What is Good?, What is Just?

Morality vs. Moralism

Morality vs. moralism: Morality and moralism are two different things, but we often confuse the two.

And I understand this tendency because at one time I didn’t understand the difference between morality and moralism either. And sometimes even now, I think I understand the difference, and then I realize I don’t understand it as well as I thought I did.

There is a significant difference between morality and moralism.

Morality refers to theories of the good in terms of human behavior. For instance, when we discuss morality, we discuss issues of good character, good principles, good virtues, and good choices. Morality calls us to live by consistent principles that reach for a higher good for both ourselves and others.

And we often think of morality as something you either do correctly or incorrectly. But, in fact, people go through different stages of moral development.

For instance, almost all of us learn to behave well when we are younger in order to avoid punishment and gain reward. And then we learn to behave appropriately because we want people to think well of us. Thus, our morality is motivated by a desire for reputation and other people’s approval. As we grow older, we realize that we need to behave well to help create a good society where people respect law and order.

But then later, it dawns on us that there is, in fact, something more to morality than reward, punishment, reputation, and law and order. We realize that moral principles are for the sake of human flourishing. And we realize that love, which is at the heart of all moral and faith systems, is essential. That is because love, which is showing kindness, compassion, and respect[1] to others, encourages human beings to develop all their constructive human capacities (or virtues). These are virtues like generosity, patience, wisdom, creativity, gentleness, joy, etc. And as you can imagine, the more people develop these constructive human capacities, the more we create a beautiful, just, humane, and fair world together.

You can read more about moral development here: Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.

Kant calls such a world the Kingdom of Ends. The Kingdom of Ends is a world in which every human being is treated as valuable in themselves. And everyone supports everyone’s ability to become fully moral, which Kant believes is a state when we are also fully rational and fully free. In fact, Kant believes that we have a duty to make sure that people don’t suffer from poverty because he argues that hunger and desperation makes it harder for people to follow moral principles. (You can read more about Kant’s moral principles here: Kant’s Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals and Metaphysics of Morals.)

Now, we may or may not agree with every point of Kant’s moral theory. (You can read more about his moral system in this post: How to Cultivate a Good Will.)

But I think we can all agree that it would be an amazing world if all of us treated everyone as though they were valuable in themselves.

And it would be an amazing world if we realized that it can be very hard for people to follow moral principles when they are desperate and feel like nobody cares for them. It would be an amazing world if we did all we could to love, nurture, and care for each other so we make it easy for people to pursue moral development and show love to others.

This, I believe, is one of the highest ideals of morality. And we can, indeed, create that kind of world together. Unfortunately, instead of striving for this moral ideal, many of us get stuck in moralism.

The Problem of Moralism

When we get stuck in moralism, we become focused on behavior we deem moral and immoral. We do this rather than realizing that the true goal of morality is love and human flourishing. And when we get stuck in moralism, we get very concerned about judging other people according to how well everyone is following the rules. We become very concerned about who is a good person and who is a bad person. Accordingly, because we are focused on rules instead of love, we fail to recognize how our own behavior, or other external influences, can encourage or discourage people’s ability to be moral.

For example, I have been a teacher for over twenty-five years, and I have realized that it is very easy for teachers to be moralistic. I know this because I have been a moralistic teacher at times. When teachers are moralistic, they become overly focused on whether their students are obeying the rules and being good students. And it is understandable why teachers do this sometimes. After all, if students misbehave and do not follow rules, class becomes chaotic, which is every teacher’s nightmare. (Ask almost any teacher or professor about the dreams they have before the year begins for proof of this.)

So, teachers must be concerned about rules, of course. However, most teachers eventually realize that class rules are not an end in themselves. The purpose of class rules is to help create an environment in which students and teachers can grow together and explore rich, meaningful ideas. As they do this, everyone’s life becomes more beautiful. And in fact, the more teachers and students create this rich, meaningful environment, the more students tend to internalize classroom rules and follow them naturally. They recognize the power of authentic learning and the importance of behavior that supports such learning.[2]

But when teachers get stuck in moralism, they focus on who is following the rules or not and who is a good and bad student. And this prioritization of rules over students, in fact, contributes to a bad classroom environment. That is because students feel like the teacher does not, in fact, care for them as a person. Rather, students feel like the teacher primarily cares about abstract rules.

 Morality and Moralism in the World

And this lesson applies outside the classroom as well. The more we treat people with love, the safer and more secure they feel. And the better they can understand how morality makes the world better for everyone. That is because they see how people treating them with love makes their world better. Thus, it leads them to consider how they can create this kind of world for others. That is why most moral and faith-based systems contain some version of the golden rule which tells us to treat others how we want to be treated. Such systems also remind us to love our neighbors as ourselves. We all desire love. So treating others this way reminds and encourages people to act accordingly.

And this is the key difference between morality and moralism. Morality encourages us to treat others with love because we know people are valuable in themselves. And we know that treating them with love will encourage them to act with love. Accordingly, everyone wins! Moralism, on the other hand, tells us that people are only valuable insofar as they follow rules. So, moralism encourages us to focus on rules, instead of people, and it encourages us to be on the lookout for bad behavior. That way, we win, because we feel morally superior.

And in fact, when we get stuck in moralism, we become armchair moral experts. We sit back and commentate on people’s bad behavior. That is very convenient for us because we can make judgments on others without requiring ourselves to change in any way.

Moralism is a problem. But we should note that it can arise from something good—namely, a concern about moral principles. (Moralism can also arise from human tendencies towards tribalism, which you can read more about here: Is Your Morality Motivated by Love or Tribalism?)

It can be challenging to be fully moral because being fully moral requires that we not only follow the rules and do good. It also requires that we do good for the right reasons—because we love doing good. And it requires that we not only focus on doing good but that we think about how we make it harder for others to do good. That is why Scripture warns us against putting stumbling blocks in people’s path. (For example, Romans 14:13 says, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”)[3]

I believe that such sentiment is also the reason why Kant tells us that we have a duty to work on our own perfection but that we have a duty to support other people’s happiness. (By happiness here, Kant means the kind of well-being that helps people feel safe, supported, and cared for.) Unfortunately, most of us get it backwards. We get concerned about the stumbling blocks people put in our path without caring about the stumbling blocks we put in other people’s paths. And we prioritize our own happiness while focusing on other people’s perfection or, rather, their lack of it.

It takes a lot of empathy, courage, compassion and sometimes resources and discomfort, to consider carefully how we can love others. It takes a lot of humility to consider how to support people and not be a stumbling block to their moral development. Doing so often requires us to change views we have long held about the world, which can feel very uncomfortable. I have experienced such discomfort personally. (You can read about such a time here: Are College Professors Trying to Make Everyone Liberal?)

And because it is difficult, many of us resort to moralism rather than true morality. That’s is because moralism allows us to pass judgment on people’s behavior without being concerned about our duties to them as a person. Moralism is very individualistic in this way and separates us from others. As such, it increases our loneliness, and it does little to bring actual moral flourishing into the world. In fact, moralism can discourage moral behavior.

I am reminded of the story in the New Testament in which pharisees are about to stone to death a woman caught in adultery.[4] They, essentially, ask Jesus to approve the stoning. But instead, Jesus kneels down on the ground and begins drawing in the sand. When the pharisees urge him, once again, to condone the stoning, Jesus stands and says, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.” And all the pharisees leave. It’s not that Jesus didn’t care about moral issues because he did.[5] Rather, he was pointing out the pharisees’ moralism and helping them realize that they cared more about other people’s bad behavior than their own behavior or other people.

At the end of that story, Jesus asks the woman where here accusers were and if anyone condemned her. And when she replied “No, Lord”. He said, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” In this story, Jesus showed the formerly condemned woman love and invited her to go into the world and act in a loving way as well.

This story suggests that moralism drives us to stone people, literally or metaphorically. But love invites us to transform the world together. It connects, understands, and cares for us.

Thomas Merton was a Catholic priest who wrote one of my favorite books in the world, New Seeds of Contemplation. This book helps us consider, among other things, how we can love the Divine, ourselves, and other people. It’s a book about connection. 

And this isn’t the only story like this. Christ continually calls people to move past moralism and to care about true morality, which is grounded in love. And whether we are believers or not, we can see why it is wise for everyone to move past moralism to true morality.

As such, here are five signs that suggest that we (you and I) are stuck in moralism:

One: We spend a lot of time talking about or at people and their bad behavior. But we spend very little time, talking to them or even just trying to understand them better.[6]

Two: We are very concerned about people behaving well. But we are generally unwilling to listen to ways our choices and actions, or laws and culture, might make it harder for people to do so.

Three: We are very concerned about people’s immoral behavior. But when people make suggestions for how we could better support moral behavior, we are generally unwilling to listen. We are especially unwilling to do so if it costs us money or time or inconveniences us in any way.

Four: We are more concerned with other people’s bad behavior and “stoning” them (again literally or metaphorically) than we are concerned with how we can understand them, listen to them, or show love to them.

Five: Because we are very concerned about being thought one of the good people who follows rules, we believe that we fully understand what it means to be moral. Therefore, we have difficulties understanding we might not have a total grasp on morality or truth. (Note: Sometimes behavior we believe is immoral actually is immoral. And sometimes we misunderstand what is going on or have an underdeveloped understanding of morality.)

A Concluding Thought

As you may suspect, I am writing this post because there is a lot of discussion in our country right now about morality. In times like this, it is easy to get stuck in moralism, confusing it with morality. Moralism is seductive in that it allows us to judge other people’s behavior and never requires a change or sacrifice on our part. But true morality calls us to show love to others, even if doing so inconveniences us.

And if you are like me, you can think of some people whom you think need to read this post. It’s certainly fine to consider this. But true morality, indeed love, suggests that it is best to start with ourselves on this matter.


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Did you know you can now work with me? I do philosophical consulting. And one of the ways I consult people is to help them develop their own moral code or learn how to love themselves and other people. You can read more about this in the Work With Me tab up above.

You might also enjoy these posts on developing your own moral system.

Develop Your Own Moral and Ethical Code
How to Flourish by Cultivating Virtues

And How to Cultivate a Good Will
How to Maximize Happiness and Minimize Pain

The Ethics of Compassion


[1] Respect in this context means honoring human dignity which is the ability to follow moral principles.

[2] I was a middle school and high school teacher for sixteen years. My goal was to help students internalize loving behavior so thoroughly that if I had to, I could leave the classroom briefly and know my class would behave well because they wanted to do so. And most of the time, but not all the time, I was able to help students achieve this goal. And that wasn’t because I am a perfect teacher. I am certainly not. It’s because students, like all people, have the capacity for moral development, and we can encourage or discourage it with how we treat them.

[3] We should note that sometimes when people behave immoral, it’s because they don’t care about any kind of moral principles at all. And in fact, they don’t care about other people. Putin is a good example of this. This isn’t the the kind of immoral behavior I am addressing in this post.

There are other situations in which people behave in a way we deem immoral but they are trying to act well. Consider the example of a young mother, abandoned by the father of her baby. She is living in poverty, although she is working her tail off to provide for her family. And she has no family and friends to support her. Her baby will not breastfeed for whatever reason. In a moment of desperation, she steals formula from a store to feed her baby. This is an example of a woman who wants to behave morally but struggles, for a variety of personal and social reasons, to do so.

Perhaps we assume that everyone who behaves in way we deem immoral don’t care about moral principles. But stories like the one about the mother above suggest this isn’t true.

[4] You can read this story in John 8 in the New Testament of the Bible

[5] Many people also point out that the Pharisees seemed very concerned about the woman’s behavior but not at all concerned about the behavior of the man in this situation.

[6] It is not always possible to directly speak to people whom we think are behaving immorally. This may simply be for practical reasons. However, it can sometimes be for safety reasons. Nevertheless, we can always try to understand people better. This is especially true regarding social problems that we believe are immoral.

For example, sometimes people judge as immoral people who receive welfare. Love would remind us that if we are concerned about this, we should try to understand the various reasons why people become impoverished and find themselves in such situations. This may mean that we talk to actual individuals. Or it may mean that we read books. Here is are two such books: The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto and No Salvation Outside the Poor.

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