The Penn State scandal culminating in the conviction of Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of sexual abuse last month was a truly horrible story. However, I think that some good may have come out of it; namely, the Sandusky case has brought some important moral questions to the fore of our national consciousness. Last month, for example, Dr. Benjamin Wilker published an article in the Catholic Report with a provocative title: Why is Jerry Sandusky Guilty?
The article opens with this:
There is no doubt that Jerry Sandusky is guilty, the real question is why? Why is it that we, here and now, would send a man to prison for molesting boys? Why is the public reaction one of both deep disgust and quite visceral anger? Just canvass a few opinions about what people would like to be done to punish Sandusky if they were the judge.
But why? What is the cause of this deep disgust? This seething anger?
Why indeed. I would agree with just about everyone that what he did was sick and despicable. But why does it anger us so?
Wilker chalks it up to one thing: Christianity. He notes that in the ancient Greco-Roman world, homosexual relations between an older man and a boy (between 12 and 17) were completely acceptable. This was the age range that Sandusky happened to target. In other words, if Sandusky had done what he did 2000 years ago, no one would have thought much of it and we wouldn’t have found him guilty of anything. The rise of Christianity, with its Judeo-Christian sexual ethics, according to Wilker, was the main thing that ended up instilling a new morality so that most of us now view such acts with disgust.
I think he has a point, but the historical impact of Christianity isn’t what I want to address right now. Regardless of what you make of Wilker’s argument, it highlights one simple thing about morality that I think people tend to overlook when they make their own moral judgments: moral norms change across eras and civilizations. Continue reading →