Strict and Lax Moralities

In The Methods of Ethics, Henry Sidgwick’s notes that

in most civilised societies there are two different degrees of positive morality, both maintained in some sort by common consent; a stricter code being publicly taught and avowed, while a laxer set of rules is privately admitted as the only code which can be supported by social sanctions of any great force. By refusing to conform to the stricter code a man is often not liable to incur exclusion from social intercourse, or any material hindrance to professional advancement, or even serious dislike on the part of any of the persons whose society he will most naturally seek…

The strict and lax duality exists at different levels of society and in different degrees. Something like this exists within families. A father speaking to his son may express his moral judgment of a person in much stronger terms than he would in public. One can observe the same in Christian communities. Christian friends (and Christian family members too, of course) will usually speak (and, perhaps less often, act) in private in ways they would never speak (or act) in public.

When the private, lax morally acceptable behavior becomes public, it can be quite embarrassing. But the fact of there being a community that implicitly recognizes the laxer code usually keeps the revelation from being completely devastating. Politicians provide countless examples. Consider the time when George W. Bush giving the middle-finger was made public.

The culture war in politics and the more generalized moral warfare of social media tends to exacerbate any private behavior that becomes a public transgression. In a sense, you could say that the existence of lax moralities is being delegitimized. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends largely upon how reasonable (or moral) the public, strict morality is and vice versa.

The drive to eradicate private, lax moralities — at least in the context of the public square, as it exists in 2020 — is partly the result of perceived attempts of private, lax morality to encroach upon the sphere of public, strict morality. (In other words, one might argue that the first shot was fired by lax morality.) During the 2016 election, Trump’s comments about grabbing a woman were defended as “locker room talk.” The idea was that we all have a lax morality where Trump’s comments (and maybe even his behavior) really wasn’t such a big deal. The strict/lax dichotomy was being appealed to for protection of moral sanction under the stricter morality. The common lament or excuse of “saying the quiet part out loud” or “being a snowflake” can be understood in these contexts. In Trump, that has sometimes been defended as a virtue. Thus, we need to drive out the irrational strict morality. Whether that’s legitimate or not is a different debate which, again, depends on how reasonable or moral the strict moral code is.

An example of where the more generalized moral warfare has intensified the exposure of lax morality can be seen in a recent complementarian debacle.[*] I don’t know all the details here and a lot of relevant information is still in dispute, but from what I can tell, it appears that an egalitarian managed to join a private forum/chat of complementarians. The egalitarian gathered some evidence of the complementarians operating according to their lax moral code and exposed it to the public. Again, I stress that my account here may not be accurate in the details. Maybe the person who exposed the evidence wasn’t an egalitarian infiltrator but a fellow complementarian who was simply disappointed in the lax moral behavior of his or her fellow complementarians. Some have attempted to argue that the evidence (pictures of texts) has been tampered with to give false impressions — to make it look like someone was saying something that they weren’t or talking about someone they weren’t.

The employment of moral warfare here is not simply to suggest that a certain group of complementarians need to tighten up their lax moral code (though this is all that some are suggesting), but it’s also being used to suggest that this is the true rotten fruit of complementarianism. Getting rid of the inappropriate lax moral code can only happen if we get rid of complementarianism.

I’d like to suggest that there’s a good reason for the coexistence of strict and lax moralities within a culture and within sub-cultures. Thus, completely eradicating one or the other would be a bad thing. For one thing, it’s obvious that the same words can be offensive when spoke to a stranger but not when spoken to a friend or family member. Words that are directed at a friend and that would make them laugh could, when directed at a stranger, make them cry.

But I would go further, tentatively, and say that in certain contexts, certain words about a person may be fine when spoken in private but inappropriate when spoken in public or when spoken to the person themselves. Here is the most obvious example I can think of: Suppose a man and his wife are meeting a coworker and his wife for dinner. The man may say to his wife “my coworker’s wife is suffering from depression over x, so let’s be careful to avoid that and any surrounding issues.” That may be a morally acceptable thing to say about the coworker’s wife even though it wouldn’t an appropriate thing to say about the coworker’s wife in a more public way — whether or not the coworker’s wife is present.

My hunch, though I haven’t given much thought to it, is that this type of private communication might extend to a more general type of a lax moral speech code — where we can say things to people and about people that is acceptable in virtue of a private lax morality. When that private behavior becomes public, at no fault of the actor, it is embarrassing but shouldn’t be seen as grounds for moral outrage. Ecclesiastes 7:21–22 even admonishes us to check our moral outrage over such incidents, whether or not what was said in private was inappropriate:

“Don’t pay attention to everything people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you, for in your heart you know that many times you yourself have cursed others.”

Notice that the reason for not treating such speech with seriousness is not that the private speech was acceptable by a legitimate lax moral code. The reason for not treating such speech with seriousness is that “you know that many times you yourself have cursed others.” In other words, it’s the pervasive existence and our own participation in what Sidgwick calls strict and lax moralities which should temper our outrage.

Of course, in light of the very serious warnings in the Bible on the moral significance of our speech (e.g., James), it is best to error on the side of caution. We stand to lose much and cause much harm if we get our lax moral speech code wrong.

[*] My motivation here is not to try to excuse anything relating to the recent complementarian issue. My knowledge of the details is cursory and I don’t know anyone involved, so I have no interests to defend. In fact, my first paragraph and my “hunch” mentioned near the end are the only things I had in mind when I started this post.

Throwing half-baked ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks.