Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The crazy things people do to avoid ethical pain

Ethical pain is that feeling you get when you know you’ve done something wrong. It’s not just guilt, but it’s a sense of disappointment in oneself. Ethical pain must be a powerful thing, because people go to great lengths to avoid it.

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that the thought that we’ve violated the moral law is so painful that we will think of any way we can to let ourselves off the hook. Since I read that, I’ve noticed myself and others doing it all the time. It seems to be almost automatic.

I think the craziest length some people go to avoid ethical pain is moral relativism—the view that there are no real moral values. Moral values are just made up by individuals or societies. This lets people off the hook, because they think they aren’t really violating any moral standards that actually apply to them. They can change the rules whenever they need to avoid ethical pain. Or they can just do away with the rules altogether.

There’s another way to avoid ethical pain that few people seem to ever try. Instead of getting rid of the rules or looking for loopholes to let yourself off the hook, why not just obey the moral laws? Why not just do right and avoid wrong? Why don’t more people try this?

I think there’s a good reason. Christianity is one of the few worldviews that’s honest about this. The reason we don’t avoid ethical pain by being moral is because we can’t. It’s too hard. We have a crazy bent toward sin—disobedience to the moral law. The drive to sin is so great that even those with the best intentions can’t avoid it. Being moral is just too hard. It’s easier to rationalize, minimize, or pretend there are no rules.

Why is being moral so hard? It's because of the kind of people we are. It's easy for somebody with nothing but good intentions, good motives, and good dispositions to be good. Being moral is almost impossible for us, though, because that's not the kind of people we are. We do bad things because we have bad intentions, motives, and dispositions. Christianity is unpopular, because Christianity is realistic about this. Embracing the Christian worldview requires people to admit things they don't want to admit.

It’s understandable why Christianity is so hard to stomach. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, the idea that we’ve broken the moral law is so hard for us to stomach that we’ll make almost any excuse for ourselves to avoid it. A divorced girl once confessed to me that she had cheated on her husband with his best friend just to get revenge. Then she tried to justify herself by saying, “After what he did to me, I didn’t feel married.” Of course marriage is not a feeling, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and even the most absurd excuse will do if it’s all you’ve got to avoid admitting that you’ve done something so wrong. The reason Christianity is so hard for people to except is because before you can accept it, you have to first drop all the excuses and admit that you really have violated the moral law. You really have done wrong. There are no loopholes to let you off the hook. You’re guilty. Once you admit your guilt, you are left to face yourself in all your moral failure. That’s not easy.

For further reading on the subject of "crazy things people do to avoid ethical pain", I would recommend J. Budziszewski’s article, “The Revenge of Conscience.” I think J. Budziszewski is quite perceptive.

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