Corey Harris in chapel

(Sin) Taxing the Human Soul

By Corey Harris, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and author of “The Soul, Addiction, and Sin Taxes.”

Thomas Aquinas argues that all of our wants and desires are fundamentally directed toward a relationship with God. But they are also misdirected due to original sin. The human soul is different from the sensitive/animal soul in that it possesses the powers of reason and will. Through the application of reason, we can determine the proper way to navigate our affections and desires so that we can achieve our ultimate good — true friendship with God. 

The difficulty is that while humans possess reason and will, we determine what is reasonable by the knowledge we gain through our senses and our experiences. Hence, when something “feels good,” reason must determine if that good feeling is reasonable and directed toward our natural end of friendship with God or if  it is a temporary and false good. The calm produced by prayer or a hug from a loved one can be authentically good, while the calm produced by smoking a cigarette or from ingesting marijuana are fleeting and false goods. But when reason misperceives a false good for a real good, a feedback loop is created and a habitus (to use Aquinas’ original Latin terminology) is created. The problem with a negative habitus is that it takes root in the soul. In the case of an addiction, we may be considering a habitus that actually breaks the human soul. When reason finally rights itself and perceives the ingestion of the drug or the addictive activity to be wrong, the will is too broken to stop.

Before directly commenting on sin taxes, I must concede that I am a cradle Catholic. When we have a parish festival, the games of chance are often adjacent to the beer tent. While I am not arguing for the prohibition of any particular substance or activity, I do find it problematic that the state has created an economic circumstance where it benefits from people engaging in or becoming addicted to morally questionable substances or activities.

Sin taxes are most commonly excise taxes placed on the manufacturing, sales or profits from morally questionable substances or activities. In the pursuit of raising revenues, governing bodies have become increasingly reliant on levying higher taxes on currently legal drugs like alcohol, legalizing and taxing activities such as gambling, or considering the legalization and taxation of currently illegal drugs like marijuana. These taxes are regressive and exploit the pain of those most in need of society’s help. Legalizing an activity or substance does increase the raw number of users. Users are more profitable when they use more. Users are most profitable when they cannot stop using. Profiting from the sale of drugs and addictive activities such as gambling seems like an odd way for the state to fulfill its most basic duty — protecting and promoting the common good.

Addiction can be understood as a breaking of the human soul. Whatever good, service or tax cut the state is promising to provide, the destruction of human souls is too high of a price to pay.