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Introduction to morality & ethics

Where do moral codes come from?

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Quotations:

  • "When it comes to fundamentally wrong behavior, there is no tolerance.  Wrong is wrong!" Pastor Clarence Patterson, in an article, "Is it time for tolerance?," Baptist Information Service, 2000-FEB-28.

  • "Every religion emphasizes human improvement, love, respect for others, sharing other people's suffering. On these lines every religion had more or less the same viewpoint and the same goal." The Dalai Lama.

  • Kanun: A venerable cultural tradition in Albania: "If a man commits a murder, his victim's family can kill any one of his male relatives in reprisal. If a boy has the misfortune of being the son or brother of a murderer, he must spend his days and nights in hiding, forgoing a proper education, adequate health care, and the pleasures of a normal life. Untold numbers of Albanian men and boys live as prisoners of their homes even now." 1
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Is a particular act moral, immoral or morally neutral?

There are many criteria that people use when considering whether a given act is moral, immoral, or morally neutral. The act may be seen moral if it meets one or more of the following criteria: It

  • Moves the individual or society towards the fundamental principle of "equal liberty and justice for all."

  • Promotes the general well being of people.

  • Encourages individual personal growth to become all that they are capable of becoming: emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically.

  • Follows the dictates revealed by one or more deities, as interpreted by various religious prophets.

  • Is in harmony with passages in a holy book (e.g. Torah, Bible, Qur'an, etc.), as variously interpreted by theologians.

  • Is in harmony with the teachings of a person's religious tradition or faith group.

  • Is in agreement with a secular system of morality.

With this diversity of sources from which one can judge the morality of an act, we should expect that a consensus will be impossible, and that serious disagreements will occur.

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Specific sources of systems of ethics and morality:

Four of the main sources are described below:

  1. The interpretation of passages from holy books:

    Moral codes are often linked to a person's worldview: their basic beliefs about deity, humanity and the rest of the universe.

    Most religions have an associated system of morality. Their moral codes are often derived from the religions' scriptures: The Torah in the case of Judaism, the Bible's Hebrew Scriptures (aka Old Testament) and Christian Scriptures (aka New Testament) for Christianity, the Qur'an within Islam, etc.

    Moral codes come from theologians' interpretations of these religious holy books. Their interpretations are often accepted as absolute truth by fellow believers. Unfortunately, these books contain apparent contradictions that must be harmonized. Since the interpretation of holy books is heavily influenced by culture, theologians within a given wing of a single religion often teach conflicting moral codes. The diversity of beliefs is even greater when comparing the findings of theologians from all wings of the same religion. Comparing the findings of all of the theologians from all of the world's religions produces an enormous range of teachings which often conflict.

    Within Christianity, which is followed by about 70% of Americans, fundamentalist and other evangelical Christians often view the Bible as the inerrant "Word of God." Belief that all morality comes from a holy book like the Bible was embraced by the U.S. military up until the mid 20th century. They recognized individuals as being conscientious objectors only if they had based their revulsion towards killing people upon a belief in a deity. Agnostics, Atheists, secularists, etc. were denied such status and often jailed.

    Some theists attempt to prove the existence of God by arguing the belief that God is the source of all morality and that he/she/it/they have placed certain absolute moral beliefs in each human's conscience as well as within one of the world's holy books. Proponents of this belief claim that certain moral beliefs are found universally among followers of all religions, and thus must have been placed in individuals by a single God.

    Sharp divisions over moral topics remain very active, particularly in the U.S. For example, consider the two main moral concerns in the U.S.:

    • Extending marriage to same-sex couples (SSM):

      • This is typically a cause of celebration among progressive Christians, Agnostics, Atheists, secularists, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, youth, young adults, etc. Most feel that the institution of marriage is strengthened by allowing loving, committed same-sex couples to marry. Their belief is at least partly based on findings about the nature of sexual orientation claimed by human sexuality researchers.

      • SSM is condemned by most fundamentalist and other evangelical Christians and the elderly. This opposition is largely driven by their interpretation of six "clobber passages" in the Bible that they interpret as forbidding all same-sex behavior. Their opposition to SSM is also driven by what they see is a serious threat that it poses to the institution of marriage. Fighting to protect "traditional marriage" -- i.e. marriage as an exclusive benefit for opposite-sex couples -- is a major focus of their current political activity.

      • Same-sex marriage can result in immediate expulsion from the U.S. Military.

      • SSM can result in criminal charges leading to the death penalty in a half-dozen predominately Muslim countries. Genocide legislation enabling execution for homosexual behavior is being considered in Uganda, a predominately Christian country.

    • Abortion access:

      • Most of the mainline and progressive Christians, Agnostics, Atheists, secularists, feminists, etc. in North America regret the high incidence of abortion, but would like to see abortion remain available. They would like to see the numbers of abortions drastically reduced to the levels seen in Europe. They advocate changing society's expectations of sexually active people -- particularly teens and young adults. They promote comprehensive sex-ed courses and the increased availability of contraceptives including emergency contraceptive. They believe that an abortion can be a moral choice in many cases of unplanned and unwanted pregnancy.

      • Abortion is condemned as profoundly immoral in all or almost all cases by most Roman Catholics, fundamentalist, other evangelical Christians, and conservative members of other religions. This is largely driven by their belief that human life in the form of an ovum and spermatozoon becomes a human person at conception. Abortion thus murders a pre-born child.

  2. Various non-theistic religious, ethical, and philosophical: These groups do not include a belief in one or more Gods or Goddesses. Examples are Confucianism, Ethical Culture, the Goth culture, Humanism, some forms of Satanism, most forms of Buddhism, etc. They have also developed unique moral codes, often specified by their founders or derived later from writing within the group. Superimposed upon this, many individuals have developed their own personal moral code, often at least partly independently of religious sources.

  3. Evolutionary sociobiologists view many human behaviors and elements of morality as having originated in primate societies among chimpanzees, bonobos, and early humans millions of years ago. According to Wikipedia, specialists in this field:

    "Frans de Waal and Barbara King both view human morality as having grown out of primate sociality. ... According to Michael Shermer, the following characteristics are shared by humans and other social animals, particularly the great apes:

    'attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peacemaking, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group'. 5

    Shermer argues that these premoral sentiments evolved in primate societies as a method of restraining individual selfishness and building more cooperative groups. For any social species, the benefits of being part of an altruistic group should outweigh the benefits of individualism. For example, lack of group cohesion could make individuals more vulnerable to attack from outsiders. Being part of group may also improve the chances of finding food. This is evident among animals that hunt in packs to take down large or dangerous prey."

    They see human moral codes as having evolved and adapted as human society evolved from small hunter-gathering bands about 100,000 years ago, to tribes, to chiefdoms, and finally to nations circa 2000 BCE. 2

  4. "Science of Morality:" This is a current and very active field. It involves the application of the scientific method to the study of human cultures. The goal is to derive "moral truth" --a superior system of morality and ethics that maximizes human well being.

    A leading proponent of this concept is Sam Harris, author of "The End of Faith." 3 He advocates "a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science." 4 He notes that the many different moral systems which are present in various cultures today can be evaluated in terms of the level of well being that they produce in the population. The system that promotes the greatest well being is then the "true" moral system.

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References used:

  1. book cover image Sam Harris, "The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values," Page 1, Free Press, 2010-OCT. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store Available in Kindle format.
  2. "Evolution of morality," Wikipedia, as at 2010-SEP-04, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  3. image of book cover Sam Harris, "The End of Faith," W.W. Norton, 2005-OCT. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  4. Op Cit., Sam Harris, "The Moral Landscape," Page 2. Also available in Kindle format.
  5. Shermer, Michael, "The Science of Good and Evil," Times Books, (2004), Page 16. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.

 

Related essays on this web site:

bullet The Golden Rule and other Ethics of Reciprocity
bullet "Hot" religious controversies menu
bullet Bible passages that appear immoral by today's standards.
bullet What the Bible says about human slavery
bullet Genocide menu

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References:

Copyright © 2001 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-SEP-14
Latest update: 2010-NOV-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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