There is No Second Order Guilt

There is no such thing as second order guilt.

This election, economic reasoning, and so many of our choices would be greatly simplified if more people were aware of this.

What is second order guilt? I’m glad you asked.

Freedom by Osajus, used by CC license.

Freedom by Osajus, used by CC license.

Second order guilt is a situation where you are morally culpable for the actions of someone else that led to your actions or resulted from your actions. It is the basis for many contemporary decisions, but it is not really a thing.

For example, some people argue that if you purchase clothing and that clothing was made by a slave somewhere that you are morally culpable for the person’s slavery. Or another example: some people argue that if the government funds abortions and you pay taxes that you are morally guilty of abortion.

If these sound compellingly familiar, it is because a great deal of argumentation in the public square is based on this sort of reasoning:

“Don’t use the Firefox browser because their CEO supports marriage.”
“You have to vote for X because if Y wins there are going to be more abortions in the US. Therefore, if you vote for Z and Y wins the blood of those babies is on your hands.”
“I buy fair trade coffee because I don’t want to be guilty of abusing poor Peruvian farmers who sell to non-fair trade companies.”

Where the Real Complexity Lies

There are two separate pieces to consider here. First, there are decisions that we make to leverage our economic or political power to bring about social change. Second, there is the actual assignment of guilt. It’s important to recognize the difference.

Boycotting a company over their policies is completely licit and ethically permissible. I think that evangelicals have gone off the rails and use it altogether too much as a blunt object, but people are free to leverage their money to bring about social change. The sugar boycotts that were implemented to help end slavery in Britain were useful both for raising awareness and for putting economic pressure on the plantation owners that used slave labor.

The risk in boycotting is that if it is used too much it loses its impact. Often, too, the products or companies that replace the banned product are nearly as bad or bad in other ways, so there is a great deal more moral ambiguity than people generally allow.

The second is the more significant issue. For many boycotters (or this year, political activists), in order to increase participation, they leap from making boycotting a power play to assigning moral guilt for a failure to participate.

Part of this, I think, is because for many people the ills that are driving the boycott are really that important. Also, there is the fact that no one wants to admit that they are really just making a power play and trying to beat someone else into submission. That’s what a boycott really is. It can be described in a more genteel way, but it is simply a legitimate means of coercion.

However, since the mushy middle, which is the vast majority of the population, is unlikely to take significant action based on a desire to reshape society through genteel economic pressure, activists often inspire commitment to their cause by claiming that someone who doesn’t participate in the boycott is participating in the evil that is driving the boycott.

Like sex outside of marriage, this idea sells, but it isn’t actually biblical. We aren’t guilty of unjust violence even if we pay taxes to a government funding an unjust war. We aren’t guilty of abortion simply because the federal government funds Planned Parenthood in lieu of health centers that provide health services and not abortion. We aren’t guilty of sexual assault because we vote for a particular candidate, nor necessarily for condoning it. (Now, if we minimize the actions...that is another story.)

Biblical Basis

I will provide one Old Testament example that there is no second order guilt, two examples from Paul, and one example from the life of Jesus. Other examples could likely be provided, however, these should be sufficient for this format.

In the Old Testament, in 2 Kings 5, after Naaman is healed, he expresses concern about bowing to an idol in the house of Rimmon while supporting his master. In reality, he was both bowing and facilitating the false worship of his master. However, his heart was not worshiping, he was merely fulfilling the terms of his employment and his patriotic duty. Elisha’s simple comment, “Go in peace,” provides evidence that Naaman was not going to be held accountable for false worship because he in some way helped his master honor a Rimmon. There is no second order guilt in that situation.

Second, Paul urges Christians to submit to a government in Romans 13:1-7. The reader should remember that the Roman government would kill Christians, commit what we would now call war crimes, and generally be barbaric by our contemporary standards. At the same time, Christians were to submit. They did not become guilty for the sins of the nation that they were submitting to. Paul didn’t indicate that by failing to protest or attempt a coup that they were guilty of the war crimes committed by the Romans. In fact, despite the fact that some of their taxes would pay for instruments of torture used against Christians, Paul tells the Christians to pay taxes (13:7).

Third, Jesus himself encourages people to pay tribute to the occupying nation that had desecrated the temple, slaughtered many of his countryman, and would someday kill him despite his absolute innocence. Despite these ills that such tax money would enable, Jesus did not hold himself or others guilty for paying such taxes. There is no second order guilt.

Fourth, dealing with the issue of conscience directly and commerce secondarily, Paul declares eating meat sacrificed to idols licit in 1 Corinthians 8. Buying meat from animals that had once been sacrificed to idols helped to finance the false worship. And yet Paul’s concern is with whether the eating the meat will violate someone’s conscience due to its having been sacrificed to idols. The purchase of the meat, which could support the false worship, is not considered. In fact, Paul makes it clear that it’s not the eating of the meat itself, but the individual’s sense that it is wrong; violating the individual's conscience is the problem. There is no second order guilt.

But My Conscience

The obvious rebuttal to the final example is that a person’s conscience can make the eating of temple meat a sin. This is correct. You can put yourself into a state of conscience over an otherwise good act that makes it a sin to do it. However, Paul calls the conscience that is thus violated weak. The reader is left to infer that mature Christians should not have concerns--at least that they should not make a practice of looking for concerns of conscience.

The upshot is that someone should not violate their conscience or encourage others to violate their conscience, but at the same time, Christians shouldn’t look for ways to create a labyrinth of conscience to navigate.


There is no second order guilt. Someone does not become guilty of abortion because they vote for someone who affirms revoking the Hyde Amendment. People do not become guilty of sexual assault because they vote for someone who has bragged about sexual exploits. Consumers do not sin by buying coffee that was produced under unjust circumstances. Property owners don’t become guilty of crimes committed on their property.

This does not free us from making wise decisions. We should look for proximate justice in our political and commercial activities. Christians will be wise to avoid supporting companies that force people to work in unsafe conditions. They will be wise to choose political candidates that on the whole affirm a biblical concept of holistic justice whenever possible. The Christian property owner should not be negligent in fencing his property or lighting it if crime is a significant problem.* However, these are matters of prudence.

Christians must pursue justice, but that is inevitably a messy affair in our world. For some Christians, advocating for a free market is equivalent to celebrating the moral evil of greed even when it can be shown to alleviate poverty in many cases. For other Christians, voting for a party that celebrates abortion at their national convention is reprehensible even though others view their redistributive economic policies as a moral necessity. In these cases, we are better off arguing the issues rather than binding each others’ consciences and repudiating one another.

What we must not do, however, is attempt to assign second order guilt to someone else because we don’t like their purchase, political party, or policies. That is simply unbiblical.

* (There may be laws that exceed the actual moral culpability regarding property use. In these cases, submission to the government entails following proper codes and local ordinances. To neglect these codes would be sin.)