By Wendell Cantrell
Is conduct immoral only if it causes direct harm to another person? In the May 19, 2012 issue of the Chicago Tribune, columnist Eric Zorn was making a case for allowing same-sex marriage. He argued that there was not a moral issue concerning the sexual activities of consenting adults. He summed it up by saying, “To me, immoral conduct is that which harms others, period.”
We have reached a point where many well-meaning people agree with Zorn on the general morality issue as well as the specific issue he addresses in the article. In 2003 the US Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas completely invalidated any law against homosexuality. Many churches today would be shocked to find out that many of their younger attendees would agree with the columnist and the court.
We need to closely examine Zorn’s thesis. We would certainly agree that any intentional harm to an individual is immoral. His statement raises two essential questions: What does harm look like? Who are others? We will discuss both questions in this issue of Culture Watch.
In addressing the verb harm, we can’t avoid discussing harm to ourselves. How can you convince someone they are harming themselves with immoral conduct when what they are engaging in seems so right, and even fulfilling at the time? Two recent trends are showing how awareness of consequences can wake us up. Medical advances have been a huge help. The health issues associated with smoking have been headlined over the past 20 years. Almost annually, another disease is linked with this habit, never mind the dangers of second-hand smoke to nearby family and friends. A second moral issue causing personal harm is abortion. Potential harm is being highlighted with amazing clarity in ways that are grabbing the younger generations’ attention especially. First, we are starting to hear compelling stories from courageous women who are willing to openly share the emotional struggles they are enduring after an abortion. Second, the use of sonograms at crisis pregnancy centers is giving undeniable evidence of fetal personhood! Stay tuned to Culture Watch as a later issue will address the good fight being waged by our pro-life advocates. One could easily argue that abortion is one of the clearest cases of immoral conduct clearly harming both self and others.
What about the harm to others? The problem here is that we restrict the definition of “others” to a radically individualist concept. In restricting morality to that which directly causes harm only to specific persons, we sadly eliminate an absolutely essential moral horizon — the community of which individuals are a part. Evangelical faith offers a moral vision that embraces the individual, but also the greater community. As important as these horizontal relationships are, we also have to keep in mind the vertical relationship with our Holy Father. One could argue that we can’t harm God as we harm humans. Instead, we should focus on the fact that we are robbing Him of his glory.
Let’s look briefly at two cases of immoral conduct that might, on the surface, appear rather benign and non-harmful. The first case is near to my heart, as it is to many of you who are helping care for a senior parent. The fifth commandment speaks of honoring our parents (Exodus 20:12). It is actually the only command accompanied by a promise. So what is the harm in disengaging from a difficult or demanding parent? We could start with the heartache of dealing with a prodigal child. Then we could move to the example we are leaving for our own children (remember, we’ll soon be the difficult senior). As we broaden our perspective to community, how easy is it, after disregarding an aspect of the institution of family, to then head down the path of failure to submit to civil authorities? We have been blessed by God with these institutions and guidance within them that are essential for human flourishing.
The second case we’ll consider is pornography. This habit would probably be deemed more immoral than the way you deal with your parents. What about any personal harm? Rather than making a long list, let’s just look at two ways the porn user may be harmed. Time management can be a huge issue as you waste precious time scrolling through web sites. Intimate relations with your partner will invariably suffer as you focus on ideal images instead of a “more ordinary” spouse. How about any damage to others though? Isn’t porn just a personal issue? Porn affects community in the following ways: it creates a growing and very sustainable market, it traps girls in dead-end and potentially dangerous jobs, and finally, it creates the first dangerous step for many teens sliding into sexual immorality. Of course, from God’s perspective, another command is being broken — the seventh commandment about not committing adultery. Jesus’ teaching concerning this commandment on adultery expands it to include the lustful look as well as the act itself.
We could sum it up by saying that immoral conduct affects three spheres: we harm ourselves, we harm our community, and finally (but of supreme importance) we rob God of His glory. Is there any immoral conduct that doesn’t reach beyond the individual into these wider spheres? My contention would be that there isn’t. Some of this discussion on morality is based on a recent interview that Al Mohler and Tim Keller did with Collin Hansen of The Gospel Coalition. It is about 15 minutes long, but well worth your time. Watch the video.