Morality for the Internet Age

“Yes, there is a lack of dignity in what has happened to [Congressman Anthony] Weiner—but only because what was meant to be private became public.” That’s from Andrew Sullivan, the Daily Dish, who is attempting to curb our reaction against online activity that many of us, not only Christians, would call sin. Sullivan wants to us to believe such behavior is actually “a vital part of the human experience that we call ‘play.'”

As I finished Sullivan’s article, I sat stunned. This is how he concludes:

From Angry Birds to anonymous chat rooms to World of Warcraft to Chatroulette or Grindr or OKCupid, this is a safe zone for unsafe things by virtual people. That’s why we call it play. It is often a balance to work or lack of work. It is not the end of civilization. It is, in fact, the mark of one.

It’s not that Sullivan thinks adultery and illegitimacy is perfectly acceptable. He just doesn’t think pornography, sex chat rooms, and online flirting by married men falls in that category. He argues, “[I]f a married man [masturbates] to porn, I don’t think we should consider him an adulterer.” He goes on to say, “Ditto if someone ‘kills’ real-people-acting-as-avatars on World of Warcraft.”

Did you catch that reasoning? If we are going to call watching porn adultery, then killing avatars is murder. This logic cannot possibly hold. The amount of abuse women receive, sexually and physically, to produce this pornography is horrifying. Watching a staged gang-rape of a woman by four men is heinous and unspeakably wicked. The fact that Sullivan can call this industry “playful,” as if it were Dungeons and Dragons, is simply irresponsible, absurd, and morally reprehensible.

But Sullivan continues:

What if he is just playing at wooing or preening with online strangers or fans but with no real intent to, you know, have sexual relations with any of them? In the grand scheme of social ills, these do not rank high on my list. The real-virtual distinction is a meaningful one (emphasis mine).

Sullivan’s flippant tone is stunning. And yet he must offer relief to many when he says the virtual world is safe for flirting, fantasizing, fornicating, killing, or anything else we want to do. Problem is, this “real-virtual distinction” Sullivan makes doesn’t exist.

Ask a wife if she’s comfortable with her husband staring at a surgically enhanced woman having rough sex. Will she be comforted with Sullivan’s “real-virtual distinction”? No, she’s probably already experienced what recent studies have confirmed. Husbands hooked on porn lose interest in their real-life wives.

Or ask the same woman whether she’s pleased with her husband typing words to women online that he’s never said to her. If she just realized this is merely “play” and, as Sullivan explains, truly the “mark of a civilization,” then would she not be devastated when her husband complains he’s bored, because she doesn’t say the exciting, playful things the paid sex worker purrs over the phone?

If Sullivan is right, then why have so many expressed sympathy for Weiner’s wife? Would she be wrong for feeling the sting of betrayal? Or would this response betray an uncivilized sense of “play” in the internet age?

The online sex industry offers cheap-and-easy passion. You don’t work for the attention and thrill you receive. How that is the mark of a civilization, I’m not sure.

Sullivan’s point doesn’t make sense of reality. Of course our virtual habits have consequences in the “real world.” Just ask any online-gambling addict. As if what we see with our eyes and invest with our emotions and passions cease to matter once we log off.

As humans we act from motive. Or to say it like Jesus, “For out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). Weiner may not have violated his marriage with his body, but he has dishonored God and disgraced his wife with his heart. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). This is no light thing.

Sullivan gives us a little insight into how he can draw such shocking conclusions. He says,

I tend . . . to think that human nature is so flawed that a sane moral life cannot and should not insist on constant perfection/abstinence, but constant attention to morality, to conscience, and to what human beings can reasonably expect to achieve (emphasis mine).

This is a new morality, accustomed to these strange times. We’ve relieved ourselves from accountability to God, who cast a pall over our perfectly civilized play. Now we’ve set our standards to a level that “human beings can reasonably expect to achieve.” And just who is the judge of what is “reasonable” for our standard of morality? Her name is Bambi, but you’ll have to pay $0.99/minute to talk to her.

  • Pingback: Thursday’s Round-up: Internet Morality, Theology of the Body, and the Costs of Divorce « The Writers' Block()

  • Pingback: The ‘real-virtual’ distinction… @ Martijn Lindhout()

  • Rampant Lion

    The real battleground is always the dominion of the mind.

  • Pingback: Internet Morality | niddriepastor()

  • Andrew Shaver

    Thanks for your thoughts. You brought reality to bear on virtual insanity. I guess that is one way we “demolish arguments” and “take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ”. You demolished the argument that there is a great divide between the virtual and the real world, and brought that thought into obedience to Christ by putting the heart at the centre of this issue.

  • Matthew D. Schultz

    I’d make explicit the enormous difference between, say, “fighting” skeletons and other monsters with your Elvish avatar in some computer game and watching pornography. The former is a complete, cartoon fantasy where no one actually dies, while the latter involves real people engaging in actual, however distorted, sex acts. Sullivan’s comparison would only be valid if it were made to, say, gladiatorial combat where real people were slaughtered in front of cheering crowds. But then no one would find the analogy pleasing, would they?

    (I don’t think virtual pornography is acceptable either, but that, of course, is a different issue.)

  • TJ

    I think the question is the motivation behind what individuals are doing on the internet these days. It may seem like a harmless ‘safe place’ for play but in reality the people engaging in these activities are carrying them out in their minds.

    For example someone playing a video game feels free to kill others (avatars). However, just because it is possible and there is no ‘real world’ harm, doesn’t mean it is o.k. or not a sin. if you have in your heart the desire to carry out these kinds of activities then perhaps you have not been paying attention to the word of our lord. We should not want to kill in the first place even in the virtual world. Essentially you are still satiating primal instincts.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Morality for the Internet Age

    Rightly Dividing the Word of God is appropriate for any age.

  • Kat

    Thank you so much for this article! As someone who just recently had an argument about the internet and porn with a person telling me it has no affect on the marriage, your words of truth are greatly appreciated.

  • Hudson River Sentry

    I read both the Gospel Coalition blog and The Dish regularly, so this post was a treat. I think you’re right and Sullivan is wrong on this one. What Weiner did here was not “play.” It was a real world breach of trust of his wife, his constituents, and the women who interacted with him (who deserved better than to be seduced by a married elected official). Sullivan’s effort to defend Weiner by minimizing his sexual relations in a way diminishes the sanctity of human sexuality and thereby shortchanges his humanity.

    I do wonder though whether you aren’t missing the hint of the Gospel deep in Andrew Sullivan’s world view in your final quotation from his post (Sullivan: ” I tend . . . to think that human nature is so flawed that a sane moral life cannot and should not insist on constant perfection/abstinence, but constant attention to morality, to conscience, and to what human beings can reasonably expect to achieve.”). When I read this, I thought: Here is Andrew, the Christian, understanding the brokenness of man, and our inability to achieve salvation through our own moral works; Andrew, who rests in Jesus’ suffering shame, pain and death in his stead. He is a Christian, as you probably know. In this instance, I find his compassion for Anthony Weiner touching.

    • John Starke

      Thanks for your response. I appreciate them.

      However, I’m a little confused as to how you see the Gospel in Sullivan’s words. I understand he is a confessing Christian. But “a sane moral life cannot and should not insist on constant perfection/abstinence, but constant attention to morality, to conscience, and to what human beings can reasonably expect to achieve”—That doesn’t seem to me like he’s resting in Jesus’ death and suffering. It sounds like he’s lowering the moral expectations so that he can still trust in his moral works and not on the perfect righteousness of Christ.

      • Hudson River Sentry

        The first part of his sentiment is where I saw a glimpse of his Christian faith (“I tend . . . to think that human nature is so flawed that a sane moral life cannot and should not insist on constant perfection/abstinence…”). His acknowledgment of our essential weakness differs from some secular views that “whatever you feel like doing, you’re okay, I’m okay, let’s just all accept ourselves and love ourselves in all our imperfections.” With his acknowledgment here of Anthony Weiner’s acts as indeed reflecting moral failing, Andrew contradicts his earlier attempt to suggest that this is all just play and not a moral flaw at all. He doesn’t recognize his contradiction explicitly; but instead lowers the bar of moral behavior to something less onerous to try to forgive and accept Weiner.

        By the way, I agree with your specific point that Andrew is not resting on the heart of the Gospel, that perfection is required but that thankfully, Jesus was perfect for our sake. What we do with that wonderful news is the dilemma, isn’t it? Andrew Sullivan sees Anthony Weiner as a brother, despite Weiner’s public humiliation and as he’s being ostracized. Sullivan’s heart was what moved me. Sullivan’s specific arguments (virtual vs real world, play vs real life) are problematic, as you explained in your original post.

  • Pingback: Achtung mit der Unterscheidung virtuell/reell! - Hanniel bloggt.()

  • Anthony

    Thanks for the post. I believe the Internet can be a great tool for everyone to use but it can also be a great tool for the devil to use against us. May we keep our hearts and minds pure from all immorality.

  • Pingback: Treading Grain » Post Topic » Morality for an Internet Age()

  • Pingback: Weekly Wraps (June 13-19) « Zoy Sauce Etc()

  • David

    Thanks for posting this John,

    In college right now, needed some words of wisdom no matter the form to help break the barriers of a few friends and their minds.

  • Chad Woolf

    Excellent post, I do think though that there should be more concern about violent simulation in video games and violence in movies. It seems acceptable for Christians to lust after violence in these ways and yet if it were simulated porn or real porn we’d condemn it. I understand they are not the same issue but I think there is some similarity.

  • Pingback: Monday Faith Links: Morality, CNN’s Terrible Story About Porn and the Church, & Generational Conflict | Polk Perspectives()

  • Pingback: Publishing Peace? « Gentle Reformation()