What Is Morality Other than Harm?

Ask your neighbors, and whether they know it or not, they probably follow John Stuart Mill as a guiding moral authority. The 19th-century British philosopher taught, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” This view has long since captured the popular Western imagination, shaping a whole range of moral debates, especially related to sexuality. Consider this typical argument for gay marriage offered by Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn:

To me, immoral conduct is that which harms others, period. To you or your religious tradition, it may encompass much more, and that’s fine. Advocates aren’t asking you or your officiants to bless gay marriage, celebrate it or even, in your heart, to like it. They’re asking you to recognize the line America tries to maintain between personal morality and the judgment of the law; between what’s your business and what’s none of your business.

This view makes perfect sense if we regard society as a collection of atomized individuals with no higher authority than themselves. But no one actually lives this way, at least consistently. As moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out in his recent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, ”Some actions are wrong even though they don’t hurt anyone.” Just ask your veteran neighbor what he thinks about burning the American flag. Or ask your pet-loving neighbor, whose dog has been killed by a passing car, if you can eat the meat. Yes, the revulsion you feel suggests that morality encompasses more than harm.

Even so, Christians living in Western cultures face an uphill climb in convincing our neighbors that the common good requires laws that limit personal freedom, especially in the realm of sexuality. So how might we begin to make such a case? I asked Tim Keller and Albert Mohler, so check out this wide-ranging discusion about right and wrong, human flourishing, personal liberation, and the ties that bind our society together.

What Is Morality Other than Harm? from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

  • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com Wesley

    Man these guys are so good at taking these arguments and positions which many of us have all but succumbed to and that have been presented as ‘self-evident’, and turning them so completely on their heads that we’re left wondering why we would ever have believed them in the first place! What a great conversation. Very instructive – thanks for posting this!

  • Phil

    I found Tim Keller’s explanation of why we cannot use harm as a basis for morality pretty lacking. Merely because there may be some situations in which “harm” is hard to know, or which reasonable people might disagree, hardly does away with the entire proposition. (Indeed, it just means that, well, there are some hard cases.)

    Moreover, it seems to me that his argument–that “once you know what Humans are for” you then have a basis for morality–has exactly the same problem as “harm.” There are “hard” cases there too.

    As an easy example, look at what consitutes “proper” sex in a heterosexual Christian relationship. Christians are all over the map on this–from the Catholic Church to Mark Driscoll. Who is right? What “should” Christians do? There is no easy answer, even using Tim Keller’s basis for morality.

    • Craig

      Are you saying that the all-over-the-map views of Christians determine what is proper sex?

      I thought his point was if you don’t know what a thing is for you don’t know what to do with it for its fulfillment,its purpose or good. If you don’t know the purpose of sex you will not have a good shot at its fulfillment. So you do anything with it.

      • Phil

        It seems to me that the problem is two-fold:

        1) how do you know what a thing is for, when reasonable minds disagree? (ex. Genitalia)
        2) even if everyone can agree what a thing is for, what do you do when reasonable minds disagree about the proper way to achieve that end?(ex. Sex)

        These problems seem just as large as his problem of what happens when people cannot agree on what harm is (his pornongraphy example).

  • Warshaw


    Not able to watch the video, so I apologize if I’m missing the point, but in regards to your last paragraph, there is a difference between something God has not clearly revealed (the comprehensive bounds of marital sexuality) and that which he has clearly revealed (we can use the moral nature of homosexuality as an example here).

    There are “hard” moral cases, to be sure, and they often require personal discernment in light of the information God *has* revealed (marital sexuality falls into this category, to be sure). But there are also the cut-and-dry moral issues where the Bible is neither silent nor ambiguous.

    I’m not sure that we can convince a culture that does not believe the Bible on the basis of the Bible. Instead, we ought to preach the Word, and pray that God would open their hearts to the truth.

    • Phil

      I agree with you, largely. Although I don’t think the individuals in the video are talking about the Bible specifically.

      Rather, they are talking about larger philosophical issues regarding what provides the grounding for morality. My point is that the individuals in the video don’t actually solve any of the problems that they find problematic with using “well being” and “harm” as a basis for morality.

      • Fred

        I think Mohler had a good argument about the concept of “harm.” The problem is that in our culture harm is defined too narrowly. It is true that reasonable people can disagree about exactly what harm is and exactly what causes it; however, to disagree that our definition of harm is excessively, and naively, narrow is not reasonable. And getting reasonable people to agree to that is at least a good first step.

  • Gary

    Thanks for the thought provoking video. I’m going to share it with my friends.

    I wish we could include divorce in these conversations. It seems to me that in our rush to condem homosexualtiy we have capitulated to normalization of divorce. Divorce must cause tremendously more harm but we seldom mention it because we might step on some toes that are closer to us.

    Having said that, I agree with the speakers here. Realizing what we’re for will clarify all these issues for us.

    • Yet Another Phil

      Gary… Don’t try to equate divorce and homosexual sin. One is allowed in certain cases, the other is an abomination that drew the death penalty (at least under OT law). Also, in a homosexual relationship both parties are guilty, whereas divorce is often something that one party inflicts on the other. They’re no where in the same ballpark.

      • Phil

        First, be careful how you use the word “abomination.” In the OT, homosexuality is an abomination in the same sense that eating shellfish is an abomination.

        Second, seems like divorce is worse to me. At least we have Jesus’ OWN words about divorce (unlike homosexuality), and he doesn’t leave any gray area. Jesus is explicit–many (most?) people who are remarried are committing adultery. But of course, most Christians don’t buy that, and so they explain what Jesus said away.

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  • Graham

    I’m still unclear on what the actual harm of gay marriage is to other families and the world. What, exactly, is so toxic about two humans living in a loving, committed, trusting relationship with each other. Really, how is this harming others not like them?

    I wish Christians would consider how their actions + judgment, and their unwillingness to understand people different than themselves is harmful as well. Continuing to have such a severe stance will continue to influence such horrible atrocities as discrimination-minded killings, suicides, and millions of people living in fear for having feelings they’ve been born with. To me, ignoring these issues is only fueling the fire for hate, and your sympathy is no less than superficial.

    The evidence is clearly there that gay marriage is not harmful to society and the world. The most progressive countries have already legalized gay marriage. They are not Christian kingdoms, but I don’t recall hearing discrimination of any kind being an issue.

    It’s so easy to point the finger elsewhere at the so-called “Immoral”, but when will you take a look at yourself?

    • Alex

      Superb point regarding “take a look at yourselves.” Surely, I am not one to throw the first stone, and will never put myself in a position where I insert myself as the final arbiter of morality in this world. Far from it. I have many skeletons in my closet from my past.

      That said, suggesting Christians’ belief that homosexuality adds to millions living in fear should not be so. Certainly there are Christians who hate their fellow man; Christians who follow the teachings of Jesus will not and do not hate their fellow man. I will be the first to stand up and say “Divorce is wrong” or “Homosexuality is wrong.” Hate? No. No hate here.

      You bring up points for Christians to ponder, that is, we must love our fellow man, flaws and all–for we will be judged by the standards set for others. I tend to fall into CS Lewis’ camp, where he does not believe in waging war against legalization of divorce in Britain, while still maintaining his personal opposition to the practice, an opposition done in a loving manner.

    • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com Wesley

      Graham –
      surely these guys were not giving a symposium on how homosexual marriage harm society, but rather using it as one example of a moral issue that does; i felt they explained the ‘why’ of this well.
      Beyond that, i think i see where you’re coming from re:hateful discrimination, etc. and this is clearly wrong as well. But, just like we learned in Kindergarten, two wrongs don’t make a right. You present the harmfulness of hateful discrimination in Christians as though it somehow legitimizes the wrongfulness of homosexual marriage. It does not.
      Finally, you state,“The evidence is clearly there that gay marriage is not harmful to society and the world.” And cite “progressive countries” that have legalized gay marriage as your proof. Sorry bro but that is firstly an unqualified argument based on pragmatism alone and secondly one that goes against the clear teaching of Scripture on homosexual behaviour (assuming you claim to be a Christian). I think if you listen to the video again, you’ll see Keller and Mohler explain clearly why homosexual marriage does harm society, though not (of course) in some physical way.

      • Graham

        It’s understood that the main topic of discussion is morality, with same-sex marriage being an example. It still seems as if the “harm”, or danger, or negative effect that hotly debated issues such as same-sex marriage are still vaguely identified. I feel our culture is more wary of the threat of such things coming to pass rather than considering the actual danger, were it to become a reality.

        You’re correct in stating that two wrongs don’t make a right, yes. What I am trying to say is that by reinforcing religious intolerance of same-sex marriage, the stances you take are and will be fueled by more conservative and radical conservative extremists. Just as second hand cigarette smoke is more dangerous than firsthand smoke, consider how the condemnations you utter will be interpreted by those who love to hate, ie extremists.

        That being said, there are a fair number of progressive countries, namely, Canada, Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and several others that have passed same sex marriage. These are not countries that discriminate on other people groups or are known for human rights abuse. Or would you rather our country go the path of Uganda, and consider death a penalty for homosexual behavior.

        When you cite that the “clear teaching of scripture on homosexual behaviour” as delegitimizing a country’s status as being progressive, you are clearly introducing particular religious beliefs into legal and civil issue. It’s fine that you debate homosexuality’s place in your church, but don’t let your religious beliefs dictate our nation’s leaders’ decisions. That’s unconstitutional.

        • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com Wesley

          firstly, i’m from Canada (so, no Constitution up here ;) ) so i know first hand what it’s like in the “progressive” countries. Surely, i don’t think we should be going the way of Uganda – that is not what Scripture requires nor should governments permit. I understand your point as well re: use of Scripture and the legal/civic issue, but i only state that to show the lenses by which i discern best practices and truth as it relates to the issue; i don’t think we can “legislate” morality as a general concept: a transformed heart is all that truly restores one’s morality.
          But Keller and Mohler’s point is not -singularly- a Christian point but a sociological one viz. that any society thrives on the basis of mongamous, man and woman, marriage whereby the population can both grown and sustain itself. Remove this and, long term, it absolutely DOES harm society to reform our understanding of marriage to allow that which does not support human thriving. again, it is not a physical “harm” but an undeniable one none the less.

          • Phil


            I fail to see the harm that you’ve identified. As you state, “any society thrives on the basis of monogamous, man and woman, marriage whereby the population can grow and sustain itself.” But then you state “Remove this and, long term, it absolutely DOES harm to society.” You merely state that it is “undeniable.” How?

            [The best that I can see is that “changing the definition does not support human thriving.” I have no idea how.]

            No on has “removed” man and woman marriage. It is still there, for anyone who wants it.

            Again, opening up marriage to two people of the same sex does nothing to “harm” marriage between a man and a woman.

  • http://brianjlund.com Brian Lund

    Tim Keller mentioned Michael Sandel’s _Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?_, and here is perhaps the quotes he was thinking of, from p. 261:

    “Devoted though we are to prosperity and freedom, we can’t quite shake off the judgmental strand of justice. The conviction that justice involves virtue as well as choice runs deep. Thinking about justice seems inescapably to engage us in thinking about the best way to live.” (p. 10)

    “Justice is inescapably judgmental. Whether we’re arguing about financial bailouts or Purple Hearts, surrogate motherhood or same-sex marriage, affirmative action or military service, CEO pay or the right to use a golf cart, questions of justice are bound up with competing notions of honor and virtue, pride and recognition. Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things.” (p. 261)

    link to Google books

  • Warwick

    Can we please get a book/reference list for the material that was quoted in the video?

  • Mike

    What a great interaction. I like how the topic turned from personal autonomy into ones isolated actions being worked into society. I could just hear my at atheist friends arguing that our perception of a better reality and theirs would different, because theirs incudes greater freedom. I would like to hear the conversation proceed further from morality affecting society to the God who defines morality. I know this was hinted to, but I was hoping for a stronger logical/linier connection. Anyone want to take a crack at it?

    • http://mzellen.com MzEllen

      Theirs may include greater *freedom* (liberty) – ours include greater loyalty, sanctity, respect for authority.

      Think of it as a beehive. Some put a great amount of concern on the “bee” -individual (liberty.) Others put a great amount of concern on the “hive” -the larger society (sanctity and respect for authority)

      Ask, can you properly care for the bee, without properly caring for the hive?

      • Phil

        I haven’t read Haidt’s book (although I’d like to).

        But my first thought is, if you PROPERLY care for the bee, haven’t you (necessarily) taken care of the hive?

        • http://mzellen.com MzEllen

          One would think so, yes. But when all of the “care” focuses on the individual, and not on society as a whole, the hive can be destroyed, while the bees are out playing.

          • Phil

            At the risk of stating the obvious (and thus I am clearly missing something): If the hive has been destroyed, then you did not properly care for the individual (insofar as you have insured the individual’s destruction).

            • http://mzellen.com MzEllen

              Let’s put it back in human terms. You ask how does it hurt “me” (as an individual) if “you” (individual) have a “gay marriage.” that’s “care for the individual and focuses on “care” and “liberty”

              I ask, how does it benefit society as a whole, to have the government sanction gay partnerships and calling them “marriage” – focusing on sanctity.

              If your only argument is about individual liberty, and you fail to make the case on how it benefits society as a whole, you don’t make your case to those who (reference my comment below) use all six foundation for their morality.

            • Phil

              Excellent point. And a reminder that arguments for gay marriage should emphasize how society as a whole will benefit from gay marriage. See Ted Olsen:


              (specifically, his 4th paragraph, which I believe is both 1) powerful and 2) true. In fact, IMO, liberals don’t like to make this argument because, well, it IS conservative!)

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell

    I like the idea of purposes as foundational to moral assessments. I think we need to apply this in principle to how we talk about humanity as fallen. Fallen from what? The only way we’ll think and talk accurately about “fallenness” or sin is by understanding the original intention for humanity. This should also shape how we approach people and acknowledge markings of the Imago Dei outside the boundaries of redemption. Finally, it should influence how we think and talk about salvation as restoration to glory. I posted about this: “Do you have a truncated view of sin?” http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/dangers-in-a-truncated-doctrine-of-sin/

  • http://mzellen.com MzEllen

    I own a book…just finished it. “The Righteous Mind” (http://www.redstate.com/bs/2012/03/28/liberals-conservatives-values-and-how-we-perceive-each-other/)

    The author states that “moral is more than harm and fairness.” The group he worked with (yourmorals.org) has identified six foundations that we base our “morals” on: Loyalty, Authority/respect,Purity/sanctity, Caring, Fairness and Liberty.

    How we define those foundations (does fairness mean equal opportunity, or equal outcome?) and what weight we give them, figures into what our “morals” are.

    According to the book (the author started out liberal) – those with a liberal leaning focus on “caring, fairness, liberty,” while those on the conservative end weigh all six relatively heavily.

    The book deals both with politics and religion – I’d recommend it.

  • David

    I have a lot of respect for Keller, but this conversation still skirts around the main issue. I certainly agree that all immorality is harmful, both to the individual and indirectly to “the community”, but what is lacking is a clarity about the nature of law in human society. We need to understand this: law is ultimately based on violence done by “the community” against the transgressor of the law. All law must ultimately be enforced by agents of “the community” against those who refuse to obey the law, and the base line for all enforcement is the use of force/violence (guns, tazers, prisons, etc.). This is ultimately true even of fines, because what if the transgressor refuses to pay the fine?

The argument typically goes like this:
Behavior X is harmful –> behavior X is immoral –> therefor, behavior X should be illegal. What’s left out is this: agents of “the community” must use force/violence against individuals engaging in behavior X. If the individual refuses to cease engaging in behavior X, they will be shot, tazered, assaulted, and/or imprisoned by agents of “the community.” 

Now re-read those sentences, replacing “behavior X” with the following harmful behaviors:

    Ingest street drugs
    Watch pornography
    Make intolerant statements
    Refuse to buy insurance

    Hopefully my point is clear about where the conversation needs to happen. What harmful behaviors/actions require violent action on the part of “the community”?

  • http://mzellen.com MzEllen

    > (specifically, his 4th paragraph, which I believe is both 1) powerful and 2) true.)

    (had to start a new comment thread)

    Not really.

    the article says

    <blockquote.Many of my fellow conservatives have an almost knee-jerk hostility toward gay marriage. This does not make sense, because same-sex unions promote the values conservatives prize.

    fails to take into account that 1) the “values” are not defined. 2) part of the hostility comes from the fact that the most heavily gay political lobby does NOT want “live and let live” but will not be satisfied until people of faith are marginalized by either being forced to participate in gay “weddings” and relationships, or forced to leave the public arena.

    I will not support any form of gay civil unions, because “they” won’t support conscience clauses. We already see it in the law suits toward Christian doctors, psychologist, photographers, who decline to participate in gay relationships.

    • Phil

      The “values” are family, stability (individual and society), sanctity, commitment, etc.

      You lost me with the rest of your post, which seems to indicate that you aren’t really interested in conservative values, and there is something else going on there.

      [That is, just because some of the gay lobby takes it too far (indeed, into areas that are NOT conservative), doesn’t mean you should throw out the whole thing. Rather, the rational response is to reject those parts which take it too far.]

  • http://mzellen.com MzEllen

    > The “values” are family, stability (individual and society), sanctity, commitment, etc.

    How does calling an already stable relationship “marriage” honor the traditional family? How does it contribute to societal stability? Sanctity of *WHAT*?

    You cannot simply say that calling gay relationships “marriages” fits into those values without explaining why.

    I’ve been researching and debating this for years before it became a political hot potato. Homosexual males *GENERALLY* have a different definition of “monogamy” – one that includes “date nights” with others and the occasional threesome. How does that fit into “sanctity?”

    > [That is, just because some of the gay lobby takes it too far (indeed, into areas that are NOT conservative), doesn’t mean you should throw out the whole thing. Rather, the rational response is to reject those parts which take it too far.]

    The rational response is to read the news. It’s already happening – and since you have yet to prove that there’s a “baby” at all, yeah, go ahead and throw out the dirty water.

    • Phil

      If you cannot see how letting 2 people (who happend to be of the same sex) stand up, before the “whole world,” and publically proclaim their love and commitment to each other (and their desire to enter into the instituation known as “marriage”)–and thus become accountable, in some sense, in the eyes of their friends/family/church/social group/etc–if you cannot see how this provides social stability and values the family, then I cannot show you.

      Compare the scenario where gays are NOT allowed to get married–and thus have more transient relationships–how can gay marriage not be good for society as a whole?

      I guess you think gay marriage will change (somehow) straight marriage for the worse. I think gay marriage will change (for the better) gay relationships, and have no meaningful effect on straight marriage.

      But I have the distinct feeling there is nothing I can say (or that can be said) that would change your mind.

  • http://mzellen.com MzEllen

    > Compare the scenario where gays are NOT allowed to get married–and thus have more transient relationships–how can gay marriage not be good for society as a whole?

    are you saying that gay people are not capable of having stable relationships, unless the government sanctions them?

    Or that calling a relationship that they already have “marriage” will somehow make that less transient?

    > But I have the distinct feeling there is nothing I can say (or that can be said) that would change your mind.

    And I (somehow) cannot say the same about you?

    • Phil

      Of couse gay people can have stable relationships without government sanctions. But I think societal recognition of their relationship will increase stability (indeed, this seems like common sense to me). What we need to do is make divorce hard.

      No, feel free to say the same thing about me. :)

      I’ll note that, when this went to trial, the side arguing that traditional marriage (and, by extension, society) would be harmed was unable to produce any evidence for that assertion.


  • http://mzellen.com MzEllen

    > But I think societal recognition of their relationship will increase stability (indeed, this seems like common sense to me).

    This is where those 6 moral foundations come in.

    To a more conservative person, we figure in all 6. You just assume that it’s common sense, but how do you supply that rational to those who use different moral foundations than you do?

    • Phil

      I don’t understand. I thought we were using the same moral foundations. Why do you think we are not?

      That is why I pointed to the conservative case for gay marriage.

  • http://mzellen.com MzEllen

    But *YOU* have not made the case on your own.

    For instance, you have had the opportunity to explain how you would keep people of faith from being forced to act against their conscience. In a nutshell, your reply was “not a problem, don’t worry about it.” Not exactly reassuring.

    Can *YOU* articulate, to a person of faith, the sanctity of calling a gay relationship “marriage?”

    Can you tell me *HOW* calling a gay partnership “marriage” would lead to more societal stability?

  • Phil

    I’ll take them in reverse:

    Letting gays get married leads to the strengthening of their relationships, thereby increasing societal stability. (Stronger family relationships = more societal stability).

    Your second issue presupposes the answer (I think, when you say “person of faith”–not sure what you mean by that), that “it cannot be done.” So this isn’t a fair question. But I can certainly point to other “people of faith” who sanctify gay marriages (that is, anyone in a faith tradition that allows for gay marriage.)

    Ugh….got to go…. no more time. But quickly, with regard to the first. This isn’t about why conservatives should be for/against gay marriage per se.

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