Where Do You Get Your Morals?

Where Do You Get Your Morals?
Paul Johnson

Let’s start by considering two people who we would agree are moral and two who we wouldn’t consider moral and see what shakes out.

Mike and Marv are two moral people. Mike goes to church regularly, and has been brought up getting his morals from the church. It’s the Golden Rule and the 10 Commandments that he lives by.

Marv goes to church regularly and feels that his morals mesh well with the church-taught morals, but feels that it’s important for him to know “why” some things are moral and others are not.  He says that understanding “why” helps him better decide the morally correct decision in areas not so well defined by the Bible.

Mike says that his Bible tells him what he needs in order to make decisions, and if he can’t find it, he can always seek guidance from elders in his church. He would never consider deciding on his own without considering his religion.

Now let’s consider Billy and Bobby. Billy is devoutly religious and knows that he’s doing the wrong thing but just “can’t help” it when he’s doing immoral things. He knows that being gay is wrong but he can’t help his homosexual inclinations, though he suppresses them as best he can. He also knows that the man is the king of his domain and his wife better just succumb to his demands or he has the support of God in his brutality.

Bobby was raised in a religious family but feels that his church is persecuting him and his friends for being gay. He says if God made them gay, then the church has no right to condemn him.  He wishes he wasn’t gay but he feels he is who he is and is healthier for accepting the facts.

Which of these people would be better able to make moral decisions and which would have difficulty?

Obviously, Mike admits that he is unable to “make” moral decisions on his own and must rely on moral decisions defined thousands of years ago and rewritten countless times. Mike has never exercised his moral decision making process. What kinds of decisions does he make on a daily basis? Basing his morals on his book, how often does he apply the wrong moral to a situation? Of all the Mikes I’ve known, there aren’t any that I would trust to make a moral decision on their own.

Marv would certainly do better at making moral decisions as he has demonstrated a desire to understand the issues and has a demonstrated experience at making moral decisions.

How about Billy the wife beater? He can justify every awful evil thing he does by following the letter of the religious laws while not understanding or caring about the intent. How would you feel about having someone like Billy on a jury?

How about Bobby? Does his religious upbringing make him better at moral decisions? Since he has abandoned them, I’m inclined to say no.

How about if we take someone who is really awful and who confesses to not having a religious moral compass? Stalin comes to mind. He was responsible for millions of deaths and murders. We certainly wouldn’t want him making moral decisions for us. We know who he is.

Mike, on the other hand, frequently makes moral decisions involving people around him. Mike may even be a president of some third world county. Then again, so may Billy. Their religious decision making process is not only broken but outright destructive. We would be less inclined to accept Stalin but could be worse off still with either Mike or Billy.

The defining difference between someone good at making moral decisions and someone bad is the obvious criteria, knowledge and experience.  Dogmatically following a religion’s moral decisions makes us really lousy at making moral decisions. Only when we understand the premise of the morality we find in our religions or elsewhere, can we be good moral people.

In other words, you don’t become more moral by going to church, but you certainly could be less moral.