Getting Morality Wrong

Rembrandt, Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law (1659)
Rembrandt, Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law (1659)

Back in April, Gail Dines, a sociologist at Wheelock College in Boston, wrote a Washington Post piece arguing that pornography is a public health threat, regardless of its (im)morality:

The thing is, no matter what you think of pornography (whether it’s harmful or harmless fantasy), the science is there. After 40 years of peer-reviewed research, scholars can say with confidence that porn is an industrial product that shapes how we think about gender, sexuality, relationships, intimacy, sexual violence and gender equality — for the worse.

Dines argued that instead of focusing on the moral question, we should take “a health-focused view of porn and recognizing its radiating impact not only on consumers but also on society at large.” Fittingly, the piece is entitled “Is porn immoral? That doesn’t matter: It’s a public health crisis.” On the one hand, I’m certainly glad that sociologists, legislators, and others are recognizing the serious social harm caused by pornography. On the other hand, it’s clear that Dines and her ilk have a serious misunderstanding of morality.

I. What Morality Isn’t

Frequently, morality is spoken of as something akin to the offside rule in soccer: an arbitrary rule imposed by a higher authority that keeps up from getting to do what would make us happy. Let me unpack what I mean by each part of that description:

  • According to this (faulty) view, moral laws are just arbitrary rules. It’s immoral to have sex before marriage; it could just as well have been immoral to have sex after marriage, or on Wednesdays, or during reruns of The Price is Right. But if morality is arbitrary, where do these rules come from?
  • Moral laws are primarily external and imposed by an authority. Usually these people speak of morality as a rule issued by a higher authority: society or (especially) God. So we follow the rules either out of fear, respect, or love, or else to win a prize (like Heaven) or avoid a punishment (like hell). But even though we may follow the rules, that doesn’t make the rules any less arbitrary and irrational.
  • The third element is that they keep us from doing what would make us happy. It’s this conception of morality that Billy Joel lambasts in “Only the Good Die Young” when he sings, ‘I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.’ In the case of sexual mores, the idea is that “moralistic” people “hate pleasure.” In other areas, this idea is more subtle, but the general idea is that rule-following is on one side, and having a good time is on the other. So we exchange happy, pleasure-filled lives for drab and dreary, orderly lives, in the hopes that our unhappiness now will result in our happiness hereafter.

In fairness to non-Christians, this conception of morality is disturbingly common, even amongst Christians. Victorian morality is replete with this idea that such-and-such an activity would make me happy, but I’ll forgo it so that God will reward me with Heaven later. And this spills over into the public square: if can’t enjoy such-and-such, then my neighbor darn well better not be able to enjoy it, either.

It’s important to recognize two things. First, that this is how “moral talk” often looks and sounds from the outside (and depending upon who you’re talking to, from the inside, as well). Second, that this conception of morality is fundamentally wrong and can be pretty awful. At most, it can serve as a workable starting place for the moral life. It’s something that we need to grow out of.

II. What Morality Is

If you have small children, you’re surely familiar with the insane rules that you have to create for their own benefit: things like “don’t put a fork in the electrical socket.” To the toddler, that looks exactly like the ban on pornography looks to many adults: someone bigger than me, with the authority and ability to punish me, won’t let me do the thing that I really want to do. And maybe that’s enough to cultivate obedience (although in moments of weakness, maybe not).

But a mature perspective sees what the toddler’s view is missing. You’re not imposing this rule because you’re power-hungry, but because you know better than your stupid kid what will make him happy and what will electrocute him. That is, this rule (undoubtedly frustrating and tempting for the toddler in the moment!) is really born out of love.

So it is with the moral law. To see this, consider a few things. First, everything that you intentionally do is done (a) according to your human nature, and (b) in pursuit of our good. If you don’t believe me, just carefully consider why you do anything that you do: why did you set an alarm last night, why did you eat breakfast this morning, why did you yell when you were frustrated? In each case – whether you made a good decision or a bad one – you acted because you wanted to achieve something positive (health, pleasure, etc.) or avoid some negative (pain, etc.). And if you were to consider further, “well, why do I want to be healthy?” or “why don’t I want to lose a finger in the bread slicer?” you would eventually come to a dead end of sorts,.

That dead end – the ultimate motivation for all intentional human activity – could be summarized as something like “I want to be permanently happy.” But notice that you desire this as a human. You want good, but your good. An anteater might be ecstatic to spend all day with a colony of fire ants. You would likely be less happy in such a situation. So you’re acting according to what appears good to you as a human person.

But of course, there’s another aspect to consider as well. As I mentioned, every intentional human action (so leaving aside things like falling down the stairs) can be described this way. Every single time we intentionally act, we’re trying to achieve our good. But obviously, not all of our actions are successful in this regard. Sometimes, what we think will make us happy (especially the things we chose in the moment, like yelling at the person who frustrated us) don’t make us happy.

Look within yourself: if you ate everything you had the impulse to eat, would you truly be happy? If you slept with everyone you had the impulse to sleep with, would that make you happy? Or would you not instead be lonely and gluttonous and broken? If you can’t figure that out from looking within, try looking around you. So some of our desires should be listened to, and help to make us happy. Others of our desires are dangerous, and need to be moderated or entirely ignored. If only there were some way to know which was which; if only someone who could show us how to “human” better…

Of course, this is exactly why we have to consider God’s role in morality. Before you start to think of God as Divine Lawgiver, remember that He is Creator. That’s literally the first thing we know about Him from the order of the world, and it’s the first thing He reveals about Himself in Scripture (Genesis 1). That means that He created you: He knows you infinitely better than you know yourself. He understands how you tick, because He’s the reason that you tick. And He knows exactly what will make you truly happy… and which things won’t.

So with that in mind, let me suggest three elements of a better view of the moral law:

  • Moral laws aren’t arbitrary. They’re rooted in our human nature. Pornography, murder, gluttony, greed, and the rest are forbidden for the same reason as putting a fork in the electrical socket. Those kinds of behaviors hurt other people, but they also hurt you, the moral actor, as a human person.
  • As a result, moral laws are primarily internal. God doesn’t stand outside of Creation like a referee; He’s the ground of all being. The primary role of God’s law-giving isn’t imposing some new obligation upon us, but revealing us to ourselves. When He says “X is good” and “Y is bad” it’s not like a divine game of Simon Says. It’s more like when a doctor says “eggs are good for you” or “eggs are bad for you” (whichever it is). The Author of the universe is showing you a road-map to happiness and Heaven, and a map of your own soul.
  • Finally, following the moral law is key to happiness. I don’t mean here that happy people never sin or that sinners are never happy. But I do mean that the Saint is a great deal happier and more joyful, a great deal more fulfilled as a human being, than the person spending hours a day watching pornography. This is clear when you consider the person who has completely given themselves to virtue and the person who has completely given themselves to vice. The former is aflame with love; the latter is mired in addiction and darkness. It’s not just that the afterlife is better for the Saint; it is frequently the case that this life is better for the Saint as well.

I should add an important caveat to this: in the moment, the wrong thing often feels right and pleasurable. If it didn’t, we probably wouldn’t do it. But that’s exactly why we need moral instruction. Ultimately, we don’t just want a moment of happiness but a lifetime, even an eternity, of it.

This, by the way, is why atheists can frequently be more moral than Christians. Even if they don’t have the assistance of a Divine road-map of the soul, they can often figure out big chunks of the moral law simply from life experience and wisdom (and conscience and the hidden workings of the Holy Spirit within, shhh). If the moral law really were the way Gail Dines and Billy Joel described it (as something arbitrary; external / imposed; and either unrelated to, or antithetical to, our happiness) it would be impossible for someone to arrive at it without revelation. Moral atheists are one of the clearest proofs, then, that the moral law is intimately linked to our human natures and happiness.

With that in mind, let’s circle back to the Dines piece on pornography. She says it “doesn’t matter” if pornography is immoral, because it can be scientifically shown to be destructive to ourselves and to society. That’s a bit like saying that it doesn’t matter if it is raining, because there’s water falling from the sky: if she understood what sin was, she would realize she’s describing it. Another seminarian lamented that it would be nice “if the author recognized that it hurts us BECAUSE it’s immoral.” But the truth is maybe more accurately the reverse: pornography is immoral BECAUSE it hurts us.  And the same can be said for all forms of sin.



  1. I remember reading that article. I think the service it offers is re-focusing the discussion for those who don’t really care to learn what immorality is, and who will always have a negative view of it as a result. But this is a good reminder for the rest of us. My husband and I are frequently floored at the things we find ourselves saying to our children. “Son, please don’t drive your truck through the salad. No, you may not play with matches. Don’t hit your brother over the head with the baseball bat.” Etc. Thanks for drawing that parallel.

  2. Joe, I am so glad you are spending this summer at Saint Michael! What you are writing about morality is helpful, for understanding of the human nature. That is if we believe that there is a human nature to understand, that there are real definitions, real essences of things. These are the times of innovation in language and logic. Most science writers apply the scientific method to cell biology and to study of gluttony, alike. Yet, if human nature is objectively real, if all are made in the image and likeness of God, we all must retain the capacity for reasoning, conversion etc. Right? I would like to ask your opinion on this. I think that the early childhood is key here. I think that so much of the early formation of conscience is fixed, protected from harm. The use of sences and abstraction can occur in any environment. Or can it? The children are capable of forming the right affections, very early, and this experience lasts a lifetime thereafter. It seems this is possible even in orphanages and on the street. Now, the question is this. Can early formation of conscience be deformed, let’s say by unusual, posited, affluent environments, to the “point of no return”? Another words, can a human person evolve beyond the capacity to “know thyself”? And still “be fruitful and multiply”? What about the moral culpability? If a person is incapable of accepting or understanding sin, is such person culpable? Thank you.

  3. Well, now that we’ve effectively done away with arbitrary morality based on arcane beliefs in sky daddies/wizards promulgated by the imaginations of Bronze Age shepherds – and it’s-about-time – well, we have to substitute *something* to keep the bitter clingers in check…why not the diktats of all those Ivy-trained doktor-bureaucrats in the US public health establishment? Hey, at least their products of their imaginations are more recent…if ‘way less readable….

    And the associated sacrifices are far less obtrusive…instead of lambs on the altar or the Cross, we have payroll deductions….

  4. Joe,
    Please help clarify. What is a moral atheist? How can an “…atheist can be more moral than a Christian”? It seems as if you’ve said that an atheist’s premise is a basic denial of his own (God-given, God-designed, moral) human nature. Or do I have that wrong? How does one measure the extent of another person’s morality? When is it that “atheists can frequently be more moral than Christians”? How does it logically follow that “moral atheists are one of the clearest proofs, then, that the moral law is intimately linked to our human natures and happiness.” I’m confused. Thanks.

  5. Good article. I think one think lacking, which is worth adding, that moral rules are manifestations of God’s nature. For example, you point out that morals are rules that essentially protect people from harm and promote their own happiness. Indeed, this is true, though it would be hard to convince a lot of people who do immoral things and avoid the consequences whether they be emotional or physical.

    However, what the hedonist, even the one who avoids consequences, cannot understand that as an image-bearer of God he is most happy not being a hedonist. Living consistently with real morals is us living most like God. And, being in the image of God, we are most happy when we fulfill our purpose. This is why those who get everything they think they want ultimately are unfulfilled. Our lives need purpose. We look for purpose in jobs, marriage, education, children, and etcetera but as image bearers only living consistently with God’s will do we fulfill our purpose.

    Training to be a priest, I think you understand this better than most and I am sure you heard from more than a few “how can you give up this or that,” they not knowing that forgoing such things is preferable to having them.

    God bless,

  6. “….what the hedonist, even the one who avoids consequences, cannot understand that as an image-bearer of God he is most happy not being a hedonist.

    Craig, you are sounding positively Ignatian. Pretty much the results of the great Saint’s thinkings and musings from his sickbed, is that “his eyes were opened, a little…” he understood, and it changed both his life and the world…..

    Problem is, our sadly cluttered culture has many, many diversions and competing paths that keep the unwary from having their eyes “opened,” even “a little…..”

    1. I cannot speak much for Ignatius of Loyola for other than starting the Jesuits I do not know anything about him, but Roman Catholicism’s historical position of self-denial, tracing itself back to the beginning of the ascetic life of the monks, is something that Christians must pay heed to. The fact that they don’t shows that they do not understand who God is and what mind we have when we ever more adopt the mind of Christ.

      It reminds me of Book IX of the Confessions, where Augustine writes how he does not like how when he eats food he’s drawn to its taste too much, or when he looks at art he delights in it and forgets God. All things are good, but God is the greatest good. The ultimate good for man is to totally lose himself and have all His cares and devotion set upon God. Nothing reminds me more of how short I fall when I realize how many cares I have in addition to Him.

      1. “…but Roman Catholicism’s historical position of self-denial, tracing itself back to the beginning of the ascetic life of the monks, is something that Christians must pay heed to.”

        So much this! Bearing our cross in this life and both humbly accepting, and offering up our life’s suffering to almighty God (for our benefit, and the benefit of others) is something that is so essential to the ancient Roman Catholic faith!

        I do agree with Joe’s primary point here though, that the difficulties and struggles that we offer up to God in this life are something, rather than being contrary to our nature, is actually something consonant with our nature, make us fulfilled (happy), and are non-abitrary. (though we are blind to it until we receive God’s prevenient grace, and oftentimes, don’t see it until long after conversion — it takes a long time for most to learn this lesson!). Living with the divine life of the Holy Trinity and by that power mimicking the virtue of our Blessed Lord is something which fulfills to a level of deepness that words cannot describe.

        Victorian morality had it right concerning the idea of spiritual good for present suffering, but it utterly denied current, direct benefit, and insisted that all of the benefit exists in heaven alone, for the person suffering alone, and that current suffering is utterly contrary to what would really make us happy. However, as the ancient Christian faith clearly testifies by the witness of many Church fathers and the Scriptures, we have a foretaste even here of that spiritual glory, and the redemption of even our bodies starts now (though, of course, our flesh still dies).

      2. In short, everything you need to know, to start…Loyola was a hellraiser, soldier, rake and libertine. Wounded in battle, he was confined to bed while a surgically-rebroken leg healed. His sister wisely gave him books to read on lives of the saints. His conversion was not Damascus-like, it was slow and thoughtful…largely based on his carefully comparing the state of both mind and heart after concupiscent musings and contemplation of things holy. He changed his life path after discerning the peace of mind he felt only after the latter.

        A good place to learn the lessons and legacy of St. Ignatius is Fr. Tim Gallagher’s book “The Discernment of Spirits.”

        The Augustinian example you gave is great, and right in line with the teachings of Ignatius.

  7. “…in the moment, the wrong thing often feels right and pleasurable.”, so true. I like to remember that ‘the apple’, like all sin, LOOKED good.

  8. Even though the author of the piece dismisses morality, maybe it’s just because she cannot argue morals with her interlocutors. I’m afraid that’s because she doesn’t care about sexual morality as a sin, but maybe also because many of her readers won’t listen to a religious preacher, anyway. But the thrust of her argument is open to debate. See a letter from another sociology professor inveighing against her “methodology”:

    “Letter to Editor from Professor of Sociology at GWU published by the Washington Post related to THIS article by Gail Dines:
    “It would have been preferable for The Post to have published a piece on pornography by someone other than a longtime anti-porn activist who lacks objectivity on the issue. Dines’s book, “Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality,” which I and others have critically reviewed, is based on fallacies that were recapitulated in her essay. She claimed that “viewing pornography is associated with damaging outcomes” and went so far as to assert that porn has hijacked “the physical and emotional well-being of our culture” — whatever that means.
    Her work has been criticized for cherry-picking information that appears to support her animus toward porn, for ignoring counter-evidence and for making gross generalizations about the supposed effects of porn on viewers, the “harms” of working in the industry and the very content of pornography, which is so varied today that no one can make sweeping, monolithic claims about it. Many of the studies Dines mentioned were conducted in university laboratories, with tiny samples of college students — results that are hardly generalizable outside the lab context to wider society (given how unrepresentative college students are). Moreover, findings from lab experiments cannot be assumed, as Dines did, to have any real impact on individuals’ attitudes or behaviors in the real world. And even more important, her essay failed to mention studies that have documented positive outcomes from exposure to pornography, based on surveys and interviews with consumers in the real world. But it is not surprising that Dines would write such a distorted and inflammatory article given her lengthy campaign to outlaw porn in the United States and other countries.
    Ronald Weitzer, Arlington
    The writer is a professor of sociology at
    George Washington University.”

    If you google Weitzer’s review of Dines’s book ( , and care to read it, you’ll see that she’s more of a militant than a researcher. So there goes her credibility.

  9. Joe, great article. I particularly like your line, “…consider the person who has completely given themselves to virtue and the person who has completely given themselves to vice. The former is aflame with love; the latter is mired in addiction and darkness.”

    WAY off topic, but would love to hear your thoughts on yesterday’s Supreme Court decision. And how important you think the Supreme Court should be in voters’ minds in November.

  10. The crisis our Age faces is in reconciling morality with self interest. The widespread use of contraceptives is the most obvious example; people see that it is in their interest to have fewer children, or none at all, and as a result sex has been detached from procreation.

    Tocqueville wrote “The more the conditions of men are equalized and assimilated to each other, the more important is it for religions, whilst they carefully abstain from the daily turmoil of secular affairs, not needlessly to run counter to the ideas which generally prevail, and the permanent interests which exist in the mass of the people. For as public opinion grows to be more and more evidently the first and most irresistible of existing powers, the religious principle has no external support strong enough to enable it long to resist its attacks. This is not less true of a democratic people, ruled by a despot, than in a republic. In ages of equality, kings may often command obedience, but the majority always commands belief: to the majority, therefore, deference is to be paid in whatsoever is not contrary to the faith.”

  11. KO - Son of Odin, the Lord of the Worlds, Smasher of Stones, Lord of Asgard, the Old, the Wise says:

    “The crisis our Age faces is in reconciling morality with self interest. The widespread use of contraceptives is the most obvious example; people see that it is in their interest to have fewer children, or none at all, and as a result sex has been detached from procreation.”

    You’re right. Sex is also detached from procreation if you use a “natural” (man-made) calendar contraceptive method. You cheat “god” with a “calendar”: “I can have sex today without getting pregnant, let’s do it.” The Orthodox have a more balance view of this. I support contraceptives. It is in my interest to have no more children at the moment. I support women who use contraceptives. It is in their interest (and sometimes survival) to have no (more) children at the moment.

    1. It’s not that easy to forego sex, I doesn’t feel like cheating God; it feels like sacrifice. Maybe it’s small, maybe it’s pointless, but when you you embrace “natural planning” it changes your perspective about sex!

    2. I can always find a group of people that would agree with my opinion about this or that. Just about everyone in the world has a “balanced” view of contraception. It does not mean that they are right. Catholic teaching is beautiful and true, everyone is given enough grace to live it, once it is understood. We do not want a church that is right where we are right. We want a church that is right where we are wrong. Please look up Chesterton on this matter. Peace!

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