This week’s Friday Flashback, entitled “Thought Crimes”, was originally published on Sept 8, 2007.

I started thinking about today’s question after I got side-tracked, in typical fashion, from another line of thought. But I’ll get to the question in a minute. What got me started was a phrase: delectatio morosa. Let your tongue linger on that for a moment. It doesn’t mean what you might think it means. A friend once casually dropped it in conversation (that’s the kind of friends I have), and it’s been percolating in my mental store of more-or-less-useless knowledge ever since. Delectatio morosa is the pleasure taken in a sinful thought even without desiring it. It’s one of the ‘internal sins’ of Catholicism, the others being gaudium (dwelling with complacency on sins already committed) and desiderium (the desire for what is sinful).

Now, the latter two ‘sins’ are readily intelligible to me, particularly if one takes a broad view of sinfulness. I can, indeed, dwell with some complacency upon certain sins I have committed – to be sure, nothing quite deserving of eternal damnation, but sins nevertheless. As for desiring the sinful – well, many would agree that it’s often the sinful that is most tempting.

But delectatio morosa is different. What does it mean to take pleasure in thinking of sin without desiring it? One may, for example, ponder the notion of methodically torturing one’s fellow man – but then again, one’s fellow man can be routinely rude, selfish and exasperating. Of course, one would shrink in horror from actually torturing the bastard, but it’d be rather disingenuous to argue that there isn’t even a fleeting desire to give a swift kick or two (or to wish one could, without moral or legal regrets). So, it seems to me, there is certainly pleasure in thinking of something one desires to do, at least in an abstract sense, knowing it is, at the same time, something one would not actually do. On the other hand, why would it be pleasant to think of inflicting pain on your dog? Or having sex with your elderly aunt? If the thing itself is not something that, at least on some bizarre, perverse or subliminal level, one desires (or desires to do), then how can the thought of it be pleasurable? Am I missing something here? I shudder to think that I have, somehow, been led to the very edges of my imagination and left there, hanging, bereft of the means to get on solid ground again.

Still, thinking about delectatio, and pleasant and unpleasant sins, led me to the following, mostly unrelated, question:

What is the most immoral thing you would do, if no one were to ever find out about it?

I’m not claiming credit for originality; I’m sure you’ve heard the question before. In some strange way, it reminds me of the annoying query about the sound of trees falling in the empty forest. My answer to the latter has always been – who cares? Leaving aside the hypothetical existence of an omniscient entity, a tree falling in the forest, with no one around to witness it, may or may not be silent but it is, surely, irrelevant. Absent some form of vegetative consciousness, it would be as if the tree never stood or, after a few years’ decay, never existed.

Can the same be said about an immoral act? Is immorality a social construct? If one could draw an impenetrable cloak over one’s actions, veiling them from the eyes of society, would the same compunctions hold one back from exercising free will? Of course, you couldn’t hide your acts, merely their ownership. The forest, in our case, has its own consciousness and will bear witness to, for example, a fallen comrade or an act of depredation. But is it enough to know that one does not face public sanction in order to loosen the bonds of morality – and to what extent? Or is morality found much closer at home than in the eye of our neighbour? To go further, can one put a price on morality? What’s the most immoral act you would commit for $1,000,000.00? $5.00? Should the price make a difference?

I don’t think there is a ‘right’ answer to the question of whether morality is relative or absolute. But, sometimes, your own answer might surprise you.

Editor’s note (September 2012): I’m such a goody-two-shoes. No, really. Notice how I never really wrote what’s the worst thing I would do? That’s because I couldn’t – and still can’t – think of anything more egregious than breaking a bylaw or two. Like littering. [And, if I’m being honest here, I’ve already done that. Sorry.] I just couldn’t live with myself and the knowledge of what I’d done, even if no one else ever had the means of knowing. I’d be the compulsive confessant coming down to the police station every week. This is why I could never cheat on my husband. Well, one of the big reasons, anyway. I don’t know why it is – because I’m not Catholic – but I have an overdeveloped sense of guilt. And that extends to thinking about doing bad things.

Do you share my overdeveloped sense of guilt? What’s the most immoral thing you would do – for free? What’s the most immoral thing you would do for a million bucks?


2 Comments on Friday Flashback: Delectatio Morosa

  1. Oh, very interesting read for a Friday morning. Eventually, I will come back and answer your question: “My worse”, but for now I will tell you a story…
    Where I’m from, there are millions upon millions jokes featuring two main characters, Bosnians, Mujo (pronounced Mooyo) and Fata (pronounced Fatah). Mujo is short for Mohamed, and Fata is short for Fatima, both very much Muslim names in that part of the world. In all of the jokes, Mujo’s and Fata’s IQ is…well…almost non-existent.
    (Writing this I’m considering that us overdoing humor and Bosnians not being very receptive of it might have contributed to the ’92-’95 bloodbath in Balkans, but thinking is further would ruin my joke).
    Thus, somewhere in the Balkans, there are Mujo and Fata, neighbors and acquaintances. Mujo is thinking how to start a conversation while Fata is reading a gossip magazine.
    Mujo: Fata, would you sleep with George Clooney for a million bucks?
    Fata: Hihihi, I think I would…
    Mujo: Would you sleep with Brad Pitt for a million bucks?
    Fata: Oh my, I think I would…
    Mujo: Would you sleep with Brad Pitt, even if he was married, for a million bucks?
    Fata: You know what? I would!
    Mujo: Would you sleep with me for 10 Euros?
    Fata, gets up and slaps Mujo across the face: What do you think I am??? A whore?
    Mujo, in shock: I thought that we have established that part. I merely started negotiating the price…
    I’ll think about this and come back to challenge “Is there a price tag on everything a person would do, illegal/immoral or not?”

  2. I ignore your question and raise you a digression (not the sinful kind; except it probably does qualify as thought-crime under Catholic dogma).

    The great Christopher Hitchens said of religion and its doctrine:

    “[Humans are] objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and then commanded to be well … and over us to supervise this is a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea.”