The following is the first in a three part series on the topic of, what I've called, "Progressive Depravity". I wrote this article a couple of years ago, and it's current form is the product of numerous revisions.
Speculative Dialogue on Progressive Depravity
Assumptions and Common Ground
The truth is, we all have basic presuppositions concerning morality. When we talk about evil, it immediately becomes complex because of the sheer plethora of opinions. However, universal agreement about the finer details of morality need not be present in order for coherent discussion to take place. The value of human life (in a Christian framework - because that person is created in the image of God), and treating others as you would like to be treated are two basic principles which can be assumed for the sake of dialogue.
Depravity and Progression
Human experience teaches us that one naturally gravitates towards evil. It is easy to become angry, lose your temper, and say something you, in an otherwise normal state of mind, would not usually say. It takes hard work to stay calm, remain in control, and think before you speak. Not only do we gravitate towards evil, we also find ourselves progressing into deeper levels of sin. However, is one sin worse than another? I maintain that the difference is not one of essence, but rather, one of progression. Progression from an involuntarily sensitive conscience to a voluntarily seared conscience. Thus, certain sins, may in fact, be worse than others. Though the fact of evil is present in any sin, the level of depravity varies greatly. For the sake of speculative dialogue, I propose ten 'levels' of hardness experienced during one's progression into depravity. These levels, are not necessarily chronological, that is, one level does not always follow the prior. They are, however, progressive, that is, each level is more depraved than the one before. The (1) intent of the perpetrator, the (2) level of guilt experienced, and the (3) perceived possibility of moral reform are three of the main factors which influenced the formation of the following ten levels.
Level One- Morally Ignorant
At this level are those who are honestly unaware of the rightness or wrongness of a particular issue. Like a tourist, who unknowingly breaks custom in a foreign country, so too is the individual who unknowingly commits evil. Under this level, is a child who, unawares of the danger, touches a hot stovetop. Although it would be unfair to say that the child sinned, it would be equally unfair to say that the child acted in a way consistent with the way things ought to be. Thus, although the action committed was wrong (better: not good), the child himself was not guilty of wrongdoing. This level exists more as a functionally necessary stepping stone.
Level Two- Disobedience with Guilt
The person in this level feels immediate remorse after wrongdoing. This type of person would be viewed as someone who lived by their ‘principles’. Objectivity of their scruples aside, the point here is that these people have standards, and they actually try to follow them. Since an operative moral framework is in place, a certain amount of guilt is to be expected. Pressure to obey from within (guilty conscience), as opposed from pressure to obey from without (cultural norms), is an important aspect of this level. This type of person would be quite responsive to a call for moral reform. In fact, it is quite possible that this person would turn from their sin without the factor of third party confrontation.
A personal experience of mine when I was a child classically illustrates this level. Growing up, my parents always gave me and my brothers Easter baskets on Easter morning. For some odd reason, the candy in my brother’s Easter basket seemed so much better than the same candy in mine. I began to crave my brother’s candy, and so, when he wasn’t looking I grabbed a piece of his candy out of his Easter basket. The guilt I felt in my mind adversely affected the clarity of my senses, and I was so nervous of being caught that I threw the candy into my mouth wrapper and all! Disobedience - consequences - guilt - reform.
Part two of this series will cover levels three through six.