Tom Gilson

“What Is Morality Other than Harm?”

BillT recommended this video on morality, harm, and human flourishing. It’s excellent.

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5 thoughts on ““What Is Morality Other than Harm?”

  1. For me the key concept discussed was the need to understand human purpose in order to understand human harm or good and evil. The example given is whether a watch is a “good watch” if you try and hammer a nail with it. Well it’s a very bad watch if you use it for that purpose instead of using it to tell time. You must know the purpose of anything to know what it’s good for. If you believe that we are here accidentally then how can you know what our purpose here is if any. How do you know what is good for humans or human flourishing if you do not know what their purpose is or if there really even is one.

    P.S. It’s well worth the 15 minutes.

  2. Tom:

    This is good stuff… but I have an important “quibble”—in particular with Mohler (who is implicitly yet mildly anti-Scholastic with regard to how Aristotle’s works were used), which ultimately reflects the difference between those who view God as an externalist puppeteer (e.g., imposing the Ten Commandments as a sort of cosmic traffic cop) and as a mere cause among causes vs. God not “removed” or “domesticated” down from His transcendence and immanence.

    I teach an honors course in which we just finished a unit on Aristotle’s Physics, De Anima, Nichomachean Ethics, and Politics. The astounding thing is just how closely the interlocutors were channeling Aristotle’s teleology—using terms like “what humans are for” and “functionality,” “virtue,” etc. The point being: human nature is the basis of moral actions—not directly God. God is the Creator of natures that act toward ends and hence achieve (if unimpeded) their ends. God, in that sense, is the Primary Ultimate Cause… not some proximate pencil-pushing accountant. One doesn’t violate God (who lacks nothing, i.e., there’s not a shred of potency “in” Him) by, e.g., violating one of the Commandments; one violates one’s own nature as created by God and hence denigrates ones own nature, becoming literally less human. One cannot “violate” God—that’s silly, and they did obliquely mention that.

    [Digression: to be “determined” is not to be “mechanistically” (i.e., externally) so: the two terms cannot be conflated. God’s Providence is not an efficient cause in the externalist, mechanistic sense of “making things happen,” but His Efficient Causality is manifested in an Ultimate sense: it permeates all contingent beings (St. Augustine: God is closer to me than I am to myself) as reflected—to the degree they exist—in their natures [human natures: imago Dei] which are determined per His Providence. He determined us to be free to live up to our created nature.]

    Please don’t get me wrong: I would follow Mohler into the fray and be his shield bearer any day: he’s doing exceptional work. I think this video IS a good one to share, and I will be sharing it with my older kids and I will show it in class. Nonetheless, my sensitivity lies with the—sometimes latent, sometimes overt—focus on “laws” as if they were external imposition rather than means by which freedom for human excellence is enhanced. To excellently worship God is to employ our highest power—reason—in doing so… but not only (Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). Christianity “christianized” Aristotle in a manner reflective of God’s Grace perfectizing nature—not destroying it.

  3. So they spend the first few moments of the video poopooing the idea “if it harms, then it is immoral” – then spend the rest of the video implicitly supporting that very same consequentialist idea, when talking about things like pornography and same-sex marriage (I wonder how quick the about-face would be if I could interject with questions about gun-control, and soda-laws in NYC?!). Interspersed throughout there seem to be flashes where they poopoo on the idea again – then support implicitly in the very next breath.

    So I’m a little confused about their views – are they big government, anti-individualist socialist consequentialists, or the kind of people who would denounce the idea “if it harms, it is immoral”?

  4. One thing that seems to get missed in these type of conversations is the bait and switch games that are being played by those who are promoting an individualistic view of morality, rights and freedom. Brad Stetson and Joe Conti, in their book, The Truth about Tolerance, describe it as a…

    “bait and switch scam in which relativism and ethical “neutrality” in our pluralistic setting are held out as grounds on which to disapprove and reject of moral traditionalism, but suddenly the new morality of secular liberalism is embraced and advocated on non-relativistic grounds. The covert moral particularity of secular liberalism– dressed in the cloak of the neutrality and misunderstood tolerance that are thought to be required for our pluralism– is smuggled out in to our law and social consciousness. But the result is anything but tolerant– a tyranny of the minority effectively stigmatizes as “homophobic” or “anti-choice” those communities of belief with strong transcendent moral traditions. The true “pluralist game”– our political attempt to reconcile social disagreement arising out of pluralism– has thus become a shell game in which respect for pluralism and diversity becomes an unrelenting engine for secular transformation.” ( p. 90)

  5. Interesting listen for their break down of everything is OK as long as you don’t hurt anybody being a useful rule. But utterly useless for the pornography/ssm debate. They did not discuss how these harm the individual. With out that they can’t make the leap to the harmed individual harming society nor the leap to the increased prevalence of it harming society.

    One thing missed here is that when it comes to law showing immorality or harm is not enough. It must also be shown that the cost of enforcing the law is less than the cost of not outlawing it. Many things fit this criteria. A government that counted calories for every individual and allotted desert allowances would probably result in a less obese society, but not a better one.

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