Is morality limited to questions of direct harm? That question is not just a matter of moral theory — it also informs our most urgent political and cultural debates. Back in May, columnist Eric Zorn of The Chicago Tribune asserted: “To me, immoral conduct is that which harms others, period.”
That seems to be a straightforward statement, especially in light of its context. Zorn was writing a column in which he dismissed common arguments against same-sex marriage. In his concluding section he argued, “I will not debate the morality of various forms of private sexual conduct between consenting adults and neither should our lawmakers.” Since no one is harmed, Zorn argues, there is no real moral issue with respect to the sexual activities of consenting adults.
In truth, a good many people agree with him. His logic is encapsulated in the 2003 U. S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas that invalidated all laws against homosexuality. I am fairly confident that the vast majority of Americans would be tempted to accept Zorn’s argument, and younger Americans especially. My guess is that this would include many Christians, especially younger Christians.
Is Zorn right? There is certainly wisdom in his acknowledgment that harm to others, and particularly any intentional harm, is immoral. The problem is the restriction of his definition of “others” as understood in a radically individualist scheme. If we restrict morality to that which directly causes harm only to specific persons, we will eliminate an absolutely essential moral horizon — the community of which individuals are a part.
Christianity offers a moral vision that embraces both the individual and the community. Collin Hansen of The Gospel Coalition invited me to address this question along with Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City. I am thankful to Collin for making this conversation happen. I think you will find it interesting.
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“What is Morality Other than Harm?,” video discussion with Tim Keller and Albert Mohler, moderated by Collin Hansen. The Gospel Coalition, 2012.
Eric Zorn, “Change of Subject,” The Chicago Tribune, Saturday, May, 19, 2012. http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2012/05/the-top-six-arguments-against-gay-marriage-and-why-they-all-fail.html?cid=6a00d83451b4ba69e2016305a7e0ea970d
Collin Hansen, “What is Morality Other than Harm?,” The Gospel Coalition, Thursday, September 20, 2012. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/09/20/what-is-morality-other-than-harm/