The Other I

August 10, 2012

Where does morality come from?

Is it possible for people who are not religious, who do not believe in God or in life after death still be moral?  Without religion and the fear of hell or promise of eternal happiness, where is the bedrock of morality?

Although religion often supports moral principles, I think moral principles come from a deeper dimension which may be reflected and strengthened by religion but do not originate there.

Lawrence Kohlberg, a developmental psychologist at Harvard, provided evidence that for me is convincing that moral development follows a similar pattern in all the world’s great religions and philosophies.  His theory builds on Piaget’s theory of cognitive development which shows how human thinking develops in three main stages from birth through adulthood.  So does moral reasoning.

As young children, our thinking is concrete, egocentric, and immediate. What is in front of us is what is most important.  Our behavior, therefore, is influenced by what happens when we do or don’t do something.  In other words, by reward and punishment.

Gradually, though, we become aware that other people have thoughts and feelings too, and that what they think about us can have important implications for getting what we want.  In other words, we become more socialized, and what other people may think of us and respond to us begins to influence us.  We may bring our mother flowers to please her, and learn to say please and thank you because it’s the polite thing to do which will lead to social approval.

Finally as adolescents and adults we become capable of thinking abstractly.  We develop a respect for law and order not just to avoid punishment, but because we appreciate that we need rules and laws to get along.  We can’t even play a game of baseball without agreed rules.   The highest level of moral reasoning, is based on abstract principles.  These are principles like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

I said in an earlier post that I once seriously examined the possibility of murdering someone.  In the end, I did not do it.  Not out of fear of eternal punishment or even of being caught and punished in this world, because I thought there was a pretty good chance I could get away with it.  In the end, I did not do it because I believed that under the circumstances I did not have the right to end this person’s life.

I do not think that taking someone’s life is always wrong.  I do not believe it is wrong if I am defending my own life or that of someone else whose own life is being unjustly attacked and when killing the attacker seems to be the only way of defending the person being attacked.  It seems to me that killing someone else in war can sometimes be justified (though not nearly as often as we do so).

I think these apparently contradictory positions — that sometimes it is wrong and sometimes it is right to kill somebody — arise from a single principle, which is paradoxically, a respect for life.

In fact, I think a respect for life, even a respect for everything that is, for everything that exists, for everything that has been created, if you will, is the essence of morality.

But how to apply this principle is, to say the least, often very tricky.  It might sound simple and straight-forward, but situations are often so multi-faceted and human ignorance so profound that sometimes we simply do not know what is best.

Some religions try to get around it by making absolute rules.  But that doesn’t work.  Lying isn’t always wrong, just as telling the whole truth isn’t always the best way to witness to the truth.   Stealing isn’t always wrong.  Murder isn’t always wrong.

But where does this underlying moral principle come from, this fundamental respect for what is, that seems to emerge around the world?  I think it comes from the very nature of the universe.  Science has shown an increasing movement toward greater integration and co-ordination, even cooperation,  since the Big Bang (which is as far back as we can see at the moment).  It is most apparent in the evolution of life, from the single-celled bacteria to human beings like us.  There are a lot of side-shoots, failures, and mass extinctions.  But the process is not reverting to disorganized chaos.

I think the essential impulse to respect what is lies at the heart of the universe.

I suppose, therefore, that though it may thrill us, it should not surprise us to see altruistic behavior in life forms besides ours.  We know now that trees communicate with each other when they are threatened with disease, which enables them to arm themselves.  Dolphins save human swimmers from shark attacks, a bear will share his dinner with a starving cat, a rhinoceros swims to the edge of the lake every morning for a deer to clean his teeth.

So did the religion in which I was raised and in which I no longer believe play a part in the development of whatever moral principles I may have?  Undoubtedly.  Without those discussions around the dinner table, my moral reasoning would be stunted.  Without the examples of courage and generosity which surrounded me, I would be a different kind of person than I am.

But what I kept is not religion.  What I kept was a respect for life.  For what is.



  1. but why does one have or does not have respect for life? are discussions around the dinner table critical for the development of moral reasoning; and/or is it insurance for it? the same holds true for being raised in “a church” is there an absolute morality like the idealized religious life that i so failed? i personally think there is a scale that one slides up and down – but based on what? why does one want to achieve the absolute – if there is such a thing>


    Comment by kateritek — August 11, 2012 @ 1:06 am | Reply

    • K, your guess as to the answers to your questions are as good – perhaps better – than mine. I too have certainly thought a lot about them, and read a fair amount of what psychologists, philosophers, and theologians think. I haven’t come up with any absolute answers. But for what they are worth, here are some tentative thoughts.

      I think our respect for life, even our respect for what is, or for what may be, lies at the core of what we are. It is part of our drive for survival. Without respect for our own lives and for the lives of those with whom we live, our chances for survival are greatly decreased. Even today, we see the tremendous destructiveness of this lack of respect – whether it be in our gratuitous violence, disregard for the environment, and a lot else. But we are incomplete, we live in wells of ignorance, and the situations in which we find ourselves are often so immensely complex. And so our respect for life is incomplete and often wrong-headed.

      Are discussions around the dinner table or being raised in “a church” critical for the development of moral reasoning? No, but learning is. We need others to develop fully, and that includes to develop morally. We can’t even learn to talk without others. We need to be exposed to moral behavior. It’s not something like growing five fingers that is fully genetically endowed. It is a potential that must be brought to fruition by our interaction with others. And just as others can help us learn moral behavior, so too they can stunt it.

      I don’t think there is such a thing as an absolute either. We may long for it out of fear or confusion or misunderstanding. But human intelligence is not infinite. We can understand only that which our minds are capable of, and that is absolutely (sic), not everything!

      As you can see, I certainly find your questions interesting. Thank you. T.


      Comment by theotheri — August 12, 2012 @ 3:08 pm | Reply

  2. Timothy J. Cooney in his Telling Right from Wrong suggests there are two types of morality: primary and secondary. Everyone, he says, knows primary morality: don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t take false oaths, don’t sleep with your mother or father, etc. Secondary morality are codes that vary from place to place. The way Cooney tells it, Aaron sat the Israelites down and read them the commandments. “No murdering” (everybody nods). “No stealing” (more nods). “No adultery” (nods). But, then, “And by the way, no pork” (hesitation, some shrugs, then everybody nods some more). By mixing up purely cultural mores with more-or-less inborn morality the former receives the force of the latter.

    Cooney was a hoot. He used a fraudulent blurb from a major American philosopher to promote his book, and then was found out. He was married at the time to that woman who was responsible for Sesame Street. He loved to tell the story how she confronted him about it, saying, “Your name is mud in the Hamptons!”


    Comment by pianomusicman — August 11, 2012 @ 1:09 am | Reply

    • Hmmm. I’m not sure I totally agree with Cooney. (Though it is a funny story.) I think the essence of moral behavior should be – actually is – survival, not necessarily of the individual, or even of ones individual community, but of life. Not eating pork was a supremely intelligent, survival-oriented behavior. Even today, we are cautioned to make sure that pork is cooked. We might eat steak tartar, but we don’t eat sausage uncooked.

      Not eating meat on Fridays or going to mass on Sundays, though, is a little further from an obvious survival strategy for the Christian community. To defend that as a survival strategy one has to start examining the complexity of survival, and the many wrong tracks life heads down in its pursuit. In any case, I can’t avoid the conclusion that moral behaviors are always relative to the situation. And the right choice is not always clear even to the most knowledgeable and saintly.

      Pope Benedict would not approve.


      Comment by theotheri — August 12, 2012 @ 3:21 pm | Reply

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