Introduction to morality & ethics
Examples of moral codes
- "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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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
Some comments on moral codes:
|Their 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:
Matthew 5:22: "...whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause
shall be in danger of the judgment."
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...."
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.|
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.|
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:
Conservative Christians generally view it as the inerrant Word of God. Each passage is useful for instruction and guidance.
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.
Related essays on this web site:
Copyright © 2001 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2001-SEP-9
Latest update: 2010-OCT-03
Author: B.A. Robinson