“You can’t talk about right and wrong without talking about purpose.”

Kevin DeYoung had a blog post a while back which basically said that modern society knows only one form of moral reasoning, “show me the victim”. If you can produce a victim of some behavior, that behavior is wrong. If there isn’t a victim, the behavior is fine. End of story.

But, as discussed in the video below (which I originally found here), that’s a very shallow form of moral reasoning, as a couple subsequent considerations quickly show.

1. First – does it also apply to self-destructive behaviors? What if you are the only victim of your actions?

2. Second and more importantly – almost everything you do, every choice you make, will eventually affect other people, regardless of how personal and private those choices feel. Suppose a man enjoys viewing pornography in the privacy of his bedroom – at first glance, that seems like a pretty victimless activity. No one else even knows what he’s doing, right? But suppose this consumption gradually changes his character and the way he treats women (thank you Oscar Wilde, “every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character”) – then, there actually could be later indirect victims of his behavior. Or consider the fact that his consumption is creating a market for a product that (many would say) mistreats women – again, more indirect victims.

Besides the moral question here, there are also public policy questions. If we agree that pornography produces changes in its viewers that ultimately hurt other people, is that a reason for the government to get involved in regulating or outlawing it? As I sit here writing, I think that there is one area in which our government is very keen to outlaw activities because of indirect victims – environmental concerns. The incandescent bulb ban is a great example – why does it matter to anyone else what kind of lighting I want in my kitchen? Well, it matters, the thinking goes, because I might use more electricity than I really need to, resulting in some coal plant down the road burning a bit more coal than it needs to, eventually adding a bit of pollution to some lake in New York that your niece likes to swim in. You might ask, then, why ban incandescent light bulbs and not ban something like pornography? (I say that as someone who doesn’t want to ban either – but you might still ask, are we being consistent?)

To return to the title of this post – if “show me the victim” is a shallow form of moral reasoning, then what principles should we be reasoning from? And just how well can we talk about actions that cause harm without first having an idea of the good, of the purpose of existence and of the things we should be living for?

Without further waiting, then…

What Is Morality Other than Harm? from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

4 thoughts on ““You can’t talk about right and wrong without talking about purpose.”

  1. Re light bulbs “resulting in some coal plant down the road burning a bit more coal than it needs to”
    In practice…hardly
    coal plant night surplus output operation (hard to turn coal plants up and down also with newer “cycling” plants) means effectively the same coal is often burned – whatever the light bulb or even if it’s on or off !!!
    (DEFRA, APTECH data)

    That’s not all…..

  2. Energy saving is not the only reason to choose a bulb.
    Moreover, consumers pay for electricity of which there is no future shortage given all the low emission and renewable development – and if there was a shortage of say coal, the price rise would reduce use anyway!

    But that is -still – far from all.
    “How bans are wrongly justified” 14 points, fully referenced.
    Consumer savings are smaller than supposed for many reasons.
    But more relevantly, Society savings are negligible.
    “The total reduction in energy use would be 0.54 x 0.8 x 0.76% = 0.33%,
    This figure is almost certainly an overestimate.
    Which begs the question: is it really worth it?
    Politicians are forcing a change to a particular technology which is fine for some applications but not universally liked, and which has disadvantages.
    The problem is that legislators are unable to tackle the big issues of energy use effectively, so go for the soft target of a high profile domestic use of energy…
    …This is gesture politics.”
    Cambridge University Network, and similarly US Dept of Energy data references.

    Far more relevant to deal with electricity generation, grid upgrades, smart grids, alternative consumption savings, again as referenced.

  3. btw, as also covered
    Why did the manufacturers lobby for and welcome the ban?
    Would you welcome being told what you can make?
    If so, why? 🙂
    Yes, profits from a ban on cheap generic patent expired bulbs

    • You make some very good points lighthouse, and maybe I should have elaborated in my post. Usually I try to display or argue against the very *best* case people have to offer – but you’re surely right that people like CFL manufacturers welcomed the ban for other reasons.

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