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5.9.06

Can You Love The Sinner But Hate The Sin?

In discussing gay rights, it's inevitable that the anti-gay rights person will invoke the principle of "love the sinner, hate the sin." And it's almost as inevitable that the pro-gay rights person will deny that LTSHTS is possible.

I understand the powerful appeal of denying LTSHTS. All reasonable participants in contemporary political discourse generally agree -- and I'm not about to dispute it -- that it's wrong to hate anyone, with the possible exception of Stalin-scale monsters. So if hating what someone does necessarily entails hating the person, it becomes untenable to continue hating the act.

As a psychological proposition -- that hating an act will cause the hater to eventually direct his or her hate toward the person who commits the act -- LTSHTS-denial strikes me as dubious. It may be true in many cases, as humans are often weak, but it's hardly inevitable. Our impression of its prevalence is doubtless inflated by many people who invoke LTSHTS dishonestly, in an attempt to dodge justified accusations that they hate the sinner. I would also argue that our culture actively fosters an inability to LTSHTS (think of the way we dehumanize criminals). What's more, if LTSHTS-denial is a psychological proposition, then our ethics become captive in a weirdly pragmatist way to psychology. After all, a purely psychological denial of LTSHTS proves not that the conduct in question is actually morally right, but rather that we ought to consider it morally right for reasons independent of its actual rightness.

As a philosophical principle (a principle of logic), LTSHTS-denial is also dubious. The logical implication of a categorical denial of the possibility of LTSHTS is that all conduct is permissible, since to oppose any conduct is to hate it, and to hate it would be to hate the person who commits it. Clearly this conclusion is unacceptable. Unless the only people we care about are a small elite of the very powerful, showing love to anyone (and certainly love, even at a minimum level, to everyone) entails desiring restrictions on others' conduct, and hence opposition to some acts. Take feminism (from whence comes much LTSHTS-denial in the gay rights case) as an example. Anti-feminists frequently charge that feminists hate men. But feminists reply (rightly) that while they hate patriarchy (as a system) and they hate oppressive acts carried out by men, they do not hate the men themselves -- if anything, they love men more than many forms of anti-feminism. What is this, if not LTSHTS? One proposal might be that it's possible to oppose the sin without hating it. Hate, we could say, is a particularly emotional and visceral sort of opposition. While this may be true, it doesn't solve our problem. I can imagine no standard of viscerality that would classify ordinary anti-gay rights views as hate without also including much of the justified anger that feminists express toward patriarchy. Or perhaps we could say that not all things that are wrong are sins. A sin is something that is wrong because it violates God's law. This would get secular moral theories off the hook of not being able to hate wrongdoing without hating the wrongdoer. But I see no reason why, psychologically or philosophically, it should be possible to love the committer of secular injustice while hating the secular injustice itself, but impossible to LTSHTS.

But perhaps we can restrict its domain. Perhaps something about the gay rights case makes LTSHTS inapplicable there, while it is applicable in cases such as patriarchy. There is a certain sense in which you cannot fully love a person while hating a false sin. Loving a person means wanting what's best for them. Obviously, if you have a false idea of what's best for them due to misclassifying one of their actions as a sin, you are unable to want what's actually best for them. But misguided love, bad as it may be in many instances, is different from hate.

Since there are sins (in the broad sense of "wrong acts"), and since (almost) no person is deserving of hate, we should continue to LTSHTS. This includes hating the sin of dishonestly or incorrectly claiming to LTSHTS when one actually does hate the sinner, and hating the sin of incorrectly determining which acts are sins.

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