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Introduction to morality & ethics

Examples of moral codes

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

  • "Is there really no difference between Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler?," Paul Copan, in: "True for You, but Not for Me," Page 47 1

  • "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.

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The purpose of this essay is to show the wide diversity of moral codes that exist today and in the past -- diversity which exists even within a single religion. The result of this diversity is that one group of people may consider an action moral, while another group will regard it as morally neutral, and a third group may decide that it is profoundly immoral. Each group will be following their own moral code, which is heavily influenced by their worldview -- their basic beliefs about deity, humanity and the rest of the universe.

Some have suggested that the U.S. and Canada are religiously the most diverse nations on earth. If we are to avoid the type of religious conflict seen in so many areas of the world, we are going to have to learn how to coexist with neighbors who follow different religions, and thus follow diverse moral codes. Also, society needs to carefully determine which behaviors should be criminalized, even though they may be considered moral and even necessary by some minority groups.

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Examples of moral codes:

Since about 75% of the population of both the U.S. and Canada identify themselves as Christian, it makes sense to use that religion to study various moral codes derived from the Bible:

bullet Probably the most widely known moral code in North America is the Decalog (aka the Ten Commandments). Three versions are found in the Hebrew Scriptures (aka Old Testament). Exodus 20:2-17 is the most frequently used list. Depending upon how the Ten Commandments are interpreted, they contain a total of 19 to 25 separate instructions. These have been traditionally sorted into ten groupings. However, the Decalog treats women as property, accepts human slavery as a normal state, and punishes persons who follow other religions and thus worship other deities. Thus, its significance in today's multi-cultural, multi-faith cultures is open to question.

bullet The Decalog is only a small subset of the complete Mosaic Code. As Rabbi Simlai wrote in the Talmud (a Jewish traditional commentary about the Hebrew Scriptures), the complete Code consists of 613 commandments which God gave to Moses. One list finds 3 commandments in Genesis, 111 in Exodus, 247 in Leviticus, 52 in Numbers and 200 in Deuteronomy. These included 365 prohibitions -- a number equal to the nominal number of days in the year. Also included 248 positive commandments which Rabbi Simlai said corresponded "to the number of organs and limbs in the human body." Hundreds of these dealt with animal sacrifices, slavery, and other topics that are not currently practiced. That leaves on the order of 300 commandments that can be meaningfully practiced today. It contains some requirements that are considered profoundly immoral by today's moral standards: forcing rape victims to marry their rapist; executing women who are raped in a city without raising an alarm; forcing widows to marry their deceased husband's brother, burning some hookers alive, etc.

bullet The author of the Gospel of Luke in the Christian Scriptures describes a very abbreviated moral code. It arises from an encounter between a lawyer and Jesus Christ. In Luke 10:25, the lawyer asked what he needs to do to inherit eternal life (i.e. heaven). Jesus asked him what the Mosaic Code required. The lawyer responded: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself." 2 Jesus agreed with the abbreviated moral code. In answer to the lawyer's subsequent question: "And who is my neighbour?," Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. The meaning of the parable is that every human is everyone else's neighbor.

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Some comments on moral codes:

bulletTheir range: Usually moral codes are confined to acts that people do. However, some systems of morality go further and extend their coverage to thoughts and feelings. For example, in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament), Jesus is quoted as saying:
bullet Matthew 5:22: "...whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment."
bullet Matthew 5:28: "...whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." 2 This is often interpreted literally by Christian groups. However, it is not an accurate translation of the original Greek. A better translation would be "...whosoever looks on a woman obsessively with lust...."
bullet Completeness: Written moral codes may precisely define moral behavior for a given society at a given time. However, as time progresses and societies change, questions often arise about new situations that are were covered in the original code. Same-sex marriage, in-vitro fertilization, the use of embryonic stem cells are three such topics. Some moral codes include basic principles from which scholars can reach a consensus on new topics.

bullet Applicability: Some moral codes include requirements that are quite specific to the era and culture in which they were written; they are difficult or impossible to extend to some modern-day situations.

bullet Personhood: One failing of almost all moral codes is their lack of definition of when human personhood begins. There is a consensus that an ovum and sperm do not constitute a human person. Everyone agrees that a newborn baby is a human person. There is also a consensus among most pro-life and pro-choice supporters that once human personhood begins, that human being should be given full rights, including the right to live. But these two groups differ greatly -- even among themselves -- on when embryonic or fetal life with human DNA becomes a human person. Thus, various religious traditions and denominations will differ greately on matters like contraception, emergency contraception, and abortion access.

Christians approach their sacred scriptures, the Bible, with different beliefs. Some theologians view Protestant Christianity as being composed of two main groups:

bullet Conservative Christians generally view it as the inerrant Word of God. Each passage is useful for instruction and guidance.

bullet Liberal Christians generally view the Bible as the product of spiritually motivated authors who tried to promote their own religious beliefs. It contains passages that the authors lifted from nearby Pagan cultures. It contains some material that is regarded as profoundly immoral by today's religious and secular standards. It also contains material of sublime spiritual value.

Since the two wings of Protestant Christianity have such different views of the structure, nature and source of the Bible, they each derive very different moral codes from its writings. Conservative and liberal Protestant Christians generally have diametrically opposed views on matters such as pre-marital sex by engaged couples, divorce, ordination of gay and lesbian clergy, abortion access, physician assisted suicide, sex education in school, same-sex marriage, and dozens of other topics. When one considers also the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (the Mormons), and minority groups such as Christian Science, etc. the range of moral teachings expands greatly.

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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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  1. Paul Copan, "True for you, but not for me: Deflating the slogans that leave Christians speechless," Bethany House Publ., (1998). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Biblical quotations are taken from the King James Version of the Bible.

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Site navigation: Home page > Morality > Introduction > here

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Copyright © 2001 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-SEP-9
Latest update: 2010-OCT-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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