Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Line is Gone

Is it morally forbidden to have a bad habit?

Actually, don't answer that, it's just meant as a hook to lure you into reading this post. What's actually got my attention is this idea of "morally forbidden". Society, and especially Western society, has strongly developed notions of individual rights and freedoms. All actions tend to be slotted into an ethical category - morally forbidden, morally permissible, or morally required. It seems to be a fairly intuitive classification system. Most people use it; the bulk of the disagreement is over what is slotted where and in what situations, if any, might that categorization change?

But I'm beginning to think that this categorization is bogus. That's not to say that I think good and evil are bogus, but just that this classification system doesn't really align itself to the essence of good and evil.

Suppose my sister asks to borrow some money. And let's suppose that we all agree I am not morally required to give her that money, so I don't. Accordingly, I have not done anything wrong by withholding the money from her.

Now let's suppose that I'm walking to work. As I'm plodding down the sidewalk, I see someone drop her briefcase. It snaps open and a stack of important looking papers scatter all over the path. Suppose that we again all agree that I am not morally required to stop and help this person pick up the papers.

And let us imagine that my employer is mistreating me. Even if I discover that my employer has a new baby and a dying parent, which probably accounts for his frazzled and short-fused behaviour, it would not be morally forbidden for me to file a complaint and leave for a new job.

But let's *pretend* that this is my lifestyle. I am cold, unfeeling, and entirely self-centered. Even though I technically never do anything morally forbidden, and never fail to do anything that is morally required, I am a complete and utter *ugly name*.

Legal law reflects this breakdown - there is nothing illegal about being a jerk. But there must be something morally wrong about being a jerk. So why are we so preoccupied with deciding whether we must or must not do something? As far as I can understand, everything makes a lot more sense if we consider what would be best instead of what would be the bare minimum.

If we swap "think about" with "do" in Philippians 4:8, then I think we have a much better tool for making moral decisions.

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - DO these things."

Granted, it does throw "whatever is right" in there, which might seem to bring us right back around to our original confused state of drawing lines between categories, but I don't think it does. There are clearly some things that are good, and there are clearly some things that are bad, but I don't know that I believe there is a hard, defined break between required and forbidden. That's just something we've invented to make it easier for us to get away with being self-centered. It seems rather ironic that making the lines fuzzy actually results in greater expectations.

And I, as a proclaimed follower of Christ, should disregard the three categories and consider things only in light of how morally excellent it is. Enough with agonizing over what I have to do and what I can get away with. So anyways, that's my theory. I think I'll call it the Theory of Best Choice. Or maybe "WWJD"?

“'My doctor says that I have a malformed public duty gland and a natural deficiency in moral fibre,' he muttered to himself, 'and that I am therefore excused from saving Universes.'” Douglas Adams


Bri said...

Very intriguing and thoughtful post! I love that verse... one of my favorites. Also makes me think about how people say "is it wrong to do this?" and want to get as close as they can to sin without actually sinning but the idea is to be pure, noble, and right in everything, and if we focus on that verse we don't need to worry so much about whether we're sinning... as we're transformed it becomes harder to sin or be a jerk. That's just what I think.

art said...

Another category that is hard to place things into is "Left Wing" and "Right Wing". Then you can mix terms like "Religious Right" into the fray. Probably the "Left Leaning Tree Huggers" are the people that are trying to categorize ethical behavior. That sounds like stuff they would do.

Anonymous said...

If you try to choose the most excellent path instead of getting away with being selfish then you start thinking about what would be the best instead of thinking about what could be justified as 'not wrong'. Without even realizing it, you start thinking about what is true and pure, as the verse says.