How do you define sin? How do you define morality?

How do you define sin? (If you’re not of a religious bent, please feel free to insert “unethical behavior” or “immoral action” for the last word of that sentence.) In your answers, please state how you arrive at your definition–that is, whether it’s based on your religion, a particular philosopher, your personal views, and so forth. If you want to give both positive and negative actions examples (actions that are and are not sinful) that’s weclome too.

I’ll begin with my own definition, which I’ll admit doesn’t entirely satisfy me:

A sin is either

(a) an action, deliberate on the part of the actor, which causes or has the potential to cause unjustified, avoidable, and **foreseeable ** harm to another person, or which abrogates the rights of another person; and

(b) a failure to fulfill freely-undertaken obligations.

Here’s my reasoning. No act can have any moral value, either positive or negative, unless it is willed by the actor. For instance, say I am allergic to peanuts; I go out to eat and inform the waiter of this when making my order. If he disregards my request because he doesn’t believe in peanut allergies, or because he dislikes me, and thus brings me a meal with peanuts in it, causing me to have an allergic reaction, he has committed a sin. However, if he attempts to do as I have requested but, unknown to him, a package has been mislabeled as peanut-free when in fact it has peanut products in it, he is blameless.

The sinfulness of an act depends on the circumstances in which it is committed. For example, a man having sexual intercourse with his wife because he loves her and they have mutual desire for one another, each desiring to bring the other pleasure, is morally good. A man having consensual sexual intercourse with a woman he’s met in a bar, using appropriate precautions to minimize the chance of disease or pregnancy but caring only about his own pleasure (and assuming she also only cares about her pleasure, not his) is morally neutral. A man having sexual intercourse with a woman he’s stalked, assaulted, and overpowered is sinful.

If I get any responses to this post I’ll share the problems I have with my own definition. First, though, I’d like some feedback from fellow Dopers.

I seem to agree with your definitions; however, I’d like to add a qualifier to the first point - Not just actions qualify, but also inaction when you could prevent unjustified, avoidable, and foreseeable harm to another person, or which abrogates the rights of another person. If I see a rape in progress, and i’m capable of stopping that, then not doing so would be immoral.

How do you define “unjustified,” though? Because that’s the problem I have with my definition of sin: every definition of unjustified I cam come with leads me back to the notion of sin, which makes the definitions a wee bit recursive.

Rather give a direct and complete answer to your question (I’m not sure I could), I’ll throw out a few thoughts and reactions to the OP.

It may, or may not, be useful to distinguish between “a sin” (a specific transgression) and “sin” (a condition or state).
The Greek word in the New Testament that is translated in English as “sin” is hamartia, which literally means missing the target. (Cite: the Wikipedia article on sin, though I’ve seen this fact plenty of other places.) So one way to think of sin is as a failure to live rightly.
I find it interesting that the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father…”) which is known and used by all sorts of Christians contains a line which, depending on which of the three most common renderings/translations you use, goes either “Forgive us our sins…” or “Forgive us our debts…” or “Forgive us our trespasses…” So one way to think of a sin against someone is as a debt that you owe to them, on account of having wronged them or failing to give them their due. Another way to think of sin is as “trespassing”: stepping over a boundary, going where you’re not supposed to go, or encroaching on someone else’s territory.
The OP’s definition of sin, or at least part (a) of it, involves only sin against another person. Is it also possible to sin against oneself? (i.e. should the potential or actuial harm to oneself be considered when deciding whether something is sinful?) against nature, or something nonhuman? (e.g. cruelty to animals) against future generations as yet unborn? against God?
The OP’s example:

What if the man is married, or otherwise in a supposedly exclusive relatiionship with someone else? Or, more problematic, what if the man isn’t currently married, but may be someday, and the meaningless sexual encounter he’s having now somehow cheapens sex in his mind or makes his married sex life less meaningful? (I don’t want to debate this particular example, just to suggest how an act that doesn’t cause any obvious harm might nevertheless hinder future good.)

Hmm. Self defense would be the obvious example I can think of - while killing someone under another situation would count as wrong, in order to preserve your life it would be right. I don’t mean a totally morally correct decision - merely a more moral decision. You’d be saving the life of a moral person and killing an immoral one - against the killing of a moral person. Killing would be morally wrong under both cases, but because you’ve (effectively) saved a moral person over an immoral one (who would go on to do more immoral things) then your actions are not as immoral.

I may be attacked a lot in this debate - I believe that killing is morally wrong under all circumstances, be that self defence, war, abortion, etc. I’m pro-choice and think that war is sometimes necessary, however, because I believe in some of those cases it will cause less pain/death in the long run.

You make some good points, TB. Let me address 'em.

Catholic college survivor that I am, I’m familiar with the distinction. It’s the former I wish to address in this thread, though if others want to go into the latter, that’s fine with me.

I think your etymology is correct, though I’m not at home and lack access to my lexicons. That said, what I’m trying to discuss is what living rightly MEANS. That is, some persons may say living rightly precludes being in a homosexual relationship, or an interracial one, or any sort of sexual relationship at all. I’d say all three of those possibilities are mistaken.

Those are all issues I’m looking for responses on. That said, I don’t think one can sin against oneself, for the most part, because I believe that, ultimately, no one has the right to forebear choices a person makes that affect primarily himself. For example, I don’t think suicide is generally wise, but ultimately I’d say it’s the choice of the person involved whether to commit suicide or not.

Sins against “nature” are another issue. Is a specific person is being injured by one’s action or inaction on the natural plane, or is some generic/mystical image of Gaea being hurt? I wouldn’t call it a sin to dam a river, though others may argue that the river’s natural course is being perverted and thus injured. (On the other hand, if the damming causes harm to other people, or steals resources not properly belonging to the dammer, then it’s likely immoral.) As for animals and the unborn–well, I’ll give that some more thought (and hopefully get some input from other posters).

Finally, God. I don’t believe it possible to injure God, so the issue of harm is obviously a non-starter. And I find it difficult to believe an omnipotent, omniscient being could be offended by anything I say about it, any more than it bothers me when my pre-teen niece says I’m “weird” because I don’t have a television in my bedroom (but hundreds of books instead.)

I should have been specific. In my example, both the man and woman having casual sex are uncommitted to anyone else and honest to one another about their intentions.

But that is not FORESEEABLE harm to another person–not in my mind, anyway. First, I don’t concede that such casual sex inevitably has that effect; second, the harm, if any, is done to the actor, not another person. I suppose I’m trying to differentiate UNWISE actions from SINFUL ones. (As well as abusing my caps lock key.)

I would be reluctant to try and put together a set of rules that can be used in every case to decide whether or not something is sinful or immoral. Insofar as there’s one general moral principle, “Love thy neighbour as thyself” is probably the best encapsulation, but I still feel that our moral responses are basically individual and subjective, and that there isn’t one standard of “moral truth” by which everything can be assessed unambiguously - there isn’t always a right or wrong answer to a moral question, and different people may have different, equally valid, answers to any such question.

That being said, there are a couple of areas where I would express a positive opinion. First, I think that motive is a far more important factor than consequences when assessing if a particular act is worthy of moral praise or blame. For example, I watched “A Night To Remember” the other day, and wouldn’t really agree with the film’s definite condemnation of the captain and crew of the Californian. They certainly could have done more to help the Titanic, but they weren’t motivated not to act through any sort of malice or selfishness - they just weren’t aware of the situation, through bad luck more than anything. I certainly wouldn’t support the Utilitarian approach, of making a mathematical calculation which balances the “pain” and “pleasure” caused by an act, and describing it as “moral” if, and only if, the total comes out positive.

Secondly, remembering a discussion we had a few weeks back, I would also say that it’s possible for thoughts, desires, and fantasies to be sinful, not just actions. I would describe, to use the example that’s already been brought up, a married man who wanted to have a “meaningless sexual encounter” with someone other than his wife as sinful, even if he didn’t actually do it. This sort of thing is, of course, a very minor sin, but (IMO) it’s a sin nevertheless.

On the question of “sinning against oneself” - I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. One potential example is the person who smokes, drinks, gambles, or indulges in any other potentially harmful behaviour to excess, but I agree with Fabulous Creature that this might be better described as “foolish” rather than “sinful”. It could also be argued that, by making himself less useful to society and increasing the demand on medical resources, such a person is harming others as well as himself, and so comes into whatever more general definition of “sin” there may be.

I think living rightly goes beyond just not harming anybody else.

A doctor who swears by the Hippocratic Oath is supposed to “first, do no harm,” but if the only thing we could say about him was that he did no harm, he wouldn’t be much of a doctor. Likewise, for a human being to do no harm is a good baseline or starting point, but I don’t think it’s enough—if the best anyone can say of you is that you’ve always stayed out of trouble, you’re not that great of a human being. I’d say that wasting one’s life and one’s potential is not morally neutral, and if you call “sin” anything that’s on the negative side of morally neutral, then yeah, that’s sin.

Agreed. It is, however, possible to grieve God, at least according to some conceptions of God—to make God sad or angry by the way you treat someone God loves. But I’m not sure if it’s possible to sin against God without also sinning against some person or thing.

But if either God or some other human being would be grieved by the harm we do ourselves, I think that’s a point in favor of considering the harm we do to ourselves to be sinful.

Some religious people believe that God has given us laws and rules to live by, and that these rules are designed to keep us from harm that we ourselves might not have been able to foresee. But God, being way more wise and farseeing than we are, knows better what would be good for us and what would likely lead to harm. So breaking God’s laws is sinning, because it is doing things that God knows are likely to lead to harm even if we don’t see how at the time.

Even without a belief in God, a similar argument could be made about laws and rules being the product of centuries of human wisdom. Just because I, personally, don’t see what harm something will do (for example, if I think it’s safe for me to drink and drive), am I exonerated?

I don’t want to argue that sin is a matter of breaking some set of rules (I share Tevildo’s reluctance), but I’m thinking there may be at least some sliver of truth in that point of view.

For the sake of discussion it’s also noteworthy to look at the two different ways of looking at sin.

  1. In human terms. Minor sins simply have less drastic consequences.

  2. In Gods terms. A sin is a sin. It does not matter the severity or consequences of the sin. All of them are unacceptable.

I personally think it’s a good idea to understand that all sins are the same to God and should be treated as such. Once you understand that, then you can also look at all the consequences in human terms.

Cite? i.e. this assertion is hardly self-evident—can you back it up somehow?

Sorry I should have stated that this was my viewpoint of God and I would think (don’t quote me on this) that this is also held by many Christians. The point that I am trying to make is that I could be classified as a “minor sinner” while others might be classified as “major sinners”. From everything that I personally know and feel, I do not think that there is such a classification. I consider there to be two categories. The sinful, and the sinless. Of which we all belong in the sinful category and are all in the same boat. I honestly do not think that God looks more highly of me simply because my sins do not have the same consequences as some other people. If I considered sins of varying degrees, then I would consider myself better than other people. That would be a huge trap for me let alone God and my beliefs tell me that we are all the same in God’s eyes.

I discarded the sin and salvation mindset long ago. (the guilt I am still working on- damn they were good back at sunday school.)
I could not equate God with good. I believe there is a ‘good’ that is intrinsic to nature and not dependant on a creator.

Discarding Christian morality led me first to Greco-Roman ethics. I am still not completely sure I understand them, but IMHO they were essentially derived from Aristotlean/Platonic teleology and that which led to happiness was good, that which led to unhappiness, pain or sadness, was bad, if not evil.

I found that too subjective and individualistic for my tastes, heh. I then wandered over to Asia and read up on Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism.
I find the doctrines of karma/dharma as the basis of my morality now, especially as described in the Bhagavad Gita. We reap what we sow. But the ultimate level in my understanding is attain a state of selfless action where one does ‘good’ not because it is good, but because that is the way it is supposed to be. If one follows their true nature, they will behave in a way that one would call good. I find this to be the closest match to what I felt when I began my search.

I have reached the point where I feel I have gone as far as I can go on my own without a guru/sensei/master. And I think that that is an essential part also. Morality is only valid when in a communal or social setting, (though it is how we act when no one is watching that defines it). And though I am atheist, I still believe that morality is tied to spirituality, and a spiritual teacher/guide is necessary for us to be fully ‘moral’.


Sin might be defined as anything that seperates us or keeps us seperate from God.
Personaly I would add that sin also seperates us from each other. Sin results in us hurting ourselves and each other.

I don’t think a physical act in and of itself a sin. It is the condition of the spirit or perhaps the intent that creates seperation. Look at the “seven deadly sins”

Pride, Greed, Envy, Wrath, Kust, Gluttony, Sloth,

All conditions of the heart and mind, not yet physical acts.

Look how strict it can get. Jesus says

Can’t recall the scripture but there’s one about a rich man making a big show of giving to charity. His intent was to be seen and acknowledged. A poor woman gives a much smaller gift without seeking recognition. They both gave to charity but one is a sinner.

I think it’s about living according to Love and Truth which is our true spiritual nature and the nature of God.

Then there’s “you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

Our perception of what love is certainly changes so the same act might have different intents at different times in our lives. What we know, what we sincerely see as good does change.

from Luke 12 that parable about the servants

I think much of what you say here is what Jesus actually taught.
IMHO when Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit and said it will guide you into all truth he was saying that we all have access to the ultimate sensei.

All ethical pronouncements of the form “this is good” or “this is bad” are nonsense. You can say you approve or disapprove of any particular act but you cannot justify your approval or disapproval.

Sure I can. Someone caused me pain. I don’t enjoy that. Everything stems from that.

Everything? What everything? Stems? You haven’t asserted anything, much less demonstrated, justified or proven anything.

As in, what I would consider my morality is based entirely around the concept that when I am caused to be in pain, I do not enjoy it. That’s the starting point, because I certainly know that, when i’m in pain, I don’t enjoy it. That part is fact. I speculate wildly from there.

When is the wild speculation scheduled to begin?

You’re equating what, to my mind, are two separate propositions: that all sinners are the same to God, and that all sins are the same to God. I don’t think the first implies the second.