If I told you I was an ornithologist, you could conclude that, like John James Audubon, I study birds. If I say I’m an economist then you would presume that, like Alan Greenspan, I study markets. 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 such a useful term as moralist?
The obvious answer is that the term has become weighted down with too much baggage. Before we can reclaim the term it is necessary to cut loose some of the predominant misconceptions about the label:
Moralism is un-Christian — A few years ago my friend David Wayne wrote a thoughtful critique of moralism, specifically when it takes the form of “phariseeism.” For the most part, I agree with his post, but I take issue when he says, “Those of us who use the term ‘moralist’ pejoratively contrast the moralistic approach to life and ministry with a gospel centered approach.”
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.
Moralism is the same as legalism — Some people, however, might criticize the answer to the last objection because they assume that moralism is the same as legalism. There are a number of problems with this view. Utilitarians and virtue ethicists, for example, would disagree with the idea that all morals are always law-based (deontological). But even deontologists and divine-command theorists can agree that there is a difference between being good (adhering to a moral law) and merely acting good (which is all that is required by legalism).
Moralists aren’t perfect, so who are they to judge? — Imagine that a mathematician makes a mistake while balancing her checkbook. Would we be justified in dismissing her claims about addition and subtraction because she sometimes makes mistakes in their application? Such an idea is naturally absurd, but it is just as peculiar to assume that only a morally perfect being (there is only One) can teach, study, or make claims about morals.
Moralism is ineffective — If I praise a child’s generosity, are they more or less likely to share with others in the future? Generally speaking, I would say that reinforcing good behavior increases the likelihood that they will continue to be generous. Obviously, those who believe in the strawman version of moralism will not believe this is an adequate example. But does it not identify a moral position and advocate that a person engage in a specific behavior? It therefore fits the general pattern of moralism, which can be either effective or ineffective depending on the context and moral problem.
What then is the role of the moralist, specifically the Christian moralist?
For a Christian, to “love the sinner, but hate the sin” is akin to how a doctor can “love the patient, but hate the disease.” The role of the moralist is, I believe, similar to that of medical doctors: the elimination of sickness.
The late media critic and educator Neil Postman used this same medical analogy in describing the proper role of teachers. In his essay ?The Educationist as Painkiller”, Postman proposes that educators don’t try to make students intelligent–because we don’t know how to do that–but instead try to cure stupidity in “some of the more obvious forms, such as either-or thinking; overgeneralization; inability to distinguish between facts and inferences; and reification, a disturbingly prevalent tendency to confuse words with things.”
The physician knows about sickness and can offer specific advice about how to avoid it. Don’t smoke, don’t consume too much salt or saturated fat, take two aspirin, take penicillin every four hours and so forth. I am proposing that the study of education and practice of education adopt this paradigm precisely. The educationist should become an expert in stupidity and be able to prescribe specific procedures for avoiding it.
“Stupidity is a form of behavior,” adds Postman, “It is not something we have; it is something we do.” The presence of stupidity can therefore be reduced by changing behavior. In a similar manner, I believe the student of moral problems can, like Postman’s paradigmatic teacher, play a role in curing moral sickness and decay by helping people to avoid moral stupidity.
Although I consider myself an avid student of moral problems, I am woefully inadequate as a teacher. Fortunately, my mentoring role as a moralist is greatly simplified by the reality of the natural law. Since the moral law is already “written on the heart”, all that is often needed is to remind people what their conscience already tells them. For as Samuel Johnson said, “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”