Striking aspects of morality in human life

Black Studies – Philosophy/Morality

PHILOSOPHY: THE BASIS of HUMAN MORALITY Introduction – Morality in Human Life:

The concept of moral right and wrong is ubiquitous among all human societies in existence today as well as among the surviving records of virtually every human society no longer in existence in modern times. According to some of the most recent biological and evolutionary psychological data (Gerrig & Zimbardo 2005), morality may exist in its rawest form even among non-human primates and other higher forms of biological life forms.

Besides it pervasiveness in myriad societies distant from one another geographically and in time, the other most striking aspects of morality in human life are (1) the degree to which certain specific moral concepts are common to so many different cultures, and (2) the degree to which they may vary in other respects in some of the particular ideas, standards, and criteria that they incorporate in their respective moral values. In that respect, some of the most paradoxical comparisons concern the morals provided and defined by religious traditions. In many cases, cultures worshipping the same divine being derive completely contradictory interpretations of the same Holy Bible as regards human moral conduct. In others, unrelated cultures espousing incompatible beliefs about the nature and identity of God both promote values that are more similar in content and effect than dissimilar, but ultimately resort to violent conflict over differences in their beliefs about the origin of otherwise comparable moral values. Some of the most troubling aspects of religious moral values are the obvious apparent inconsistencies between multiple elements of single religious tradition. Nevertheless, the core of moral values within human societies always plays a crucial formative role in the relations among men as well as between man and society.

Religious Moral Traditions:

In the Western part of the world, the predominant biblical source of moral values is the New Testament of the Holy Bible, which Christians of practically all different denominations believe represent the Word of God the Father through Christ the Son.

Christianity provides moral guidance in two main categories: (1) those governing the conduct of man toward his fellow man, and (2) those defining the relationship between man and God, as envisioned by God (Nelson 1903).

Jews, by contrast, derive moral values from a different portion of the Holy Bible; namely, that encompassed by the Old Testament rather than the New Testament. Like Christians, Jewish moral values derive directly from scripture, and relate partially to standards of conduct among men, and partially to the relationship between man and God (Verene 1976).

In much of the Middle East, an entirely different value system is provided in the form of scripture comprised by the Koran. Like the moral values represented in the scripture of the New Testament and the Old Testament, the Koran prescribes very strict codes of moral conduct for Muslims, both with respect to each other, to their relationships with non-Muslims, and especially, as between Muslims and Mohamed the Prophet in the name of the God Allah (Verene 1976).

Secular Moral Concepts:

Secular moral values differ fundamentally from those of presumed divine origin, because they do not purport to represent the commands or the infallibility of any omniscient supreme being. Rather, they evolve through the authority of dominant representatives within human cultures. Sometimes, the institution providing moral guidance represents the collective will and values of the majority, through some form of electoral process; in other societies, autocratic rulers lay down moral rules that reflect their ability to impose their will forcefully, if necessary. Generally, the moral values of contemporary modern human societies are much more the function of collective popular beliefs as expressed in secular laws (Henslin 2002).

By comparison, the moral values of less developed societies tend to feature moral values and social rules that are essentially unchanged from the beliefs of their ancient ancestors. In many ways, there is a direct relationship between scientific knowledge and technological sophistication and the shift toward secular moral values and away from traditional religious concepts of human morality (Macionis 2003). In the last century or two in particular, the two most powerful Western societies to emerge from the age of nation states in the late 19th and early 20th century have made the transition almost completely from religion-based human morality to strictly objective moral concepts embodied in secular laws of society.

The United Kingdom of the modern era was, is less than two centuries removed from mandatory religious affiliation under penalty of death for defiance. It is probably no great coincidence at all that the United States that formed from the separated British Colonies during the United Kingdom’s height of power and global domination embraced the concept of religious freedom and the fundamental separation of Church and State in the new republic.

Nevertheless, it is remarkable that secular moral values generally recognize many of the most essential standards and expectations of moral conduct that originally derived from biblical scripture. According to some who adhere strictly to religious morality, the incorporation of some of the Ten Commandments into secular moral rules expressed in law is a function of the divine truth expressed in biblical teachings. Those who reject any divine origin of human values suggest, instead, that modern secular laws bear some similarity to ancient biblical principles, simply because the most fundamental moral imperatives would have been just as obvious to intelligent men in ancient times and that they, rather than any God, actually were the original source of the embodiment of those ideas in the tablets presented by Moses to the Tribe of Israel after escape from slavery in Egypt (Nelson 1903).

Fundamental Problems Associated with Religious Values:

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies in the philosophical conflict between religious teachings and secular values is the degree to which rigid adherence to the former seems so often to inspire human conduct that is distinctly amoral by virtually every cultural definition of morality in human life. Sadly, one of the most pervasive and consistent underlying basis for human war, both in modern times and throughout recorded history, is the antagonism inspired by mutually incompatible religious beliefs (Einstein 1931).

Throughout the Middle Ages, Western religious leaders implored their followers to embark on murderous Crusades into foreign lands considered holy in the New and Old Testaments to conquer and dispatch the native inhabitants in the supposed name of God.

Perhaps understandably, many of the modern-day descendants of those inhabitants retain a profound distrust for and resentment of Western people. At the same time, their extreme religious beliefs justify conduct in their own society that virtually all civilized secular moral values consider profoundly immoral (Macionis 2003).

Another troubling element of religious moral values is their apparent capacity for hypocrisy. In the case of Western religious traditions, societies exhibited what in retrospect seems to have been a schizophrenic view of human moral codes in the way that men who worshipped a God whose central message pertained to love and consideration for fellow men seemed inappropriately ignorant of the degree to which their own religious identity handicapped their most basic sense of moral right and wrong.

In fact, the men who forcibly enslaved fellow human beings by the millions, and over the course of approximately three centuries were, for the most part, God fearing individuals from Christian societies (Equiano 1789). Ironically, many of them justified some of the most horrifically immoral institutions of human suffering and abuse ever recorded very specifically by distinguishing native Africans from themselves on the basis of religion as much as on skin pigmentation.

To be fair, societies espousing secular moral concepts, such as the United States also took an embarrassingly long time to recognize the obvious objective immorality inherent in their treatment of the descendants of the Africans enslaved generations earlier as well. Specifically, the secular moral values expressed in the U.S. Constitution actually contained provisions (later repealed) detailing the legal determination of “rightful ownership” and return of slaves who escaped into neighboring free states (Friedman 2005). In retrospect, it is hardly less embarrassing that Christian moral principles were never fully extended to black Americans until a full century after their emancipation, by which time most of them had already converted to Christianity themselves.

Conclusion – Resolving Contradictory Moral Philosophies:

The most encouraging view of different religious moral teachings and secular laws that still prevail in modern societies is that the role of religious dogma and superstition has been decreasing steadily for several generations (Einstein, 1930), due, in large part to the perspective provided by scientific understanding. Likewise, modern human societies seem to be decreasing their reliance on ancient beliefs and scripture to derive practical moral values more consistent with human happiness and mutual tolerance of religious, cultural, and racial differences. Secular law is increasingly meeting the needs of establishing moral standards of conduct that protect everyone in society equally, while also protecting the right of free religious worship in private.

On the other hand, religion continues to play a valuable role in the lives of many within human societies. However, our modern perspective and appreciation of objective moral concepts and standards allows us to extract the most beneficial core elements of various religions. At their root, the most fundamental religious principles are much more similar to modern secular moral beliefs than dissimilar and they do not conflict at all with mutual respect and consideration among private religious values and beliefs that may differ substantially.. Ultimately, it is the incorporation of these underlying common principle of love, whether conceived as relating primarily to the relationships among men or those between God and man, which form the basis of genuine morality in human life (Einstein 1930).


Einstein, a. (1950) the World as I See it. Ed. Harris, a. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Equiano, O. (1789) the Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. London.

Friedman, L.M. (2005) a History of American Law. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gerrig, R., Zimbardo, P. (2005) Psychology and Life 17th ed.

Boston: Allyn & Bacon

Henslin, J.M. (2002) Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach. Boston: Pearson.

Macionis, J.J. (2003) Sociology. New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Nelson, T. (1903) the Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testament. Cambridge: Harvard University.

Verene, D.P. (1976) Sexual Love and Western Morality: A Philosophical Anthology. New York: Harpers & Row

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