What is a Moral Failure?

A while back I heard an NPR show talking about addiction.  They insisted that addiction was not a moral failure but a biological condition.  This was very curious to me.  I asked myself, “What constitutes a moral failure?”.  This question has a simple answer and a more complex answer.

Simple answer

The simple answer is that a moral failure is an act or thought that is carried out when one knows that one should not carry it out, or the converse, an act or thought that is not carried out when one knows that one should carry it out.  For instance, if you know you should not eat your wife’s ice cream because you know it will get her angry, but you still do, that is a moral failure.

For many situations this is a good enough answer.  For the most part we have an understanding of what is right and wrong and we are aware that we should not perform actions that are thought to be wrong.  However, we still do perform those actions when we know we should not, and that is a moral failure.

Complex answer

However, there are a litany of other questions that arise due to different situations.  Just a few questions that arise:

  • How do we define what is morally right or wrong?  (Which moral system are we going to allow to guide us?  For instance, one moral system may not conclude pornography is wrong while another will.  This of course leads to a plethora of additional questions.)
  • Is it still a moral failure if one does not know that one should not perform a certain act?  (Does ignorance dismiss a moral failure?)
  • What constitutes a moral decision?  (Is making a decision on the right refrigerator a moral decision?)

These questions make the definition of moral failure much harder to pin down.  How you answer the first question is the most important.  There are some philosophers who do not believe in any objective moral facts; in fact, about one-third of all philosophers believe there are no objective moral facts.  Of course if there are no objective moral facts, then moral failures are an impossibility.  To these philosophers, their answer to the question, “What is a moral failure?”, would be, “There is no such thing as a moral failure because there is no morality at which to fail.”  If they give any other answer, then they are just confused about their own beliefs.  It is impossible to say something does not exist and yet still insist it is possible to actually fail at the nonexistent entity.

Even among the two-thirds who believe that morality can be objectively reached, there are some who still believe that morality is relative (they differentiate relativity from subjectivity).  They just believe that we objectively reach a definition for morality by choosing a guideline from which to work.  For example some choose the guideline to be Social Contract Theory, some choose the guideline to be Utilitarianism, some choose the guideline to be Negative Utilitarianism, some choose the guideline to be Objectivism, some choose the guideline to be Consequentialism, and still others choose some other guideline.

However, there are two glaring problems right off the bat with the assumption that these guidelines necessarily bring an objectively reached morality.  They are: 1) one SUBJECTIVELY decides which guideline to choose, and 2) there is so much relativism in each of the guidelines mentioned that it is rather farcical to claim them as objective.

Since the complex answer includes a litany of possible answers, we are going to have to work with the simple definition.  When all is said and done, I am willing to bet that every worldview could include the simple definition into their schematic if they avoid the urge to get too technical.  The simple definition is a good generic definition, albeit not a specific one.

Biological Condition

As I noted earlier, the NPR show was trying to say that addiction is a biological condition instead of a moral failing.  The Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, wants to change the way addiction is viewed.  “For far too long people have thought about addiction as a character flaw or a moral failing. … Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain and it’s one that we have to treat the way we would any other chronic illness: with skill, with compassion and with urgency.”

Here are my problems with Dr. Murthy’s conclusions.

First, what moral failure does not originate in the brain or some other body part?  Anybody want to take a stab at answering that?  Even theologians who believe in the soul would agree that the body plays a large role in our decisions.  Take lust for instance.  From where does it originate?  From the body.  Greed.  From where does it originate?  I can guarantee you that a neuroscientist will say they can locate where in the brain greed originates.  My point is that there is not a single moral failure that does not have some biological root or cause.

If we say that a biological condition exonerates us from moral responsibility, then we are going to have to completely be rid ourselves of any moral responsibility at all.  In fact, many researchers are now concluding the same thing about pedophilia, that it is not a moral failure.  Just because we can locate a biological reason to our behaviors does not mean that we are absolved of all moral responsibility.

Second, how do we treat someone who struggles with moral failings (as opposed to chronic diseases): with skill, with compassion, and with urgency.  Notice that it is the exact same prescription Dr. Murthy gives for treating a chronic illness.  So Dr. Murthy does not understand that moral failings have a specified treatment.

Treating moral failings

What does Dr. Murthy think we do with people who have moral failings?  Throw them out on the street and do nothing for them?

Oh … wait … that is what some people do.  And that is the problem!

Moral failings should not be dealt with by throwing someone out on the street.  Moral failings should be treated as the apostle Paul said moral failings should be treated (from Paul’s letter to the Galatians 6:1-3).

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself.  Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.  If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.

Notice what Paul prescribes above.  Helping someone with skill (godly, that is experienced people, helping the person onto the right path), compassion (gently and humbly), and with urgency (share each other’s burdens; obviously you do not let someone stay under their burden with no help for long).

There are a number of other passages in Scripture that talk about helping and restoring people who have failed morally instead of knee-jerk reactions that lead a person to a feeling of loneliness, hopelessness, and depression.  Those passages ought to be heeded.  Unfortunately there are a number of people who claim that they honor Scripture, but they are quick to judge and discard.  They turn a blind eye to their own moral failings and think they are better than others.  If you can identify yourself with judging too quickly and turning a blind eye to your own failings, then I encourage you that you do not have to be stuck like that forever.  I used to be that way.  But I have worked to subdue those knee-jerk reactions to look at people the way Christ looked at them, with compassion.  I know you can do that too.  God enjoys restoring people to a right standing.

Is addiction a moral failure?

Even if we go with the simple definition of moral failure, then yes, addiction is a moral failure (some more specific definitions would even more strongly conclude that it is a moral failure).  Most addicts, when being honest, will admit that they know that they should not be doing drugs.  So yes, drug addiction is a moral failure.

But there is good news.  There is hope.  Even if you go against the treatment you have received and relapse, there is forgiveness.  There is a God who loves you.  There is a God who knows the biological struggles within you.  There is a God who is understanding.  There is a God who gives you all the things you are really craving in this life: Love, Joy, Peace, Family, Forgiveness, and yes, Self-control.

Please accept my apology on behalf of anybody who mistreated you.  I am here to help.  I have a lot of friends who are here to help as well.  In fact, my friends and I all need help too.  Will you help me while I am helping you?  I think we could make a great team.

Everybody is in a similar boat.  Everybody has moral failings.  We all need a Savior.  No one is some extraordinary case beyond help.  We all crave the same things: Love, Joy, Peace, Family, Forgiveness, and Self-control.  We all fail at displaying those things.  Let us walk together in pursuit of them.

A moral failure you can overcome.  A chronic disease could stick with you for the rest of your mortal life.  There is a known remedy for moral failures: God’s forgiveness.


I want to quickly note that just because addiction is a moral failure, it does not mean that medical help should not be sought.  All resources of support should be considered when trying to address moral failures.  As I wrote in an earlier post, the body and soul are intricately linked and since God created us to be both physical and spiritual, both physical and spiritual methods of assistance should be sought.


One comment

  1. This is such an Awesome blog Curtis, very well done!!..
    I truly wish everyone would just be willing to hold each other accountable instead trying to enable or give everyone a life filled with excuses for everything. How depressing is it to hear all these brilliant people looking for the easy way out : ( I hope they don’t have their hands out for a little compensation to endorse such behavior with all this pinpoint scientific evidence they claim to have.
    I don’t want anyone to suffer in any way shape or form because that is horrible. Depression, guilt, abandonment issues, anger, bitterness & the list goes on, can make anyone run to self medication tactics to avoid the confrontation with their own feelings. Taking the easy way out with pills, needles filled with nasty stuff or a bottle of 100 proof+ whatever liquor you utilize to numb yourself temporarily is a choice we all make & eventually will be held accountable for. When we do get caught someway by friends, family, police officers or just one tough ambrey that hands you a whipping you don’t really deserve, but depending on what you did under the influence of what you used to self medicate, under that heightened circumstance you probably did deserve it because you have no moral filter, restraints, your Superman without his cape & someone brought the kryptonite to your pity party (like you were hoping for sometimes, to get that one fatal hit)& maybe you just spend a week in the hospital or you spend several months in jail & it still doesn’t register because you will not man up & face your problems head on because you think your not worth the time, you don’t want to let everyone down or your avoiding it because you are successful with worldly pursuit of things like great job, cars, motorcycles, going to clubs & hooking up with one night stands on a regular basis, looking for that real love in all the wrong places, but your glad you don’t find real love because you know your a mess & don’t deserve a good woman anyways. It’s a very vicious cycle that can go on for decades if we let it & the real simple truth is like you said; What constitutes a moral failure? Doing something you know you shouldn’t do, but you still do it. That is the correct answer to that question!
    Just remember, there are so many people drowning themselves in whatever helps them surpress their pain, fear etc… So, being like GOD in these situations is crucial to these individuals, to start the journey back to peace, joy, happiness, having confidence in self, leaving fear where it belongs behind them in the rearview mirror & getting it further & further away from their lives each& everyday because once you understand & realize there is a GOD that truly loves you & wants nothing but the best for you & you accept HIS will & plan for you, your vision gets clearer, your mind stops racing, your heart doesn’t ache as much & you start transforming into a honorable man or woman who doesn’t need to self medicate & is finally understanding that there is more to this life & there are endless opportunities to experience, blessings to give to countless others & endless blessings to receive if you humble yourself to receive them(?).
    I truly hope that anyone suffering from any pain& is self medicating, living in defeat, rises up & doesn’t hesitate to finally say “NO MORE OF THIS MADNESS!!.. WITH GOD IN MY LIFE, I’M BETTER THAN THIS, I CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS & I AM TRULY WITHOUT CONDEMNATION, LOVED BY GOD & ENDLESS BROTHERS & SISTERS WITHIN THE BODY OF THE CHURCH THANKS BE TO OUR LORD & SAVIOR JESUS!!!…


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