Spirituality for Today – March 2012 – Volume 16, Issue 8

Whence Morality

By Rev. Raymond K. Petrucci

Judgments have been passed on human activities and on humans themselves throughout history. Men and women have viewed one another as good or bad or as in the enigmatic lyric of a hit song by the Shangri Las back in the 1960s: "He's good bad, but he's not evil." What? For millennia, moral behavior has been studied and evaluated by theologians, philosophers, and social scientists. What does it mean for the individual and for society?

A photo of city crowd

Last Lent, an article on the topic of morality and religion written by Dr. Ikkla Pyysiainen and Dr. Marc Hauser appeared in Science Daily. Their research suggested a number of possible sources of moral values and behavior in human nature as related to religious beliefs.

For some there is no morality, while others see religion as merely one way of expressing one's moral intuitions.

– Dr. Hauser

As stated in their research "it appears that intuitive judgments of right and wrong seem to operate independently of explicit religious commitments." In Catholic moral thought, this moral feeling innate in human nature is what is called "natural law. " If the Creator of humankind called his creation good, one may conclude that this implies a natural tendency toward doing the good and avoiding evil and knowing the difference between the two. Human freedom with it frailties and sinfulness opens the likelihood that good and evil will be in a struggle until the end of time. The virtuous conscience, always being operative in deciding the course of one's actions is, regrettably, not descriptive of the realities of the human condition. But the presence of a moral sensibility in human nature is hopeful.

This supports the theory that religion did not originally emerge as a biological adaptation for cooperation, but evolved as a separate by-product of pre-existing cognitive functions... However, although it appears as if cooperation is made possible by mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion, religion can play a role in facilitating and stabilizing cooperation between groups.

– Dr. Pyysiainen

Immoral behavior and a lack of remorse regarding such an approach to living find expression in the case of Bernie Madoff. His vast Ponzi scheme bilked investors out of many millions of dollars. What is unsettling regarding human depravity is the way he, upon entering prison, was received among other criminals. They treated Madoff like a folk hero. Many prisoners sought his autograph. The ruined lives occasioned by his wrongdoing were of little concern to those who populate his new world. In spite of the research, one would think that the presence of a deeply religious moral belief in the minds and hearts of these inmates would have had a profoundly salubrious effect in their lives and would have produced a much different end.

It seems that in many cultures religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions. Although as we discuss in our paper, this link is not a necessary one, many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion, is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence.

– Dr. Hauser

Theories and suggestions notwithstanding, would it not be wise to posit the notion that our innate moral sensibility is from God? Functioning on their own desires, men and women offer a rather ambiguous and often terrifying picture of life on earth. The complexities and vicissitudes of human motivation and deeds betray a person's insufficiency to be impelled consistently toward right behavior. Proper judgment and good actions demand an enduring influence that is both at the core of – and yet far above human nature – God.

Doctors Pyyiainen and Hauser would do well to ponder the words of the French diplomat Joseph de Maistre: "We are all bound to the throne of the Supreme Being by a flexible chain which restrains without enslaving us. The most wonderful aspect of the universal scheme of things is the action of free beings under divine guidance." Man can be good because God is good.