The Guilt of Unwilled Sins

I had a conversation with a wonderful friend this afternoon about the experience of guilt, especially for things one is not directly responsible for. For example, if you need to buy a suit for work and you know that all the suits that you see in stores are made in sweatshops abroad, and even though you don’t want to support sweatshops, you buy a suit regardless because you need it for work, should you feel guilty? Or you know that our dependency on oil is unsustainable, and you know that oil companies operate in ways that are harmful to the environment, and you feel strongly that our need for oil has fostered an aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East that has lead to large numbers of civilians being killed, yet you still buy fuel for your car for a Memorial Day trip with friends. Or you think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unjust, and you know that a large percentage of your tax dollars are being used to fund these wars, yet you still pay taxes. Should you feel guilty for these actions? More generally, should you feel guilty for actions you participate in that are less than ideal, or even the lesser of two evils, if you act as best as you can, especially considering you do not will the potential bad consequences of your act?

First of all, there are a number of distinctions to clarify. First, we have to explain how one might cooperate in evil without directly willing the evil action. Typically, one can cooperate either formally or materially in evil. In formal cooperation, one willingly and freely participates in the evil action (e.g., holding a person down to get tortured or driving the get-away car in a bank robbery). In material cooperation, one provides material resources like cash or supplies for the evil action. Material cooperation can be more or less immediate in terms of whether or not the evil action is willed by the one providing the material means. For example, immediate material cooperation involves willful material participation for the intention of the evil action (e.g. selling arms to terrorists). In mediate cooperation, material support is provided for an evil action that is not directly willed. A good example of this would be paying taxes in a nation involved in an unjust war. The intention in paying taxes is not to support the war effort, but rather to support the other worthy endeavors the nation is involved in like roads and public schools which are dependent on the contribution of taxes.

In addition to the ways in which we can participate in evil actions, we have to make a further distinction regarding the ways one can be responsible for the evil committed. For example, what if I cooperate materially in an act of terrorism by selling arms, but I didn’t know the materials I contributed were going to be used for evil. In other words, I was ignorant of the consequences of my actions. One can distinguish in such a case between vincible and invincible ignorance. Vincible ignorance is ignorance in which one should have known better, or ignorance that could have been remedied by proper inquiry. In the case of vincible ignorance, one is responsible for the evil one participates in. To return to the earlier example of the arms dealer selling arms to terrorists, if someone approaches a dealer in a vehicle covered with “Death to America” bumper stickers and asks to buy a couple of tons of TNT or some other potential weapon, the dealer has the responsibility to inquire about the use of the material being purchased, and to refuse sale for anything that might be used for an evil. Invincible ignorance is involuntary ignorance. It is ignorance that could not have been prevented with any reasonable amount of effort, and as such, the person involved in the evil is morally innocent, despite the fact that an evil action occurred. An example might be a doctor prescribing a drug for a person who later decides to use that drug to kill themselves. Presuming the doctor did everything in her power to make sure she was prescribing the drug responsibly, she is morally innocent, despite the fact a grave evil (suicide) occurred due in part to her influence. Another example might be a driver who is going the speed limit and obeying traffic laws, yet hits a child who out of nowhere ran into the road. This is a tragic incident, a horrible tragedy, and in some sense, a grave evil, but the person driving the car is in no way responsible for the evil committed.

So if you can cooperate in an action which you in no way intend, and indeed can even be ignorant of the evil being committed in the action, in what sense should you feel guilty? One might reasonably say that if a person does not intend an evil, and cannot even be held responsible for the evil committed, one has no reason to feel guilty. For Aquinas, however, the very fact that one was involved in sin implicates one in the guilt that is consequent. The reason is that sin itself is an evil, an act contrary to the will of God, or a disorder in God’s order of creation. Whether one wills the sin or not, the disorder remains.

Quoting Romans 2:9, Aquinas writes, “Tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that worketh evil.” But to work evil is to sin. Therefore sin incurs a punishment which is signified by the words “tribulation and anguish.” (II-II, 87.1). He goes on to say that sin may be considered in two ways: first, sin may be considered according to the act itself, and secondly, sin may be considered according to the consequent stain. According to the latter, he says,

Now it is evident that in all actual sins, when the act of sin has ceased, the guilt remains; because the act of sin makes man deserving of punishment, in so far as he transgresses the order of Divine justice, to which he cannot return except he pay some sort of penal compensation, which restores him to the equality of justice; so that, according to the order of Divine justice, he who has been too indulgent to his will, by transgressing God’s commandments, suffers, either willingly or unwillingly, something contrary to what he would wish. This restoration of the equality of justice by penal compensation is also to be observed in injuries done to one’s fellow men. Consequently it is evident that when the sinful or injurious act has ceased there still remains the debt of punishment. (II-II, 87.6)

Accordingly, every act of sin that one commits, whether willfully or not, still results in guilt, because every act of sin is an injury to self, neighbor, God, or creation, and thus demands recompense.

My friend, however, is not a Christian and so there is a sense in which Christian explanations of the “stain of sin” and even the language of “sin” and “evil” fall a little flat. Yet, there is a way to make this idea of guilt, even for unwilled evil actions or actions that have unwilled evil consequences, more widely accessible.

We can do so by turning to a more relational and less individualistic anthropology. The idea that one can only be guilty of evil actions that are directly willed is based on an a model of human nature which assumes that we have a very large degree of control over all of our actions. In other words, an individualistic anthropology assumes I and I alone am master of my actions. Consequently, if I intend to do something wrong, I am responsible. If I do something wrong which is unintentional, I am not responsible. I am guilty in the case of the former, and not in the case of the latter.

In a more relational anthropology, we understand human nature to be integrally intertwined with those whom one is in relationship. This includes family, friends, nation, economic community, church, etc. In this understanding of the human person, one has freedom, but one is not the complete master of his or her actions. Instead, we see ourselves intimately involved in the actions of others, often in unwilled ways. One example of this is a child born into an abusive home who subsequently becomes an abuser later on as an adult. Now, such a person is free, obviously, and many people in similar circumstances do not become abusers. Nevertheless, there is still something about the abused-child-turned-abuser scenario that illustrates how many of our actions, and many of our sins, are not something that we directly intend. We inherit sin, we are born into sinful systems, and we act in such a way that perpetuate those sinful systems (This is sometimes referred to as the “sins of the fathers” which incidentally is the motif Faulkner was fascinated by in crafting his fiction).

Take the example of buying a suit at a popular clothing store that surely makes its clothes overseas in sweatshops. In buying the suit, I don’t intend the evil, and I am not directly responsible for it, but I am participating in a network of evil, which through a complicated chain of people acting just like me causes innocent people abroad to suffer. I think one should feel guilt in such a situation. The guilt is a reminder that the we should not be content with the status quo, that evil exists, and that our world is still groaning for redemption. The guilt is also a reminder that I am a part of the evil, and as such, I need to do something to repay the debt the evil has caused, to fill in the privation. That feeling of guilt may incite one person to call the corporate headquarters and demand they stop using sweatshops; it may incite another person to write a letter to the editor raising awareness about sweatshops; it may incite another to write a political representative; it may incite another to make more conscientious decisions about which clothes to buy. But regardless, the guilt pricks our conscious, it makes us aware that the world we live in is not perfect, and it makes us aware that we ourselves are not perfect, even when we act as conscientiously and with the best intentions possible. Guilt makes us people who desire redemption.

From a theological point of view, such guilt can point us to God. We may realize in reflecting on the guilt we experience that the sinful systems we are a part of are far too big and complex to ever be fixed by humans. We may have inherited a propensity to abuse drugs or alcohol or food and realize that left to our own devices, we are unable to overcome our affliction. We may reflect on the lasting damage to the earth caused by a complex chain of human actions, like the oil spill in the Gulf, and realize that we can never, ever make amends for the wrongs done to the environment. And so this can compel to seek out a “Higher Power” as the A.A. programs refers to that is greater than the sum of human effort, and whose goodness is greater than the sum of human sin. In other words, by recognizing that we are a people who stand accused and guilty and unable to restore justice, we may become people on the God of both justice and mercy.

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10 comments so far

  1. Michael Rubin on

    Beth, one thing that I think you should consider changing. You gave this example, “Or you think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unjust, and you know that a large percentage of your tax dollars are being used to fund these wars, yet you still pay taxes.”

    Unlike the other examples, paying taxes is not a choice, but a legal requirement that will bring punishment (jail time) as punishment. A better example would be someone who disagreed with the Iraq War, but still voted for Bush in 2004 (due to his Pro-Life view) or someone who agreed with the Iraq War, but voted for Obama in 2008 (due to his Pro-Choice view). I would say that a vote is a choice and people vote based on different positions, while paying taxes is a requirement.

  2. everydaythomist on

    Michael, this is a fine point, but paying taxes is indeed a choice, and if circumstances require it, that is, if the government’s actions are so unjust (like Nazi Germany in the 30s), then one should be willing to risk jail time in order to not participate materially in evil. Henry David Thoreau notoriously stopped paying taxes in opposition to not only the government’s support of slavery but also the Mexican-American war, which he considered an unjust act of aggression. When Ralph Waldo Emerson came to visit him in jail, he said to Thoreau, “What are you doing in there, David?” To which Thoreau responded, “What are you doing out there?” indicating that if Emerson’s opposition to the war and to slavery was strong enough, he too would have stopped paying taxes.

    My whole point is that most of us continue paying taxes and we should do so knowing that we are cooperating materially in the government’s evil. That doesn’t mean we stop paying taxes, but it means we do so with a healthy twinge of guilt, knowing that things are not as they ought to be.

    • Charles on

      I think of paying taxes as rendering to Ceasar the things that are Ceasar’s. Considering the enormous number of groups in the country today who are adamant that something the government is or isn’t doing is wrong, and who might adopt the notion that they are therefore morally obligated to not pay taxes, we could collectively bring government and society as we know it to a standstill.

      • everydaythomist on

        Charles,
        To you I say “Amen.” If our government becomes so corrupt as to necessitate such a move, I hope we as a citizenry have the courage to act on our convictions. But in the meantime, I think a few people refusing to pay taxes on principle (hopefully wealthy and influential people like Thoreau was in his day) can act as a powerful prophetic witness. I will however keep paying taxes in full knowledge that I cooperate materially in the government’s evil.

  3. Anthony on

    Beth, in the text from Aquinas’ ST I-II.87.6 that you quote above, the phrase “willingly or unwillingly” does not refer to the act of sin, but to the resulting suffering. In other words, Aquinas isn’t saying people who “willingly or unwillingly” sin should suffer, but that people who sin should suffer, whether willingly or unwillingly. For Aquinas, “unwilling” sin is nonsensical – his anthropology is quite individualistic (and not relational) when it comes to sin, as is clear from his description of the only ways in which sin can be caused externally (ST I.75.3).

    (BTW, your “tribulation and anguish” reference should be to the prima secundae, not the secunda secundae.)

    • everydaythomist on

      Thanks, Anthony. Typo on the reference to the part of the Summa and I appreciate the correction. As far as a relational anthropology, I am definitely not a Thomist purist. I am trying to critically recover aspects of Thomism to bring them to bearing on contemporary problems. Thomas most definitely thinks that sin is will, but meaning the object of the sinful action is willed. One could definitely sin in ignorance and more specifically, one could sin by willing an action that is known under one aspect but not under another as Aquinas says in I-II Q. 76.1.3: “The will cannot turn to that which is absolutely unknown: but if something be known in one respect, and unknown in another, the will can will it. It is thus that ignorance is the cause of sin: for instance, when a man knows that what he is killing is a man, but not that it is his own father; or when one knows that a certain act is pleasurable, but not that it is a sin.” In the same sense, one could buy a shirt not knowing the shirt is made in sweat shops, and still be sinning, and willing sin, but in ignorance. And my point is despite the fact that that one is ignorant of the sinfulness of the act, one is still “guilty” despite the fact that the guilt (the punishment for sin if you will) is unwilled. So in short, I should be more specific in saying that I am not talking about unwilled sin, but about willed actions that are sinful in ignorance but still susceptible to unwilled punishment.

  4. Anthony on

    Make that last reference ST I-II.75.3

  5. Anthony on

    Beth, your quote from ST I-II.76.1.ad3 is a good one, and he does state there that ignorance of the sinfulness of some particular act can be a cause of a performing that act (precisely because one is unaware of the circumstances). But that’s different from being “guilty” for it, which is what you’re claiming. In the case of killing one’s father without knowing who he was, Aquinas doesn’t say that you’d be guilty of parricide; nor does he say that the person who performs a pleasurable act without knowing that it’s sinful would be guilty of that sin. For example, Oedipus’ having intercourse with his mother was in fact an act of incest, but that’s different from being guilty of incest. In fact, only two articles later, Aquinas bluntly states that “ignorance excuses from sin, insofar as something is not known to be a sin.” (ST I-II.76.3) Similarly, in your example of buying a shirt without knowing that it was made in a sweatshop, Aquinas would say that the person’s ignorance is the cause of a sinful act (since the buyer may have refrained from buying the shirt had they known they were supporting slave labor), but not that the person is guilty.

    • everydaythomist on

      Anthony,
      But the act itself still demands recompense. If I kill my father, not knowing who he was, I may not be “guilty” of patricide, but my dad is still dead, and the violation of the eternal order needs to be rectified in some way. This is what I mean by guilt.

  6. Anthony on

    Beth, that’s an important distinction that, I think, may mean that a word other than “guilt” would be better here. For instance, if I accidentally run over and cripple someone on the street through no negligence of my own (to use your example, say they just darted in front of my car), my close relationship as the cause of the injury makes me especially obliged to help the person and their family, but not because I’m *guilty*. In fact, if the family were to project guilt onto me, that would actually be unjust on their part – they’d be looking for someone to blame. So “guilt” is actually, I think, an inappropriate word to use under such circumstances, because though I have a moral obligation towards the injured party, I don’t deserve to be *punished* for what happened.


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