Thursday, March 13, 2008

Seven senseless sins

A recent edition of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, contained a surprise for rich, stoned despots worldwide with its new list of deadly sins.

These new so-called 'social sins' are:
  • Environmental pollution
  • Genetic manipulation
  • Accumulating excessive wealth
  • Inflicting poverty
  • Drug trafficking and consumption
  • Morally debatable experiments
  • Violation of fundamental rights of human nature
This is quite a departure from the seven deadly sins of yore: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.

In fact, this poses some problems for the new sins. While the original sins were at the roots of behaviour, the new sins are the ends. In moral philosophy, that's the difference between a deontological approach and a consequentialist approach.

So in the old school sins, you're heading off immoral behaviour at the pass by constricting it at its source. You're not getting into squabbles over whether eating 4 or 14 hot dogs is bad - it's the desire to scoff that's frowned upon.

In the new school, what happens if you work in the tax department for a government with particularly draconian taxation laws? You might - through no intention of your own - be responsible for social injustice. Then you die and BAM - you're in Hell.

Which raises another issue: law. Apparently consuming drugs is now a sin. Yet Catholics are partial to a glass of wine from liturgy to liturgy. Alcohol is a drug, but evidently consuming it isn't a sin. So which drugs are sinful? And here's the rub.

If the Vatican declares that only illegal drugs are sinful, then they're conflating morality with justice.

And, as every student in first year philosophy of morality learns, they're very different things; it's not immoral do break the law.

This is because you can have immoral laws - such as ones that permit cruelty or unnecessary pain - and it could be argued that it's an individual's moral imperative to disobey those laws. In fact, morality needs to be the big brother of justice in order for justice to be kept on track and to give it its meaning.

Furthermore, another cruical departure between morality and justice is that the former has some aspect of universality to it, while the latter can be localised or contingent. For example, if murder is morally disallowed, then it is disallowed everywhere. Yet if driving on the right side of the road is disallowed in the law in Australia, that doesn't prevent it from being permissible elsewhere.

Laws alone don't morals make.

So here we have the Vatican telling us that whatever drug policy our present government happens to come up with is setting the moral standard of the day. And by that reasoning, if the government legalised marijuana, heroin and cocaine, then these wouldn't be sinful substances.

Confused, at best.

And then there's "morally debatable experiments". I thought the point of being "debatable" was that there were points of contention that should be discussed, reviewed, analysed and scrutinised. Not banned without debate. To call something with an uncertain moral status automatically morally impermissible is banal.

So while I support raising awareness of serious social issues like social injustice, environmental damage and the moral implications of science, the Vatican's recent approach wouldn't get a passing mark in a first year moral philosophy paper.

Are these the ones we want dictating morality to a billion-odd people?

And while talking about social injustice and environmental degradation, what about the impact of millions of unwanted children on the world - and the corresponding misery brought on by poverty when they can't be properly cared for - caused by the Vatican banning contraception?

That said, the more inane the church gets, the more it will encourage people to question it - and questioning is always a virtue in my books.