Why Not?

If we can’t explain our moral code, we’re building houses on sand for ourselves, our families and our local and national communities.

In this and some upcoming posts I’d like to take step back from Obergefell and its immediate fallout and look at some of the deeper issues which it raises about our society and culture. In this post I’d like to look at the rationale behind our morals, or more precisely, at the need to be able to articulate the rationale behind our morals.

Several weeks back I noted that one of my favorite questions is “Why?” As I stated in that post, it’s essential for us to inquire about why we believe what we believe as Christians.

Relatedly, and specifically with regard to morality, it’s likewise essential to ask why we think certain actions are right or good and other actions are wrong or evil. In other words, to put it as I do in the title of this post, it’s essential to ask “Why not”, i.e. “why shouldn’t I/we do action x, y or z?” And yet, it’s my experience that many Americans are unable to give an answer to that question, to explain why x is wrong. Instead, we tend to think, feel or say things like, “Well, just because!

The problem with this sort of morality by mere intuition — “well, I/everyone just know(s) that y is wrong” — is that actions once seen as clearly immoral become merely taboo, and as such become vulnerable to charges of bias, prejudice or bigotry. After all, if you can’t articulate why doing y is wrong, then maybe you are just being irrational — bigoted — towards those who do y.

Being able to articulate your morality, then, serves (at least) two functions: it acts as a bulwark against holding moral positions where are in fact merely taboos, and it allows you to explain and persuade others as to why doing z is wrong. After all, if we truly love others, then we desire that they avoid immoral actions, both for their own good and the good of others, and hence we ought to seek to convince them of the truth of our moral code, which requires that we be able to articulate that code.

One great way to articulate the rationale for your morality is to ask yourself why (or some similar question) repeatedly — say, five or six times — with regard to a particular moral action. And here’s the thing: “Because it just is (or isn’t)” isn’t a legal reply!

Here’s an example:

Stealing is wrong.

Why?

Because you shouldn’t take property that doesn’t belong to you.

Why not?

Because it belongs to them and not to you.

So?

Well, justice means giving to another what is due to them; if you take someone’s property without their permission and/or without compensating them, you are committing an injustice.

So?

Living justly is necessary for the good both of individuals and of society… if you can freely take someone else’s property, then someone else can freely take yours, which leads to “might makes right” as the law of society, which makes life miserable for the vast majority of the members of that society, almost certainly including you.

Warning: you might get stuck! It might take you some time to answer your “why (not)/so what?” question… that actually happened to me as I was working on the example I just gave, after just the second question! But again, it’s worth it… while my intuitive sense might very well be correct — perhaps stealing isn’t just taboo, but is really wrong — it’s important to verify that there are real reasons to hold that position.

In addition to asking such a series of questions yourself, it’s also worth asking “Why not?” etc. when talking with others about moral issues, whether they agree with you or not. But: the goal here should never been to merely stump someone else and/or show how much more thoughtful you are than them… the goal is to encourage everyone to think more deeply and clearly about your moral judgments.

Doing so can only be of benefit for ourselves and our communities.

What do you think? How easily do you provide the rationale for your own morality, whether it be to yourself or in conversation with others? Why do you think doing so is so rare in our society today?

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3 thoughts on “Why Not?”

  1. Good rhetorical questions:

    Frankly, I think usually it is easier for me to rationalize to myself than to others because another provides tangible feedback of folly, especially in the heat of the moment and am not listening to the whisper of my conscience.

    I think this is common in society because we are overwhelmed with the spirit of the day that we are our own judge with little accountability to the whole or God.

    I asked the rhetorical question to a person who was aggressively pro-redistribution: why are all your most passionate arguments grounded in envy or against the wealthy and nary a whisper about what is good for the poor? My relevant point to your post is the spirit of the day doesn’t really have a preferential option for the poor as much as it has an anti-preference against the wealthy. It is as unjust as a disregard for the poor with little true contemplation of Justice or even Mercy but only what “makes me feel better” vs. what is better.

    Side note: I think your inference with regard to “taboos” is a bit off. Taboos are a unified statement of society against particular immoralities. I get what you are intending when you say “merely taboos” as they might change vs. the unchangeable nature of God’s prohibitions (corollary to the statement “what is legal isn’t always moral and what is illegal isn’t always immoral” as society is also broken. But, on the whole, looking at the collective taboos over a long period of time (Chestertons democracy of the dead and endorsement of small “t” tradition) taboos are usually a good pathway for individuals deserving of respect.

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  2. Thanks for the comment Troy. Re: taboos, I’d agree with you if you were talking about a society that’d embodied Catholic/Christian morality for a long period of time, but when that’s not the case, the likelihood that a societal taboo is off-base increases considerably.

    And even in the case of a Catholic/Christian society, I still think it’s important for the individual to inquiry as to the rationale for society’s morals, for the second reason I gave: to convince the person who isn’t convinced.

    Thoughts?

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  3. Chris, I agree which is why I said I understood why you said “merely taboos.” However, my point a taboo which has stood the test of time is more likely legitimate than not and acting against a taboo is more likely irrational. But, to your point, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t inquire and investigate the rationale of taboos as it both exposes good and evil which leads to virtue consciously built.

    That said, I think your limiting the legitimateness of a taboo to societies that “embody Catholic/Christian morality” short-change the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit in all. For instance, traditional marriage has been found in every culture, not just Christian cultures.

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