Sin and Ethics

One of the points of contention between believers and skeptics has to do with the question of morality. Roughly speaking, the exchange goes something like this:

Believer: God is the source of morality. Without a belief in God one cannot have a belief in morality. Therefore skeptics are immoral. QED.
Skeptic: Nonsense! There are lots of skeptics who behave in thoroughly ethical ways. Furthermore, they mold their behavior to conform with particular ethical standards, even though those standards lack any particular theological foundation. One can clearly be a skeptic and be a moral person.

Framed in these terms (and I think that these are the terms usually employed), I think that Skeptic has the better end of the debate. I have family members, friends, and acquaintances ranging from agnostic to atheist and for the most part they are decent, ethical people. Furthermore, there are lots of thoroughly respectable ethical systems that do not rely on any belief in God per se. However, I think that this response misses a deeper and more interesting issue: The relationship between sin and ethics.

While I do think that it is possible to have ethics without God, I am skeptical that it is possible to have sin without God. Implicit in this statement, of course, is the assumption that sin and ethics are distinct concepts. The distinction lies, I think, in the concept of salvation. Ethics is a matter of correct behavior. It is a question of practical reason: What is the best way to act? Sin, on the other hand, is about the status of one’s soul before God.

If one thinks very much about the language of sin used in the scriptures, it is an odd sort of a thing. To be sure, sin is frequently discussed as little more than unethical behavior. On the other hand, we also have images of cleanliness and filth, of being stained with blood and washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. In other words, along side the concept of behavior there is some concept of sin somehow attaching itself to us and requiring some expiation. Much of our talk about the Atonement is deeply embedded in this extra-ethical language about sin.

One response is to dismiss this concept of sin as “legalistic.� Sin seems to sound a lot like criminal liability. It is something that somehow inheres in the individual and can only be extinguished by punishment. Criminal law, however, serves social purposes of deterrence etc., and hence can be reduced to ethical and political concepts. In other words, the idea of sin as a concept independent of ethics rests of a confused importation of legal concepts.

The problem with this response is that Harold Berman has pretty clearly demonstrated that causation flows the other way. The earliest Germanic laws (from which our legal system is descended) didn’t really have any concept of crime. In other words, there was no concept of injury to society as such; there was only the concept of personal injury to another. Injury gave rise to a justifiable desire for revenge, and revenge was eventually bought off with payment. Eventually a system of rules governing compensation for injury arose as a substitute for blood feuds and we had our first legal system. It was only as this system of law came under the influence of Christianity that a concept of crime – that is a concept of legal wrong existing independent of injury to another and extinguishable only by punishment – came into being. Thus, the concept of crime grew out of the concept of sin, rather than the other way around. (Note: the story gets more complicated once you consider the influence of the Roman law, but I think the conclusion is the same.)

Figuring out exactly what sin is, however, is difficult. A pretty common response is to say that sin is some condition of the soul, some deformation of it, if you will. If we go far enough down this road, of course, sin will collapse back into ethics, albeit a virtue-centered ethics. Alternatively, sin may collapse into psychology, as we subjectivize the soul and fragment it into the id, ego, and superego (or whatever other characters haunt contemporary psychology). As should be clear, I am sympathetic to the aertaic move and skeptical of the psychological one. However, in the end I think that I want to resist both of them to one extent or another. Neither seem to really capture the idea of sin as a burden of guilt that must be lifted (regardless of whether or not one “feels guilty�).

Hence, I am left with exactly what I was hoping the trek into the familiar discussion between Believer and Skeptic would reveal: An interesting question. What is sin? How is it both similar to and different than ethics?

24 comments for “Sin and Ethics

  1. November 2, 2004 at 11:09 am

    Nate, can a skeptic avoid sin by refusing to believe in God?

  2. November 2, 2004 at 11:35 am

    “can a skeptic avoid sin by refusing to believe in God?”

    I don’t believe they could any more than someone could avoid legal repercussions for denying the law they violated. I am skewed as a believer and my belief that God exists reinforces my belief in sin and transgression. If I am correct, which I believe I am, then the skeptic will still be accountable for their sin. I’m sure the old maxim, ignorance of the law is no excuse, still prevails. I would also imagine that motive will play a big role in the severity of the sin. Is the skeptic refusing to believe in God but still willingly participating in unethical adventures?

    Now on the other hand, if I am wrong and there is no God, then not only would the skeptic be avoiding sin, but so would the rest of the believers, as sin requires God.

  3. November 2, 2004 at 11:45 am

    “ignorance of the law is no excuse, still prevails”

    Actually, in the Gospel context, that’s not true at all — ignorance of God’s will & God’s law is a perfect defense. No sin where there is no knowledge.

  4. November 2, 2004 at 11:47 am

    Nate, my experience in philosophy is that a separation of ethics and God are desired for purposes of a reasoned debate on ethics. Unfortunately, this creates a lot of problems.

    The skeptic would say that if ethics are due to God’s commandments then it would be equally ethical to kill, steal, cheat, etc, had God “woken up on the other side of bed that morning� and decreed them as ethically just, a kind of moral relativism.

    The question then becomes is something ethical because God decreed it such, or is there a perfect form of ethics, like Plato would argue, that exists independently of God and God simply ‘realized’ what was ethical? If this is the case then the skeptic say that something is greater than God, and in most religious circles this becomes heresy. This is one of the reasons many philosophers are categorized as atheists or skeptics.

    By predicating ethics on God we invite the problems of moral relativism. I believe that ethics are more of an abstract concept, and that God in is infinite wisdom, understands the concept perfectly and applied laws based in part on the ethical treatment of the two great commandments.

    Transgression in ethics may not always result in sin, although I’m at a loss right now when it wouldn’t. But transgressions in sin will almost always include a breach of some ethical rule.

  5. November 2, 2004 at 11:55 am

    Steve, I guess that would depend on the skeptic. I suppose you could have as skeptic that doesn’t know about God’s law and that defense may be plausible. But I would imagine in our world the majority of skeptics know about God’s law and simply choose not to believe in them. I would say this is less of a defense for those skeptics.

    Because of the attonement, I suppose it is also possible for them to accept Christ and allow Him to take on thier sins after this world, but in that case there was still sin, it is just being paid for by someone other than the skeptic.

  6. November 2, 2004 at 11:57 am

    Charles: I think that the Word of Wisdom is a pretty easy example. I don’t think that it would be unethical per se for me to go to the Starbucks across the street and drink a cup of coffee. I do think that it would be sinful for me to do so.

    Another difference, in my mind, is that when I sin I must repent to recover from the sin. If I act unethically, however, there is no necessity per se that I repent. I should simply act ethically in the future.

  7. November 2, 2004 at 12:00 pm

    “If I act unethically, however, there is no necessity per se that I repent”

    Is that true? If you steal, aren’t you ethically bound to make restitution? Aren’t there ethical equivalents that come pretty near repentance? The difference, of course, is that you’re not ethically bound to have a change of heart — just a change of behavior.

  8. November 2, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    It seems to me that situations involving restitution and the like are simply instances of corrective justice. That is they are independent ethical imperitives. They do not, however, seem to be about the expiation of guilt.

  9. November 2, 2004 at 12:08 pm

    I think this issue of belief vs. skepticism and whether believers have a leg up when it comes to ethics is one of the major points being pushed by Dostoevsky in his book Brothers Karamazov. The way I remember it, Dostoevsky is trying to make the point that those who believe in God and the afterlife (resurrection) have an incentive to be good/righteous. On the other hand, Dostoevsky seems to be also pushing the idea that those who don’t believe in God and afterlife have no reason at all not to kill, steal, etc. After all, for the disbeliever, life ends in the grave and there is no lasting consequence to any action. Disbelief thus (from Dostoevsky’s perspective) causes a rational dissolution of any meaningful definitions for such concepts as good and evil.

    I went and did a google-search and can’t promise this is true, but supposedly Dostoevsky wrote a letter to someone named N.L. Ozmidov in which the author wrote the following:

    Now assume there is no God or immortality of the soul. Now tell me, why should I live righteously and do good deeds if I am to die entirely on earth?…And if that is so, why shouldn’t I (as long as I can rely on my cleverness and agility to avoid being caught by the law) cut another man’s throat , rob, and steal…

    The problem with this argument is that we have ample proof today that there are many (Islamic fundamentalists) who are perfectly willing to cut the throats of others, specifically because of the nature of their belief in God and their peculiar ideas about the resurrection.

  10. November 2, 2004 at 12:10 pm

    Well, it’s of course interesting to explore whether corrective justice can truly be considered separate ethical imperatives, but I think you’re right that there’s no ethical requirement to clear one’s conscience. Behaviorally, however, whenever the law prohibits an act that is also considered a sin, the results are very similar.

  11. November 2, 2004 at 12:41 pm

    Danithew, I’m not sure that is entirely the problem with the argument. I’ve heard that question raised before. Let us not forget the many atrocities conducted by Christian churches in the name of God as well. Unethical behavior in the guise of righteous murder etc is still generally unethical. That is where moral relativism comes into play. Mormons can say murder is wrong, but Nephi slaying Laban was okay because it was commanded as an exception to this rule. Islamic fundamentalislts would make the same arguement for thier murders. Overal murder is unethical and wrong, but moral relativism plays a big part when we consider specific murders.

    The argument made in the letter is one of the skeptic choosing to believe and asking why he should act ethically when there is no eternal reprocussion for his act.

  12. November 2, 2004 at 12:52 pm

    Steve: It is not clear to me that we ought to consider guilt in subjective terms. It seems to me that it is a state of being. We are guilty of sin whether we feel the pangs of conscience or not. We require repentence regardless of our feelings. It is precisely this aspect of sin that cannot, I think, be captured by either ethics or psychology.

  13. john fowles
    November 2, 2004 at 12:54 pm


    You are right that the Gospel allows those who are truly ignorant between right and wrong from escaping the eternal consequences of their sins (they might still suffer temporal consequences as a function of their biology. But your question was whether a skeptic can avoid sin by refusing to believe in God. This language reveals two assumptions in your question: (1) the skeptic knows the difference between right and wrong, and (2) the skeptic is choosing to reject God as a vehicle to license. I don’t think that such a person would be found blameless before God at the last day.

    Nate, the really scary part about the Gospel, both for believers and non-believers, is that one of the central purpose of the Resurrection is so that we can stand before God to be judged in the flesh according to our works in the flesh, whether they be good or evil. It seems to me that this judgment will be carried out according to an objective morality that transcends our futile mortal philosophical and legalistic attempts to circumvent it.

    In other words, sin is an objective concept; it exists regardless of whether it is denied. It is also not a philosophical construct the somehow depends on societal views of what constitutes crime. It exists outside of society, subjecting all, regardless of belief, to its measures.

    Going back to Steve’s question, even the ignorant do sin, it’s just that they are not held accountable. Jesus still suffered for the sins of those who sinned in ignorance, but it is not brought back to haunt them absent their own repentant efforts to turn away from the sin. Since Jesus still suffered real physical atoning pain for those sins, it brings home the point that sin is an objective factor that exists outiside the possibilities of deconstruction.

  14. November 2, 2004 at 12:59 pm

    Let us not forget the many atrocities conducted by Christian churches in the name of God as well.

    Without a doubt so-called Christians committed loads of historical violence in the name of their religion.

    But often when I mention Islamic militancy, I consequently hear Christian violence compared with Islamic violence (i.e., Crusades = Jihad, end of argument) and I think there’s a fundamental problem with that comparison. From what I’ve read, there is much more of a basis for Jihad (defined as military holy war) in Islamic texts than there is for the Crusades in the New Testament. According to the ahadith, Muhammad personally participated in (or at least observed very closely) 19 battles and sent his followers to participate in many others. The ahadith also teach that Muhammad ordered assassinations of specific people, by name. It’s not dealt with much but Muhammad should be described as a military leader at least as much as he is described as a prophet.

    I’m not trying to derail this thread. I think these points contribute to an idea that’s useful in talking about belief vs. skepticism.

    Skepticism is, in its own right, a system of beliefs. And perhaps it’s best to put religious beliefs and secular approaches under the more general heading of “belief systems.” From there one can go into comparisons of how ethical a religious belief system is vs. a secular belief system or two different religious belief systems can be compared. I find this kind of approach especially useful when the “secular believer” (as I put it) starts complaining that this “religious believer” is advocating a religious position or argues that churches shouldn’t be allowed to influence politics. I always try to flatten those arguments completely by asking why one “belief system” should have more participatory rights than the other “belief system.”

    Skeptics aren’t non-believers. They are believers in something else.

  15. Rosalynde Welch
    November 2, 2004 at 1:01 pm

    What about a Catholic who has been taught and believes that it is a sin to use birth control, but uses birth control anyway. Is he or she sinning?

  16. November 2, 2004 at 1:05 pm

    John: it seems to me that to say that sin is an objective concept can have one of two meanings.

    First, it can mean that morality is objective and exists independent of social attitudes, etc. There are two problems with this way of understanding things: (1) it seems to conflate sin with immorality, which leaves the issue of what repentence is unresolved; and, (2) one can believe in objective morality without being a theist (see, e.g., Ronald Dworkin, “Objective Truth? You Better Believe It!,” in Philosophy & Public Affairs).

    The second way in which one can say that sin is an objective concept is to say that sin cannot be reduced to psychological feelings of guilt. I agree with this, but it is precisely what puzzles me. If the guilt of sin is not simply a set of subjective feelings that must be gotten over or simple series of ethical lapses, then what is it?

    (BTW, when I say that sin is not a series of ethical lapses, I don’t mean to imply that ethical lapses are not sinful. I am simply trying to get at the fact that the concept of sin and the concept of ethical lapse, while related, seem — in my mind — to be distinct.)

  17. November 2, 2004 at 1:06 pm

    Rosalynde, I suppose that depends on whether the Catholic teaching (ban) on birth-control is backed up by any kind of eternal truth or principle.

  18. ed
    November 2, 2004 at 6:21 pm

    danithew says: “Rosalynde, I suppose that depends on whether the Catholic teaching (ban) on birth-control is backed up by any kind of eternal truth or principle”

    There are several possibilities:

    1) “Obedience to God’s will” is in itself an eternal principle, and disobeying constitutes sin. The Catholic using birth-control would be sinning because she is refusing to submit her will to what she honestly believes is God’s will.

    2) Disobeying God’s will is sinful, but only his TRUE will matters, not what someone believes about his will. Therefore the Catholic is only sinning unless God really truly doesn’t like birth control.

    3) Disobedience is not a sin per se. Disobeying only becomes sinful if the disobedient behavior is in itself bad. The Catholic is only sinning if birth control is harmful or unethical.

    Is Nate sinning if he goes to Starbucks and orders coffee, but gets hot chocolate by mistake?

  19. Rosalynde Welch
    November 3, 2004 at 1:30 am

    Sorry for the enigmatic rhetorical question above; I had to run to get my daughter from preschool. It seems to have put the discussion to sleep (as enigmatic rhetorical questions often do).

    I asked because the discussion reminds me of the debates over the meaning and uses of conscience in 16th century England (which comprised the topic of my dissertation–I don’t know this stuff just for fun). For those religious groups that were denied legal exercise–serially the Protestants, the Catholics, and the dissenting radicalized Protestant sects–the concept of conscience became the trump-card of moral legitimacy: to disobey the dictates of one’s conscience was to sin, even if the act in and of itself was not prohibited by canon law; similarly, to obey the dictates of conscience legitimated the act, whatever its public or legal status. There were problems with this position, of course: the dictates of individual consciences were unruly, and tended to disrupt the fictions of consensus and transparency that underwrite the nation-state; for this reason, perhaps, whatever party was currently in power exerted itself mightily to deny the legitimacy of private conscience. The point, though, is that under this view, morality is not an externalized, finite set of given propositions, but a function of one’s ability to discern God’s will and one’s willingness to obey that will.

    While there are serious problems with a theology of conscience, and I don’t think Mormon scripture supports a robust conscience, neither do I believe that morality is an externalized, finite set of given propositions–as you seem to think, John. I think sin *does* depend at least partially on societal norms and constructs–because people live and relate to one another within those norms and constructs, and because both sin and virtue are inescapably relational, imbricating our relationships with fellow humans and with God. I think this is the point of Paul’s difficult teachings on the eating of the sacrifice meat: the sin lies not in the eating or the abstaining from the meat, but in what the eating or abstaining means to those around us. Thus societal norms and expectations have everything to do with what constitutes sin, and the moral status of the act would vary widely across time and space.

  20. November 3, 2004 at 2:03 am

    Nate, you could do five or ten posts on the issues you raise in this one post. I think of ethics as an almost objective description of proper behavior or conduct (from some perspective), while sin incorporates a lot of emphasis on how one is supposed to feel about improper deeds, words, or thoughts.

    The problem, of course, is that often people who do what is classified as “sin” feel just great rather than guilty. So a religious community that takes its view of sin seriously works hard to make those who sin feel guilty rather than enjoy their sins. They tend to act like an honor-and-shame culture (imposing bad feelings externally), even though they speak the language of sin and morality (suggesting self-generated bad feelings). The need to rely on shame rather than guilt increases, I think, as the religious community’s sin code diverges from the natural sense of morality (“thou shalt not kill or steal,” etc.) that most people feel and focuses on things like dietary codes and financial obligations.

    You said, “I don’t think that it would be unethical per se for me to go to the Starbucks across the street and drink a cup of coffee. I do think that it would be sinful for me to do so.” Funny, for me it works differently. I don’t drink coffee, but I simply can’t bring myself to see coffee drinking as a moral issue, as if the God of the Universe is offended by coffee beans but largely indifferent to vanilla beans and cocoa beans. I don’t see coffee drinking as a sin. For me, it is pure ethics (conforming to the objective Mormon code of behavior): as a Mormon I don’t drink coffee.

  21. November 3, 2004 at 2:29 pm

    I gave the coffee example precisely because I DON’T see coffee drinking as immoral. Rather, I see it as sinful. The point is that sin and morality are different. You seem to be making some distinction between ethics and morality that I am not sure I understand.

    BTW, as I have written above, I think that the subjectification of guilt is a problematic. For example, in the Book of Mormon when we hear about Nephites so sunk in wickedness that they are passed feeling we are meant to assume that this fact makes them more sinful rather than less sinful. Also, given the fact that our ethical concern with people’s inner feelings seems to date back to about Rousseau, it would be extremely odd for us to adopt this concern as the essence of sin, since such a move would require that previous thinkers lacked a concept of sin. For example, Anselm in Cur Deus Homo is extremely concerned about the nature of sin, but as near as I can tell he is completely unconcerned with subjective feelings of guilt. Admittedly, someone like Augustine spends a lot of time talking about subjective feelings of guilt, but he feels the guilt because he recognizes his sin, he doesn’t use guilt as a way of identifying or defining sin.

  22. Joe Spencer
    November 3, 2004 at 5:53 pm


    Another direction this discussion could be taken:

    Isn’t ethics–especially as it is usually hypostatized–a sort of god, perhaps an idol. It seems to me that ethics becomes a replacement god. I suppose I sense this in Kant’s claim that he would refuse to sacrifice his son before Abraham’s God. Kant’s ethical “system” become a god or an idol before which Kant then stands, and the philosopher puts Abraham’s God on the altar of the transcendental ethics.

    Kant may be an extreme example, but it seems to me that ethics, as a thoroughgoing philosophical abstraction that has been reified, is really just an invented God, one without the ability to speak, etc. So, it seems, that what is ethical may look a lot like righteousness, but in the end it has nothing to do with it. Paul’s teachings on Christ in the New Testament seem to teach that as long as one ultimately prostrates herself before the God of Israel, she will be delivered from all other powers. Righteousness is an issue of fidelity, and sin, then, might only be a way of describing those moments (or entire lifetimes) of wandering from the path of duty to the God of Israel.

    At any rate, it seems that sin is in an entirely separate sphere from immorality.

  23. November 4, 2004 at 3:12 am

    Nate, you said toward the end of the original post: “Neither seem to really capture the idea of sin as a burden of guilt that must be lifted (regardless of whether or not one “feels guiltyâ€?).” It’s unclear to me how to talk about “sin as a burden of guilt” independently of feeling guilty.

    I suppose “sin” as a term is used in a variety of ways: (1) as a synonym for deviations from a religious code of ethics or conduct (which seems independent of how the deviating person feels), (2) as a description of an existential state of original sin (which might weigh on someone yet not be equated to simply feeling guilty), and finally (3) as roughly equivalent to an immoral act that induces feelings of guilt.

    So, sticking with the coffee example as a hypo that doesn’t seem to offend anyone, when you say that for you coffee drinking would not be immoral but would be sinful, I think you are using the first concept of sin from the preceding paragraph, a deviation from a religious code of ethics or objective list of proscribed conduct. If you rule out feeling, how else are you going to describe an act as sinful other than objectively? That is the same sense in which I said I viewed it (coffee drinking) as unethical rather than immoral. So perhaps we are actually saying the same thing using different terms.

  24. November 4, 2004 at 10:22 am

    Dave: Perhaps. It seems to me, however, that you need to broaded your number 2. Sin (and guilt) it seems to me is frequently used in the scriptures and elsewhere as a way of describing an existential condition rather than a pyschological one. I agree with you that it is difficult to figure how to talk about this. I agree with you that what would be required would be some sort of objective description, however, I don’t think that “deviation from a code of religious conduct” quite cuts it. This is part of the reason that I made my aside about criminal liabiltiy in the orignal post. A murderer is guilty regardless of their subjective feelings. Now of course, one can say that in this context “guilty” is simply another way of describing a particular set of facts, e.g. the defendant took the life of another person with malice aforethought. However, there is another sense of criminal liability (largely lost today, or existing only in the forgotten subconscious of the law) as something that somehow inhered in an individual and had to be expiated by punishment. (You can see some fossil remains of this idea in the constitution’s prohibition on laws working “corruption of blood.”)

    Ultimately, my point is that sin is niether a pyschological state nor a description of unethical behavior of some sort. It may include both of these things, but it also has a strong (for lack of a better word) existential component.

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