Thursday, February 24, 2011

Redefining Sin

Here's an article about a professor at the University of California, Irvine (where I received my doctorate in English, which is why I happened to become aware of the article) who teaches courses and is writing a book about how our society's ideas of what's moral or immoral have changed over time:

Vice and Virtue

The quotes in the article refer to areas where behavior that used to be condemned has become legal (and acceptable to most of the public), e.g., gambling, divorce, premarital sex, abortion, stem cell research, etc. I wonder whether the forthcoming book will go into regional differences. For example, gambling isn't equally acceptable everywhere. Recently I had a brief conversation with someone who'd moved here from one of the Deep South states, and she remarked how different the political "conversation" in Maryland is from what she was used to. Her example was gambling; last year Maryland approved the limited establishment of "video lottery facilities," i.e., slot machines, and is now debating whether casino table games should be allowed, too; the state this woman came from is still divided on whether to permit—church bingo!

To cite a limited sample I've been exposed to, I notice wide differences in opinion on current social trends among various online communities. For instance, prevalent attitudes on the S. M. Stirling list (tending to a majority of agnostics and pagans, as far as I can tell) and the C. S. Lewis list I subscribe to (mostly Christian) toward controversial issues are very different.

That article in the UCI magazine doesn't mention the fact that, for most issues, the group that considers a certain change an advance is usually balanced by a group that condemns the same change. One example given is the death penalty—some people would welcome its abolition as a great advance in civilization, while others think we'd benefit by having it applied more frequently and widely. Liberalizing of laws and attitudes regarding abortion and same-sex marriage is regarded as a good thing by many people but as a sign of decadence by many others. The latter occasionally cite such developments and the perceived overall increase of rudeness and coarseness in our society as examples of "defining deviancy downward." However, in other areas the past few decades have defined deviancy upward, becoming more strict and condemnatory rather than less. Remember when domestic abuse (before the term itself was invented) was a matter to be kept "in the family"? When excessive drinking was thought a legitimate subject for slapstick humor? When most adults smoked, and they did it EVERYWHERE? When heavy industry and high-powered cars were signs of prosperity, with no thought of possible negative consequences?

When we contact other species on distant worlds, their mores will differ from ours. Probably one faction will advocate a "Prime Directive" approach, forbidding Earth's space travelers from interfering with other cultures, but an opposition group might condemn cultural relativism and advocate active intervention on a world that practices such customs as slavery or genocide. Dealing with rapidly shifting mores in our own culture might be good practice for making those future decisions.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. Thank you for a very timely post, Margaret, and if I may take the topic a step lower, several scientific studies came out this week linking oral sex with throat cancer, and revealing that many modern youngsters do not consider oral sex to be "sex" at all.

  2. Neither did President Clinton, apparently. :)

  3. Wow Rowena. Wasn't expecting you to say that!

  4. And apparently, Margaret, the majority of Congressmen agreed with him.