Getting Morality Wrong
Back in April, Gail Dines, a sociologist at Wheelock College in Boston, wrote a Washington Post piece arguing that pornography is a public health threat, regardless of its (im)morality:
The thing is, no matter what you think of pornography (whether it’s harmful or harmless fantasy), the science is there. After 40 years of peer-reviewed research, scholars can say with confidence that porn is an industrial product that shapes how we think about gender, sexuality, relationships, intimacy, sexual violence and gender equality — for the worse.
Dines argued that instead of focusing on the moral question, we should take “a health-focused view of porn and recognizing its radiating impact not only on consumers but also on society at large.” Fittingly, the piece is entitled “Is porn immoral? That doesn’t matter: It’s a public health crisis.” On the one hand, I’m certainly glad that sociologists, legislators, and others are recognizing the serious social harm caused by pornography. On the other hand, it’s clear that Dines and her ilk have a serious misunderstanding of morality.
What Morality Isn’t
Frequently, morality is spoken of as something akin to the offside rule in soccer: an arbitrary rule imposed by a higher authority that keeps up from getting to do what would make us happy. Let me unpack what I mean by each part of that description:
- According to this (faulty) view, moral laws are just arbitrary rules. It’s immoral to have sex before marriage; it could just as well have been immoral to have sex after marriage, or on Wednesdays, or during reruns of The Price is Right. But if morality is arbitrary, where do these rules come from?
- Moral laws are primarily external and imposed by an authority. Usually these people speak of morality as a rule issued by a higher authority: society or (especially) God. So we follow the rules either out of fear, respect, or love, or else to win a prize (like Heaven) or avoid a punishment (like hell). But even though we may follow the rules, that doesn’t make the rules any less arbitrary and irrational.
- The third element is that they keep us from doing what would make us happy. It’s this conception of morality that Billy Joel lambasts in “Only the Good Die Young” when he sings, ‘I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.’ In the case of sexual mores, the idea is that “moralistic” people “hate pleasure.” In other areas, this idea is more subtle, but the general idea is that rule-following is on one side, and having a good time is on the other. So we exchange happy, pleasure-filled lives for drab and dreary, orderly lives, in the hopes that our unhappiness now will result in our happiness hereafter.
In fairness to non-Christians, this conception of morality is disturbingly common, even amongst Christians. Victorian morality is replete with this idea that such-and-such an activity would make me happy, but I’ll forgo it so that God will reward me with Heaven later. And this spills over into the public square: if I can’t enjoy such-and-such, then my neighbor darn well better not be able to enjoy it, either.
It’s important to recognize two things. First, that this is how “moral talk” often looks and sounds from the outside (and depending upon who you’re talking to, from the inside, as well). Second, that this conception of morality is fundamentally wrong and can be pretty awful. At most, it can serve as a workable starting place for the moral life. It’s something that we need to grow out of.
What Morality Is
If you have small children, you’re surely familiar with the insane rules that you have to create for their own benefit: things like “don’t put a fork in the electrical socket.” To the toddler, that looks exactly like the ban on pornography looks to many adults: someone bigger than me, with the authority and ability to punish me, won’t let me do the thing that I really want to do. And maybe that’s enough to cultivate obedience (although in moments of weakness, maybe not).
But a mature perspective sees what the toddler’s view is missing. You’re not imposing this rule because you’re power-hungry, but because you know better than your stupid kid what will make him happy and what will electrocute him. That is, this rule (undoubtedly frustrating and tempting for the toddler in the moment!) is really born out of love.
So it is with the moral law. To see this, consider a few things. First, everything that you intentionally do is done (a) according to your human nature, and (b) in pursuit of our good. If you don’t believe me, just carefully consider why you do anything that you do: why did you set an alarm last night, why did you eat breakfast this morning, why did you yell when you were frustrated? In each case – whether you made a good decision or a bad one – you acted because you wanted to achieve something positive (health, pleasure, etc.) or avoid some negative (pain, etc.). And if you were to consider further, “well, why do I want to be healthy?” or “why don’t I want to lose a finger in the bread slicer?” you would eventually come to a dead end of sorts,.
That dead end – the ultimate motivation for all intentional human activity – could be summarized as something like “I want to be permanently happy.” But notice that you desire this as a human. You want good, but your good. An anteater might be ecstatic to spend all day with a colony of fire ants. You would likely be less happy in such a situation. So you’re acting according to what appears good to you as a human person.
But of course, there’s another aspect to consider as well. As I mentioned, every intentional human action (so leaving aside things like falling down the stairs) can be described this way. Every single time we intentionally act, we’re trying to achieve our good. But obviously, not all of our actions are successful in this regard. Sometimes, what we think will make us happy (especially the things we chose in the moment, like yelling at the person who frustrated us) don’t make us happy.
Look within yourself: if you ate everything you had the impulse to eat, would you truly be happy? If you slept with everyone you had the impulse to sleep with, would that make you happy? Or would you not instead be lonely and gluttonous and broken? If you can’t figure that out from looking within, try looking around you. So some of our desires should be listened to, and help to make us happy. Others of our desires are dangerous, and need to be moderated or entirely ignored. If only there were some way to know which was which; if only someone who could show us how to “human” better…
Of course, this is exactly why we have to consider God’s role in morality. Before you start to think of God as Divine Lawgiver, remember that He is Creator. That’s literally the first thing we know about Him from the order of the world, and it’s the first thing He reveals about Himself in Scripture (Genesis 1). That means that He created you: He knows you infinitely better than you know yourself. He understands how you tick, because He’s the reason that you tick. And He knows exactly what will make you truly happy… and which things won’t.
So with that in mind, let me suggest three elements of a better view of the moral law:
- Moral laws aren’t arbitrary. They’re rooted in our human nature. Pornography, murder, gluttony, greed, and the rest are forbidden for the same reason as putting a fork in the electrical socket. Those kinds of behaviors hurt other people, but they also hurt you, the moral actor, as a human person.
- As a result, moral laws are primarily internal. God doesn’t stand outside of Creation like a referee; He’s the ground of all being. The primary role of God’s law-giving isn’t imposing some new obligation upon us, but revealing us to ourselves. When He says “X is good” and “Y is bad” it’s not like a divine game of Simon Says. It’s more like when a doctor says “eggs are good for you” or “eggs are bad for you” (whichever it is). The Author of the universe is showing you a road-map to happiness and Heaven, and a map of your own soul.
- Finally, following the moral law is key to happiness. I don’t mean here that happy people never sin or that sinners are never happy. But I do mean that the Saint is a great deal happier and more joyful, a great deal more fulfilled as a human being, than the person spending hours a day watching pornography. This is clear when you consider the person who has completely given themselves to virtue and the person who has completely given themselves to vice. The former is aflame with love; the latter is mired in addiction and darkness. It’s not just that the afterlife is better for the Saint; it is frequently the case that this life is better for the Saint as well.
I should add an important caveat to this: in the moment, the wrong thing often feels right and pleasurable. If it didn’t, we probably wouldn’t do it. But that’s exactly why we need moral instruction. Ultimately, we don’t just want a moment of happiness but a lifetime, even an eternity, of it.
This, by the way, is why atheists can frequently be more moral than Christians. Even if they don’t have the assistance of a Divine road-map of the soul, they can often figure out big chunks of the moral law simply from life experience and wisdom (and conscience and the hidden workings of the Holy Spirit within, shhh). If the moral law really were the way Gail Dines and Billy Joel described it (as something arbitrary; external / imposed; and either unrelated to, or antithetical to, our happiness) it would be impossible for someone to arrive at it without revelation. Moral atheists are one of the clearest proofs, then, that the moral law is intimately linked to our human natures and happiness.
With that in mind, let’s circle back to the Dines piece on pornography. She says it “doesn’t matter” if pornography is immoral, because it can be scientifically shown to be destructive to ourselves and to society. That’s a bit like saying that it doesn’t matter if it is raining, because there’s water falling from the sky: if she understood what sin was, she would realize she’s describing it. Another seminarian lamented that it would be nice “if the author recognized that it hurts us BECAUSE it’s immoral.” But the truth is maybe more accurately the reverse: pornography is immoral BECAUSE it hurts us. And the same can be said for all forms of sin.