Morality vs. Morality

It strikes me as strange that many of us define morality in different ways. Then we make pretty severe judgement about the validity of others’ morality.

For the sake of this discussion I will use the terms “traditional” and “progressive” to identify two divergent perspectives. I am not using these terms to align with political ideology (although there is some overlap), but to differentiate between two different world-views.

Traditional people are those who define morality within the limits of private, personal actions. Immorality is primarily thought of as behaviors like using drugs, getting drunk, using profanity, sex outside marriage, and exposing one’s self to other immoral people.

Progressives usually identify  immorality as behavior that harms others. This would be things like oppressive government persecution, the marginalization of groups of people, the perpetuation of poverty, hateful speech, bigotry, environmental irresponsibility, greed, and neglecting those in need.

While there may be some overlap between these groups, their definitions of morality are distinct. The problem is not that either side is wrong. Both perspectives are important. The problem is the way they dismiss each other.

The traditional side sees morality as only a personal issue, therefore they can overlook the harmful actions of governments, corporations, businesses, or organizations. They can often live with pollution, war, discrimination, and corporate greed, because they do not connect these problems to individual moral lapses (such as sexual infidelity or lying). They accuse the progressive side of being immoral because they seem to care about societal issues while having little condemnation of personal issues.

The progressive side understands the most immoral behavior to be that which harms the most people. They may accuse a business that pollutes a river, damaging the health and livelihood of those who live along the river, of a greater offense than the person who abuses drugs or cheats on his taxes. The progressive camp views the traditionalists as immoral because the traditionalists seem to care more about imposing a set of rules on others than solving societal problems.

This distinction is especially obvious in regard to politics. The traditionalists are usually opposed to legislation that would limit the rights of big business, reduce military spending, address discrimination, or attempt to protect the environment. They prefer government to focus its attention on individuals evils such as homosexuality, drugs, and abortion.

In contrast, the progressives put their political energy into solving societal problems and leave the individual morality to personal choice.

As a Christian I see the majority of people who share my faith falling into the tradition category. I also see the need for every one of us to expand our ideas of morality. Progressives need to understand that every moral action begins with individual choices, and traditionalists need to accept responsibility in opposing societal evil.

Many of us take our stand based on political ideology rather than morality. Can we really say that we are pro-life if we oppose abortion, but have little regard for poor, marginalized people whose lives are devastated by pollution? Can we really say that we support equal rights when we buy our clothes from companies that produce products in sweat shops by children being paid three cents an hour? Can we say that we love all when we are indifferent to war and violence that destroys innocent families in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sundan, Libya . . . ?

These are not Republican, Democrat, Conservative, Liberal, Progressive, or Traditional issues. They are issues of life and morality. Can we be people who make choices with regard to life rather than politics, economics, or tradition?


  1. Dualism | - July 11, 2011

    […] “There are only two views that face all the facts. One is the Christian view that this is a good world that has gone wrong, but still retains the memory of what it ought to have been. The other is the view called Dualism. Dualism means the belief that there are two equal and independent powers at the back of everything, one of them good and the other bad, and that this universe is the battlefield in which they fight out an endless war. I personally think that next to Christianity, Dualism is the manliest and most sensible creed on the market. But it has a catch in it.” -C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity Scripture (and experience) tell us that the effects of sin upon creation have been devastating, but Scripture never even comes close to saying that sin corrupted what God made good. A dualistic view sets God at odds with physical creation. This implies that we, God’s people, should have little care for the natural world, and take no pleasure in it. This idea is a terrible distortion of the loving God who created a world full of amazing sights, unimaginable experiences, and gives humanity the responsibility to care for it. (For more thoughts about the way a dualistic view affects our view of morality, see the post Morality vs. Morality.) […]

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