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Positive and Negative Morality

An investigation of different ways of viewing morality with a subtle, but psychologically important difference.

“Your morals should never stand in the way of you doing things; rather, doing certain things should stand in the way of your morals.” – Anonymous

Take sexual purity, for example. There are two ways to look at it:

  1. I don’t want to be impure, so I won’t have sex
  2. I want to be pure, so I won’t have sex.

See the difference? It’s subtle but highly psychologically relevant. Viewing things from the first perspective is what leads so many people to believe the Church is about Do’s and Don’ts, the second way follows from an honest longing to be Christlike. The first is destined to fail, the second will be far more effective in thwarting temptation, but is harder to keep in mind.

Another example that is slightly less “Christian” in nature: kindness

  1. I don’t want to be mean, therefore I will be kind.
  2. I want to be kind, therefore I will be kind.

The first leads to an insecure, insincere form of kindness. The second ceases to be about you and becomes about others; that and that alone will lead to genuine kindness.

I could continue with the examples, but you get the idea. As the title suggests I’m going to refer to both #1 examples as “negative morality” (connoting the don’t) and #2 examples as “positive morality” (connoting the do). Negative morality is what the Church has become known for, and it’s sad, because it doesn’t work (perhaps the reason for the hypocrisy accusations?).

I’ll save you the anecdotes, suffice to say, trust me, I’ve seen the effects of this cognitive restructuring in my life. Positive morality is counter-intuitive, it goes against what we’ve been taught from birth (the first word infants learn is “no”), and it’s a terribly difficult mindset to keep up, but not only is it significantly more effective, but it’s more liberating than negative morality.

What’s the point of trying if I know I’m gonna fail? is a question I hear a lot. My response is has become something to the effect of “What’s the point of trying to become a good student even though we know we won’t get a 4.0 and we can get a 3.0 without any effort?” Being a good student, like being a good person, has intrinsic value. If you actually want to be a good person, then the journey alone will be a good thing, you might never reach perfection, but you can get closer.

On the other hand, if all you want is to not be a bad person, then I ask you, “what’s the point?” It’s fighting a battle that you’re destined to lose.

To quote Dr. Clive Staples Lewis, “No one realizes how bad one is until one tries very hard to be good” (Mere Christianity). I would argue that this is even more apparent when someone tries to be good for the sake of not being bad rather than for the sake of being good.

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