Thursday, May 25, 2006

"Moralism" and "Personal Responsibility"

I hadn't considered linking to a post on Evangelical Outpost for quite some time, but today's post is a good one illustrating the essence of the moral blindness and pitfalls of the religious right.

Joe Carter first of all sets up a straw-man definition of "moralist":

But if I claim to be a moralist you would not presume that I study morality, but think that, like Gladys Kravitz, I’m simply an intolerant, prudish, busybody.

Such is the degraded state of language (and morality) that “moralist” has become a synonym for judgementalism rather than being defined as a “teacher or student of morals and moral problems.” “Moralist” has joined terms like liberal, fundamentalist, and Puritan in the lepers’ colony of language. While some people choose to live with these labels, most others avoid them in order to prevent being infected by their malignant connotations.

Before we discard the term, though, we should question why we would abandon such a useful word when there are so few suitable alternatives. Admittedly, moral philosophers also study morals and moral problems. But unless one has a PhD and an office in the Ivory Tower, calling oneself a “philosopher” is considered pretentious. The same holds true for almost every other subject worthy of study. To say a person is a theologian, bioethicist, or economist implies they are “professionals” with the necessary degrees and vocational credentials. Unless we consider morality a subject unsuitable for “amateurs”, why would we want to toss aside “moralist?”

The obvious answer is that the term has become weighted down with too much baggage. Before we can reclaim the term... defines moralist as:

1. A teacher or student of morals and moral problems.

2. One who follows a system of moral principles.

3. One who is unduly concerned with the morals of others.

Now Carter may be referring to definition 3, above, and of course Carter is preaching to his own choir, but let's get really simple:

1. We are all teachers and students of moral problems.
2. When we are unduly concerned with the morals of others we are by definition ignoring our own morals, and therefore are poor teachers and students of moral problems.

It is not enough to say, as Carter does:

While pharisaism is indeed a form of moralism, not all moralism is pharisaical. After all, Jesus was as much of a moralist as his Pharisee critics. The difference is that he had a God-centered view of morality that was rooted in grace, while they had a man-centered view of moral behavior that was founded in legalism.

because that itself is every bit as much a form of legalism as any; it is the promotion of an ideology rather than a behavior as evidenced by one's own skill.

Better to focus on own's own practice, if one is a Buddhist.

If one were a Christian, undue concern with others' behavior would be the sin of pride.

(Update, thanks to comment by greensmile:) The issue is not one of rescuing the notion of moralists or moralism but of rescuing morality from a certain type of moralist.

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