Contrition is the Sorrow of Moral Harm

Starting with my 2014 book*, I have sought to understand the harm produced simply by violating a moral law. This is harm over and above any harm brought about by the act violating the moral law. I called this “moral harm.” To understand moral harm as a genuine harm, it needs to be shown that the occurrence of moral harm can be an object of human concern.

In this post, I answer that feeling sorrow over moral harm is feeling contrition, perfect contrition.

I have characterized contrition as not loving as God what loves. Awareness of not loving as God loves is awareness of a violation of a violation of a moral law. Awareness of a violation of a moral law reveals three conditions over which a human being can feel genuine sorrow.

First, there is awareness of the basic human good intended by the moral law which is set aside for the lesser good aimed at by its violation. There is a type of grief for the basic good set aside. For instance, a married man feels a special grief over setting aside the good of conjugal intercourse with his wife when he has a “one night stand” on a business trip.

Second there is awareness of choice of lawful control of our inclinations, passions and desires set aside by the violation of the moral law. There is a type of anxiety about becoming a slave to our inclinations, passions and desires. For instance, the man who had the “one night stand” starts to worry that he is one a path to destroying his marriage with serial affairs. This is also an anxiety about becoming irrational.

Third, there is awareness of the moral need for harm for the violation – retributive harm. There is a type of regret that some harm ought to be done. For instance, the man who had “the one-night stand” regrets that he ought not have the same satisfaction in his married life as before. This type of regret leads some unfaithful men to make the mistake of confessing an infidelity to their wives to get her to punish him and thereby remove the ad hoc norm requiring some harm for their infidelity. Forgiveness is obtained when the ad hoc norm is fulfilled by punishment.

Another example of regret for the moral need for retributive punishment occurs when someone feels a double regret when reading of one young man murdering another in the gunfights which happen a couple of times each week in big cities. We regret the loss of one life and the waste of another with the morally required imprisonment of the “winner” in the shoot-out.

In conclusion, note that addressing these three dimensions of sorrow provide an outline on how to convince someone of the truth of a basic moral law.

* Confronting Sexual Nihilism: Traditional Sexual Morality as an Antidote to Nihilism, Tulsa OK, 2014
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