The Cantankerous Critic: “Ethics as Harm Avoidance”

By Scott Keith


I’ve been thinking this week about ethics. It has always been interesting to me to observe how those who do not hold to the Christian faith, or any faith at all, teach ethics. The fact is that apart from an outside force coming in to our world and telling us what is right and what is wrong, ethics are a tough nut to crack. Yet, at some point, most people will teach their children the difference between right and wrong based on whatever system they personally hold.

gay marriageHere is the conundrum. It is very common in our age to have uncommon ethical systems. That is, not everyone believes in the same “right” or the same “wrong.” This is easily illustrated as our nation delves into answering the ethical question: is it right or wrong for homosexuals to be joined to one another in marriage? As someone who serves in the trenches of a college campus, striving to teach young skulls full of mush the difference between right and wrong, this struggle often comes up. This struggle is exacerbated by the modern, seemingly ubiquitous mantra: “what’s works for me is good (or right) for me and what works for you is good (or right) for you.”

Yet, as I said last week, I believe even those who spout this seemingly relativistic mantra are seeking a truth which they can hold to as true, without exception. This was illustrated to me last year when I attended a conference that attempted to deal with the topics of mental illness, sexual activity concerns, and substance abuse on college campuses. I was attending several lectures when it became apparent to me that what was really happening was that secular people were trying to answer questions of right and wrong guised under the modern lingo of “harm avoidance.”

Let me explain. What became glaringly apparent is that these secular presenters really believed that it was wrong to use every drug under the sun, to have sex with 15 different people before graduation, and to go to black out parties (parties wherein individuals drink so much that they black out) three days a week. Yet, because they have no objective ethic, not true right or wrong on which to base these opinions, they simply say: “you probably should avoid these things because the may harm you.” In other words, ethics reduced to harm avoidance. Don’t get hooked on drugs because you might overdose. Don’t have sex with 15 different people because you might get pregnant or an STD. Don’t get so drunk that you black out because you might get sexually assaulted or get alcohol poisoning. You get the idea. Yet I believe that I could see in their eyes the heartfelt desire to say that these things are just plain wrong.


Since attending this conference I’ve often asked my students what they believe. On the whole, Christian and non-Christian, they seem to agree that what’s good for them is good for them and what is good for me is good for me. So to, they seem to agree that the only reason not to do some of the above mentioned activities is because they might harm you, at which point I ask: “Is it truly your desire to be treated like a two year old for your entire life or do wish to be an adult and search the bigger questions in life?” What I mean to say is that two year olds are told not to touch the hot stove because it will harm them, not to cross the street without mom or dad because it will harm them. Not only is ethics as harm avoidance a narcissistic view, much like a two year old has of the world, but it does not give them what they truly desire; the truth.

Where do we go from here? Speak the truth with love. The debauchery listed above is wrong because these acts are manifestations of the reality that we are lost in sin, and apart from Christ, separated from God. God’s law, universally given in the heart and shown in the decalogue, teaches us what is right and wrong. The apologetic inroad is to proclaim that these things are actually wrong. They actually serve to separate us from God and one another. Denying the centrality of this fact serves to bring us farther away from the Truth people are looking for, not closer to one of many truths. This is the point at which the Truth, that is Christ as Truth, can be brought forward as the answer. Again, grounded in the non-transient, immutable Christ who is God, right and wrong, good and bad are not only found, but have their answers in Christ the Truth, who died and rose to save us and set us free. Ethics then find true meaning in freely serving one another on account of what Christ has done to save us. This is so much more valuable than harm avoidance.

The Crucifixion by Tintoretto, 1565