Morality vs. Moralism

Morality is a decision-making system which gives the ability to judge between right and wrong. It is a ruler by which things are measured and found to be worthy or not. It is a filter that strains out the wrong, leaving what is right.

Sociopaths lack a real moral system and is therefore free to choose behaviors the rest of us find horrific. A lack of empathy makes them mean. A lack of fear of reprisal makes them bold. And a lack of behavior restraints makes them uninhibited in what they’ll do. As the opposite, morality establishes empathy, a sense of consequences, and restraint.

Because empathy, consequences, and restraint are essential to relational health— encouraging helpful behavior and discouraging harmful behavior — a shared morality is foundational for a community to operate.

Moralism, on the other hand, is the elevation of a particular moral system to God-like status.

Many Christians have a strong sense of shared morality, because we look to the same Bible as our God-given guide for life. Now, the Bible isn’t just a guide book, but it does offer plenty of moral guidelines for us to follow. And because its morality derives from an unchanging God, it is timeless.

Because of this absolute quality, there is a tendency for Christians to slide into moralism, to think of the Scripture’s rules as an end to themselves and to therefore focus on keeping them and making sure that others keep them as well.

It’s essential to remember that the purpose of all good rules is to protect relationships. Morality exists for relational health, not as a stick to whack people with.

Moralism removes that relational goal and makes being moral itself as the goal of morality. Through moralism, our morality becomes a measuring stick not of right and wrong, but of me and you.

Now, Christians do not hold a monopoly on moralism. Political correctness is itself a form of moralism.

When God ceases to be the giver of moral standards, it is left up to us to determine them for ourselves. And when we do, we become that much more invested in our protection and promotion of them.

It’s been a fearful thing to watch professional sports leagues become moral police forces. In some cases recently, leagues have gone far beyond where any legal court would ever go in their prosecution and punishment of athletes who have broken certain social moral codes.

In one case, the owner of the Clippers basketball team lost his ownership of the team because of an illegally recorded conversation where he made a number of racist comments. The comments were ugly, indefensible, and felt like a betrayal to a league largely comprised of African-American athletes, but the moralistic witch-hunting and prosecution via social media was a scary thing to watch unfold.

Similar judge-jury-and-executioner stories have played out over social media with a lion-killing dentist and a world class model who lost her modeling contract over an ill-advised tweet.

In each of these cases, there was a degree of legitimate moral outrage. But in each of them, that outrage spilled over its legitimate bounds and became a moralistic campaign intent on ruining a person’s life, not restoring them to right relationship.

All true morality seeks restoration of relationships. When we find ourselves abandoning the relationship-saving nature of morality and looking down on others, we know that we have entered the deadening realm of moralism.