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Moral Wrongs: Much More Than Mere 'Mistakes'

Something bothers me about the way a lot of people talk about wrongdoing these days.

Not long ago, I heard some Utah teenagers talking about the "mistakes" their star-athlete classmates had made in perpetrating a series of armed robberies. And most recently I heard this locution used in the case of a professional basketball star who choked his coach. There he was at his TV news conference admitting that he'd made a "mistake."

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Well, at least that's a step forward from that famous admission that came out of the White House some years back, that "mistakes were made." At least "I made a mistake" makes clear that mistakes don't just make themselves.

But "mistake" is the wrong term. The way this turn of speech has been advancing in our language should be setting off alarms in our culture. Words matter, because they both reflect and govern how we think and act.

This naming as "mistakes" what we used to call our sins or crimes is a way of taking our misdeeds out of the moral realm. It obscures the central fact that we make choices, and that we are responsible for them. And thus, it lets the wrong-doer off the hook.

If I'm trying to drive in a nail and hit my thumb instead, that's a mistake. If I'm trying to go north on the interstate but take the ramp for the southern direction, that's also a mistake.

But if I put my hands on my coach's throat to throttle him, or if I hold up a 7-Eleven, those are more than mistakes.

The difference is a matter of intent. When I miss what I'm aiming for - hitting my thumb or making the wrong turn - "mistake" is the right name for it. But if my intention itself is wrong - trying to hurt the coach, or stealing what isn't mine - it's a moral matter.

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Words count. People who make mistakes can regret but they cannot repent. "I wish I hadn't hit my thumb" feels entirely different from "I'm really sorry I treated you like that." In the one case, although I wish I could go back and make something different happen, the change in events does not require that I make myself different in any essential way. In the other case, the essential change is a change of heart. Repentance is a reformation of the will.

THE repentant person resolves to come from a different place, the place from which come the good and the right, rather than the evil and the wrong. Repentance moves things. The person who has made a mistake does not see himself as having to move in that fundamental way. And without that movement, nothing really has changed to make the future different.

It's easy to understand why we would rather admit to having made a mistake than to having done something wrong or terrible or sinful. Admitting a mistake is a lot less painful than confessing to a crime or a sin. Pain is central to repentance, because it provides the motive for the needed change of heart.

Ours is not an era that believes much in the potential value of pain. We are not inclined to see suffering as redemptive, or as the route to wisdom, two ideas that are deeply entwined with the roots of our civilization. We see suffering, rather, as a problem of which we wish simply to be relieved.

I suspect, then, that it is to spare ourselves that particularly moral kind of pain - of seeing our moral defects for what they are, and working to change ourselves into something better - that we've adopted this habit of putting all our wrong turns under the category of "mistakes." But in the long run it will be more painful for all of us if we lose the ability for straight talk, and honest feeling, about moral wrongs.

* Andrew Bard Schmookler is a freelance writer in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. More of his ideas can be found at

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