Aside from snarky Oh, Wonka memes or mocking manipulations of mass media marketing (with an obviously healthy does of alliteration thrown in for aesthetics), I am often reticent about offering commentary on much of the current cultural unpleasantness. After all, the incredibly profound and deeply thought out conversation one sees on Facebook about hot button issues day after day simply settles everything in an intellectually satisfying way.
Ah, but here I forget myself, and that I am apparently not very good at reigning in the snarkiness. Perhaps I should make a BuzzFeed list about it.
There is an argument I see quite frequently, especially among Christians. It is banal and uncritical, but has a certain argumentative force among those who take the scriptures as normative. I suspect the intention of the argument is more often to forge an easy rhetorical bludgeon rather than to actually apply a consistent interpretive technique, but without any magical powers of clairvoyance I can only comment on the argument itself.
The argument essentially goes like this (albeit often in a far more invective and less precise form):
- Traditional Christian morality understands same-sex behavior as sinful
- Traditional Christian morality understands gluttonous behavior as sinful
- (Currently) Christians who hold to traditional Christian morality denounce same-sex behavior as sinful, but have little to nothing to say about gluttony, either in what they preach from the pulpit or in their actual lifestyles (e.g., Americans, and thus American Christians, have high rates of obesity)
- Since both actions are understood within traditional Christian morality as sinful, it is hypocritical to denounce one and not the other since sin is sin.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a certain rhetorical force to this argument, which (on a admittedly superficial level) leverages the opponent’s own presuppositions against him. Sadly, most Christians’ understanding of morality or the Scriptures does not rise above the superficial level of this argument, and thus it can actually be quite effective; at least effective enough to be employed as often and as uncritically as it is.
I have encountered this argument often enough to be able to frame it in the syllogistic form I have, but as someone who holds to traditional Christian morality (regarding both sexual behavior and gluttony) I have always found it a rather shallow argument. The reason for this shallowness is not that it is often used as a rhetorical bludgeon, but rather that one of its premises is completely misguided. It is sort of buried in the final point, and can be easy to miss since it has become kind of an axiom (albeit a faulty one) of American Christianity.
This faulty notion is that sin is sin.
Now, on some level there is truth to the statement. All sin is (for human beings) a bad human act, as St. Aquinas demonstrates. And every sin, within this same understanding, is to transgress the rule of reason (i.e., allowing the appetites and passions to attain to some disproportionate end). Thus, would not all sin- which essentially crosses over a line- be equal, in that one either crosses a line or not?
One could equally respond with rhetorical flair: does this not therefore imply that stealing a paper clip is on the same moral level as murder, if sin is sin? But such a response, while perhaps true, engages in the same shallow thinking as that to which it is responding. Is there a proper way to understand the ‘hierarchy’ of sins?
St. Thomas responds to the notion that all sins are equal (i.e., that sin is sin) by noting that this is not a Christian notion, but rather a Stoic one. By arguing in this manner he is not trying to engage in the genetic fallacy but rather to demonstrate its genesis and why the Stoics held that all sins are equal. As he relates:
So far as can be gathered from the words of Cicero the Stoics arrived at their conclusion through looking at sin on the side of the privation only, in so far, to wit, as it is a departure from reason; wherefore considering simply that no privation admits of more or less, they held that all sins are equal. (ST, I,II 73, 2)
In other words, the Stoics considered all sins in only absolute terms. If sin is a privation, it is a privation, period. Aquinas explicates this mode of thinking using the example of light and darkness; if a house is dark because of one shade that blocks out all the light, it is no more dark if that darkness is brought about by multiple shades. Similarly, one is either dead or alive (The Princess Bride notwithstanding…); one is not more dead after 5 years than 5 days. Seen in this way, all evils are privation only, and as such have no distinction between them.
The difficulty with this Stoic position which understands all evils from the side of privation only is that absolute privation is not the only kind of privation. St. Thomas notes that if sin is absolute privation, as the Stoics maintained, then any sinful action would bring about non-existence. After all, sin is a privation of good, and being is good; thus privation brings about a dimunition of being, and if understood in the absolute sense of the Stoics, would bring about the complete collapse and eradication of being.
However, we can see that sin does not entail a complete privation of being, and thus St. Thomas proposes that there are two kinds of privation: the first is that of the absolute sense of the Stoics and the second is a sense of gradated privation. It is, in St. Thomas’ words, “not simple,’’ but rather consists in the state of “becoming corrupted” as opposed to the Stoics’ “being corrupted.”
St. Thomas likens this state of “becoming corrupted” to the manner in which a healthy person can become sick to one degree or another. He considers sickness to be an opposite to the habit of health, but in sickness there still remains some of the opposite habit (i.e., health) or otherwise the organism would be dead rather than sick. In a sense, most sorts of privation that we encounter consist in something becoming corrupted, since our experience is not usually of instantaneous death and destruction, but rather of death following decay, wounds growing worse, limbs failing in strength, etc. Even in cases (such as deformity, say a dog missing a leg) where privation marks something from its natural beginning, there still remains something of the opposite habit of health and wholeness which allows us to note that, yes, this malady (privation) is not the state in which the organism is meant to exist but is rather an instance of its becoming corrupted.
This gradation of becoming corrupted and how it relates to a gradation in the gravity of sins is actually easy to see in the analogy of sickness. Consider two people, one of whom develops lymphoma and another who contracts pneumonia. All things being equal, we would most likely consider the person who has lymphoma to be sicker, even though the person with pneumonia may exhibit more debilitating symptoms. After all, cancer can take awhile to spread, and often the symptoms of the malady aren’t evident until it is too late to effectively treat it. On the other hand, a person with pneumonia may find it difficult to get out of bed and will euphemistically say that they feel as if they are “dying,” even though pneumonia is often much easier to treat than cancer.
As the analogy makes clear, it is not necessarily the effects (symptoms) of the sickness that determine which one is more serious than the other. In the same way, the physical consequences of sin may not be readily apparent to us, and as such cannot (on their own) form the basis for our determination of whether one is more harmful or more sinful than another. While within the analogy it is true that while cancer is generally more serious than pneumonia, it is also true that both can very well kill you. And even in cases where both can be treated, it is often the case that the treatment carries with it a great deal of pain, discomfort, etc. While this post isn’t about avoiding sin necessarily, the analogous relation between sin and sickness would seem to entail that the avoidance and treatment of sin is in itself a difficult road to walk.
But back to sins. In St. Thomas’ understanding, the amount of privation that any particular sin presents is determined by how far that privation departs from reason. The, ahem, reason for this is that our nature as moral beings is linked to our ability to reason; it is this capacity that gives actions their moral dimension. Hence, while for other animals any act is an amoral thing, for us rational animals it carries a moral dimension since our endowment with reason allows us to determine the good to which our nature is meant to attain and to delineate which actions bring about the attainment of that good.
Much as sickness destroys health by departing from the things that pertain to health, so sin departs from the order of reason and leads to this state of “becoming corrupted.” However, if as the Stoics maintained this were in a simple, absolute sense, no trace of that order of reason would remain. Hence St. Thomas notes that a sin departs from the order of reason but doesn’t destroy it altogether. And as we can notice that certain sicknesses depart from health to a greater degree than others, so some sins depart from the order of reason more than others. It is this distance from the order of reason (among other things) that consequently makes one sin of more gravity than another. St. Thomas sums it up thusly:
Therefore it matters much to the gravity of a sin whether one departs more or less from the rectitude of reason: and accordingly we must say that sins are not all equal. (ibid.)
Of course, the gravity of a sin is seen not only in its distance from the order of reason but also in the object of the sin. For example, some sins pertain just to us internally, while some are external. Sometimes sin has as its object another person in his very being (e.g., murder) while sometimes it is against another person external to his being (such as stealing from someone). And then there are sins which have God as their object (such as blasphemy.) St. Thomas understands that in any action one’s reason is meant to direct that action towards a certain end. Some ends are higher than others; for example, we are meant to love our neighbor but also to love God, the latter being a higher end since it has a higher object. Given that some ends are higher than others and some objects higher than others, the higher the principle from which a sinful act departs from the order of reason, the graver the sin will be.
If, as has been shown, all sins are not equal, and thus sin is not just sin, the initial argument is therefore quite vacuous, at least as far as its conclusion runs. And while such a long digression is not necessary to establish that, we might further consider not only why all sins are not equal, but also what makes one more grave than another, and in the instances cited, why it is ultimately a categorical error to invoke this particular argument.
Within classical Christian moral thinking, a human person consists of appetites, passions, and reason. The appetites are what make us, in the classical sense of the term, “rational animals.” Like all other animals we have drives and desires and instinctual movements, and in this sense human beings are as much an animal as any other. The passions are related to the appetites in that they aim the appetites towards something higher than themselves. Passions are related to (but not reduced to) emotions that have as their object some higher good. Whereas the appetite is only moved blindly towards some end (like hunger to satiation), the passion can perceive good in the abstract and how the appetite pertains to or attains that good.
Passions separate us from the animals in that while non-human animals may experience emotions, these emotions do not aim towards a good beyond the appetite. For example, the human appetite for sex aims towards sex as a satiation of that appetite, but the human passion for love can direct the sexual appetite to a good end which will both transcend the mere appetite and fulfill the passion by deepening it.
The final aspect of the human person in the classical sense is the reason, which is meant to direct the passions and regulate the appetites. After all, the passion for love and the appetite for for sex can be used equally for a good end and for a bad end; the morality of any act is thus not the appetite or passion itself but rather whether they are ordered according to reason. It is our rational nature (the rational part of the “rational animal”) that truly makes us distinct from non-human animals and gives our actions a moral character.
The appetite, in some sense, simply is what it is. The appetite of hunger drives the animal to eat, and in this sense there is no moral dimension to hunger as an appetite. Rather, the appetite in some sense is directed towards the good of the animal, since animals require food to live and flourish. Similarly, sex as an appetite is directed towards the propagation of a species, which is also required for the species to live and flourish. Hence, on the level of appetite there is no moral dimension to any particular appetite.
That does not entail, however, that appetite in and of itself directs any act towards a moral good. After all, there can be defects in appetite which do not tend towards an animal’s good or flourishing. As a rather crude example, many dogs are just as content to mount a female dog as to hump their owner’s leg; the latter does not tend towards the dog’s good but is rather the appetite in its indiscriminate movement. The dog, since it is irrational, has no moral apprehension of either act since he is without reason, and is even bereft of passion which might tend his sexual appetite towards something greater like love.
As such, even in humans the mere appetite has no moral dimension in and of itself, but by the same token appetite itself is not a reliable indication of any good. Even passion can be misdirected or employed badly; for example, while courage is a good thing for a man in defense of his family, it is a bad thing when it emboldens a thief to commit his crime. Appetite and passion must be directed and regulated by reason towards the good; otherwise they can easily lead us into the bad.
So how does all of this relate to the argument in question? It is perhaps convenient that both examples in the argument pertain to the appetite, and it is here that we can begin to see where they diverge in both distinction and in gravity.
Gluttony, while it can pertain to any inordinate desire for something, is often epitomized by eating and drinking. That is, consuming too much of this or that is what makes one gluttonous. As it pertains to the appetite, gluttony (as characterized by eating and drinking) involves hunger, which is an appetite directed towards the preservation of the being in question. Hunger as an appetite has a certain end- what we might call a nutritive end- which entails that the animal receives enough sustenance to live and flourish.
Hunger as an appetite, however, is not ‘directed’ towards this end in a rational sense, but rather is more of an innate drive that is essentially irrational; that is, it does not evaluate the good of the animal and determine that such and such is the good of an animal. Because it is an irrational appetite, it can actually incline the animal to its own harm if it is defective. Thus, a disproportionate use of food could actually be detrimental to the animal, even though the appetite is effectively directed towards the end of satiating hunger. The appetite is still essentially directed towards its proper end, but the disproportionate use brings about a certain kind of disorder.
Sex as an appetite, much like hunger, is directed towards a certain end, that of procreation. We are here distinguishing the appetite of sex from the passion of love, which is important to note, since other animals have the appetite without the passion (or reason, for that matter). The appetite of sex has the end of procreation, but the appetite itself can be sated without a suitable end; in the example of the dog, the same appetite is at work even though one end is proper to the appetite while the other is not. The improper end of the appetite is not a disproportionate disorder like that of eating too much, but is rather disordered in the sense of having an improper end. (Hunger as an appetite could be similarly disordered if, for example, the pleasure of eating were obtained without the nutritive aspect of it.)
Now, for non-rational animals the ways in which the appetites are satiated has no moral dimension, since they are non-rational beings acting under non-rational impulses. Humans, on the other hand, have both passions and reason, which makes things quite a bit more complicated. After all, our passions cannot help but be associated and intermingled with our appetites. Thus, even though they are distinct they still function together. For example, the appetite for sex is strong, both in the sense of deriving the pleasure from the act and in the drive to propagate the species. But the passion of love is equally strong, and as it becomes intertwined with the sexual appetite it can quickly steer one astray. We desire love that transcends the sexual appetite, but that appetite nevertheless remains and is a part of our love relationships, even if the appetite never attains to the sexual act.
Reason is meant to stand at the head of the passions and the appetites. Whereas appetites are irrational in nature, the reason is fundamentally rational. The passions form what is essentially an intermediary between the two. If we were just reason and appetite, our rationality would consist only in discovering how to slake our appetite’s thirst. But the passions bridge the gap and direct the appetite towards something greater, and reason is able to discover that good and determine how best to attain it. In the perfect man all three would work in harmony, and perhaps on a good day we all catch a glimpse of this.
Understanding the constitution of the rational animal as such, in conjunction with the distinguishing characteristics of the gravity of sin, it becomes more readily apparent why the initial argument leaves much to be desired.
Both gluttonous behavior and same-sex behavior have at bottom the appetite (as do most sins). Again, in and of itself no appetite has any moral dimension, since the appetites are non-rational in nature. But appetites are directed towards a proper end, and since the gravity of sin increases the further it retreats from the order of reason, so the more disordered the appetite the more grave the sin which arises from it will be. All sin is disordered on some level, but that disorder can be a difference of kind.
Gluttony as a sin, for example, is when the appetite for hunger is not only unchecked but also pursued as a good in and of itself. The nutritive aspect of eating is proper to the end of the appetite, but if the pleasure of eating is all that is sought irrespective of the nutritive aspect, then the order of the appetite is upended and becomes essentially disordered. Now, in the case of over-indulging, the nutritive aspect of eating still remains; it is more that the pleasure derived from food is sought as the end. In this sense the appetite becomes disordered in that it is utilized disproportionately to its end. If, as mentioned earlier, one sought the pleasure of eating without the nutritive aspect, and actually attempted to obviate the nutritive aspect, then it would become disordered not in a disproportionate way, but rather in a way that circumvents or eliminates its proper end.
Since all sins are not equal, the gravity of gluttony is determined by a number of factors. St. Thomas considers the conditions by which it might be a venial sin as opposed to a mortal sin:
Accordingly, if the inordinate concupiscence in gluttony be found to turn man away from the last end, gluttony will be a mortal sin. This is the case when he adheres to the pleasure of gluttony as his end, for the sake of which he contemns God, being ready to disobey God’s commandments, in order to obtain those pleasures. On the other hand, if the inordinate concupiscence in the vice of gluttony be found to affect only such things as are directed to the end, for instance when a man has too great a desire for the pleasures of the palate, yet would not for their sake do anything contrary to God’s law, it is a venial sin. (ST 2,2 148, 2)
In other words, for gluttony to be a mortal sin one would have to consider the pleasure of gluttony to be the purpose and intent of his life, as well as forsaking God to achieve that end. If, on the other hand, it is merely a case of over-eating because the pleasure from food is so great, then the sin would be not as grave, and would fall under being a venial sin.
Before moving forward, it is important to note the distinction between mortal and venial sins. St. Thomas considers the distinction to reside in how they are remedied. A mortal sin, which destroys the life of grace in the soul, can only be remedied by further grace. And since grace is something that man receives extrinsic to himself, it is not something he can attain on his own. Mortal sins invert the order of man’s last end, supposing that the actions taken are man’s last end rather than God. Venial sins, on the other hand, do not supplant God as the final end of man but are rather disproportionate uses of something within its own end. As such, this sort of sin does not require the remedy of grace to repair the soul, even though grace is capable of doing so.
As related to gluttony, this sin can be venial if the person over-indulges because the pleasures pertaining to the appetite are great and because it is difficult for the reason to regulate this balance. Sin is still serious, and causes some privation in the soul (as well as potentially in the body), but since the intent of this form of gluttony is not to supplant God as the final end in favor of the pleasures of the palate, the gravity of the sin is not as severe.
Sexual sins, on the other hand, have a greater gravity by virtue of the higher necessity of the right use of the act. Eating, for example, is obviously necessary for the health and flourishing of the animal. But the sexual act, by virtue of pertaining to a higher principle (i.e., the propagation of a species, without which any individual of the species would not exist), goes further astray when it goes against the order of reason. (Again, this additionally pertains to the object of the act in question, which entails a higher principle.) St. Thomas helpfully parses this distinction:
The more necessary a thing is, the more it behooves one to observe the order of reason in its regard; wherefore the more sinful it becomes if the order of reason be forsaken. Now the use of venereal acts, as stated in the foregoing Article, is most necessary for the common good, namely the preservation of the human race. Wherefore there is the greatest necessity for observing the order of reason in this matter: so that if anything be done in this connection against the dictate of reason’s ordering, it will be a sin. (ST, 2,2, 153, 3)
Now, sexual sins are all grave, but within this understanding it becomes more apparent why some sexual sins have greater gravity than others. Some sexual sins, such as fornication, depart from reason in one inordinate way without completely overthrowing the intention of the act. As an example, the sexual act for humans is meant to have a procreative aspect, which in humans entails the good of the potential offspring in question. This implies a unitive bond between the persons, since the flourishing of human offspring is best accomplished through the union of intention and care by their parents. Fornication suppresses this aspect of the end of the human sexual act, and thus in this respect departs from the order of reason in regards to the sexual act.
Other sexual sins entail other harms and injustices- rape, for example, entails not only the suppression of right reason that fornication does, but also includes violence in its action, which is also a sin against justice and is thus a further departure from the order of reason and is thus a graver sin.
In this sense all sexual sins are a dis-order of reason, since they depart in one way or another from the end of sexuality. But some sexual sins depart even more from the order of reason by means of their end. Same-sex behavior would fall into this form, since the end of the sexual appetite (procreation) is turned even further away from the order of reason. The sexual appetite still remains and seeks the pleasure of the satiation of the appetite, but whereas the sexual appetite has procreation as its proper end, same-sex behavior does not have this end as a part of its action. Fornication, for example, while departing from the order of reason, still retains the form of the procreative end. Same-sex behavior, masturbation, bestiality, and any other sexual activity that do not have procreative potential depart further from the principle of reason in regards to sexuality and thus entail a greater disorder of the appetite. Thus, while fornication, adultery, etc., are disordered in that they are disproportionate to the end of the sexual appetite and of the sexual act in regards to reason, the so-called “un-natural” sexual activities are disordered in a fundamentally different way since they do not have the procreative end of sex as their end, and thus disrupt the nature of sex in its essential end.
As such, as far as the sin of lust is concerned, any sexual activity which corrupts the principle of reason as far as the end of sex is concerned will be more grave than those which still retain that principle in a disproportionate way.
Of course, as has been seen the disproportionate use of the appetite or even the disordered employment thereof does not necessarily entail a direct correspondence with the passions. As in gluttony, one can over-indulge the appetite without the passion (say of joy from the pleasure of food) setting that pleasure above the final end of man. In other words, one can love something disproportionately without necessarily supplanting the love of God from its proper place. As mentioned earlier, the reason for this is that pleasure is powerful force, and it is difficult for the reason to mediate the balance between what the appetite desires, what the passion intends, and what the reason delineates.
Similarly, to simply have a disproportionate or disordered appetite does not entail that one is therefore sinful. Appetites have no moral nature in and of themselves; it is only their employment according to the order of reason that determines whether they are good or bad. The appetite of the glutton is disproportionate to the good of health, but that the appetite merely hungers for more does not mean the rational animal must of necessity indulge that appetite. In fact, there will be great virtue in ordering that appetite towards a good end, since the appetite and the passions will be brought into the service of reason and thus towards the good. In this sense a disordered appetite can become an occasion of virtue if it is brought under the rule of the order of reason and turned to the good.
Similarly, the sexual appetite can be an occasion of both great sin and great virtue. The sheer power of this appetite means that bringing it into subjection and turning it towards the good can be a means to even greater goodness and virtue, since all the powers of the individual will be intentionally directed towards the good, rather than merely suppressed or held back. (For example, disordered sexual desire can be turned to a greater good by means of chastity.) The appetite for same-sex behavior is disordered in a fundamentally different way than the appetite involved in gluttony, but this equally does not entail that the disordered appetite in and of itself has any moral dimension. All of our appetites can go awry or have a disordered or disproportionate end; the distinction lies in how high is the principle from which they derive and to which they pertain. The difficulty, of course, is that the higher the principle, the greater the corruption will be in any departure from the order of reason.
The upshot of this entire digression is that, as far as the original argument goes, there is a fundamental distinction between the sins in question, and thus collapsing them into the same level confuses the relation of the appetites to the passions and the reason, which in turn muddles the path towards virtue in response to any sin. Given that both gluttony and lust are cardinal sins (meaning they easily lead to other sins, since they involve pleasure), both can equally lead one into ruin. But rather than conflate things that are categorically distinct for rhetorical effect, it seems to be far preferable to understand how this relates to reason and the passions and the appetites so that one can more clearly apprehend the good and how to carry it out.