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Thursday, April 10, 2008

How to be Bad

As one who has written in the past about how various forms of moral wrongfulness -- lying, cheating, stealing, promise-breaking, disloyalty, disobedience, coercion, and exploitation -- inform the criminal law, I'm always on the lookout for new insights into how people can be bad. 

Two recent items have caught my attention.  One comes from the Vatican.  Fifteen hundred years ago, Pope Gregory the Great laid down a list of Seven Deadly Sins: lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy, and pride.  During the Middle Ages, Dante wrote about them in The Inferno, and a few years ago, Oxford University Press published a neat collection of volumes on each of the sins, featuring contributions by people like Wendy Wasserstein (on sloth), Joseph Epstein (on envy), and Simon Blackburn (on lust).  Now, the Catholic Church has offered a list of updated sins for the “Age of Globalization.” They include polluting, genetic engineering, being obscenely rich, drug dealing, abortion, pedophilia, and causing social injustice. Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican body which oversees confessions and plenary indulgences, said that priests must take account of “new sins which have appeared on the horizon of humanity as a corollary of the unstoppable process of globalization.” Whereas sin in the past was thought of as being an individual matter, it now has “social resonance.”

The other, considerably more lighthearted item, is a new book by Peter Sagal, entitled The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them).  Apparently employing the jokey and irreverent manner that is familiar to listeners of his NPR radio show, Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me, Sagal visits various dens of iniquity – casinos, strip joints, swingers’ clubs, porn movie sets, and a restaurant offering a $700 24-course dinner – and discovers – surprise, surprise -- that he prefers his staid, suburban, monogamous lifestyle. I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds like it might at least be good subway reading.

So what’s the difference between sin and vice?  Well, these are concepts that find their origin in Christian theology, a subject about which I know very little.  What I’m wondering is whether the distinction has any significance in contemporary moral theory.  I’ll take a stab at it, but I’d be happy to hear from anyone better informed than I.  My guess is that sin has traditionally be considered a much more serious matter (hence, the notion of sins being “mortal”).  Sins are viewed as acts against God.  They can result, according to the Church, in eternal damnation for the sinner.  It’s interesting, though, to observe a significant difference between the list of sins compiled by Pope Gregory and that complied by Bishop Girotti.  The sins on Gregory’s list are morally wrong (though even that’s unclear in some cases), but they don’t typically cause harm to others.  Girotti’s list, on the other hand, consists mostly of acts that cause serious harm to others -- polluting, pedophilia, drug dealing.  And what about the vices?  Sagal says they must involve social disapprobation, actual pleasure, and shame. They tend to reflect defects in character, but they do not, as I understand it, typically involve harms to others. That is, the vices seem to correspond roughly to what modern theorists call harmless wrongdoing.  If that’s correct, then it seems to suggest an interesting convergence between what casebook authors Franklin Zimring and Bernard Harcourt call vice and what Pope Gregory called sin (though not what Bishop Girotti calls sin).

Posted by Stuart Green on April 10, 2008 at 12:37 PM in Culture | Permalink


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Dante structured his purgatory around the seven sins, but not his Hell. The Inferno describes a structure of nine circles, three each for sins of intemperance, violence, and deceit.

The Divine Comedy is almost never what people think it is.

(Caveat: There is a very thin argument (centering on the 'accedia' of certain marshy damned people) that a shadow of the Seven Deadly Sins structure can be found in Inferno, but it's not a very good way to read the book. Purgatorio on the other hand is clearly based on that list.)

Posted by: Jim von der Heydt | Apr 14, 2008 7:16:35 PM

I'm not sure 'distinction' is really the way to talk about the difference between sin and vice. The central meaning of sin is separation from God; it's used in other senses by analogy. For example, some acts are called 'sin' (or more properly, 'sinful') because they tend to separate us from God. Vice is a state of character; it is the opposite of virtue. At least, this is how the terms have traditionally been used.

Posted by: Chris | Apr 11, 2008 10:20:10 AM

I think your proposed distinction between sin and vice maps nicely to Mill's harm principle, and to common understandings of each. BUt I have argued that even so-called harmless wrongdoing can have bad effects on others, given the pressures it can put on them to do the same (or the way in which it can raise the social acceptability of the practice):


Posted by: Frank | Apr 10, 2008 8:59:58 PM

There's also a line of books on The Seven Deadly Sins. They're supposed to be interesting reads from fun authors.

Everything I learned about the difference between sin and vice I learned from St. Augustine in The Confessions or the Ethical Writings of Abelard. Fun to read, and plenty of moral theology is contained in, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise.

Posted by: Belle Lettre | Apr 10, 2008 1:04:53 PM

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