Theology and Sexuality, Part 4: The Harm Principle

So far, in considering what makes a sin a sin, we have, in earlier posts, looked at the following:

1. Divine Command: If the Bible lists it as a vice it's a sin.
2. Created Order: If the behavior/relation goes against God's created order it's a sin.
3. Hedonic Terminal Desires: If the sole goal of an action is to derive pleasure it's a sin.

In looking at each of these we have noted significant problems. Our fourth theological approach to sin seems, to me at least, a much better criterion for sin: Harm.

In "On Liberty," John Stewart Mill set out his famous Harm Principle. Summarizing, any action which I engage in that causes harm to another is, from a civic point of view, wrong.

Theologically, I think we can expand the Harm Principle to create a concept less focused on civic life (Mill's concern) and more focused on Kingdom life. Along these lines, I'd like to suggest that actions which harm the psychological or physical integrity of a person are forms of violence. This violence, ways we harm or hurt each other, can range in severity from the mild (e.g., gossip, sarcasm) to the heinous (e.g., genocide, rape). It can range from the personal (e.g., verbal or physical assault) to the impersonal (e.g., unfair economic structures). It can range from passive (e.g., neglect) to the active (e.g., intentional). And thus we have a whole, very depressing, taxonomy of harm from the subtle/personal/passive sort (e.g., I know where you misplaced the report but I'm mad at you so I'm not going to tell you where it is), to the heinous/impersonal/active sort (e.g., dropping an atomic bomb), to the severe/impersonal/passive sort (e.g., failures of a society to provide infrastructure for the poor, as witnessed after Katrina), to the moderately severe/personal/active sort (e.g., throwing a racial or derogatory remark at a person). And the list goes on and on.

I think the Biblical witness is pretty clear (at least the NT witness is) that harming is a sin. Of the principles discussed so far, this seems to be a very consistent theological perspective on defining sin. However, we should note that it can be, at times, very difficult to apply the harm principle. Is abortion harm? Can animals be harmed? Can trees be harmed? Can I harm myself? Is physician-assisted suicide harm? And so on.

However, although the harm principle can be difficult to apply in all particulars, in the main most would agree that harming, particularly harm directed at other persons, cannot exist in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is marked by non-violence, turning the other cheek, hospitality, peace, mercy, and kindness.

Turning, now to our case study of sexuality, how does the Harm Principle apply to sexual behaviors?

First, sex, as the most intimate of all human actions, is a place where we can and do harm each other greatly. Mostly, this occurs when we “use” each other for sexual gratification. This is particularly harmful if one person is tricked into granting sexual access, believing that we truly care about them when, in point of fact, we do not; we just want the sex. Thus, when we walk off from the relationship after sex (literally or metaphorically) we deploy language that we "used" or "played" a person. That is, we functionally used another human being to gratify our selfish need for orgasm. We were pursuing, to use the language of the last post, a terminal hedonic desire. We were not pursuing a relationship, we were pursuing pleasure. And, if the other person was misled on this account, this revelation deeply hurts. We feel "used" and "tossed aside" as someone else's "plaything." In short, in the world of sex, we harm each other very much.

So, God seems very interested in helping us manage the potential for harm due to our being sexual creatures. God does this largely by insisting that sex take place in a covenant relationship. This covenant helps us manage terminal hedonic sex, by binding sex to a relationship. That is, the building and the sustaining the relationship is the terminal goal. Sex can aid in that goal, but sex is not the goal.

Sexual harm can also be passive and impersonal. The pornography industry is a good example of this. Although looking at pornography doesn't seem to be hurting anyone, it actually is by supporting an industry that does much harm to women.

But the question SoulForce leaves us with is this: Does homosexuality cause harm? This can be debated, but at the end of the day, I think the answer is No. Not if it is covenant-based, which is how God wants sex to be managed. This is the first theological lens we have considered which actually seems consistent with (covenant-based) homosexuality. Interestingly, it is also the strongest theological (but not Biblical) argument for defining sin we have considered so far.

Four out of our five theological perspectives on sin have now been sketched out. Next post I'll finish this list by discussing our final perspective on sin. I call it the "Holiness Equation."

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

5 thoughts on “Theology and Sexuality, Part 4: The Harm Principle”

  1. Man, this just gets better and better.

    Your argument of sexuality as "harm" is very well-put. As long as I see others as a means to my sexual ends, then harm (even as insidious as it might be) seems to me the terrible infraction.

    Well, I'm anxious to see where all this leads. I really appreciate your approach.

  2. I also appreciate your thoughtful approaches to this, Richard.

    Let's be clear on Katrina: the public gave a gargantuan outpouring of help to these hurricane victims. Those harmed were more clearly a case of passive harm by state and local (not federal) governments who did not heed the federal government's warning.

    Vote Libertarian.

  3. I struggle to see how one demonstrates harm (e.g., the tobacco industry's defense of smoking--some get cancer, some don't), especially of a psychological sort. At what point does something become harmful? When the receiver feels hurt (e.g., sarcasm, gossip)? Won't we forever argue about the line? The end ethic seems to be the protection of person and property, which is fairly minimal from a Christian viewpoint. Actually, could one say that this ethic lacks a specifically Christian aspect? In other words, no theological commitments are required. If that is the case, in what sense is the ethic a theological ethic?

    As far as sex, why include a covenant? What moral value does the number of partners have as long as there is mutual consent? Can one show that multiple consensual partners is harmful? There does not seem to be much, if any, evidence that a covenant relationship precludes harm?

    If the criteria are, for the sake of argument, consent and commitment, is everyone happy with adult incest and polygamy as "goods"?

  4. Many good points. Things that I need to think about. Which is why I started this blog. If ideas aren’t in “community” they can get kinda crack-pot. And I’m prone to that.

    Some reflections…
    First, I agree that the harm criteria can be hard to discern. There is a whole lot more to say about it. Books to be written. So I hope my post isn’t judged simply because I didn’t write all that could be written.

    Second, I do think prohibitions against harm are deeply theological. It goes back to Genesis 4: The murder of Abel. It resonates all through OT law. It is there in the Decalogue. It is in the Sermon on the Mount. In sum, I think prohibitions against harming are deeply theological.

    Third, regarding sexual harm, we have to ask why God wants to regulate sexual activity. Why does he care about who has sex with whom? Well, the argument from the Created Order is one kind of answer to that question. And it is a good answer: God cares because sex was intended to be a certain kind of way. Another kind of answer is an argument from harm: Sex, due to its intimate nature, makes us particularly vulnerable to harm. Thus, God might want to regulate sexuality for reasons related to harm. Those might not be His only reasons, but it seems plausible that this might factor into His regulatory interests. If so, how might He mitigate harm? By insisting that sex be bound to a larger relational-commitment to seek the good of the Other. I’m not suggesting that this is right or true. I’m just simply suggesting that this is a reasonable line of thinking.

Leave a Reply