Article  Human Dignity  Religious Liberty  Christian Living

“He Said What?”: Obscenities, Harsh Words, Moral Analysis, and Character Formation

Obscenities and Harsh Words in Our Common Life

Obscenities, insults, slurs, and other harsh words are a bitter part of our common life together. Unfortunately, we cannot escape them. They are everywhere. We hear them on television, in movies, at grocery stores and restaurants, and at kids’ activities. They are expressed by politicians and other public figures, by friends and strangers, by coworkers and gas station attendants.

The significance of written and spoken words has recently been a focus of public attention. College football fans were disgusted by obscene words uttered publicly by Jameis Winston, a star athlete. Not only were the words obscene, but they also conveyed a profound disrespect for women. For weeks after this student-athlete uttered his words, which were retweeted by observers and disseminated widely through social media and the Internet, his behavior remained a matter of public discussion. That his words were an obscene Internet meme only underscores the problem with our language today.

Many strong moral judgments were expressed by members of the public and the media. For some, the student-athlete’s statement reflected immaturity and poor judgment. For others, it was the public nature of the statement (i.e., it was made in front of women) that made his words wrong. And still others thought that the statement was wrong because it would make others feel bad or would be offensive to those who heard it.

With these three assessments, the statement itself is not condemned for being morally wrong. Rather, it was the speaker’s situational insensitivity or poor judgment regarding time and place that was morally problematic. Those who offered these assessments essentially suggested that the athlete should have shown more maturity and exercised better judgment regarding context and audience and thus that he should have reserved his statement for a nonpublic setting when he was among “brothers” in the locker room.

For others, the demeaning and disrespectful nature of the statement as to women made it morally wrong. According to this assessment, the statement treated women as objects rather than persons, as means rather than ends, and failed to respect their dignity. The attitude toward women reflected in his statement represented a threat to women and held the potential of making them victims of sexual aggression.

In addition to Jameis Winston’s obscene statement, I have recently been reminded both at work and at home about the significance of our words. As a law professor, I am tasked with helping to prepare students for professional careers in the law. In their professional lives, they will communicate with judges, lawyers, clients, the media, and the public. At times, they will become frustrated and be tempted to use harsh words. In those situations, they will be called upon to exercise restraint and good judgment. Consequently, the communication habits and practices they learn in law school, the self-discipline they develop, and their training in exercising good judgment will carry over into their careers, determine their effectiveness, and shape their professional reputations.

Like sponges, our school-aged children absorb attitudes and hear harsh words from peers, media, and other sources in their lives. Before long, they try out these harsh words in their own communications with siblings and playmates. My wife and I labor to instruct our children, address their attitudes and words, and help them learn to exercise good judgment, and we strive to ensure that our own attitudes and words model the sort of the behavior we desire them to exhibit.

Biblical Teachings on Obscenities and Harsh Words

For Christians, the Bible’s teachings about obscenities and harsh words are fairly clear. First, those who utter obscenities and harsh words fail in their duty to love their neighbors as themselves. Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27. They fail by not respecting their neighbors’ right to live free of such obscenities and by not treating their neighbors as individuals of equal dignity who were created in the image of God and worthy of honor and respect. Gen. 1:26-27. Second, obscenities are corrupt and unwholesome communication, and oftentimes harsh words are too. For Christians, “obscenity, foolish talk[, and] coarse joking” are “out of place.” Eph. 5:4 (NIV). Additionally, Christians are not to “let any unwholesome talk come out of [their] mouths.” Eph. 4:29 (NIV). Third, obscenities and harsh words are not helpful to others—rather, they are harmful. The talk coming out of the mouths of Christians should “only [be] what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Eph. 4:29 (NIV). Fourth, obscenities and harsh words do not lead to peace, and Christians are to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” Rom. 14:19 (NIV).

Likewise, the Apostle James issued a strong warning about the untamable tongue: “[T]he tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” James 3:5-6 (NIV). In addition to the destructive effects of the tongue, James observed that the same tongue is used to praise God and “curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” James 3:9 (NIV). For Christians, “this should not be.” James 3:10 (NIV).

Approaches to Providing Moral Analysis of Obscenities and Harsh Words in Public Engagement

For those who do not embrace the Christian faith, acknowledge the authority of the Bible, or defer to the norms given in the Christian Scriptures, moral analysis of obscenities and harsh words may pose some challenges. For non-Christians, how is the morality of obscenities and harsh words to be judged? If moral rightness or wrongness is relative and if right and wrong are determined contextually based upon shifting circumstances, how can we know when obscenities and harsh words cross the line? If moral rightness and wrongness are judged based upon consequences or some utility balancing, when is it that we can call obscenities and harsh words immoral? Furthermore, if morality is merely a social convention, how can we declare wrongful obscenities and harsh words that may just be a bit ahead of their time?

Christians are able, I believe, to engage in thoughtful public discourse, contribute to the effort to promote justice in society, pursue excellence in cultural undertakings, and provide insightful moral analysis regarding obscenities and harsh words without appealing directly to the Bible. They can do this by evaluating actions under well-known criteria for evaluating good and bad actions, by directing analysis to the character and virtue of moral agents, and by appealing to universal standards that bind all people.

Different approaches have been proposed for determining whether actions are good or bad and what a person should or should not do. One approach (consequentialism) focuses on the ends or consequences of actions so that actions are judged to be morally good or bad based upon results (i.e., whether actions produce more advantages or good consequences than disadvantages or bad or harmful consequences). Under one common formulation of consequentialism (utilitarianism), the good or right action is the one that brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. A second approach (deontologism) focuses on duties or rules so that actions are judged to be morally good or bad based upon whether actors meet their obligations or duties and observe the rules. A third approach (intuitionism) focuses on the moral intuition of actors so that actions are judged to be morally good or bad based upon whether actors conform their actions to what they sense or apprehend to be right and wrong. Each of these approaches offers insight into the rightness and wrongness of particular actions (such as the uttering of obscenities and harsh words), but each approach also has inadequacies.

Another approach to analyzing the morality of obscenities and harsh words is to focus, not on conduct or actions, but rather upon the actor’s character (virtue theory). This approach is oriented to the moral agent’s inner disposition, and it emphasizes the cultivation of character traits or moral virtues such as wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Other virtues may be added to the list, such as faith, hope, and love. Under this approach, it is believed that those who have a right inner disposition will tend to act in right ways and be better equipped to make judgments regarding what is right in particular situations. A focus upon character and virtue invites us to think about the kind of people we want to be, the effect our choices have on who we are becoming, and the need to check our behavior against the aspirations we have for ourselves as individuals and as a polity. In thinking about our words, a virtue orientation will prompt us to reflect upon what our words say about who we are and what our character is, and it can challenge us to turn inward to the work each of us needs to undertake to become the people we want to be.

Insight from Natural-Law Thinking

The natural law tradition may also provide some tools that can help us analyze our words, actions, and decisions. The natural law tradition has a rich history that extends back millennia to both biblical and Greek sources in the ancient world. In the Christian tradition, such eminent thinkers as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin have participated in this tradition. According to the Christian understanding of the natural law, God’s creation is an ordered creation that reflects his purposes and ends. He has written his moral law into the very nature of human existence, inscribing that law on the human heart. Consequently, all human beings know the basic requirements of the moral law through conscience, and this moral knowledge provides a universally accessible standard that governs all people across all times and in all places. All humans know this law, and they can use this knowledge to justly order relationships and society. Among the basic, universally-known principles of the natural law are the requirements to seek the good, avoid evil, give to each person his or her due, and love one’s neighbor.

Nearly two thousand years ago, in his letter to the churches in Rome, the Apostle Paul conveyed a similar understanding. He wrote: “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” Rom. 2:14-15 (NIV). Thus, according to Paul, human beings, even as fallen creatures in a fallen world, have moral knowledge of right and wrong that is accessible through their consciences. Later in the same letter, he discussed civil government (i.e., secular authorities). He recognized that civil authorities are capable of understanding what is good and evil, what is right and wrong, for he observed that civil government is “God’s servant for [our] good,” holds terror for and brings punishment on those who do wrong, and commends citizens for doing what is right. Rom. 13:3-4 (NIV).

In the context of his teaching on civil government, Paul identified some of the requirements of the moral law that are written on the heart. His discussion of punishment for wrongdoing and commendation for doing what is right and good suggests that there are corresponding duties to do good and avoid evil. Additionally, Paul exhorted his reader to “[g]ive to everyone what [they] own them,” including respect and honor; to “love one another” and their neighbors as themselves; not to commit adultery, murder, steal, or covet; and to do no harm to your neighbor. Rom. 13:7-10 (NIV).

In addition to reflection on consequences, duties, intuitions, and virtues, these universal moral principles can be used to analyze our words. These principles will focus moral analysis on questions such as whether speakers are seeking the good (including the good of their neighbors), whether speakers are giving individuals their due, and whether speakers are exhibiting neighborly love. These principles will lead to additional questions for moral reflection, such as whether words are doing good or causing harm and whether words will promote the good of human flourishing. Thus, in our public reflection on obscenities and harsh words, these principles can guide moral analysis of both the conduct and the character of the actor.


No complex moral analysis of Jameis Winston’s obscene utterance is necessary to conclude that what he did was wrong. He failed to seek the good of women and those in his presence. He caused harm and offense by his disrespectful treatment of women as objects, as means to his ends, and not as persons of equal dignity and worth. He did not give them their due or love them as he loves himself. Although moral analysis in his case is fairly straightforward, the range of analytical tools discussed here may be useful in other cases as Christians analyze more complex issues, offer arguments as a part of their public engagement, and work to persuade their non-Christian neighbors regarding the rightness and wrongness of particular actions and decisions.

Winston’s obscene utterance has also reminded me of the importance of moral formation. Good character, the discipline of self-control, and the ability to make good decisions are neither innate nor developed by accident. Rather, careful cultivation, wise instruction, intentional training, and consistent correction are required over many years. For parents, teachers, and pastors, moral formation is a high calling that must be taken serious. But the place to begin is with ourselves—the place for me to begin is with myself, my character, my attitudes, my words, and my conduct. As each of us attends to the nurturing of our own character and the character of those in our spheres of influence, perhaps we can start to chip away at the regrettable reality of obscenity and harsh words in our common life and take small steps toward constructing communities in which love of neighbor is more commonly and more consistently practiced.

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