Sin? Yes. Original? No.

Like most people these days, I’ve been hearing a lot about this being the 10th anniversary of the Columbine killings, and the latest book to explore the tragedy. In various places on the Other Blog, people talk about it as being the result of either original sin, or psychopathy, on the part of the killers, or at least one of them.

Original sin is not a Jewish doctrine. And my own view of it was best summed up by a Jesuit I used to work with, who told me that after his first month of hearing confessions, he had become absolutely convinced that there is no such thing as original sin—“it’s all the same damn thing over and over, nothing original about it.” And from the point of view of moral theology, it makes no sense. Those who believe in original sin believe it is universal. So why should it manifest in such terrible ways in one person and so utterly trivially in another?

The Jewish view on this stuff has to do with the Yetzer Ha Ra, the Evil Impulse. Everybody has one, and in fact some Jewish thinkers believe that it is stronger in seriously holy people. Presumably, like playing basketball wearing ankle weights, this trains the soul to greater strength. But it is never insuperable. It’s just something one has to take into account in working out one’s decisions. Moral competence involves being able to manage one’s Evil Impulse, or at least compensate for failing to do so.

Psychopathy presents a lot more problems for me. The current party line among shrinks is that it is a congenital mental defect, and we have no tools for curing or even alleviating it. It amounts to being born without empathy or conscience. Does that mean that a person born with this defect is not morally responsible for the crimes he commits? I have real trouble with this. Most courts most of the time do not consider this to fit the legal definition of insanity, even though it sounds as if it should (Illinois law says: “A person is not criminally responsible for conduct if at the time of such conduct, as a result of mental disease or mental defect, he lacks substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct.”) And theologically, what follows logically from the existence and incurability of psychopathy is that some people are the moral equivalent of yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague bacteria—just “born to be bad”--original sin in single instances rather than as a general human property.

I am generally suspicious of any analysis of human character that traces its traits back to heredity (whether genetic or historical), or prenatal conditioning, or even early infant treatment. The further back we push the formation of character, the more immutable it becomes, and the more we feel we are justified in merely incapacitating or destroying people with bad character traits. That way lies eugenics and euthanasia.

So I guess I am doing the scientifically unpardonable—refusing to accept a scientific hypothesis, while being mostly ignorant of its validity, because I object to the social and political consequences of accepting it. In this case, of course, everybody is ignorant of its validity. This set of issues goes through styles, fashions, trends, and fads quite regularly, and is likely to continue doing so during our lifetimes anyway. In reality, our choice is between accepting the premise of early and immutable character formation, or rejecting it, with no solid understanding of its validity in either case. I am voting to reject it, because I do not want to live in a society that accepts it.

Red Emma

One Response to “Sin? Yes. Original? No.”

  1. fred Says:

    i agree if its genetic then eugenics and science will play God to decide whom is worthy of social standing.

    and also religious people can become worse themselves in denouncing others and not themselves.

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