I read an amusing story a while ago that illustrates a central notion in modern morality. A man was imbibing merrily at a bar one evening when he glanced over at the patron seated next to him and noticed, under an upraised glass, a clerical collar. Now to be sure, one finds all sorts in a bar, drinking being, like many vices, no respecter of persons. But the man certainly hadn’t expected to find a minister there. Understandably reluctant to discuss this seemingly incongruous behavior, yet filled with curiosity, the man hesitated for a few moments before greeting his neighbor and asking awkwardly if he was actually a member of the clergy. “Why yes, I am an Adamist minister,” the stranger replied. Confused by this plain admission, the man asked why he was at a bar if he professed to be a minister. The Adamist responded, “I’m doing research for a sermon I’m writing on the evils of strong drink.”
In the interests of complete disclosure, I must confess that I have altered this account in one particular. The minister did not claim Adamism as his professed religion. But insofar as he was demonstrating the same fallacy for which Adam fell in the Garden, and because I do not intend to dispute with a particular religion, but instead with a particular philosophy, I have settled on the designation Adamism.
Now, taking this as an illustration of the prevailing moral sentiment, that answer of that minister says more than a hundred truckloads of movies and TV shows and magazines and popular songs today. All of society seems to be endeavoring to entice us with their particular version of contemporary morality, and yet this one phrase preempts them all. Just as Alexander sliced through the Gordian knot, so the words of this Adamist expose the inherent contradiction at the heart of popular morality.
Now when I am visited by an envoy of contemporary thought (and there is always a very large crowd waiting to accost me) I shall not be bamboozled by their sophisticated veneer. “In a classic tale about how crime doesn’t pay,” one begins, “our heroes steal the stolen gold back from the thieves . . .” “Stop, Adamist,” I shall say sharply, “I know who you are.” “Neo,” shouts another “represents a messianic figure who fights for . . .” “Oh no you don’t,” I shall interject, “there’s the door.” A third figure, dreadlocks flying, rushes in—“In his valiant struggle against the oppressive regime, our patriotic freedom fighter, V, uses terrorist tactics . . . ” “Hail, Adamist,” I will cry, and matching his frantic gesticulations with my own, I shall kindly bid him farewell. “I am not exactly sure what these lyrics mean,” begins the fourth, “but they contain some profound ideas, . . .” “You might not, but I do,” I shall say. “You’re writing a temperance sermon in a bar, and I will not listen any longer!”
Most contemporary morality is a merely the mixture of some constant good with some new bad. There have been theorists who polluted faith with intolerance, and called it the Defense of the Faith. There have been theorists who contaminated rationality with a contempt for the Scriptures and called it a Scientific Revolution. And we have heard of theorists who concocted that horrid brew combining honest scientific observations with a disavowal of Divinity and called it Naturalistic Evolution. It was only a matter of time before some brave society should stop beating around the bush and get straight to the mixing of plain evil with good. And in this vacuum of moral ambiguity, with what weapons shall we fight? “We must learn the value of filth before we can truly appreciate beauty,” says the artist framing a urinal. “I must know what slop really is before I can create a delectable dessert,” comes the voice of the chef from atop the compost pile. “How could I ever learn to be a successful pilot if I didn’t know how to crash,” queries the man emerging from the rubble of a 747. It would be quite as easy to defend an evil act as it was to call the inquisitor a Defender of the Faith or the atheist a progressive. And indeed, this very thing is happening with great frequency throughout our society today. People everywhere proclaim that they are better able to distinguish right by virtue of their wide exposure to wrong. But unfortunately, they aren’t.
For indeed, the weakness of this philosophy may be found in its blatant disregard for that great principle of the mind: by beholding, we become changed. Therefore, the seeds of its ultimate failure are evident in its very ambitions. As a matter of fact, no men are worse judges of morality than Adamists. The neglected paradox of morality is that the more a man knows of goodness, the better he is at discriminating between good and evil. Surely you have experienced the fallacy of Adamism in real life. For there is one riddle in that case which cannot easily be cleared up. What parishioner would be converted by a sermon about the evils of alcohol when he had been drinking with the minister in the bar the night before?