Sometimes It’s Good To Hear Voices

It seems to be the case that people are becoming less willing to call certain behaviors objectively immoral.  Of course, the major evils are still conceded: rape, murder, etc.  But I am speaking in generalities here, not about any one particular act or habit.  Moral objectivism is being increasingly frowned upon by many.  ‘Who are you to say what they are doing is wrong?’ or, ‘We’re not in their shoes, so who are we to judge?’ is the sympathetic justification for immorality.  A recent example came from actress Gwyneth Paltrow in an interview with the DailyTelegraph:

I am a great romantic – but I also think you can be a romantic and a realist,… Life is complicated and long and I know people that I respect and admire and look up to who have had extra-marital affairs…It’s like we’re flawed – we’re human beings and sometimes you make choices that other people are going to judge.  That’s their problem but I really think that the more I live my life the more I learn not to judge people for what they do. I think we’re all trying our best but life is complicated.

It has always puzzled me that people are so unwilling to identify immoral behavior.  Adultery is immoral, why is that so hard to say?  Well, it isn’t really, but I think I know why: It might offend the hearer.  Most people will readily admit infidelity is wrong, but are hard pressed to point the finger at a family member or friend who is being unfaithful.  After all, we’re not in their shoes, so who are we to judge, right?

I say it is an unwillingness and not an inability.  We have no qualm saying certain acts are good.  Good deeds can be spotted a mile away: giving to charity, donating blood, feeding the poor, etc.  No one has ever been chastised for accusing someone of being a good and noble person for volunteering at a homeless shelter — ‘What gives you the right to say they are a good person!?’.  But for some reason we are hung up on saying someone is a bad person.  Some might be able to bring themselves to say something isn’t right, but wrong is taboo.  But judgement runs in both directions.  Whether you are judging someone a good person or a bad person, it is judging either way.

The lines become even more blurred when the situation hits close to home, or when we may be caught up in our own finger-pointing.  For example, it is certain that there are men and women who profess to be Christian and ardently pro-life who depart from their conviction that elective abortion is immoral when they find themselves confronted with an unplanned pregnancy.  All of a sudden, there are justifications as to why an abortion is “acceptable”.  Perhaps they still believe in the wrongness of abortion, but are not strong enough to carry the child to term given their life circumstances.  It does happen.  But this kind of situation does not serve as evidence for the flexibility of morality.  Are the lines really that out of focus?

I don’t think so, we know right from wrong.  I’m convinced that the adoption of a subjective morality, or the unwillingness to identify the wrongness of an act is a preemptive self-defense, even if subconscious.  It is sort of an implied compact with society: I wont say what you’re doing is wrong, and you don’t say what I’m doing is wrong.  No one wants to believe that they are an immoral person, or that they do immoral things.  This is not to say the relativist is currently doing something immoral, per se, but there may come a time when protection from the pointy finger of accusation is desperately needed.  Our consciences are fragile, some more than others, and they speak loudly.  Escape from the conscience is easier than abdication of vice.  Over time our conscience learns to speak softer and softer.  Relativists seek to enlist others to their in their fight to quell the social conscience.  Silencing your own conscience is difficult enough, but it is made easier with help from the crowd.  If we all agree no one is truly bad, only making decisions differently than we would have, then no one has to feel bad about their actions.  We have a ready defense.

The solution to a screaming conscience is not to ignore or suppress it, but to submit to it.  Your conscience will not speak up forever, eventually it will stop.  But a clear conscience is not a quiet one, it is an obeyed one.  Moral subjectivism is not a morality, it is the philosophical equivalent of “judge not…” (See: Here Come Da Judge).  If we as a society become too timid that we cannot identify and accuse immorality, eventually restraint on immoral behavior will be come impossible.  We will have tied our own hands.


  1. TerranceH says:


    My problem with this piece is more philosophical than specific, because if there is a moral code of sorts and fidelity is on it, then your piece is impeccable.

    So, I’m wondering where this moral code comes from? The Bible or where?

    • T, it can be taken from the Bible or from secularism. The Bible proclaims adultery is immoral, and secularism even declares broken promises immoral. Part of marriage is an agreement to be sexually and emotionally faithful to your spouse. Violating that trust is inherently immoral. I’d find it suspect that anyone would deny that, unless they are defending turf.

  2. Secularism doesn’t “declare” anything. You can reason from a set of premises, but those premises can differ and they can lead to different outcomes. True, most nonreligious people consider breaking a promise to be a bad thing to do. But it’s not as though we consulted the Big Book of Secular Values and said “aha! here’s the rule we should follow.”

    • Nfq

      I find this incredibly inconsistent. On the one hand when theists claim atheists have no grounding for their version of morality, the rejoinder is “its a socially constructed agreement” or “beneficial for the ‘tribe'”. But now when I give that idea any credence, you come in and say “there’s no big book…” totally ignoring the penal code of government which atheists far and wide always claim is secular reasoning — especially when a theist tries to say the laws are bible based.

      Now which it is?

  3. Marshall Art says:

    Morality is objective. Gray areas are subjective. To say that life is “complicated” or “not black and white” is mere abdication. Whenever we are faced with “complications”, the truth is that we are facing a moral wrong of which we are instinctively aware and are desperate for a way of justifying our desire to engage in it. We are compelled to satisfy our personal desire and worry about justifications later. But we are obligated to act according to known codes of morality.

  4. I’ll agree that Paltrow’s quote is just silly.
    As John implies in his post, she doesn’t see anything wrong with respecting, admiring, and looking up to people “for what they do”.
    I think she meant to say that we are all imperfect, and we ought to be judged as the sum total of who we are and what we do- and not just by our least attractive moments. She’s right if she meant that- she just said it all wrong.

    • George

      My understanding of paltrow’s comment is that since we are all morally imperfect, that we ought to overlook moral deficiencies and assess a person only by the good they have done. And that seems to be a growing trend, that it is somehow improper or uncouth to judge immorality as such.

    • After all, when is it we hear the chastisement of “don’t judge!”? Its only when someone has identified a behavior or act that they believe to be immoral. It is never applied to good things people do. But whether judging something good or judging it bad, it’s still a judgement. So we see that people are only invoking don’t judge when it brings to light a moral deficiency.

  5. I’m not suggesting we ought to not judge or weigh people’s mistakes, but I certainly feel like people are, as Paltrow says, complicated entities.
    I’ll give you an example and an analogy.
    I like you John. I do. I really dislike certain things about you and I do hold you to account for them- though at least in your case I can find something redeeming even in your faults. I like you in spite of things I deem failings on your part. I like you because you are more than just a “heartless conservative” or “rigid theist” or whatever- just like an adulterer is more than just an adulterer. Your perceived transgressions and the adulterers obvious transgressions do not define you entirely- but they certainly set limits on how far I might respect you in toto.
    I’m thinking of it like a car. If your wiper motor is shot, you might not drive around when it’s raining- but you don’t go and buy another car. You might try to fix the problem, but you don’t take the car to the scrap heap if it is otherwise a great car. If the whole thing is shot to heck, you’ll probably junk it. If it is just an ungodly colour of turquoise, you might choose where you cruise around in it. Bad doesn’t mean awful. Being able to criticize does not make something worthless.
    You are right that if more people got this fact we would be better off.

    • George

      Dispite joining in the anti-JohnBarron tirade on my character on Jeremy’s blog — who takes the worst possible understanding of a joke possible just for an excuse to besmirch my character and a reason to make fun of me — what is it you dislike about me? Personality quirks, or decidedly immoral behaviors? That is the difference. Someone’s personality flaws are significantly different than immoral behavior. My real or perceived different treatment of commenters here is worlds apart from me being unfaithful to my wife, or abusing my children, don’t you think?

  6. Just like homosexuality, adultery is not about who someone is but about how someone behaves. A persons who continually embraces wicked behaviors can be called on their immoral actions. But without a standard, no one has a basis to evaluate behavior. Secularism has its “consensus” morality, which is simply morality by majority, or the survival of the fitest. Instead of morality being about “what we most care about” it is about “what most people care about.” This shifting morality has led to the killing of millions in Germany, China, the Soviet Union, et. al. Only an ultimate source of morality, say from a transcendant creator, is capable of being objective. Once we have that standard, it is possible to measure behavior to a firm, eternal standard.

  7. I blame the 70’s, the Me Decade, the feel good about yourself no matter what

    that said, I disagree that murder is always wrong. Rape yes, but murder, not really.

    I think that there are many circumstances under which it is not only acceptable, but alright, to kill someone.

    • Ntrygg

      It sounds like you are equating murder and killing. They are different. Murder is the taking of human life without proper justification. Killing can be done in self defense or defense of another, or as punishment for capital crimes. The mere taking of life is not murder. Intentionally taking a human life with malace and forethought is always wrong.

  8. if you consider personality flaws as character flaws

    then that does go to moral conduct

    commenters here are not impacted if you cheat on your wife or beat your kids, but they are impacted by how you treat commenters.

    so how you treat people here matters more than how you treat your family.

    Not that I think you are cheating or beating anyone, for the record.

    • I would differentiate between personality flaws and immorality. It might matter to you how I treat you here than how I treat my family, but that is just a difference of perspective. It doesn’t actually change the fact that adultery and child abuse are immoral whether you are aware of my doing them or not, right? If you rob banks but are nice to me here, you are still an immoral bank robber regardless of my experience of you.

  9. John Barron Jr, you have expressed opinions here that are immoral to my eye, but I do not hate you for it. Yes, I do judge you, but I have no sentence or punishment install for you. It is just an evaluation I have made of you. On the other hand I do appriciate your willingness to have a reasonable discussion about morals and religions. I have no reward for you for the good intent you have shown, or might have in your life outside these conversations.

    Actors are not the great moral leaders of the society, nor are they the leading edge of philosophy, but as public personas they may reflect the general state of morals in a society. However, it is difficult to claim one particular comment by an acctress shows the general state of affairs, and the least thing it needs to have as to give any evidence of change of general understanding of morals is a comparrison from a time when people might have thought differently. However, bear in mind, it might be that only what ideas are vocalized and not what people actually think has changed.

    There is a grey area about moral issues, but adultery is very rarely in that gray area. For example, my former teacher was accused of adultery and because he was a teacher some older religious people wanted him to be kicked out of his rental appartment owned by the church. His wife had been in hospital care for years, and was so medicaded she was outside this realm for good, The teacher in his late seventees was having his neighbour, an elderly lady widover as his fishing buddy. This was enough for people to think they were having an affair. He was saved by my friends mom who went to talk on behalf of him, though she has allways critizised him for being an old conservative jerk, while me and her son were still the students of this teacher. She said to the board considering the eviction, that if the old geezer can still make the lady widower happy it should be celebrated, not condemned.

    There was a recent study that said that here in Europe the public is demanding higher morals from the politicians than they have ever done. It also claimed that while people demand high moral behaviour from their leaders, they do not demand it from themselves any more than they ever did. It seems only to be the result of the media houses making poor profit because of the economical decline, that the characters of the politicians have risen in headlines instead of the issues they have ever even entered politics. Because “human interrest” and scandals is what sels papers.

    If you start to hear voices, go to a doctor.

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