Loving the Sinner, part 2: Sin


Recall one of the premises of the first installment of this essay: the main reason to care about accurately assessing guilt and innocence is the goal of punishing people whose behavior we want to deter, and only them.  This point of departure led to the conclusion that our best strategy is to deter anyone who perpetrates a crime without looking too closely at patterns in his behavior, with the corollary that the instinct to treat each crime as evidence of the perpetrator’s criminal character is healthy.  (And if the instinct is healthy, so are the punitive habits that the instinct ingrains and the juridical institutions that grow up around the habits, all of which lead to a stable system of deterrence.)

However, I would not have needed to stand in defense of the punitive instinct if there were no reason to think it might need defense.  This instinct is healthy even though it comes from a general bias to explain actions with inner attributes rather than external circumstances, even though it may generate some inconsistent or inaccurate beliefs, even though it may dissipate if someone rubs your nose in all relevant extenuating circumstances.  The formula “X, even though Y” expresses a tension between X and Y, or some sort of incongruity between asserting both at the same time.  These three even though’s represent the tension between approval of the tit-for-tat strategy of retaliation and an ironic assessment of the beliefs that go along with it. 

This tension is why a concept of sin is necessary, as distinct from related concepts like wrong, crime, and guilt.

You can think of the tension between the attribution of guilt and the ironic ambivalence about the accuracy of that attribution as producing a kind of reciprocal pressure.  If one approves of a system of deterrence undergirded by anger at the guilty, one’s anger chases off detachment whenever a question of guilt arises in the context of crime and punishment.  If this approval is bestowed with a touch of ironic contempt for one’s own beliefs about the guilty, beliefs which cannot be taken at face value but have a role to play nonetheless, then one’s ambivalence will blanche the intensity of righteous anger as soon as it’s function has been fulfilled and it has no role left to play.

In other words, this tension channels as much of the anger as possible towards meting out justice for the crime committed, and dissipates any additional anger which goes beyond that end.  

molluscum-freezing-cryotherapy1The more one’s vengeful anger is focused narrowly on the appropriate punishment for a particular crime, the more it comes to seem that it is not a person who is being punished, but rather his act: the sin.  In the first part of the essay (yesterday’s post) we took a strategic, game-theoretic view of guilt, and that helped us see that deterrence promotes law and order and retaliation deters effectively because it takes into account the (possibly malicious) strategies the perpetrator could be pursuing.  This perspective makes it easy to see punishment as directed against a person who makes decisions (the person whom tit-for-tat deters).  But from the ironic point of view, which endorses tit-for-tat not because it is the one strategy that successfully sifts the guilty from the innocent but because its approach to guilt does a better job than any alternative system, it is natural to separate out a sin which is punished from a sinner who suffers when his sins are punished, just as children with warts suffer when their warts are frozen off.


Anger which cannot be channeled towards participation in the punishment (even if only participation as a spectator), anger which goes beyond an appropriate, proportionate punishment, or anger which continues beyond the time of punishment is superfluous, even impertinent.  Play Officer Krupke, if you like!  Once the guilty have been punished you can look at the causal explanation of their criminal behavior from multiple perspectives, sine ira et studio. And to the extent you come to see the sin as the target of punishment, not he who sinned, you can feel other, milder emotions towards any aspect of the sinner other than his crime and its punishment.  If he is talented, you can admire his talents (and hate his sin).  If there are bonds of family, friendship, or citizenship between the two of you, you can love him as a brother, a bff, or a patriot (and hate his sin).

Christians say “love the sinner, hate the sin”.  Cf.  Augustine, Letter 211 (“with love for mankind and hatred for sin”) ; Jude’s Epistle, ch. 1 (“And indeed, have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; and to still others, show mercy tempered with fear, hating even the clothing stained by the flesh.” N.b., antilegomena.)

Sins deserve hatred, anger and indignation, the emotions that inspire us to resist dangers by destroying them.  Sinners deserve whatever love we would ordinarily owe them in their capacity as neighbors, cousins, mentors, and so on.  The sinner is the primate puppet whereby a particular sin is accomplished, but the sinner does not cause the sin any more than the sin causes the sinner.  The sinner is a person, a real human being with all the traits and characteristics personhood entails.  The sin is a hateful act, which has the sorts of qualities acts have.  A sin might have consisted in swinging a baseball bat, for example.  There are many innocent acts that consist in swinging a baseball bat, like hitting a home run.  A sin differs from such innocent acts both in precise details (like: swinging a bat into a man’s skull) and in its moral evaluation (like: swinging a bat in a harmful, criminal, or unnatural way).

The cause of both sins and sinners is sinfulness, a broad and nebulous category.  When the illusion that guilty acts must be explained by guilty minds (and vice versa) has been scoured away, what remains is a flexible grasp of all the possible sources of sin.  This category of causes overlaps with personal traits and aspects of actions without including any persons or acts: the sinner and the sin are the explananda, not the explanans.

Sins we can hate and punish (or institute magistrates who can punish them for us). 

Sinners we must love and cannot punish; in the first place because we are all sinners, and in the second place because a person is too complicated to punish, other than indirectly in their sins.  Deciding which sinners to punish, and how, simply is not appropriate for the capacities of human beings. 

Sinfulness we can hate, but it is an impotent, yipping hatred, since we cannot hope to destroy sinfulness.  This task, too, is beyond the powers and authority of mankind.

The reward of a properly nuanced understanding of sin is not the resolution of some minor intellectual tension or the pleasure it affords.  A proper distinction between sins, sinners, and sinfulness helps us avoid talking ourselves into labyrinths of the spirit where we cannot escape the urgent desire to punish what we have no right or ability to punish, and reform what we cannot reform.  In ordinary cases this labyrinth is populated by overbearing mothers and nosy, gossipy busybodies.  But the danger of these twisted passages is that they culminate in the attempt to construct an earthly paradise and an earthly hell.

Series: Loving the Sinner

  1. Part I (Introduction) 
  2. Part II (Sin) < You are here
  3. Part III (Ecology)
  4. Part IV (Parties)
  5. Part V (Postscript)

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