Moral Corruption - By Morality
By Steve Gillman
This is a continuation from the page, Moral
When you hear the word moral corruption, you may think of
the corruption of one's moral beliefs. Here, however, I am referring
to something else - The corruption of one's moral sentiments
by moral beliefs. This is a far more insidious process.
I see everywhere examples of how the innate goodness of people
is corrupted by the religious and moral beliefs that are supposed
to encourage it. In my own childhood I used to throw myself into
rose bushes and hit my head on doors because of a religion that
taught suffering as a virtue. This is an example of "corruption
of goodness," because goodness includes being good to oneself.
Other examples are not so obvious to the untrained eye. I'll
use another short and true story to explain.
A Story of Moral Corruption
A few years ago my wife and I were walking along a road near
our house, and we came upon a woman laying in the mud, waving
and yelling at the passing traffic. We weren't sure if she was
injured or just mentally sick, but she did ask for us to call
the police, and complained that nobody had stopped to help for
a long time. Since she didn't seem to be bleeding or have any
broken bones, we left her, and quickly went home to call the
Now, think about this for a moment. Hundreds of people of
many moral beliefs drove by, including at least 200 Christians.
They saw the woman laying there covered in mud on the side of
the road, motioning to them to help her. All of them had heard
the story of the good Samaritan, and all had moral beliefs that
called for helping their fellow humans. Why did none of them
The cynical among you will say that people just don't care
about other people. I don't buy that, and I wonder what experiences
people have had who do. (Or maybe the question is what experiences
did they choose to focus on?) This case and others like it are
more complicated than this more cynical view allows for. After
all, people often do go to great lengths to help others.
In fact, people can even feel sympathy for a wounded bird
or other wild animal and take it into their homes to feed it
and help heal it. This was common in the middle-class neighborhood
where I grew up, and the memories of these incidents made me
wonder. If people more easily care about a wounded sparrow than
another human laying on the side of the road, does this provide
a clue to what is going on here?
First of all, the feeling of compassion that makes them pick
up that sparrow is natural as far as I can tell. It is present
in all normal people. But it seems it would extend to other humans
as well, so what is going on? Putting myself in their place,
with their thoughts and feeling in mind, I came upon an answer.
Their beliefs are getting in the way. More precisely, the
unrealistic expectations created by their moral beliefs make
them hesitate to help. It is easier to ignore the woman, or excuse
themselves by saying, "She's just insane or drunk."
(I should probably point out that this was in a rural area, outside
a small town where homeless people and public drunks are rare.)
What are these unrealistic expectations? Consider for a moment
the story Jesus tells in Luke, Chapter 21: "As he looked
up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.
He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins.
"I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow
has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their
gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in
all she had to live on."
This and other moral teachings of the Christian faith make
it clear that there is almost no limit to what you are expected
to do for others if you want to do what is right. This sense
of unbounded duty to others is essential to many religious teachings
on morality. The idea is that the better man is the one who sacrifices
the most, and it is absolutely contrary to our normal impulses
When a person who has been brought up on these beliefs sees
a man asking for food, or sees a woman laying on the side of
the road, he has a choice. He can stop to help, but he doesn't
know how deeply he will get involved, and his moral beliefs tell
him that he really should do everything he can to help. That's
a potentially heavy burden if he doesn't feel like doing much.
But then there is the other option: Avoid this potential moral
dilemma by not getting involved, and making an excuse.
This is about the psychology of the situation. Suppose you
see a man asking for food. You stop to give him the last half
of your box of crackers. He tells you about how he was robbed
of the money that was supposed to get him into his next apartment.
He has no job and is living on the street. Could you give him
some money, he asks, or give him a place to sleep for a few days.
he begs you. You knew this was a possibility, and it is more
than you want to do, but your moral beliefs say that you have
an obligation to help.
You know that something like this is a possibility in any
such situation, so in reality it is easier on your conscience
to drive by and not even give him the crackers. You can pretend
you don't see him, say that he is just looking for money for
booze, or make any other excuse. Your beliefs have placed too
heavy a burden on you, and so discourage you from helping.
On the other hand, a person who has no belief in ANY obligation
to help others (that's me) doesn't face this dilemma. When I
pick up a homeless hitchhiker (I often do) and help him with
a little food, I can leave it at that without guilt. If he asks
for a place to sleep, and I don't want to help, I can simply
say no, and wish him the best. I don't have a "duty"
to do more than I want to do. This makes it very easy to help
others as the opportunity arises, because I can feel good helping
only as much as I am prepared to help.
This is the opposite of the "give until it hurts"
moral theory. I say that if it hurts, you are giving too much.
There may come a time when you have more to give, or there may
come a time when your own personal development makes giving easier.
In the meantime, with a morality based on self interest, you
have no heavy burden and no guilt. You help to the extent that
feels right for you, and leave it at that.
In other words, the common moralities don't even accomplish
what they aim at. They even can result in moral corruption. In
the cases discussed, this is the corruption of the impulse to
Religious and moral systems don't make people more loving
or generous. People's natural loving feelings and generosity
may make these moral beliefs seem good, but then the beliefs
create a standard that people can't possibly live up to. This
makes believers into hypocrites, a self image they can only hide
from by avoiding those situations which point it out.
This process is moral corruption. A man writes a check for
a charity because it's easy. But at the same time he avoids any
real encounters where his moral beliefs and guilt may suck him
in deeper than he wants to go, because he either goes or his
hypocrisy is exposed.
Other Forms of Moral Corruption
The above explanation shows how of all the altruistic moral
philosophies can actually corrupt ones normal moral development
and expression. But there are also other specific moral beliefs
that are just plain primitive and hateful, which also corrupt
moral thinking as well. For example, the Old Testament clearly
calls for death to gays and "witches," and forbids
crippled persons from entering church.
Fortunately, most people don't buy into all that their religions
or "moralities" promote. Despite claiming that the
their holy books are the "word of God," they don't
actually follow the horrible examples and ideas in those books.
But the danger is always there, especially with younger people
who, in their quest to be consistent believers and not hypocrites,
easily have their basic goodness corrupted by various religious
beliefs and teachings.
How do we avoid this moral corruption by "morality"
itself? With a better view of morality, and an open mind that
allows beliefs to change and evolve as we experience life and
grow. With an enlightened morality of self interest.
To a mature and self-interested person, the existence of gay
or crippled persons is not a threat. Furthermore, for all the
teachings about being non-judgmental, the Christian faith produces
a lot of very judgmental people, as does almost every religious-based
moral system. A morality of self interest is most concerned with
the practical aspects of finding the best ways to interact with
others, with little need for condemning them.
The common view that it is primarily self-interest which leads
to moral corruption shows the shallowness of people's thinking
about the self. It also shows an ignorance of the corrupting
influence of their own religions and beliefs.
Much of this is speculative, but I do believe in a
"natural morality" which is experienced as "conscience,"
and which is universal in "normal" humans. However,
the particular ways we describe these things may evolve. In other
words, I may change my mind.
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