One of my biggest problems with religious morality in general is the whole concept of “sin.” What I mean by this is that I do not understand how certain actions can be said to be inherently evil, regardless of their consequences.
Let us take masturbation as a trivial example; various religious worldviews would have you belief that this is an inherently immoral act which should never be undertaken by virtuous people. But why should it be regarded as immoral? It is something which a person is doing to themselves, of their own free will, and it doesn’t have any negative consequences for other people (or indeed, in general, for the person doing it). I suppose that from a certain perspective, it’s a bit “gross,” but that seems like an awfully subjective basis for a moral belief system.
For a rather meatier example, let’s consider genocide. Surely all reasonable people can agree that if there is any one act in this world which should be considered evil, it is genocide. But the reason that it is evil, at least in so far as I am concerned, is that it hurts people (en masse, and to the point of their death). If it were possible to have a ‘victimless genocide’ (and I know that the term sounds like a ridiculous oxymoron, but bear with me), would that still be an evil act? To walk the fine line between making this discussion practical and making it completely ridiculous, let me say that, when I play the game Sid Meier’s Civilzation IV, I have learned that deliberately starving the populations of occupied cities is a good way to fend-off rebellions. Now, of course when I’m playing, I will make jokes about how evil I am, but I can’t see how anyone could argue that I’m actually being evil in any sort of real-world context. Although I have made a conscious decision to commit an act which, if undertaken in real life, would assuredly be evil, I am not undertaking it in real life, and so it is not evil; I’m not killing people, I’m deleting population units.
It seems like this discussion dovetails nicely with research I’ve read concerning the bases of Human morality. One scholar, Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia has argued that Human morality is based on a system of five different ‘values,’ (which are, respectively Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, In-Group Loyalty, Authority/Respect and Purity/Sanctity). to which individuals will assign different weights based upon, among other things, their politics* when considering ethical problems. It seems that in this context, prohibitions against sin (as distinct from say, crime, or immoral actions in general) arise from considerations of Respect for Authority (i.e, of the Bible or other holy book) or of Purity. Thus, masturbation is wrong because (a) the Bible says so, and (b) it’s kind of gross.
Understand, though, that this is not a simple academic question as far as I’m concerned. As a transsexual woman, there seem to be a great many people who believe that my very existence is inherently sinful. I am simply attempting to get a firmer grasp on precisely what they mean by that.
*I’m less of a fan of this aspect of Haidt’s theory, whereby he tries to use these categories to quantify the ethical differences between liberals and conservatives. First of all, it seems like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are arbitrary distinctions based upon the American cultural context. For example, he argues that ‘conservatives’ tend to be driven by respect for authority and tradition in making their moral judgements. I’m not sure how that applies , for example, in Canada, where we have a tradition of having a strong welfare state, to which a great many self-avowed conservatives show vanishingly little respect.