In my book on sexual morality*, I confronted Pinker’s example of coitus between a brother and sister which had, as the imaginary cases for moral philosophy may 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 also have religious or theological concerns about understanding the fundamental Christian thesis that Christ suffered and died for our sins. In my religious musings 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 specification 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, moral rule, 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. Let us call this harm which ought to be done “punitive harm.”A violation of a moral rule does reflect a choice that the good aimed at by the rule ought to be inhibited. Inhibition of good is harm. So, moral harm is a bad 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. This damage to morality can be repaired by fulfilling the ad hoc moral norm and thereby removing it from morality. Doing the punitive harm cleanses morality from the ad hoc moral rule. Doing the punitive harm required by the ad hoc rule is retributive punishment. So, retributive punishment cleanses morality from the ad hoc moral rules established by choices to set aside some basic human goods.
Since I am introducing “punitive harm” in this post, it is helpful to emphasize its difference from moral harm. Moral harm is damage done to morality by a choice to disobey a moral law. Nothing in the physical or mental life of individual human beings is damaged. No broken bones, torn flesh or mental anguish are components of moral harm. Moral harm is the introduction of improper moral imperatives into morality. It is, I hate to say it, theoretical damage. Moral harm is not painful. Punitive harm is not theoretical. Puntive harm is breaking bones, tearing flesh and production of mental anguish to cleanse morality from the improper moral imperatives. Punitive harm is the actual physical and mental harm produced by retributive punishment. Punitive harm is painful.
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 of abortion might be sorrow over having the ad hoc moral laws requiring punitive harm in morality. But when I pay attention to my own sentiments, my sorrow over abortion is sorrow for the punitive harm of the mental anguish which I believe the woman who has her child aborted ought to suffer.
These notions of moral harm, punitive harm, retributive punishment and contrition are crucial in my case that acceptance of the sexual revolution is incompatible with a genuine Christian religion.
- Confronting Sexual Nihilism: Traditional Sexual Morality as an Antidote to Nihilism, Tulsa 2014. A free copy of this book is available at email@example.com