Things To Act
Monday, February 02, 2004
Rather Long Post on Sin, Sex, and Splitting Doctrinal Hairs
This discussion on Nauvoo raises a few interesting issues, primarily the issue of the degree to whether actions to reduce the severity of premeditated sin can reduce the inherent sinfulness of the action. Specifically, with respect to premarital sex, does using protection mitigate the severity of the sin at all, or are the cases identical with respect to sinfulness? This obviously raises several complex issues, with profound implications both for parenting and for public policy.

Ultimately, I tend to think that it would be a worse sin to not use some form of protection, or rather, that it would be compounding the quite severe sin with additional sin. Pre/extramarital sex is sinful for a variety of reasons, in my understanding:
1) It severely damages the relationship one has/intends to have with one's eternal spouse.
2) It violates specific commandments of God.
3) It is physically risky, with the possibility of one or both parties contracting a serious or fatal disease.
4) It carries the risk of bringing life into the world outside the bonds of matrimony ("Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity." -- Family Proclamation).

Each of these reasons are quite serious. However, the risk of #s 3 and 4 can largely be reduced via modern technology. This does not in any way mitigate the severity of #s 1 and 2 (indeed, I suspect that the emotional damage the deed causes--#1--is hugely important in God's reasoning--#2). However, it may reduce the specific sins in 3 and 4.

For example, a person who engages in unprotected sex outside of marriage commits several specific sins:
1) He harms the possibility of creating/maintaining his relationship with his eternal spouse.
2) He violates a specific commandment of God, with serious consequences for his spiritual health.
3) He recklessly endangers another person's physical health.
3.1) He recklessly endangers his own physical health.
3.2) He helps another person commit serious sin/transgression, with serious consequences for that person's spiritual health.
4) He risks the creation of an innocent life outside the bonds of matrimony, with likely negative consequences for the child.
4.1) In most cultures today, he [specifically he rather than generally he, this time] risks the possibility that the woman with whom he is fornicating will get an abortion rather than carrying the child to term.

Sins 3, 3.1, 4, and 4.1 do not typically apply, or at least do not apply to the same degree, if the right precautions are used (I am aware that no contraception, other than abstinence or radical surgery, is absolutely foolproof, but the improvement in odds is significant enough to matter).

However, the issue of premeditation is still important. It may be possible that individual A, who, in a moment of weakness fathers a child out of wedlock, may be in better spiritual shape than individual B, who coolly premeditates how to fornicate without facing the physical consequences. Such matters are for the Lord to judge individually. However, it seems to me that ceterus peribus, the individual who takes the time to use some form of protection will find it easier to repent than the one who does not (the degree of premeditation being equal in both cases). If nothing else, making restitution (to the degree possible) will likely be easier.

Ultimately, the analysis that makes the most sense to me is that serious sins are often compound sins, which can occasionally be reduced in severity by eliminating some of the attendant sins (which we should by and large welcome, as we are opposed to sin).

As partial evidence for this position, I note that it seems possible to commit most, if not all, of the subsins listed above in ways not directly related to fornication. For instance, reckless driving that needlessly endangers the physical health of oneself or others (3, 3.1) is, I believe, sinful, regardless of whether it is proscribed by law. Safe driving, unlike safe extramarital sex, is rarely as obviously sinful, though.

Therefore, it makes sense to me that parents should educate their children on how to reduce the severity of certain actions, while unambiguously sending the message that those actions are still spiritually destructive, regardless of physical consequences.

Some people on Nauvoo seem to be making the argument that 'the full consequences are a necessary deterrent.' Another argument is 'but this mindset gives up and assumes that people will sin.' Putting aside the issue of parenting (in which individual decision-making is more important), both of these arguments have profound public policy implications. With respect to the specific issue of birth control, heated arguments commonly surround issues of how teens are educated about contraception. In extreme terms, the stereotyped 'liberal' approach is "give kids condoms and tell them to have fun." The stereotyped 'conservative' approach is "if they want to have sex, let them die of STDs." Both stereotypes will lead to deeply flawed public policy, IMO.

Certainly schools/society should not encourage premarital sexual activity. However, I don't think they should avoid teaching how to mitigate the impact of unwise decisions in this regard. Consider the arguments mentioned above. The deterrent concept is, I think, morally repugnant. For instance, if we could somehow associate negative health consequences with some other activity we believe to be sinful (spiking beer with additional toxins? Causing those who skip church to come down with some disease?), I suspect we would (or at least should) be horrified. Attempting to cut people off from protection from STDs simply because we disapprove of fornication is, I suspect, the rough moral equivalent. With respect to the 'giving up' argument, I don't think this holds water on a societal level. While it would be wonderful if society embraced an attitude of chastity, it seems foolish to merely wish for the ideal world rather than dealing with the world as it is, a world in which far too many children are born out of wedlock (or aborted) (which is not to say we should not also be simultaneously working for a better world). We should certainly encourage everyone to wait for marriage. But we should be prepared to give other options to those who will not, particularly if it leads them to avoid still greater sins. Similarly, we should encourage everyone to be honest. Yet we should maintain a legal system which allows people to recover damages when harmed by another dishonest person. An ideal world would not need the legal system, as everyone would keep his word. Yet no one advocates abolishing the legal system in the same way that the lack of ‘safe sex’ education is advocated. Thus, while I certainly have concerns with the permissive attitude which seems to be behind much of modern sex ed, I don't think that "abstinence only" programs are an ideal solution either. And while schools may not be the best place to distribute birth control, I tend to think that it should be cheaply available somewhere, unless we'd prefer a higher abortion/out of wedlock birth rate.

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