Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"Hate the sin, love the sinner"

This quote is usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.

This is a distant echo of St. Augustine. His Letter 211 (c. 424) contains the phrase Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum, which translates roughly to "With love for mankind and hatred of sins." (from

What would a Buddhist say to this, since Buddhism considers "I" to be an illusion?  In Buddhist teachings, one frequently comes across the phrasing: "There is no actor, only the acts.", or "There is no dancer, only the dance."


I consider both formulations to be misguided.  That is because, in my opinion, the so-called "actor" is nothing but his body, mind, personality, traits, acts, interactions, knowledge, memories, skills, relationships, etc.

Whether we like it or not, these objects and processes are congealed into a single identifiable and persisting body/brain which is usually recognizable and labeled.

When such a body commits a bad act (say a rape, or a theft), we recognize (sensibly) that there must be something in that body/brain which must have led to that act.  Perhaps a wild or untamed instinct, perhaps a strain of immorality, perhaps a defect in conscience or a fault in the upbringing, ...

If the act is worthy of condemnation, then so is the origin of the act.  Both circumstances and one's tendencies should be considered as originating factors in a crime.  If the circumstances are such that a normal person could choose not to commit that crime, then we regard the crime as a matter of choice.  Therefore we target the choice-making mechanism in the criminal body/brain as worthy of condemnation, and therefore of punishment.

Condemnation as a cognitive response is merely disapproval.  Emotional condemnation is hate.

If condemnation, emotional or cognitive, of an act is justified, then so is condemnation of the origin of that act.  And as long as we are unable to identify and address the precise malfunction in someone's brain which caused him/her to commit the crime, we punish/condemn the whole individual.

Let us consider what would happen if we follow M Gandhi's advice.  The discourse would be as follows:

"He is a fine, sensitive, individual, but sometimes commits murders and rapes."

"He is woefully untrustworthy and has embezzled from hundreds of individuals, but is otherwise an honest man."

"She is a kind and lovable individual, though prone to rather frequent fits of anger and rage."

We may not be our acts (we are other things too), but we sure cannot back away from being responsible for them.

One can still, in some sense, love the sinner (in terms of being compassionate, wish for him/her to be reformed, etc.), but that's about the extent of one's relationship with him.

It is good to wish Angulimala well.  From a distance of course.  Beware of inviting him to your village kindergarten.

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