Moral issues seem to be increasingly in the news these days, at least, in America where I live: terrorism, racism, abortion, same-sex marriage (and homosexuality in general), hate crimes, police brutality. I don’t think anyone would deny that these actions at least have significant moral aspects.
Strangely, though, at the same time that such moral issues are so constantly confronting us, an atheistic worldview is becoming increasingly dominant, and it essentially denies that morality is a real thing at all. In such a worldview, morality is ultimately nothing more than patterns of neurological processes that Darwinian evolution has imprinted on our brains, making us imagine that we “should” behave according to a universal standard or moral code that, in reality, doesn’t exist.
So what is morality, and where does it come from?
Opinions vary in some respects, of course, but morality is first of all a standard of acceptable behavior. That much isn’t very controversial. More specifically, though, many (most?) people believe that morality is a universal code of behavior that applies to all people, in all times, and all cultures. Even some who deny that such a universal code exists, condemn others for their moral lapses, as if such a code existed, so despite their denials, they appear to actually believe in one.
Some people essentially equate morality with ethics, saying that it is just a society’s generally accepted opinions of what is right or wrong, or of what benefits or harms the society. If society’s mood changes, so does morality. This view is challenged by the observation that moral standards are largely consistent across history and cultures, making them appear to be universal and not subject to a society’s whims.
If morality is a universal code of behavior, where might it have come from? The most common answer is that it was given by God, in particular, through the Bible or other sacred writings or traditions. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, morality is generally considered to be one aspect of our creation “in the image of God,” as the Bible says. Because God Himself is the epitome of moral behavior, by creating us “in His image” He built into us an instinctive perception of right and wrong. That same Judeo-Christian tradition also says that by rebelling against God in sin, we have damaged that perception and the ability to act in perfect accord with the morality that He instilled in us, so although we generally understand that we should behave in certain ways, we often don’t.
Those who deny any objective reality to morality often say that it evolved as part of our brains, and is just our conventional way of talking about certain brain activities that all people experience. It appears to be universal just because we all allegedly evolved from some common ancestor who had the trait. A common argument against this view is that by its nature, evolution can preserve only traits that help the possessors to survive. Morality, with its motivation to do what’s best for others, even if it is not best for oneself, would not likely be preserved by evolution.
It could probably go without saying that behaving morally is a good thing. But what might not be as obvious is why being moral is good. The reasons vary with what you believe is the source of morality. If you accept the view that morality is essentially the same thing as ethics (behavioral standards agreed to by society), then the best reasons to live in a moral way are either to benefit society, even if the direct benefit to yourself is limited by it, or to avoid the disapproval of society and whatever sanctions it imposes for non-compliance.
If morality is just an evolved human trait with no other objective reality, then being moral just tends to make life more pleasant as it generally reduces suffering.
But if God is the author of the code of morality, then obeying that code would keep you in His favor, hopefully for time and eternity—or at least that’s a widely accepted assumption. However, the Bible actually says something rather different.
While the Bible certainly commands moral behavior—most famously in the Ten Commandments—it also recognizes that because of our sinful brokenness, we cannot live up to God’s moral code sufficiently to earn His acceptance. No matter how good we try to be or how well we avoid grossly evil behavior, our efforts can never be enough to satisfy God’s requirements.
But that doesn’t mean that we should simply abandon all efforts to live rightly. It just means that we shouldn’t expect our good behavior to make us right with God. (According to the Bible, the only way to become right with Him is by accepting the gift of reconciliation that He offered through Jesus Christ.) From this perspective, living in accordance with God’s moral standards is the result of our having already been made right with Him, not its cause.
Sharing morality is not about forcing others to accept or comply with whatever standards of behavior you hold yourself to, such as through legislation, protests, or bullying. Morality is best shared and promoted through conversation and reasoned persuasion. If you believe that morality is just a trait that evolved with us, and does not reflect an independent, absolute code of behavior, then encouraging others to live their lives morally and uprightly may well be the most important message you can share with them.
But if, like me, you believe that moral behavior is the result of a right relationship with God, then, as important as moral behavior is, a more important message to others is how to develop that right relationship with God in the first place. With that relationship established, moral behavior should follow almost automatically.
Do you know of other possible definitions of morality?
Can you think of other reasons that we should be moral?
What do you think is the best way to get others to live in accordance with the moral standards that you subscribe to?
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net