Mistakes and sins: How to tell them apart

Our minds do all sorts of things, but the things we do can be divided into two basic categories. The things that involve knowing, reasoning, remembering, planning, and so forth–the things we generally call “thinking”–are functions of the intellect. The things that involve feeling, wanting, enjoying, choosing, and so forth are functions of the will. The intellect is built by God to know the truth; the will is built by God to enjoy goodness. (I might or might not get around to blogging on how Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are all the same thing viewed under different aspects.)

Philosophers in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas have a description of how the intellect and will work together whenever we set about to do something. Here they are in handy tabular form:


What does this look like in practice? I’m hungry and I want something to eat. I recognize the goodness of food in this situation, and so I begin to consider ways of getting food, such as making something from scratch, heating something up in the microwave, getting takeout from a nearby Chinese restaurant, etc. I choose among these based on all sorts of criteria, such as availability, cost, what I like to eat, etc. I might reject some of the plans because they’d involve something bad for me (eating an entire bag of potato chips) or bad for someone else (armed robbery of a restaurant). I decide I will go get takeout, and so I find the car keys, make sure I have my wallet, drive to the restaurant (or walk if the weather’s nice), order my food, bring it home, and eat it. I recognize that my goal has been accomplished, and I am therefore happy.

What can go wrong?

  1. I could be mistaken about what is good. I remember once getting tomato aspic (think “tomato juice flavored Jello”) at a potluck dinner, thinking that it was strawberry Jello.
  2. I could be wrong in determining whether or not it’s possible to attain the good. It might be that I don’t pursue something I could, or I could try to achieve something unattainable.
  3. The will can refuse to accept the verdict in the previous step and either order the intellect to stop deliberating when success is possible, or order it to continue when success is not possible.
  4. I can come up with immoral ways to get what I want.
  5. I can consent to the immoral ways. Perhaps I couldn’t find a moral way, or perhaps because the costs associated with the moral way are too high.
  6. I can forget one of the steps needed, such as picking up my wallet if I’m going to buy food.
  7. I can decide not to do a step (too hard) or mess up its execution (trip over a curb).

Some of the things that go wrong have moral value. Some of them don’t. For example, I could have avoided my aspic mistake by asking someone what it was, but I didn’t make a moral error because my assumption was reasonable enough (who would disguise tomato juice as strawberry Jello?) If I had been dealing with something more important than a side dish, I would have had the responsibility to investigate further rather than jumping to a conclusion, and so it would have been a moral mistake. A person could err on that same step by having bought into mistaken notions of right and wrong, thus failing to recognize the wrongness of something that appears to be good. But in general, if I have done my best to train myself to recognize right and wrong in that sort of situation, a mistake in this stage is just a plain old mistake, not a sin (moral error).

Likewise, if I am mistaken about whether or not I can attain the good thing, it’s usually just a plain old mistake unless I have systematically taught myself to make that mistake for a bad reason, or unless I cause a mess because of unwarranted pride or unreasonable fear. And so on throughout most of the list. (Tripping over curbs isn’t a sin! Neither is forgetfulness unless it’s something important and we made no reasonable effort to remember.)

The most moral step, if I may put it that way, is obviously the one where the will either accepts or rejects actions based on the intellect’s moral judgment. Conscience is the judgment of the intellect concerning the moral quality of an action (cf. CCC 1778). I can know what the right thing to do is, or I can know that I ought not to do something, and I can still proceed to act in the wrong way.

The next most moral step is that judgment of the intellect. If I have made a reasonable effort to train my intellect to make the judgment correctly (e.g., if I have resolved to follow the teachings of the Church and have made an effort, appropriate to the importance of the matter involved, to find out what they are), then I do not err morally in this step. If, on the other hand, I have deliberately misformed my judgment or deliberately failed to form it by not investigating what I should have investigated, I am morally responsible.

So next time you go to confession, remember that you don’t have to confess simple mistakes! You said something in all innocence that upset someone and you feel awful about it? I’m glad you didn’t mean to hurt the other person, but if your remark was innocent in the way you meant it and you had no real reason to think anyone would be hurt by it, then you didn’t commit a sin. You broke something by accident when you were exercising reasonable care for the situation you were in? Not a sin.

If you consistently find yourself doing things that you wish you didn’t do, you might go through that list and identify the place that your decision-making is going awry so that you will know what to work on fixing.

tl;dr: Read the last two paragraphs. If they leave you wanting more, you’ll have to read the whole thing.

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