‘The Essence of Immorality’


 Sometimes quietly profound insights in life occur in the most mundane moments imaginable. Like, say, in your kitchen. While making toast for breakfast on a normal Monday morning.

That happened to me a couple of days ago. While spreading Jiffy on my toast, I happened to glance down at one of those 365-page flip calendars filled with inspirational nuggets that my wife got for Christmas. I can easily go days without noticing such nuggets, but that day—Jan. 21—I actually read it. It said:

“The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself.”

The truism was voiced by Jane Addams, an American pacifist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. And clearly, she knew what she was talking about.

Wow, I thought. That’s really true.

I think what Addams was getting at is the pernicious—and perniciously subtle—tendency we humans have of deciding that the normal rules don’t apply to us for some self-serving reason. Adam and Eve capitulated to exactly this deception in the Garden of Eden, and humanity has been doing it ever since. It is, as Addams notes, “the essence of immorality.”

I can certainly see that tendency in my own life in all sorts of ways. Like when I tell my son he’s spent enough time playing video games on the computer, for instance, and then I get on to surf the web myself. Or when I get mad at someone speeding past me recklessly on the interstate … never mind the fact that I’m already going 10 m.p.h. over the speed limit, too. Do as I say, not as I do, right?

And while those examples may not seem immoral, per se, I think they do get at the mindset that suggests we often play by a different set of rules internally than we extend to others. In other words, we judge ourselves by our intentions, while we tend to judge others strictly by their actions. And many times when we do so, we do indeed act as if we’re an exception to a rule that we wouldn’t hesitate to apply to someone else.

Reading Addam’s quote, I couldn’t help but think of several high-profile sports and media related stories of late that illustrate this tendency as well.

Take Lance Armstrong, for example. In his recent on-air mea culpa confessing to Oprah Winfrey that he took performance-enhancing drugs, he said he rationalized his decision in part because he suspected he wasn’t producing as much testosterone as other cyclists due to losing a testicle to cancer.

In other words, the normal rules didn’t apply to him.

Or take Arnold Schwarzenegger’s defense of violence in the movies. When asked recently whether onscreen violence should be scrutinized more carefully in the wake of the horrific mass murders in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., last year, the 65-year-old actor suggested that we look someplace other than media for possible influences.

It is such a horrific tragedy, but we have to separate out what is in the movies—which is pure entertainment—and what is out there in reality. When you have a tragedy like that, and you lose so many lives, I think you owe it to society to do everything you can and look at everything—dealing with mental health, parenting in America, are the schools safe, and do we have the right safety features in place, and should we look at gun laws again, and look if there are any loopholes that can be closed.

In other words, let’s look vigorously for loopholes … as long as the loopholes don’t implicate us or require us to change our positions.

Look, if I were in Armstong’s or Schwarznegger’s positions, I’d probably be saying the same things. The purpose of those examples isn’t to toss these guys under the bus as irredeemable hypocrites. Rather, it’s to show how widespread the mindset Addams described really is. We don’t have to look far in pop culture to find people believe they’re exceptions to the rules everyone else is supposed to abide by.

In fact, I don’t have to look any further than the mirror.

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Okay so I read an essay by Brian Godawa for a college class a week ago. One of the things he said was that, "Accounts of sex and violence are not in and of themselves evil. It is the context of these misbehaviors and meanings given to them that primarily dictate their destructive nature." In alignment with that quote, sex and violence aren't always wrong, however the problem is the context. For the record I agree fully with the article!

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Great article! I agree wholeheartedly! Thank you.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

I dunno, G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis were not much alike at all except in their love of the Lord and the word He gave us. It's that we use our individual talents for the Lord that matters, we all receive different signs and epiphanies because He knows different things will attract us to Him.  If CS Lewis had never rejected God in the first place we never would have got "Mere Christianity" which never would have converted as many as it has.

He wants us to use our individual talents for the ultimate good, which is Him. If He didn't, I don't see why He would have bothered with Free Will in the first place, since it probably would have been easier to not bother.

That's just my $0.02 cents, anyway.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

1:02 Anonymous:

Actually, there's plenty wrong with individualism in any sense. The Bible commands that we deny ourselves. Think about what that means. It means we are to throw away all sense of identity, of individuality, everything. We are not people, we are possessions of God.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

@Anonymous above: Funnily enough, I think the BioShock games argue pretty much the same thing you do. :)

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Militant individualism destroys community relations for self-gain and leads to alienation of those who simply want someone to relate to. But if "it's all relative", then how can they relate to them?

There's nothing wrong with being an individual and being original, but when you're being taught that being "special" is what truly matters- how can you ever really see another as an equal? Vague and ever-changing standards? Random and fragile humanism? No, without any hardline, you can't. That's why we've had more school shootings in the last few decades than at any other time, because of overvaluing the self at the expense of the community. I suspect this will start to change at some point, but I really hope it's sooner than later.

I primarily play games like Super Mario Bros. and Sonic The Hedgehog, by the way. lol. (BioShock was interesting, though)

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

If one reads the Arnold quote, when he says "everything," notice he mentions everything but the media, after saying that you "have to separate fantasy and reality."

I think that any interpretation that says he's including media in that would have to be very kind.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

And I've played Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto, and Far Cry 3, and I haven't killed almost anybody. Whichever Anonymous mentioned "alienation and militant individualism" has an interesting point. While I'm not sure it's media per se that enables that sort of thing, I do agree that the sort of tragedies we've been facing probably couldn't have occurred if the perpetrators had the appreciation of the value of human life that alienation and extreme individualism cut off. It's just that, in my experience, a lot of the more extreme media, like Bioshock or Battle Royale, actually increased my valuation of humanity and sense of connection. As with firearms themselves, I don't think media itself actually 'causes' these events. However, also as with firearms, while not in and of itself in all circumstances negative, if we can show that dealing with such media in a different way would save lives while we attempt to fix whatever the real problems are, I agree that's something we as a society should move to do. So far, though, I don't see any trustworthy evidence showing such (in regards to media, anyways). But, maybe the research the United States recently funded will be able to avoid the politicization and bias of previous studies.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

It's not like people that play video games are all horrible people. I only have ever played Mario and Rayman, and neither of those are offensive.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

You can't make the right choice unless you are taught what exactly right and wrong are. If the media is actively telling you what's wrong is right it's a lot harder to make a good choice, which is the problem.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

i think video games are the main problem, not movies

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

the media can effect you but you have the choice to say no

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

The media isn't the problem, it's just part of it. I would say alienation and militant individualism is a bigger one... which is what the media tends to promote.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

it all comes down to the parents and what choices you make  

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Still this is why church life and family life are so important - with

out that most kids are left to stare at some electronic medium or another.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Also, i think the whole ''media is the problem'' debate is a cop-out argument. It's easy to sit there and say ''blame the movies'', it's much harder to ask questions about gun laws, mental health etc because those are the more complex problems that need to be solved.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

@ Anonymous 8:29

You're choosing to interpret his words as saying that media has nothing to do with violence in the real world. I don't see it that way. My interpretation of his comment is that the focus on media is deceptive because there are MANY other reasons in why a person chooses to take a gun and randomly shoot up an elementary school.

You can't even argue that media is a major factor in violence because it isn't certain. There are a host of other factors and you don't know the degree to which one affects a person, or whether certain people are just more prone to violence than others.

Quite frankly, I'm sick and tired of this whole ''media is the problem'' debate. Arnold is right in saying that maybe we should ALSO ask questions about our mental health system, parenting, video games, gun laws etc to the SAME DEGREE that we're focusing on media influence.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

You're getting all defensive when Adam is just giving his opinion. He didn't call Arnold or anyone a hypocrite. It appears at least from that quote that Arnold doesn't wish to recognize the media's influence. Plugged In recognizes that media does carry influence. If that wasn't true, businesses wouldn't advertise on the networks.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

What are you talking about? You are doing the exact same thing you're criticizing. Arnold is not "rationalizing" things, he's actually correct that we should look at EVERYTHING before we start pointing fingers. You guys here at pluggedin are focusing SOLELY on media as the culprit here. But there is more to the story. Its not quite as simple as you make it out to be. Perhaps y'all should examine your own views before you start calling anyone a hypocrite.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

I think, going of what Anonymous above said and the previous post this week on swearing in titles, that a lot of our media producer 'think' that it's a race to the bottom. However, judging by the ratings of such shows, most consumers know better, or at least are starting to know better. I don't think judgements like 'good' and 'beneficial' and even 'beautiful' are inapplicable to violent, language-filled, sexually-aware (a vague term, I know, but suitable enough I hope for this discussion) media. I just think some of the guys in charge of media don't realize this.

I do wish, though, y'all would stop assuming violent media/violent behavior connections are as clear-cut and obvious as you seem to say it is. It strikes me as intellectually dishonest, if I'm allowed to be frank.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

I see the media driven world we live in as "a race to the bottom".  Used to be that even Miss Marple could have a couple of murders and yet keep us enthralled with the denoument - or the Orient Express, just one dead body.  Now we have to have 5 or 6 dead bodies, with graphic depiction of a head practically severed off, lots and lots of gore, maggots crawling in the head in the bag, etc.  We have to see so many thonged behinds, so many plastic boobs, so many sick family relationships...and that's just the ADs...race to the bottom, no pun intended...If all is allowed all will be in a competition for who can be the MOST salacious, the nastiest, the most violent, the sickest.  It's not that nice guys finish last, it's that nice guys (or girls) don't sell to this sick culture.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

I agree with this, to a point--there have been mass murders that were, to be honest, much more deadly than the movie-theatre and school shootings you're referring to.  Timothy McVeigh?  9/11?  There are plenty of people who watch these films and play these games, and if even one percent of those people went on to commit acts of violence because of what they saw onscreen, the incident count would likely be many, many thousands.

Other than that questionable cause-effect relationship, the question of "are my actions matching my words" is a good one.