The Clash of Legal and Moral

I was listening to a podcast where a book on love was recommended, though the author was criticised for unnecessarily pushing his religious views.

Think about that for a sec: What did the author do to impose his religious views on the reader?

In a democratic society, the very exercise of reading a book is voluntary (even in school where the book is part of the curriculum, though that choice may have a cost). There is no insistence that anyone read anything — in the broadest strokes, nothing is being “pushed”.

Rather, the assumption comes from the reader in this case: the relationship is presupposed as a pushy one. It is an unfair, bad-faith assumption that a book which is being read voluntarily is pushing its views.

Part of the interplay of plurality is allowing there to be messages and meanings in the world that we disagree with. They should not presumed to be insistent, or even instructive.

It’s enough for them to be descriptive.

If they’re viewed as descriptive, we can learn from them. We can understand divergent worldviews. And the better we understand, the more rich and hospitable a conversation we can have. If they’re viewed as a play for power however, then we feel the need to react in some way or another — either adoption or rejection.

I wish more people paid attention to their desires and feelings — what motivates these reactions? — instead of simply reacting.

I’m not unfamiliar with the unpopularity of religion in the west. And yet, even within that framework, there is a problem the church needs to internalise and grapple with.

The church is pushing its religion. It’s supposed to. But all too often, it’s pushing the wrong aspect of that religion — a subjective, superficial, non-essential, moralistic one.

Bottom line, if what the church is preaching requires a pre-existing belief in God to make it true, it’s preaching to its own choir.

That’s without the wild assortment of adjuncts that have been added which Christians can’t agree on.

One of the great ironies that the church blames the population for its inability to change the population’s laws, when its arguments don’t even find resonance within all of the church — a minority of the population.

If the church can’t operate from a position of unity, it should stop trying to impose more uniformity on the broader world.

Offering people more freedom doesn’t mean by default that individual or group morality is in jeopardy.

The broader world largely accepts diversity. Effectively, more freedom merely means that we have more freedom to not do what the law permits.

When it is perceived that morality is being imposed, there is a backlash.

This is hypocritical, because some kind of moral is constantly believed to be larger than oneself — this is evident even in the reaction.

What I’m saying is that at some level, everyone believes that some kind of morality should be imposed.

The very act of loudly resisting someone else’s moral standards is imposing one’s own.

That’s not wrong. We should not be feeling the pressure to compromise, so resistance is necessary. And yet, we should recognise that our loud resistance can be quite easily a call for others to compromise.

This is why people have a hard time talking about politics civilly.

Sometimes grace means inviting people to think about an issue more deeply.

Sometimes grace means making a case for people raising the bar on their moral standards.

But sometimes grace means letting people be wrong, and loving them anyway.

Because in all that rabble-rousing about ethics and morality, it’s easy to miss that love is the highest virtue we’re called to.

Has Morality Failed Us?

There are two primary problems in the world. I know it seems like there are a lot more. But trust me, there are just two:

  • Knowing what the right things are.
  • Finding the will to do them.

If you think that distilling all of life into two distinct problems makes it easy, you’re wrong.

Cultural cohesion around this stuff is eroding. The world is getting bigger and smaller at the same time.


We are becoming more aware of profound divergences which influence societies all over the world. The moral conclusions people arrive at are so radically different that they can be baffling to the uninitiated.


Globalisation means that differences are all being constantly shoved in everyone else’s face. Not literally, of course. But where those differences are the most stark, it can sure feel like it. People are likely to respond emotionally!

One of the biggest contentions in morality is the difference between prescriptive and proscriptive.

It’s the difference between should and should not.

Far too often morality is couched in negative terms, trying to censure actions, words and even thoughts. It sets up morality to be combative, even hostile, as if we can fight our way to more harmony.

There is little energy given to imagining more, better and richer ways to live.

It’s not too surprising though: in its giddy rush to embrace strict theological paradigms, the church has been systematically rejecting the lofty, unrestrained imaginings of its poets and prophets.

We have to invest more energy into presenting a compelling dream of what life can be.

Many of the ways culture is moving sets up paradoxes. It traps people into hypocrisy. Humanity cannot be confined by, or even described with straight lines and right angles. The harder the push toward a moral standard, the more evident the hypocrisy — people’s logic will inevitably be used against them.

Aside from the most extreme cases, appealing to some baseline morality is mostly ineffective.

There is less “obvious” in our world. People don’t “just know”. The definition of morality is shifting — in some ways, dramatically!

And here is the controversial kicker: it is allowed to!

The Question of Levels

We have to recognise that instead of trigger points, there’s a sliding scale of levels.

  • There are people who are unknowingly harming themselves.
  • There are people who are unthinkingly hurting other people.
  • There are people who believe (or perceive) that there is harm, but who cannot demonstrate or prove it in any objective, concrete sense. (Which effectively means that it doesn’t count.)
  • Then there are people who see the intention to hurt where it doesn’t exist, and they twist their own pain into abusive accusations of others.

Ultimately, there is a line so disgusting, so gruesome and so horrifying that the vast majority will agree that it shouldn’t be crossed. Ever!

But that’s way down the road from where a lot of Christian I’ve heard make their assumptions about “universal morality”, and bring to bear every manipulative trick in the book to push their agenda.

(Of course, this isn’t specifically a Christian thing. It’s a human nature thing, though people seem mostly oblivious to it unless it’s done to them.)

When people put all their energy and intention into drawing their line so early that it just sounds bizarre, and there is no justifiable rationale to back it up, it will become ignored…or perhaps lampooned.

If your goal is to win hearts and minds, getting lampooned by the majority is not generally a pathway to success.

In a democracy, we have to go with the will of the majority.

When the morality of the majority shifts to an apparently more lax standard, it causes discomfort for the people who wanted it to stay where it was. Or get more restrictive.

So, Where is the Line?

  • Do we let people live in a way that we believe is self-destructive?
  • How do we intervene in a way that will become sustainable without us?
  • How hard do we push against someone’s attitudes or behaviour before we become the element of destruction?
  • Does our definition of evil require obvious consequences?

The external signs in all of this can be deceiving. People can care deeply, and be silent. The loudest people may not actually care much at all.

Finding the Good

As usual though, the most important differences are made through from celebrating and reinforcing positive change. (Not berating the “guilty”.)

We bear the onus to demonstrate how adopting your perspective will improve people’s lives — not in abstract, hypothetical ways. In tangible, practical ones.

In other words, how would people become objectively better?

And if we can’t do that, maybe we should go slow in making moralistic declarative statements.