on moral health
Benjamin West. The Choice of Hercules. 1764. (Public Domain)
There are, at a minimum, four different domains in which we should seek to be healthy: the bodily, the psychological, the spiritual, and the moral. We live in a world that has become decreasingly familiar with a couple of these, and seems especially to have abandoned the perennial human quest for moral health altogether. This has no small number of serious consequences for us.
Let’s begin first, however, with physical health. The notion that the body ought to be healthy remains current in our day and age. In fact, in many respects this is the only kind of health that we readily acknowledge with the term “health” to begin with. When we speak of healthcare or public health we are talking about bodily health. To be sure the question of what makes a healthy body can be much more difficult to answer than it might at first seem, and certainly there is an almost endless supply of terrible health advice available to us that makes us worse and not better. But in spite of those and some other caveats, we as a culture do (thankfully) still recognize that a healthy physical body is a good thing toward which we should strive. Thank God for that!
Psychological (or mental) health is also something that we appear still to value, at least in principle. If anything, attention to mental health has been on the upswing in recent years. I could write any number of essays on the very serious issues inherent in the medical/psychiatric model of psychological health that we most often look to in our world, but this is not the place for that discussion. Our actual approach to mental health today is a mix of ideas, some of which have produced remarkable fruits, and others that have actively hurt millions of people and made them far more sick than they would ever need to be. So it goes in the fallen world, I suppose. But again, the point at least stands that we take psychological health seriously as a good for which we ought to strive.
Spiritual health is something we attend to quite a bit less, though it strikes me as having not been quite fully abandoned. Though attendance at churches and other formal places of worship is certainly collapsing in North America, it is quite often replaced in people’s lives by more individual practices such as meditation and yoga, feel-good spiritual readings, and new age trinkets. This is not at all a good thing, to my mind—a community of true Christians whose lives are rooted in the immutable fundamentals of the true faith Tradition is absolutely essential to real spiritual health. However, we can take at least a little comfort in the knowledge that a large majority of people (in my unscientific experience) still care at least in theory about their spiritual lives and health. They may be visiting the spiritual equivalent of quack doctors and snake oil salesmen to seek treatment, but at least they are looking for healing in the first place.
Moral health, on the other hand, strikes me as something to which we no longer give any attention at all. By comparison to our society’s attitude toward moral health, our approach to spiritual health seems downright robust. It was not always so, however. Among the ancients, moral health was not only a point of substantial interest for philosophers and theologians, but was often framed as the most important type of health for a human to enjoy, and therefore the essential gateway to happiness, peace, prosperity, and every other good. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, St Paul, St Augustine, St Basil, St John Cassian—all were concerned profoundly with human moral health, and this is merely a short list of names that jump to mind.
Each type of human health is discrete only conceptually. In lived reality, they all contribute to one another. A lack of exercise, for instance, can help contribute to depression, and depression in turn tends to sap any motivation to exercise. Substance abuse both arises from and reinforces the worship of pleasure or escape from pain, and physiology plays a clear role in one’s susceptibility to it. One form of bad health usually leads to others until we find we have become an irritable overweight smoker watching television and complaining all afternoon (I speak from experience). Every type of unhealth contributes back to the others in a feedback loop.
Again, however, we should be grateful that our society does still have some sense that physical, mental, and spiritual health matter. As Christians, our mission on these fronts is to help provide real pathways to those sorts of health in place of the lies and deceptions that dominate much of the time. This is not easy work, but we have a starting point at least—by and large we do not need to try and convince people that these things are important in the first place. When it comes to moral health, however, the project is quite different.
To begin with, I should make it clear that our society is almost pathologically obsessed with ethics, and it is important to recognize the difference between ethics and the cultivation of morality. Ethics, as we usually approach it today, involves thinking about the rightness or wrongness of specific decisions and courses of action. Many ethics classes in universities begin with the famous “trolley problem” in which a person has to decide whether to pull a imaginary switch to avoid killing several people but with the ultimate result of killing just one other person. What is the right choice? The debate is eternal. From here, various types of ethical systems are often introduced to help think through the best way to make such decisions in life, and on we go.
Ethics matters, and reasoning about our decisions this way plays a role in political discourse, organizational decision making, medical care, and many other spheres. At our best, most people in our world are trying to do the right thing, and trying to figure out what the right thing is. That is something we have to do. But this is not the same thing by any means as cultivating moral health. Improving our moral health is precisely about improving our moral decision making capacity in the first place. If ethics presents us a puzzle that we have to try and solve, then cultivating moral health is like practicing our skills at solving such a puzzle in order to do it more effectively, to get it right more often, to apprehend its inner logic and see what is really going on.
When we do talk about moral health of this sort in our world, there tends to be an assumption that morality is something both universally obvious and also entirely self-defined (or at the very least discernible if we just think about it enough). We seem to think that everyone ought to have a clear and innate sense of right and wrong; yet we also often here that every individual person is in charge of deciding what is right and wrong for him or herself. The implication of both assumptions is that my moral health is something static that needs no care or cultivation. Yet both of the above assumptions about morality are absolutely false (and of course at odds with one another), and it strikes me that a key mission of the Church today must be to stand against them in whatever ways we can.
To begin with, while a basic sense of morality is innate among human beings, the specifics of what is moral and immoral are only rarely so. All people (with the possible exception of bona fide sociopaths) assume that some actions are good and just while others are wrong and even evil. This is obviously true as far as it goes. But outside perhaps a tiny list of examples, the question of which actions go in which categories has puzzled human thinkers for at least as long as they have been writing down their thoughts, and there are marked differences in how people and cultures delineate what is moral and what is not. This means that the common assumption that morality is simply obvious to human beings is false—in fact, just the opposite is true. Moral wisdom is something that we must seek after, and continuously refine. We almost never have the privilege of knowing with absolute certainty what is right and what is wrong, especially when it comes to discreet and specific actions. For the Christian, the teachings of Christ as handed down in the scriptures and through His Body, the Church, are key to helping us refine our own moral sensibilities. But even these never contain crystal clear answers to every possible question. Indeed, this is the very reason that the Tradition so highly values wise spiritual guides and confessors who can assist us in doing the hard work of discernment that is required to try and live a moral life.
As to the question of whether morality is personally defined, it does not take much of an argument to observe that such a position is utter hogwash. Morality is not morality at all if it applies only to me, and if it is based on my whims. Those who offer such positions are simply not thinking past the tip of their rhetorical nose in a given moment. Human beings, by definition, presume that there are some moral principles that apply universally. Were this not true we would have no capacity to stand against hatred, bigotry, and injustice in any of their forms. Yet those principles, though absolute, are not absolutely knowable and not always clear.
If morality is neither obvious nor arbitrary, then it is by definition one of the many deep mysteries that human beings are forever exploring, both conceptually and in practice. Just as the human body is something objective and real, yet never fully understood by us, so is morality itself ever to be approached and never fully captured. To become morally healthy is thus a very similar project to the cultivation of physical health. Both require continual vigilant attention and the building of the right sorts of habits. Both require that we turn to expertise and traditions that can tell us how health is obtained both in general and for us in particular.
Orthodox Christians accomplish this work through engagement with our Tradition. Participation in liturgy, the study of the scriptures, the study of the Church Fathers and Mothers, fasting, giving alms, and above all the work of confession and repentance, are the key tools which we are provided to help us become more morally healthy a little bit at a time. These things are to our conscience and morality what exercise is to the body. They improve us just a tiny bit every time we carry them out, and therefore they must be repeated over and over to have a noticeable long term affect. Also, like exercise, when we neglect them for a long time our moral health will begin to atrophy and decay—we will need to begin our work again and build ourselves up slowly over a long period.
For the Christian, becoming morally healthy does not mean we will always know the right thing to do at any given time. In fact, the very opposite is quite often the case—the more healthy we become, the more clearly we see our errors and our capacity to make them. Morally healthy people readily admit to not knowing exactly what they or the people around them ought to do about any given question. Inhabiting the world is difficult and complex, and we are surrounded by grey areas of every sort. Clairvoyance awaits very few of us. Yet a morally healthy person will make better decisions overall in the long run, and most importantly they will repent for what they have done wrong when their errors become clear, and seek to repair any damage that they can. It’s a bit like being a house painter (a job I did many years ago)–the difference between a professional and an amateur more often lies in knowing how to fix mistakes (and going to the effort of doing so) than in not making them in the first place.
But why should we bother with moral health anyway? Most of my readers are not likely to be asking this question, if I am honest, but I do so anyway because answering it reveals much about the effect that moral health has on us and its place amid the other forms of health that I have mentioned above.
Stoicism is one of the most misunderstood of historical philosophical traditions. The word “Stoic” in modern English often connotes someone unaffected by emotion—a stiff-upper-lip kind of person (most often a man) who does not seem to suffer amid the vicissitudes of life. There are good reasons that the word has come to have this sense, but it is also quite misleading when it comes to what the Stoics believed and taught.
At the heart of Stoic philosophy is the notion that cultivating virtue is what ultimately leads to a happy life. In context, the ancient Stoics were responding to a series of other philosophical schools, including the Epicureans who taught that the pursuit of pleasure is the pathway to contentment. While the Epicureans did not generally mean this in a hedonistic sense (though sometimes they did), the Stoics nonetheless saw a fatal flaw in this kind of thinking. The key Stoic observation was that we do not really have enough control over life to ensure that we can have pleasurable experiences in any given moment. Life can be profoundly difficult and painful and there is really nothing we can do to prevent that from being so. If our happiness is pinned to pleasure, even of the best and most noble sort, our life will be happy only now and then, and perhaps downright miserable on the whole.
Today we live in a highly Epicurean world in which we tend to pursue pleasure and comfort for ourselves and others as our path to happiness. This is by no means a straightforwardly evil thing. There is much pleasure in reading a good piece of literature, or in having a picnic with one’s family on a lovely spring afternoon. There is much to be said for modern comforts that make our lives easier and free us up for what really matters. Pleasure of this sort is by no means always bad, but as the Stoics observed it can also never be guaranteed. Sometimes our plans for a Saturday picnic are thwarted by rain. Sometimes our comfortable lives are shaken to the core by the tragedy of a sudden death or by a health crisis that we have not chosen. No matter what we do there will be a great deal of suffering mixed into our experiences, and no amount of technological progress will ever give us a world in which that is not true.
True happiness in life, the Stoics would say, can only be guaranteed if its source is something we can always choose, no matter whether we are profoundly sick or in perfect health, no matter whether it rains this Saturday or the sky is clear and sunny. What we control, so thought the Stoics, is choosing virtue. When we focus our minds not on our circumstances but on whether we are responding in a virtuous way to them, and when we pin our happiness to the virtuous quality of our responses, no set of circumstances in life can truly destroy it.
Many early Christians saw a profound synergy between the Christ-centered life and this Stoic philosophy. We see, for example, a late antique collection of fictional letters between the Stoic philosopher Seneca and St Paul, the author of most of the letters of teh New Testament. The two men were indeed contemporaries and so in theory could have kept up a correspondance. Though they almost certainly did not, the existence of a collection of imaginary letters between them shows the degree to which Christians and Stoics could see themselves in one another. After all, a life focused on faith in Christ brings happiness, peace and fulfillment in very much the way the Stoics sought to do. Whatever life throws at us, even to the point of being martyred in a Roman arena, we remain steady in our peace and joy knowing that what is truly important is not found in our current circumstances but in our faithfulness to Christ. In ways both subtle and explicit, the Christian Tradition quickly began to incorporate Stoic ideas into its approach to life, and among traditional Christians still does so to this day.
It is worth mentioning that there are some issues, as well, in ancient Stoic philosophy. For one thing there is, of course, no notion of faith in Christ among ancient pagans, and for the Christian this is obviously a fatal flaw, though one that can be easily addressed by changing the changeables in our vision of virtue. Virtue, for us, is nothing short of Christ himself. We cannot simply rationalize our way to a clear image of what the virtuous life actually is, and when we see its full embodiment in a man dying on a cross we are meant to be shaken by the implications. While most of the virtues that we Christians embrace mirror most of those valued by the Stoics, we see their completion only in our Lord and Saviour, and it is only in looking to Him that we are able to discover what virtue looks like in any given moment.
The Stoics were also oddly comfortable with suicide as a way out of life’s problems. The logic is something like this: there is really no reason to complain so much about life being hard when you can always just quit if you really want to. Life, in this framing, is rather like a video game played against a computer—if we’re truly doing so badly as to not be enjoying the experience at all anymore, then the rational thing to do is simply to turn the game off. Christians cannot and do not see life this way. For us it is a gift given by the Creator, and not one that we have a right to simply return. We are not playing an arbitrary game for our own benefit, rather we are creatures meant to serve the one who has created us; only He is justified in deciding when our time has come to leave this world behind. In general, the Stoic promotion of suicide was most often meant to serve as a rhetorical device—a reminder that we are all choosing in some way to be here, after all. However, it does at times seem to be meant rather literally, and even as a rhetorical tool it is not one that Christians can fully embrace.
These caveats aside, however, the Stoic vision of virtue as the source of happiness in life is one that ought to be taken far more seriously in our world, and one that should overall be a boon to us as Christians. When we see Christ as the centre-point of virtue—indeed, as its very embodiment—and when we pursue a Christ-like life in every moment no matter how difficult things become, we are (I think) much happier creatures, much closer to our real purpose, and much better at understanding ourselves and those around us.
In short, we are much more morally healthy when we remember to value this as the most important form of health that we can cultivate. My bodily health will certainly come and go, and many of us live whole lives of poor bodily health. Material prosperity may visit many of us for a certain time, but it is likely that for nearly all of us there will be difficult days particularly near the beginning and end of our adult lives. For some, material prosperity never truly comes, in spite of hard work and good planning. We simply do not have absolute control over whether we will succeed in the modern economy or be left behind, and no amount of work or foresight is a guarantee. Emotional health, too, is a challenge for many of us, and while we may at times see improvements from various therapies and techniques, days of depression, bouts of anxiety, and even full-blown mental breakdowns await most of us at some point. We do not have full control over how we feel, and attempts to force our feelings where they do not want to go are often downright counter-productive.
Our moral health, however, is something we really can cultivate in every possible moment. We will never find ourselves in a situation in which we cannot strive to be virtuous. We will fail often, to be sure, but the effort to become more morally healthy is always possible, and even when we fall down badly we will never find ourselves in a place where we cannot get back up again. The Christian practices of confession and repentance offer us a concrete pathway back to the work of moral health no matter how badly we have gone astray. And while we may often find ourselves unable to be certain what choice to make in a fraught situation (we are often forced in a fallen world to choose least bad options in life), when we focus on the cultivation of virtue in Christ we will remain forever in a position to learn from our mistakes, repent of them, and grow even from our very failures themselves into something more complete and beautiful—something more like Him.
The decision to pin our happiness to our moral health is not difficult to make when we begin to see how it works. It is not, however, a way of seeing ourselves that is in any way encouraged in our modern world. We push, these days, to try and eliminate every possible pain or challenge in a hopeless effort to make every day into an Epicurean picnic. We see health, most often, as being about the capacity for such pleasures. Once again, many pleasures are not bad things necessarily, it is just that they come and go. Framing our health based on pleasure, however wholesome, guarantees that we will find ourselves deeply unhealthy for a large percentage of our life, and thrusts us into an impossible quest to chase something that will always be fleeting.
What is ironic, however, is that the simple turn to value moral health instead as primary among the various possible forms of health typically allows the other forms to follow. St Paul observes that when we live a life of Christian virtue, we are met with the approval of the world as well (Phil. 4.8). While this is not absolutely always true, it very often is. When others find us reliable, kind, and trustworthy—when we treat those around us with dignity, and show courage in the face of life’s challenges—things most often tend to go better for us when it comes to our earthly prosperity. A commitment to moral health quite often benefits our bodies, also, as we abstain from abusing ourselves in the pursuit of pleasure through things like too much alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, or frivolous spending. Our emotional health also frequently improves amid a life focused on virtue; as we become beloved members of our communities and families we find ourselves vastly more supported during the hard times, accumulate true and beloved friends to talk with about what is going on, and find that we more often feel loved and valued by at least some people in the world—all things that make us more emotionally sturdy and more able to get through our suffering. In short, moral health is to the other forms of health what the head is to the body. When it is placed in charge, other things fall more easily into the right place and things go better with us. Indeed, this was God’s very promise to his people when giving the Ten Commandments—the most important framework of virtue in the world’s history. This essential distillatin of everything that virtue is and means is, God tells us, given “that your days may be long on the land.” (Ex. 20:12) Virtue is meant for our benefit, for our health, for our thriving.
It is a shame that we seem so often to have forgotten the importance of moral health—that our culture never seems to encourage us to work on it and take it seriously. How often do we hear in our world the (very good) advice to eat right and exercise in order to benefit the health of our bodies? Indeed we should do precisely this! Yet how often do we hear that we should focus our attention on our inner moral compass and strive to cultivate virtue in ourselves? This is a message I have only ever heard from the Church and some other religious thinkers, and even in these spaces it is often remarkably rare. Within the secular world around us it is a message that might well be met with outright bafflement—what are we even talking about?
The world does not control us, however, and the turn to a focus on virtue and moral health is one that every single one of us can make whether the world notices or not. Such a turn, I have come to believe, can be truly life-changing—can re-frame our understanding of the very purpose of our existence as we devote that existence to Christ. Such a turn is what makes our days long on the land, once again—often quite literally, but always in the sense of genuine health, peace, contentment, happiness, and indeed joy. The virtuous life in Christ is the true good life whatever else may be going on with us, and through the presence of the Spirit we are always invited to turn back to it and begin once again to seek moral health within ourselves.
The Church today must get back in touch with the significance of moral health and preach it to the world in whatever subtle ways we can, probably often without even using words. One of the risks we face in carrying a message of morality to those around us is the risk of coming off as prudish and repressed, unable to enjoy life’s pleasures, and merely interested in shaming other people for doing things that are bad. The stereotypical image of the Puritans often leaps into people’s minds when we speak about something like morality or moral health. Sadly, this is because much of the attention paid in North America to these concepts over the past few centuries has focused on all the things people ought not to do, and why they are terrible and vicious—at times even to this day we still hear that such behaviours will flat-out land us in hell if we do not stop them. None of this attitude makes any sense within an Orthodox Christian framework. Living a moral life out of fear of damnation might be just slightly better than living a life of depravity, but the two approaches are surprisingly close together, and a life of moral fear is extremely difficult to sustain and comes with enormous costs to our overall well-being.
The Church, instead, must preach morality in the light of hope—in light of the good things that it gives us and all those around us. We must recollect the Stoic heritage that forms a crucial part of our Tradition—the teaching that the vision of morality always taught by the Church (however offensive some aspects of it might be to outsiders today) precisely makes us happy, opens us to real enjoyment and true pleasure, and gives us meaning and purpose. Ours is not a message of rules and the dire consequences of breaking them, but rather a message of health—of becoming something better, and of relishing the good things that follow for us when we do, along with our ability to weather the challenges that will never completely leave us. Moral health allows us, once again, to taste the true good life and all its delights. No person is forced to live a life of moral health any more than they are forced to exercise and eat well. Yet just as bodily health opens up our capacities to enjoy created existence, so too does moral health open up the other good things given to us as created beings.
At the very least we must invite ourselves to such a life of moral health—we must focus our minds on it even more than we focus on the other sorts. We will not become perfect by doing so, and we will not cease entirely to struggle and to suffer, not so long as we find ourselves in a fallen world. But we will be able to maintain what is good no matter what happens around us, seeking out contentment in our choice to follow Christ in virtue. And that is worth a great deal indeed.