A question arose in philosophy class last week that has two aspects, a theological and a philosophical; i.e., one aspect that more clearly relates to Biblical teaching, and one that could be considered as a pragmatic or socially moral question by secular thinkers. Here it is.
I’ll present the theological side of the question first.
Are there degrees of sin? Is one sin worse than another? In what ways? In what ways is lust equal to adultery, as Jesus says it is in Mathew five:
27"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' 28But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
In what ways is hate as bad as murder, as Jesus says, also in Matthew five:
22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.
In what ways is murder worse than hatred? It seems clear to me that the Scripture teaches that any sin, no matter how small, alienates the sinner from God. This is the reason for the universal separation of human beings from their creator, because “All have sinned.” A very kind, compassionate, even self-sacrificial person cannot go to heaven on her own merit any more because she has certainly had moments of pride, hatred, anger, and so on in her own mind—even if she has never externally manifest these wicked feelings. Therefore, what difference does more sin make? Is it better to sin less? If any sin at all is enough to damn me, then what difference does it make if I sin more or less? And why is a “big” sin any worse than another, in God’s eyes?
I believe that a big sin is, from one point of view, no worse for the non-Christian to commit; that is, it does no more harm to his soul, because his soul is already dead and condemned. However, “where there is life there is hope,” and each action (from another, more Lewisian or Schaefferean, perspective) does led the doer one step closer to Heaven or Hell. Perhaps a given soul is condemned already; perhaps that soul is even [pre]destined not to be saved. However, I do not know, and that person does not know, the final result of his life. Therefore, whether he speaks kindly and gives up some little pleasure for another’s sake, or speaks harshly and grabs all for himself does push him one way or another.
I am not advocating a works doctrine. There are choices that led us closer to or further away from God. I do not know the eternal path laid invisibly under someone else’s feet; I do not (with incontrovertible certainty) know my own. All I know is the direction in which I am heading now, and the external evidence that suggests which way my friend is heading. If she consistently chooses self over others, nihilism over meaning, autonomy over Sovereignty, and skepticism over relationship, then the evidence is strong that she is not walking towards God. It is then in my interest to help to guard her against any sins that might push her further and faster along that path. Will a one-night stand damn her more than taking the Lord’s name in vain? No. But it is likely to create more complex entanglements with intimate sins and sinners, with passions and pride and amorality, with apathy and moral callousness. I would rather she not profane God’s name. But if she comes to me using the Lord’s name in vain and saying she’s going to sleep with so-and-so tonight, even though she cares little for him and will never see him again, just for a bit of fun and a last fling, which will provoke my comment and advice?
So perhaps there are no degrees of sin when it comes to the bottom line of damnation or salvation, but there certainly are sins that have more grievous social consequences, and perhaps sins that more completely seal the direction one’s soul is taking.
Now let’s consider the same question from a philosophical point of view:
Do numbers matter? Is it ethical to make a decision based upon the numbers of people affected? What difference does a number make? In other words, if a given decision will save five hundred people at the cost of five, is it therefore ethical? Is it moral to, say, drop a bomb that will kill 150,000 people (including civilians) in order to prevent the deaths of maybe twice as many members of the armed forces? Does the inclusion of civilians change the balance? Why? Is it better to try, as the Resistance group of which Bonhoeffer was a member did, to assassinate Hitler than to allow him to continue killing millions?
In other words, is a deed more evil if it affects more people?
In essence, this is at issue in discussions of public and private morality. Some say (one of you readers said to me!) that what politicians do in their private lives should not matter when election time comes. The sub-text is “as long as that evil act does not affect anyone else, it should not influence our decision.”
Digression: that’s not what you said to me; you said something along the lines of “everyone is evil in one way or another and has made many mistakes. If one politician’s mistakes are not in areas that will clearly influence his policy-making, then we should not let those areas change or determine our minds.” Am I right?
End of digression. OK. If it’s true that “as long as that evil act does not affect anyone else, it should not influence our decision,” then it must be true that an action that negatively affect two people (at least) is worse than an action that negatively affects only one. Applying some kind of mathematical test to persons. But I don’t really see how. I don’t see how the same action, hurting two people, is a worse action than that which hurts only one. It still hurts. Or that an action which hurts two people is better than the action which hurts two. Let’s say a leader of a country has an affair. Nobody finds out. So only two people are hurt: himself and his lover. I am assuming here that an evil action hurts those who do it even if nobody finds out simply because it does harm to their souls. It compromises their integrity as persons. It damages their own convictions and their identities as keepers of promises, as strong-willed rational beings who can control their passions, as honest and transparent communicators with no lies to hide. But if nobody finds out, is that better than if somebody does (his wife, say, or her husband, or the other governing bodies), or than if everybody does? If this deed goes public, everyone is hurt. Is that worse?
I don’t really see how. Perhaps it’s the inverse of love. Love does not decrease when it is distributed. So if I love my mother and my father, I don’t give each of them half of my love; I can give each of them the whole. And I can still give the whole to both of my sisters and to my husband, and so on. Love doesn’t work mathematically. So perhaps with the pain caused by sin. Perhaps the whole of the evil can hurt the soul of the doer, but then the whole of the evil can hurt his wife, his constituents, and so on. Back to the bomb illustration. If the government goes in and shoots down a tyrannical oppressor, there’s a certain quantity of pain caused and/or guilt incurred, simply because the deed was a murder. But if they do not shoot him down, and the next day he orders the genocide of 100,000 people, then isn’t that totally quantity of pain and guilt distributed 100,000 times?
Therefore causing suffering to one person is more to be desired than causing suffering to 100,000 people.
But better to cause suffering to none. Never do evil that good may result. Do the good deed, and leave the unforeseen future consequences to the Great Disposer of future events.
You Star Trek fans: you remember that in the second movie, Spock gave his life to save the ship (and maybe the whole world, I don’t remember). His last line was: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” Very heroic! But then in the next movie it turns out there’s a way to reunite is spirit to his body (convenient; and does that lessen his sacrifice, since he knew he could be resuscitated?), so Kirk et al go through great hazards, including the death of Kirk’s son, to resurrect Spock. When they have succeed, he asks why they did this for him. Kirk answers, “Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”
OK, my examples are becoming cheesier and cheesier as this post goes on. I’m sure you’ve heard the starfish story: a guy is walking along a beach after a storm. Thousands of starfish have been washed up on the shore and are slowly baking in the sun. he’s tossing them back in, one by one. Somebody mocks him, saying, “There’s thousands of them! You’re never going to make a difference.” He tosses one back into the ocean, and says, “It made a difference to that one.”
How have great teachers of the past chosen to live? For numbers? For individuals? For making a difference one little change at a time? For rallying thousands to their cause to make huge change? Have they served the many, or the few? Does it really matter, in the end? Consider this question from both side, the theological and the philosophical. If you do more good deeds, are you therefore a better person than someone who does one huge good deed? Or are neither good in the eyes of God? If you save one person at the expense of many, have you sinned against the majority? Or served the one?
Looking forward to your thoughts!