“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.