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John Portman has devoted his career to thinking about what we might call the underside--or at least what has been constructed as the underside--of human life and how we might reflect on unsavory dimensions of human life in our religious ethics and moral philosophy. Two of his monographs bear the titles A History of Sin: How Evil Changes But Never Goes Away (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007) and When Bad Things Happen to Other People (New York: Routledge, 2000), a meditation on schadenfreude. The book In Defense of Sin is not a monograph but an anthology of writings, many contemporary but a few from deep in the past, that explore practices and dispositions traditionally held to be sinful.
Portman’s introduction nicely summarizes the motivation for the anthology: the possibility of traditional religious and/or ethical codes to be destructive of human joy and flourishing. Portman writes, "If only to understand how it can hurt us, morality deserves our attention” (2). The notion that morality can hurt us, diminish our joy and our possibilities for living well, is a striking notion. For the classical tradition of morality--defined by figures such as Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas--the idea that morality could diminish human being was unintelligible. Acquiring the virtues always and everywhere enhanced human being. This is not to say that these moralists believed that the acquisition of virtue was easy or painless. To the contrary, the acquisition of virtue demanded renunciation and asceticism in the same way that the acquisition of strength in the athlete demanded sacrifice and unpleasantness. But the promise was that once virtue was attained, the one who had gone through the askesis to acquire it would be glad that she had undergone the process, in the same way that a strong athlete able to perform excellent physical deeds will be happy that she is so able, even though the training might have been hell. But Portman’s anthology points to what we might call the phenomenon of recalcitrance. What happens when we try to acquire virtue, perhaps even achieve it, and instead of being glad we have done so we feel diminished, weakened, pained? Much moral thought from the nineteenth century to the present is concerned with this problem. Thinkers as diverse as Bentham, Mill, and Nietzsche all wrestle with the problem of recalcitrance. Any ethics that does not attend to the felt lived experience of pain or pleasure (Bentham and Mill), or the feeling of strength or weakness (Nietzsche) has to be queried to see if it is holding up an ideal that far from pulling humans towards flourishing is pushing humans to ruin emotional or otherwise.
So when Portman says that "It seems that sins, like radioactive substances, have half-lives, some of which last longer than others” (4), he seems to be saying that the force or impulse to life and joy can be stronger than the impulse to uphold a traditional ethical code, even when that code vilifies certain actions with the name "sin”. In light of the impulse to life, Portman avers that "defending sin may bring to light certain limits to morality, limits whose recognition can improve the human condition” (11). Ethics--and religious notions of sin that go along with it--is meant to be the science that helps us flourish qua human beings, but what if avoiding "sin” had the opposite effect? Because avoiding sin can also make us avoid happiness, Portman says, "For better or worse, sin does seem to be losing its power to frighten us and therefore to steer our lives” (11). And when he says as much, Portman is not celebrating license or indulgence: it was Pope John XXIII, Portman reminds us, who thoroughly embraced the practice of lying when he was a bishop in Italy during the World War II by giving Jews fake birth certificates saying they were born Catholic to save them from the Nazis. Portman hints that John the XXIII may be a saint not because he did not lie, but because he did.
Turning to the selections of the anthology, Portman’s reader includes many interesting viewpoints by many interesting authors. The book begins with a piece by Feuerbach on idolatry that celebrates the human capacity to manufacture gods, then turns to a bracing selection from Nietzsche in which he blasphemes Christianity for being anti-life. Next Jane English defends the notion that adult children have no obligation to honor or help their parents out of a sense of duty (though they might do so out of love), and Jonathan Swift’s famous "A Modest Proposal” "defends” the social utility of murdering and eating poor children. Richard Wasserstrom engages the question of adultery by arguing that marriage has changed as an institution so much anyway that allowing for "open marriages” isn’t the stretch that it might once have been.
A selection from Oscar Wilde then asks whether honesty is indeed always the best policy--not just to save one’s own behind but also to empower those we live with. Here, though, I’m reminded of Miss Manner’s insistence that every bride is beautiful on her wedding day. Is this a lie? For surely there are unattractive people who get married? Or is it a different way of speaking a profound truth--it is true, in virtue of the solemnity of the occasion, the transfiguration of the appearance, and the nature of the institution and celebration, that every bride is beautiful on her wedding day, perhaps not only metaphorically but literally. And I guess this raises a question: is it the case that lying can be a virtue, or is it the case that we often operate with too limited a notion of what it means to tell the truth? Which is a question about the other essays in this collection: do we need to celebrate vice, or do we need a more plastic sense of what are our virtues?
Next Portman reproduces a selection from Mandeville’s famous "Fable of the Bees” to ask whether greed is always a bad thing. Portman asks, in light of Mandeville’s poem, whether we do not already profoundly admire individuals who are greedy in the sense of being deeply self-interested in their own success--such as Olympic athletes, physicians, and businessmen and businesswomen who have reached fame and fortune. This is an interesting point, but it might have also been interesting to have a selection from Adam Smith, who believes that self-interest is not the same as selfishness, and that self-interest and other-interest are not always discordant, and indeed in a good society are harmonious.
The anthology continues with selections from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents on the golden rule (and why we shouldn’t always follow it), David Novitz on forgiveness (and why we shouldn’t always practice it), and Jerome Neu on pride (and why it can be a powerful force for dignity and good), and Aaron Ben-Ze’ev on gossip (and why it’s not as malicious as we might believe).
Then Portman turns to sex, and offers a piece of his own on the moral acceptability of sexual chat rooms on the internet, and also a piece by Anthony Elliot on casual sex that argues, against Anscombe, that it is not a priori evil, and a piece by David A. J. Richards on prostitution. The Richard piece makes the interesting argument that if we do not prevent people from selling their muscle ability and power (e.g. furniture movers), then why do we insist on morally and legally preventing people from selling their sexual ability and power?
Portman’s anthology turns to a piece by Joyce Carol Oates on despair, which Oates says is not a sin, and then ends, fittingly, with a defense of suicide by Seneca. Seneca writes that when life has become an irredeemable disaster, "To such a life…one should not always cling. For mere living is not a good, but living well.” This is perhaps a sentence that is the key to the whole anthology. The category of sin is a category of actions or vices that, ostensibly, prevent us from living well, from being happy, from experiencing joy in ourselves and with others. But what happens when it is the avoidance of the "sin” or "vice” that prevents us from living well? Nietzsche says that every virtue once was a vice. Augustine’s defense of caritas could only look to the Roman defender of imperium as cowardice and weakness, and yet most of us are glad that this "evil” took hold of western culture. Portman’s anthology wisely helps us to see that today’s vice can be tomorrow’s virtue--a dangerous insight to be sure, but nonetheless a deeply valuable one.
© 2013 Jeffrey McCurry
Jeffrey McCurry, Ph.D., Director, Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center, Affiliated Faculty, Department of Philosophy, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA