Assenting to Sin

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? The hypothetical doesn’t need to be as extreme as the examples of the last few days, where someone else commits the evil act preemptively to prevent you from managing it. Imagine instead someone swapping out PZ Myers’s consecrated wafer with an unconsecrated wafer before he desecrated it, or just stealing it back from him altogether.

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. After all, how could you? If you could see your choice clearly, wouldn’t you be compelled to choose rightly? No one can correctly withhold assent from the belief that the Pythagorean theorem is a true; the only way you can end up opposing it is by being misinformed. Is understanding the gravity of evil and then consenting to it a similarly impossible act?

You can see the whole problem nicely summed up in two articles by Orson Scott Card, who apparently uses Socratic dialogues to settle fights between his children. Neither child really intends the harm they do, and once they’re given some space away from the fight, they can both see that the actions they took were badly out of sync with their goals. But during the fight, they couldn’t think clearly enough to stop.

This lack of full consent doesn’t give people a pass on culpability for their actions. If we stumble into grave evil through carelessness, thoughtlessness, impulsiveness, or ignorance, then there’s a pretty serious moral imperative to do due diligence and train up your will and moral sense. In this framework, it does seem possible that committing an immoral act has a pretty significant knock-on effect compared to just intending to commit the act. Once you’ve surprised yourself with sin, it’s easy to imagine sinking into despair or imagining yourself as unredeemable, or simply becoming even more careless with moral assessments because it’s become shameful to think about your choices.

That does being me all the way back around to sin-eating. The difference between to two people in the Harry Potter-spoiler example is that one seems more aware of the terrible cost and burden of what he is called to do.  The professor is more likely to be approaching the immoral act with the appropriate levels of mournfulness and revulsion than his student. All things being equal, someone who can clearly see and abjure what s/he’s done seems closer to repentance than someone who goes into a protective shock, unable to acknowledge what happened.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Charles

    Oh my, You are a Roman Catholic.
    There I called it.

    In all seriousness this is exactly in line with the churches teaching on the supremacy of conscience. The area where I suspect you differ with the church, and where so-called ‘liberals’ differ with the church is that the church will claim that the teaching of the church is always right, so if your conscience differs from the church it is because you have mis-trained your conscience. Obviously ‘liberal’ catholics claim that their conscience is supreme and therefore contraception, or euthanasia, etc is OK. The church would claim that society has warped their conscience and this is all the more reason they should diligently try to repair that.

  • dbp

    If a person were given a retinal implant that affected what they saw, they would still be capable of reacting well or badly to that information. Maybe the button they push that they think says “blow up Death Star” actually says “blow up Tatooine.” The effects of the misperception are horrific, but the evil is a result of living as a fallen being in a fallen world and not the result of personal assent to sin. But by the same token, they aren’t suddenly off the hook if they thought they were blowing up Tatooine and actually saved it instead, and, given the evil of which people are capable, we can’t rule out the possibility that such things happen.

    This example involves a dramatic physical disconnect with reality, but it would be no different with an intellectual one. Failure to comprehend the full enormity of the sin doesn’t mean that one doesn’t understand that the matter is in fact grave.

    All that said: You ask, “If you could see your choice clearly, wouldn’t you be compelled to choose rightly?” I think the answer is no. I believe that at bottom the real choice we are presented with is Adam’s choice: a choice of goodness and life, or a choice of evil and death. When all the cloudiness and complexity of daily life and imperfect knowledge is boiled down to what is actually presented to us over the course of our life, I think we are asked whether we would live or die; and too often, people do in fact choose to die. Where Adam and Eve made this choice with full knowledge and an unclouded intellect, we are considerably more muddled by the concupiscence we inherited from them, but in the end it comes down to those two options.

    In a way, this idea, which I think is the truth, is quite horribly shocking; but if you’re honest, can’t you say that you’ve seen people make choices like this, where they end up doing something they know is wrong and can only end badly? Heck, can’t you see elements of that in yourself, places where you think, “I really knew better?” This is the fundamental “brokenness” that Christianity looks to Christ to heal.

    And yes, I know Aristotle would say we can’t will an evil; and by definition, there’s nothing in existence, and no concept (except oblivion itself) we can conceive of, that doesn’t derive ultimately from God, so whatever we do settle on aside from the ultimate good will still be a good of some stripe. But eventually I think all those lesser choices will boil down to the starker variety– again, life and death, God or oblivion.

    This is how it must be: your talk of “carelessness, thoughtlessness, impulsiveness, or ignorance” is just a smearing out of the choices involved over time, which is really irrelevant. Your decision to label those choices as culpable can only indicate that they themselves are between a known good and a known evil, and that the person in question has chosen a known evil. And if you allow that, you have allowed exactly what I am talking about.

    • dbp

      Now the application to the final question: if, in the face of having committed a supposedly unforgivable sin, someone is overwhelmed by despair, it’s equivalent to the retinal implants because, in fact, forgiveness has been extended to them through the sacrifice of Christ. They labor under a misperception, and if that misperception is not itself willful, it need not be spiritually fatal.

      The “implants” might mean such a person is lost to redemption according to the world, but do not necessarily render them incapable of assenting to grace in whatever internal way it is presented to them by God. (In what form, we cannot know: perhaps it might be no more than to sincerely answer “yes” to a hypothetical thought: “What if there were a God, and he did forgive me for this supposedly unforgivable sin? Would I accept his forgiveness?”)

      So we should not despair for the him who has despaired for himself, and we must not choose an evil even that they may be spared it; for if despair is so overwhelmingly easy to fall into, it is, in all likelihood, that much less likely to be mortally culpable.

  • @blamer

    If you could see your choice clearly, wouldn’t you be compelled to choose rightly? No one can correctly withhold assent from the belief that the Pythagorean theorem is a true; the only way you can end up opposing it is by being misinformed.

    Unlike the triangle, for an action/motivation to be granted the property we call (im)morality, that activity must be taking place in a living brain.

    We can say moral judgements and laws are profound only in the context of human beings existing to act as moral agents.

    Alas a moral agent, the brain’s consciousness is mostly being informed by its intuitions and whatever lies beneath its own awareness. Actions, thoughts, and feelings all stem from that subconscious place.

  • keddaw

    Are we really free to choose? Are we our choices? Is there right and wrong outside of our heads?

    These are interesting questions ignored by the incredibly simplistic morals that the Church attempts to ply us all with, all the while using obfuscating language and reasoning so that the lay people think it’s all deep and meaningful. The Church exists to give people a moral base so that they don’t have to think about complicated issues, and when they do they often come up with answers very much in opposition to the Church – contraception, continuing cover up of child abuse and protection of priests, divorce (which in Jesus’ own words is wrong!), celibacy of all-male priests etc. etc.

    The beauty of a naturalistic worldview is that it potentially frees us from troublesome concepts such as blame and punishment and allows us to attempt to create a system that is for the long term benefit of all, including those who trespass against us, to borrow a phrase. When many of the most severe criminal actions can be seen as a disorder rather than a choice then we can treat those people (or keep them separate from society) and potentially screen for others so that they can be helped before they go on to do anything harmful. But if you believe there is a you external to the brain then each choice is one you make and any harm that comes from it is your fault and if you could have foreseen it then you are a bad/evil person. Do we blame the earthquake for killing so many or do we blame the people who built the houses using substandard materials that allowed them to collapse during the earthquake?

    • dbp

      “These are interesting questions ignored by the incredibly simplistic morals that the Church attempts to ply us all with, all the while using obfuscating language and reasoning so that the lay people think it’s all deep and meaningful.”

      Actually, most people I’ve met who subscribe to strains of this thought simply didn’t understand the “obfuscating” language and reasoning and assumed that the morals were simplistic.

      Yes, a naturalistic worldview might free you from the “troublesome” concepts you speak of. This is a bug, not a feature, if those concepts are in fact correct.

      My comments above alone should be enough to show that the Church’s position doesn’t necessarily lead to men passing judgment on each other. The whole point is, “judge not lest you be judged,” and to pray for one’s enemy. Everything else, including questions of treatment and punishment, are questions of pragmatics and (to a degree) pastoral care: prudential questions, that is to say, separate from questions of moral theory.

    • Charles

      While I would never discourage anyone from taking a naturalist world view, I would caution against uncalled for reductionism. I think non-believers and believers alike that have look at the situation seriously cannot come to the conclusion that the morality taught by the church is “overly simplistic”. Yes I am sure the morality taught from the pulpit to the vast masses of church goers may be simplistic, but the science taught to the vast masses on the majority of TV is as well. This doesn’t make the more “correct” aspects of either that are known to the initiated ‘simplistic’.

      I may think string theory sounds like rubbish, but I would never presume to tell Brian Greene that string theory is totally wrong without much research. This does not mean that IF i were to have a conversation with him I wouldn’t find aspects of his world view I felt comfortable disputing. Likewise without much study I would feel very foolish completely discounting the moral arguments of theologians. This doesn’t mean that I don’t feel comfortable disputing things that I believe I have the experience to dispute (miracles, or whatever) in their world view.

  • Iota


    “If you could see your choice clearly, wouldn’t you be compelled to choose rightly? No one can correctly withhold assent from the belief that the Pythagorean theorem is a true”

    This reminds me of Plato’s “Republic” – the dialogue where Socrates (as Plato’s mouthpiece) attempts to hypothetically construct an “ideal” state. One of his important premises is that to know what is good necessarily means one will choose good (and so, the state is safeguarded from corruption by, among others, the proper philosophical education of its rulers, who become – to put it simplistically – “unable” to harm the state).

    But I don’t buy that, because it assumes ethical choices are just like all other information. Whereas I tend to think choosing good involves not just “knowledge/information” but also “will” – a will that has, sometimes, to override my own inclinations, for example.

    No one normally has to “will themselves” not write 2+2=5, but a good number of us have to “will themselves” to not overeat, not drink too much alcohol, not oversleep, not to waste time excessively, etc.

    Most often, I have problems of that sort not because “I don’t know” (sufficiently well) what I should do (or what the immediate consequences are likely to be), but because I just hope to get away with doing the wrong thing (and am “surprised” when the consequences catch up with me). Whereas it wouldn’t even normally occur to me to think about “getting away with a breach of mathematics.”

    You could try to claim that if I waste an extra hour on the internet instead of checking my students’ assignments, I’m actually proving I don’t “see the good/bad clearly” but I don’t think that’s true – I think I can (often) see it quite clearly but disregard the information because it’s just not comfortable for me and I foolishly hope I can get away with that.

    If I had to compare that to something in the “information world”, I’d say it’s like those complex new theories in different fields which are still controversial and on which people sometimes take sides not just due to the information-content of the theory itself but due to the consequences they imagine the theory to have (“I don’t like this theory because if it were true, X would be also true/false or I would have to do Y”). or doe to other external factors (e.g. theory-creator prestige).

  • DarwinCatholic

    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 Diana 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 Diana and that is still who he really wants to be with, not his wife.

  • JoAnna

    Leah, Jimmy Akin recently did a podcast on this topic that you might find edifying.

  • Quid est veritas

    Is understanding the gravity of evil and then consenting to it a[n] impossible act?
    No. That is the whole point of mortal sin. The person knows what is right and wrong, and has some idea of the consequences, but decides that something is more important than not committing the immoral act. That is why (again, pardon the Roman Catholic terminology) a person in mortal sin is cut off from God until he has repented the sin and confessed it. He knows totally what he has done, no matter how much is is tortured by the process of consenting, which is why the evil is so grave.
    For example, say I choose to cheat on an exam that will decide whether I get a job. I know that there is no other way to get the grade I want. I “must” cheat. I know that if I do, it will be wrong (a mortal sin) because I am stealing the salary from a better qualified person. But I find the perceived good of the salary to be more important than the good of not committing a grave evil and injustice.

  • Radiant Cobb

    Well now, that is an interesting question! I would conjecture that much of the damage-to-self is accomplished by the will and attempt to do wrong, but that some of the damage-to-self results from actual damage-done, so that if a person is forcibly prevented from carrying out the act, part of the culpability cannot be fully realized.

    I don’t know if this train of thought translates well outside my head, but it seems that the actual damage of a completed sin makes a difference. If one thinks better of actions which one was prevented from carrying out, the feeling is generally of relief and gratitude – mainly because hurting people is wrong, but also because we are aware that when we damage other people we interfere with their ability to avoid wrongdoing.

    • Radiant Cobb

      Yeah, those italics were only supposed to capture “their.” :-)

  • Emmanuel

    ” No one can correctly withhold assent from the belief that the Pythagorean theorem is a true; the only way you can end up opposing it is by being misinformed.”

    True in this world or true given a certain conception of geometry?