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.