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 to others, encourages human beings to develop all their constructive human capacities (or virtues). These are virtues like love, 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.
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 make 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.