A Conceptual Path from Moral Harm to Contrition

In my book on sexual morality*, I confronted Steven Pinker’s example** of coitus between a brother and sister which had, as the imaginary cases for moral philosophy can stipulate, absolutely no harmful consequences in nature. I propose that there is a type of harm over and above natural harm which is specifically a moral harm. Without much development of the notion, I simply proposed that moral harm is the harm done merely by disobedience to a moral law. In my book, I left this notion of moral harm lie in the background of my argument for traditional sexual morality. My case was mainly that the harm of setting aside the rules of traditional sexual morality was a sense of lawlessness and ultimately a sense that life is pointless, viz., nihilism.

After publication, I realized that the argument of my book needed to be strengthened by clarification and justification of moral harm as the harm of simply disobeying a moral law.

I have religious or theological concerns about understanding the fundamental Christian thesis that Christ suffered and died for our sins. In my religious reflections I reached a stage at which I realized that I could not hope to understand doctrines about our redemption by Christ unless, I understood retributive punishment.

A breakthrough in my thinking about the need for redemption was that retributive punishment is repair of moral harm.

The proposal that retributive punishment is repair of moral harm demands portrayal of moral harm as something which can be repaired. What goes on in the violation of a moral law which is something which can be repaired? I conjectured that in violation of a moral norm the violator adds a new moral norm to morality. This new moral norm is ad hoc for this violation. The ad hoc moral norm specifies that some harm ought to be done. A violation of a moral rule does expose a choice that the good aimed at by the rule ought to be inhibited. Inhibition of good is harm. So, moral harm is a perverse moral norm, i.e., a norm with the force of morality but contrary to the goal of morality. This ad hoc norm with the force of a genuine moral norm is damage or dirt in morality.

See Revision of the Normative Theory of Moral Harm for elaboration of the proposal that violation of a moral norm creates a perverse moral norm

This damage to morality can be repaired by fulfilling the ad hoc moral norm and thereby removing it from morality.

Doing the harm required by the ad hoc rule is retributive punishment.

Besides trying to understand moral harm and retributive punishment, I want to understand a thought that abortion is always a grievous wrong despite the fact that it frequently can be justified by utilitarian considerations. What is it like to have sorrow simply over the breaking of a moral law that innocent human life should not be directly terminated? This question led me to the proposal there might be an analogue to the Catholic notion of perfect contrition. Perfection contrition is sorrow over simply disobeying God. So, perhaps, the genuine moral conviction that abortion is wrong is sorrow over simply disobeying a moral law against it. This would be sorrow over moral harm. This sorrow over moral harm would be sorrow over having the ad hoc moral laws requiring harm in morality.

This is where I am now in my investigations. I have in thought, or “on paper,” specified moral harm and contrition for moral harm. But it needs to be shown that there can be genuine human sentiments connected with what I have called contrition.

*Contronting Sexual Nihilism: Traditional Sexual Morality as an Antidote to Nihilism,, Tulsa, 2014
Email kielkopf.1@osu.edu for a free copy of this book
** p. 63 of my book, Originally in “The Moral Instinct” in the New York Times Magazine,Sun Jan. 13, 2008