Error and Sin

It is not because angels are holier than men or devils that makes them angels, but because they do not expect holiness from one another, but from God alone.

– William Blake

One of the major issues any social group has to figure out how to deal with is disagreement. Disagreement is inevitable, a natural result of human intelligence and diversity. But what happens when someone has a different opinion about something you are truly passionate about, an issue that defines your worldview? How do you treat this person now?

How do you classify this discrepancy?

You could classify it as a sin. That is, you could see it as a moral failing, a sign that there is something reprehensible about the other person’s innate characteristics. A sin is an individual matter, to be solved on an individual basis, usually through a public display of repentance. The alternative is usually some form of shunning, as no-one wants to surround themselves with people who are fundamentally bad.

You could also classify it as an error. That is, you could see it as an intellectual failing, a sign that the person has failed to correctly connect the dots, or has not been exposed to the correct information. This is not a moral matter, and very frequently it is not even an individual matter, but the result of systemic problems. The solution comes through logical argumentation and exposure to information. If that leads nowhere, the person may be deemed incapable of currently changing their mind, but that does not necessarily mean shunning, since no moral judgement has been made.

The difference between these approaches is particularly relevant when dealing with individuals with whom we share common goals or interests. Let’s take libertarians as an example. I’m a socialist. What is my goal, as a socialist? A society in which all human beings are truly free and capable of reaching their fullest potential. What is a libertarian’s goal? A society in which all human beings are truly free and capable of reaching their fullest potential. What do I think would happen if we all embraced libertarian politics? I think we’d end up living in a nightmarish dictatorship of capital where none of us would be free and human potential would be utterly wasted. But, crucially, that’s not what the libertarian is actually aiming at. I believe the libertarian analysis of economics and the libertarian understanding of power are utterly wrong; but I don’t think they’re evil. A libertarian can still be my friend. I can believe a libertarian is a good person, or at least that their being a libertarian has little bearing on their quality of character.

The same can go for a feminist. I believe in the liberation of all people from oppressive social roles. In fact, I believe in the abolition of all group-based social roles. I am a socialist because I believe in a better individualism. That means that the liberation of women (and gay people and trans people and so on) is an utterly essential part of creating a socialist society. However, unlike many feminists (though not all), I do not believe this can be accomplished through identity politics or similar means, but can only happen through a universalist movement aimed at abolishing the class structure of society. But neither of us wants women to be oppressed.

To some degree, when people are honest about their beliefs, this can and must be extended further. For cultural and historical reasons that go back hundreds if not thousands of years, people frequently hold positions that are profoundly erroneous, yet not intended to do harm. In many societies, for example, both men and women commonly hold sexist views – that is, they believe in restrictive gender roles. But sexism does not necessarily equal misogyny. Tradition is a powerful influence, and the idea that “this is what society is like, this is what’s normal, this is what people should do” is difficult to shake. When parents, for example, attempt to impose culturally-based restrictions on their children, they are frequently acting on the belief that this course of action will result in a happier outcome. It’s important to be clear that this is frequently tragically wrong and the cause of much misery in the world, but at the same time that does not mean it should be equated with the actions of deranged antisocial individuals who act out of hatred and resentment.

That is not to say that there are not those whose views are truly repugnant, or whose clear hypocrisy is not worth engaging with. But a systemic rather than personal view at least allows us to understand that such individuals are also not necessarily evil; their errors may simply be so fundamental and so strongly reinforced by society that it would take a radical change in the structure of said society for such individuals to ever change, or for similar people to turn out differently some day. That makes some people our enemies, but it is not against their personal morality that we struggle, but against the conditions that turned them into who they are.

Of course, the usefulness of all this depends entirely on your winning condition. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to change the world? Do you believe it’s possible to win? Or are you trying to achieve a personal sense of moral purity in a world that cannot get better?

To understand disagreement in terms of error is to allow for the possibility of learning, for the possibility of change. Not just for others, but for yourself – the same mechanics apply to everyone, and that in turn leads to evolution, to an improvement and convergence of ideas that makes cooperation possible. The logic of sin, however, leads to loneliness. It may achieve a feeling of superiority, enhanced occasionally by confession, but the only change it leads to is personal. Constant moral judgement tears apart the bonds between human beings, who are after all not only fallible, but incredibly varied in their ideas of what is right and what is wrong.

In the end, from the point of view of the system, it hardly matters what flavour of sin you’re after. It doesn’t make a difference whether you’re hunting witches or bourgeois infiltrators, TERFs or the enemies of gaming. What matters is that you’re hunting individuals, living on outrage, never seeing the bigger picture. “All sin tends to be addictive,” W.H. Auden remarked, “and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation.” But there’s a reason Jesus admonished people not to judge, lest they be judged themselves. Those who constantly look for sin in others are themselves damned.

Strangely, then, it is in the systemic view, the impersonal view, that we can find a kind of grace. Empathy is more likely when we stop thinking in moral terms. Forgiveness is easier when we think historically. And justice may be more achievable if we worry less about criminals.

If there is to be any hope, we have to stop looking for sinners and start looking for solutions.