Are Internet Filters Simply Moralism?

by Douglas Wilson

Morality is strong; moralism is brittle. Morality can laugh; moralism points a bony finger at others.

As we are teaching our young men the blessing of sexual integrity, which of course includes learning how to navigate away from porn, we have to be careful to do it the right way. This is because there is a vast difference between morality and moralism.

Moral education involves far more than a collection of do nots. A “list of rules” is not sufficient. What is genuine moral education? Education is as much about formation as it is about information. The formation should be in a accord with God’s written standard, and we should be able to compare what we see forming in us with what God’s Spirit wrote down, but looking at the rules only is an exercise in arid futility.

Moralism and Morality

Let us begin with a working definition. As I am using the term here, morality really is moral, and morality is something that arises from within a man. “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45).

Moralism adopts this as an external standard, but the heart is elsewhere. Often moralism can be quite fierce in its denunciations of immorality, but this is a function of panic and fear. The sin, which is very appealing to the denouncer, is being fought off with those denunciations. The sinner is denounced, not out of pity, but from envy. If I don’t get to do that, why should he?

Morality is glad, not fussy; moralism is fussy, not glad. Morality defends; moralism accuses. Morality is like Jesus; moralism is like the devil. Morality is fruit; moralism is a handful of gravel. Morality is alive; moralism is dead. Morality approves, and therefore disapproves; moralism disapproves, and is content to keep it there. Morality loves; moralism envies.

Filtering and Accountability

This applies to some of the techniques we use to fight against porn. Blocking (commonly called “filtering”), by itself, is simply a fence. But building a fence does not prevent someone from wanting to be on the other side of it. In fact, building a fence often has the effect of increasing someone’s desire to be on the other side of it (Romans 3:20; 5:20). It is the sweetness of forbidden fruit.

Accountability (which has to be understood as more than just posting guards along the fence) helps to establish a moral understanding. Accountability instills; filtering restricts. Accountability teaches young men how to say yes, and when to say yes. Filtering (by itself) simply says no, and does not know how to deal with the tempest of lust that this can provoke.

Filtering alone can have the effect of creating moralism, where the people who are not doing x or, in this case, not doing xxx, are bound up with restrictions that don’t really get to the heart of the matter. They don’t do it, but wish they could, and if they can’t, nobody else can. This eventually will result in continued public denunciations, and private indulgence, and when this comes out, which it usually does, we see the hypocrisy.

Accountability teaches and builds. Accountability comes alongside and helps in the crucial task of moral formation. Learning the difference between morality and moralism is a crucial task in the battle against porn.

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Douglas Wilson is the pastor of Christ’s Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology at New Saint Andrews College. He is the founder and editor of the Christian cultural and theological journal Credenda/Agenda. He sits on the governing boards of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools. He is the author of many books including Reforming Marriage, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, To a Thousand Generations, Federal Husband, Future Men, and A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking. Doug is also featured in the documentary film Collision.