What Happens When We Sin Even Though We Know Better?

This season of Lent is a time when we are particularly attuned to our brokenness and our need for redemption.  A common experience of our sinfulness is continuing to do sinful things we in some sense do not want to do.  The obvious Scriptural text here is Romans 7. 

Yet this is not merely a Christian phenomenon.  It was a perennial question in classical ethics:  can people do things they know are bad, and if so, how does that happen?  The standard account of this question in antiquity is that Socrates thought this phenomenon was impossible.  If we do something bad, we did not truly know it was bad.  According to this account, Aristotle departs from Socrates on this matter by describing the phenomenon of incontinence.  We can indeed act against our “better judgment.”  Christians such as Thomas Aquinas follow Aristotle in explaining experiences like Paul’s in Romans 7. 

This account is too simple.  This post is not the place to sort out why in any detail.  It turns out that Aristotle and Aquinas are not as far from “Socrates” as the standard account assumes.  And there are important differences between Aquinas and Aristotle.  The purpose of this post is not to sort through these questions, but to present Aquinas’ account of how incontinence occurs, and (hopefully) start a conversation about whether it accurately and / or comprehensively accounts for the common human experience of (as St. Paul says) doing “what we hate.” 

Before examining how Aquinas (who is heavily influenced by Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics Book VII, esp. chapter 3) says incontinence happens, it would help to distinguish incontinence from vice more simply.  Vice is when one does bad things, generally with the corresponding bad desires.  This may occur since one does not know the activity is bad.  (Whether one could have known or not, and thus whether one is blameworthy or not for this ignorance, is another matter.)   Incontinence is when one knows some activity to be bad and thus in some sense does not want to do it.  Yet one does it anyway.  In other words, whereas in the vicious person there is no internal conflict, in the incontinent person there is internal conflict even though one acts badly.  One of the typical signs of incontinence is that feeling of remorse just after the sinful act.  “I can’t believe I did that again!  I told myself I wouldn’t….” 

How can one act against one’s own “better judgment,” as we might say?  In several places in his writings, Thomas relies on Aristotle to offer two distinctions and three explanations of how this happens.  (See Aquinas’ Commentary on Nichomachean Ethics VII.3;  Summa Theologiae I-II 77,2 & 156,1; and Quaestio de Malo q. 3, art. 9.)  I present his account to start a conversation about how accurate / complete it is.  First Aquinas distinguishes habitual from actual knowledge.  We may know something in general (“you shouldn’t eat too many sweets”) but that knowledge may not be “actual” in the sense of activated, or on the forefront of our minds, at some particular time.  Second, Aquinas distinguishes knowledge of universals from knowledge of particulars.  “I know eating too many sweets is bad, but is this a sweet, or would it be too many?” 

These two distinctions seem to graft on to the first two of three ways that Aquinas says incontinence occurs.  First, our desires distract us so we do not think of what we habitually know;  it is not actual, or activated, knowledge.  “Chocolate cake?!  Whoopee!  I’m in!”  Here we “know” (habitually) not to eat too many sweets, but don’t have that knowledge active when we act.  Afterwards we may say, “What was I thinking (or not thinking)?!”  Second, our knowledge of the universal may indeed be actual / activated, but our desire “warps” how we see the particular instance so it does not “fall under” that universal.  “I know I should not eat too many sweets, but this cake is not so bad for you, and anyway I haven’t had anything unhealthy today so it is not too many.”  Assuming these are untrue rationalizations (if they are not, we are not acting badly…), what happens here is that we know actively something as a universal, but err in applying it to the case at hand since our desire de-forms how accurately we see the case at hand.  Third, Thomas says sometimes our desires can create such bodily changes that reason is unable to choose well.  (This can presumably make us not blameworthy if the bodily changes – we might think of certain disorders here – are beyond our control.  Or it might not alleviate blame if we are somehow responsible for those bodily changes.)  As a point of clarification, though I’m more confident that the two distinctions Thomas offers graft on to the first two ways incontinence occurs (as I have presented above), I am less sure about how that third way “messes” up the reasoning process, so that what is known is unable to be actualized in the situation.

So my question is, does Thomas accurately describe our experiences?  Even if accurate, are there other ways this happens that are not accounted for?  Some “food” for thought this Lent….