Monday, June 24, 2013

Reversing Forward – Is Morality Just Rule Following?

I live on a one-way street.  However, I frequently observe cars going the wrong way up the street.  But even more interestingly, some people go the wrong way up the street in reverse.  Does this make it O.K.? 

Isn’t that the human condition, we know the right thing to do, but it can be inconvenient or painful, so we try to do something else?  But we have a nagging feeling that we need to do the right thing so we try to renegotiate the rules.  If I can’t drive forward in that direction, maybe driving the forbidden direction in reverse is a little better.  Not perfect, but then we are only human – right?

If we see doing the right thing as following the rules, there is a temptation to try to modify the rules so they are easier for us to comply with.  Further, if being ethical or living a morally good life merely involves following the rules, then our motives for doing so are of no consequence.  That is to say, we don’t drive the correct way down the street because it is the right thing to do but because we are just following a rule.

But morality is more than rule following because morality and such rules cannot be separated.  We could easily imagine a rule that we would think of as wrong or immoral.  To extend our traffic metaphor, for example, a rule that said that when a pedestrian walks out in front of you when you’re driving you should hit the pedestrian with the car in order to curtail such behavior among pedestrians.  However, I don’t think that many would consider someone who follows this rule to have acted rightly.

As I have alluded to in previous posts, Jesus recognized and articulated this essential element of flawed human nature.  That we want to been seen to be good but at the least possible expense to ourselves.  That we set rules that we can follow to show ourselves that we are good.  But Jesus recognized that in order to change ourselves we don’t try to modify our behavior but instead need to first change ourselves.

Jesus identified our inner thoughts and motivations as key. Jesus condemned the religious authorities of his day for trying to outward appear to be doing the right thing while inwards they were full of evil.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (1)  
Dallas Willard very eloquently and at length points this out in his book “The Divine Conspiracy”.  He wrote:
And here also lies the fundamental mistake of the scribe and the Pharisee.  They focus on the actions that the law requires and make elaborate specifications of exactly what those actions are and of the manner in which they are to be done.  They also generate enormous social pressure to force conformity of action to the law as they interpret it.  They are immensely self-conscious about doing the right thing and about being thought to have done the right thing. (2)
The problem is that our inner motivations, if they go unchecked, can lead to some very ugly places. 
We like rules because we can try to find a little wiggle room here and there and think that we are still being good because we were following the rules.  However, as I mentioned earlier, we don’t have rules for their own sake.  So, we don’t prohibit driving the wrong way up one-way streets just for the sake of having a rule.  We do it to protect life. But, when we try to find exceptions we end up not following the rules.  Instead we drive the wrong way up the one-way street – we just do it in reverse - and hopefully no one gets hurt.  

For why I think we want to be good please click here.

(1) Matt 23:27-28 (New International Version).

(2) Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, (New York: Harper One, 1997) 143.

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