that it is not possible to reconcile Mormonism and Kantian liberalism.

    I can imagine what this argument goes like, but I would like to hear it just the same.

    While I don’t think Mormonism in the ultimate sense rules out liberalism nearly as much as some would like to believe, I think it does rule out the absolute right of individuals to jointly be saved and define what the the good life is, for the very basic reason that salvation is a group enterprise.

    Certainly contemporary liberals support severely constraining economic liberty for that very reason. If you take the ideal of personal autonomy to a reasonable maximum, I think you are left with radical libertarianism.

  • http://samsbookjournal.wordpress.com Sam B.

    Geoff,
    I actually remember the argument that Kantian ethics meant avoiding procreative sex was bad, too, from my intro philosophy class at BYU, though I didn’t completely buy it at the time.

    But even if that were the case, I don’t think you’d run into a (pseudo?) Kantian problem today. My lesbian neighbor was married at one point, and has three children and at least one grandchild. The gay couple who lives next door are planning on having a child through surrogacy, as many of their friends have apparently done. Which is to say, in today’s world, even if everyone were gay, it would be possible to have a next generation.

  • Lorin

    In addition to all the other baggage this phrase brings. I’ve always disliked it simply because it’s redundant. If we all are sinners, and we shouldn’t love our own sins any more than anyone else’s, the saying should simply be: “Love everybody, don’t love their sins.”

  • Nate Oman

    Chris: Suffice it to say that I am not persuaded. My concern really has nothing to do with the politics of homosexuality, which is — I take it — the source of the bee in your bonnet about this particular phrase. Rather, my problem is that I am at a loss as to how one makes sense of the concept of sin within a Kantian framework, particularly the heavily autonomy inflected one toward which you gesture here. Maybe this isn’t such a problem for you as you don’t think that making sense of sin is that big of a deal. Even setting aside the whole question of sin, seeing the autonomous choice of the good life as the essence of human dignity and seeing dignity as the basis of human ethics strikes me as problematic. Indeed, in this vision there is a sense in which autonomous choice becomes vacuous precisely because the theory tells us everything EXCEPT why this particular choice matters. Indeed, there is a sense in which the theory exalts choice while being indifferent to choices. There is a very real sense in which such a position fails radically to take the idea of choice seriously. Finally, the notion of the self at work in your autonomy vision of Kant strikes me as deeply problematic. It seems to me to require that we view the true — noumenal? — self as an unconditioned reason. There is something deeply inhuman and false about this idea however.

    As it happens, I really like liberalism, but I am glad that one needn’t ground it in Kantian ethics or psychology.

  • Nate Oman

    BTW, I liked the allusion in the title ;->

  • Nate Oman

    “If we are to respect, value, and love, we have to respect the whole package, the whole person.”

    Why isn’t this point entirely orthogonal to the saying in question? Aren’t respect and love rather different things? It seems to me that you are collapsing “respect, value, and love” into “respect.” This doesn’t make sense. I would go further and argue that the conflation of these terms reveals part of what makes an ethic of kantian respect rather hollow: within that framework it is rather difficult to make sense of the concept of love. It is even more difficult to explain why love is so important.

  • Nate Oman

    Mark D.: I don’t think that Mormonism rules out liberalism. Russell does and this is one of our (many) points of disagreement. Where we agree, however, is in the idea that notions of Kantian autonomy as the basis for the morality are difficult to square with Mormonism. There are many kinds of liberalism in the world, and the Kantian variety is but one.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Nate,

    I am not so much looking to persuade you, as I am looking to define myself. I think you understand my position correctly. I actually think you were on to it before I ever was.

    Anyways, I have a few things to tend to and I will get back to you later today.

    Oh, a thanks for acknowledging the allusion in the title. :) I was hoping that somebody would.

  • Mark D.

    Nate O., I don’t think that Mormonism rules out liberalism either, although almost certainly some forms of it, as no doubt endless varieties of conservatism and libertarianism.

  • Sheldon L

    Hi Chris. Nice post. I don’t like the saying either, but maybe for difference reasons.

    I don’t like the saying because it suggests that our loving relationships with people or God remain unaffected by the choices they or we make. (“I hate your sin but his doesn’t mean we love each other any less!) This is not true and only muddies the waters when discussing the importance of choice and behavior in loving one another and progressing toward God.

    Sins are not entities that have separate existences outside the self; they only exist to the extent they are embodied within and enacted by individuals. While God’s desire for and invitation into a perfectly loving relationship is equally and unconditionally extended to all his children, it is also true that the love that exists between God and a righteous person is greater than the love that exists between God and a sinner. To me, the Gospel makes no sense without accepting this proposition. To suggest that another’s choices have no effect on the level of love in our relationship is disingenuous and patronizing.

  • http://www.feastuponthewordblog.org BrianJ

    Sheldon: “To suggest that another’s choices have no effect on the level of love in our relationship is disingenuous and patronizing.”

    On the other hand, to decide whether another’s choices are in fact sins requires judgment on your part—judgment that would be better left up to someone else.

    Does my neighbor sin? What are his sins? Why the hell should I care? If I get along with him, and he with me, then why must I talk in terms of “his sin”? (And if we don’t get along, why can’t I just think in terms of how to improve our relationship instead of in terms of who is righteous and who is a sinner?)

  • Sheldon Lawrence

    Brian J,
    I agree. Only a self-righteous snob would go around making judgements and deciding exactly who was worthy of his or her company. Minding your own business and just being a descent person to you neighbors makes society work.

    My problem is the idea that love and sin can exist as these abstractions independent of real relationships. If a woman divorces her husband because of multiple acts of infidelity, is she failing to love the sinner independent of his sins? Yes, she is, and rightly so.

  • http://www.feastuponthewordblog.org BrianJ

    Sheldon: I don’t understand your comment.

  • annegb

    I hate this saying, too. There’s something so sanctimonious about it. I believe it, but it still bothers me.


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