Thursday, August 25, 2011

The unthinkable

Typically when we say that some course of action is unthinkable, we have already thought it.  Perhaps there is an equivocation, though.  Maybe what we mean is that the course of action is one that we can think about with theoretical reason, but cannot deliberate about with practical reason.  But isn't the revulsion from the course of action in fact a matter of the will?  Maybe it is a matter of the will, but not of the will in respect of deliberation?

I've seen a classic moral theology textbook say that if you've deliberated whether to commit a mortal sin, you've already committed a mortal sin.  Of course, it is presupposed here that you're aware that the action you're deliberating about is a mortal sin.  Maybe the idea is this.  Deliberation involves weighing the pros and cons of an action.  But as soon as you've realized that a course of action involves you in mortal sin, it is illegitimate to weigh the pros of the course of action.  If you do so, you're implicitly conditionally attaching your will to the mortal sin, conditionally on the pros being great enough.  It would be a mortal sin to explicitly conditionally attach your will to a mortal sin--for instance, to resolve to commit adultery if you win the lottery.  Whether the implicit conditional attachment in deliberation yields mortal sin is something I am not so sure about.  But it is surely sinful.

Of course this needs to be distinguished from a non-deliberative consideration of the benefits of a gravely wrong action.  There can be good reason to engage in such consideration.  For instance, one might try to think through the benefits of a sinful action in order to come up with a rhetorically powerful exhortation against the action, by contrasting the induced decay of soul with the temporariness of the benefits.


Sarraclab said...

What about deliberating about whether one would do something if it were not a sin? For instance, many Christians have probably deliberated such that if premarital sex was not sinful, then they would engage in premarital sex. Perhaps it seems wrong to say that embracing this conditional is sinful if the act isn't sinful in the hypothetical situation. I think deliberating in this way happens often, especially for actions that it is not clear whether they are sinful or not, but that we refrain from anyways to be safe or because we're justified in thinking that they're sinful.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, first of all, deliberation in my sense of the word is aimed at action, or at least at resolve at action. It's not merely a theoretical consideration. So I am not sure that the cases you mention are like that.

I also think--particularly in the case of sexual sin--that it's a risky business to think whether the action is worth doing apart from the sinfulness aspect. It is apt to produce a bad habit of mind of not keeping the sinfulness aspect in mind. And there is always the danger that such reflection will make one realize all too clearly some benefit of the sin, which will then tempt one into the sin.

I also think that our ability to separate out the sinfulness aspect in one's thinking is itself a sign of our moral imperfection. The virtuous person is repelled by the thought of sin. To the virtuous person, the question "Would it be a good idea to steal (or murder or fornicate or cheat on a test or the like) if it were not sinful?" is going to have the emotional force of the question: "Would it be a good idea to eat [insert here anything that's really disgusting] if it weren't so disgusting and unhealthy?" To the virtuous person, the sinfulness of the action is so tightly bound up with the nature of the action, that the question would be one of those close-to-meaningless hypotheticals like "If the moon were made of cheese, would it be a yummy cheese?" The hypothesis changes the actual world situation so much, and in such an undefined way, that one really can't say much about the conditional.

Would that I were like that!

What I said depends, I think, on seeing sinfulness as not just a matter of arbitrary divine commands, but as intrinsic to the actions.