In simple terms, we can think of morality as what we think is right and wrong or good or bad. Some people derive their morality from a religion or a philosophy while others develop their own morality based on their personal observations and experience in life. The word is often used interchangeably with morality, although, it is occasionally used more narrowly to refer to a set of principles that belong to a particular group.

In “moral psychology”, morality is considered to be something that arises from personal development.

Morality and politics

Morality is generally considered to be an individual phenomenon, however, politics can be seen to be the social forum in which individual morality acts cumulatively to become social morality. In order to research the relationship between attitudes in morality and politics  Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham studied the difference between progressives and conservatives in the United States. They found that Americans who identified as progressives tended to value care and fairness higher than loyalty, respect, and purity. Americans that self-identified as conservative valued care and fairness less and value loyalty, respect, and purity more. Overall, both groups provided the highest overall waiting to care about conservatives valued friend list the lowest and progressives valued purity the lowest. Experimenters suggest that this division is cute too historical factors where conservatism developed in closely knit, ethnically homogenous communities whereas progressive groups developed in port cities that contain significant cultural diversity and therefore demanded more progressive views in order for their constituents to be able to cohabitate.

Many religious people derive their morality directly from their religion and many people make the automatic assumption that morality depends on their religion. In the case of Christianity, this is not necessarily something that the Christian establishment encourages. The Westminster dictionary of Christian ethics states that religion and morality “are to be defined differently and have no definitional connections with each other. Conceptually and in principle, morality and religious value system are two distinct kinds of value systems or action guides.”

There is a wide range of secularism, moral traditions, and religious value systems coexisting within many societies. The monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) tend to define right and wrong according to laws and rules set forth in their respective scriptures and these laws tend to be somewhat absolute. The polytheistic religions (such as Buddhism) are less absolute and encourage people to consider the intention of the individual and the circumstances in order to determine whether a person’s actions are right or wrong.

Views on morality can be dramatically different in different countries. The Pew Research Center’s 2013 Global Attitudes survey polled more than 40,000 respondents in 40 countries about eight subjects that are often discussed as moral issues: extramarital affairs, gambling, homosexuality, abortion, premarital sex, alcohol consumption, divorce, and the use of contraceptives. For each issue, the respondents were asked whether this was morally acceptable, morally unacceptable, or not a moral issue. Generally, affairs, gambling, homosexuality, and abortion were deemed unacceptable by the largest number of respondents. Premarital sex and alcohol use were somewhat unacceptable. However, contraceptives and divorce were seen as mostly acceptable (only 14% deeming it to be unacceptable). Overall, countries that were either African and or predominantly Muslim tended to find most of these activities morally unacceptable while advanced economies tended to be considerably more accepting.

In 22 of the 39 countries surveyed a majority say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values. This position is highly prevalent in Africa and the Middle East. At least 75% of the people in all six countries surveyed in Africa say that faith in God is essential to morality. In the Middle East approximately 70% or more agree. Only Israel, across the Middle East and Africa, does a majority think that it is not necessary to believe in God to be a moral person.

Many people in the Asia-Pacific and Latin American regions also linked faith and morality. For example, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, and Malaysians almost unanimously believe that God is central to having good values. However, most Australians take the opposite position – that it is not necessary to be a believer to be a moral person.

In North America and Europe, more people agree that it is possible to be non-religious and still be an upright person. At least 50% in almost every country surveyed took this view including approximately 80% or more in France, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Britain. Within the regions of North America and Europe, the United States is the odd one out in the sense that a small majority (53%) say that belief in God is necessary to be more. 

It is a critical MPI principle to develop and refine your own moral code. Clearly, the decisions you make in order to maximize your impact on your own life and the world will need to incorporate some kind of compass. This goes without saying and likely does not need further discussion. However, one area that does require further discussion is the issue of whether humans should develop their own moral code based on their own experience, observations and accumulated knowledge from any and all sources or whether a human should have their moral code dictated to them by another authority such as a religion. 

The monotheistic religions provide somewhat absolute moral codes that must be followed by the people that subscribe to those religions. This presents several issues:

Our ability to develop morals 

The absolute moral code presented by the monotheistic religions implies that humans are not capable of developing their own morality and that their religion is somehow helping them out by giving them a moral code to make up for this purported human deficiency. Giving people the impression that they are not capable of developing their own moral code contributes to people feeling like they are much less than what they really are. 

Freedom to determine our own morality

The lack of freedom is an enormous, fundamental, and central problem that is created by the monotheistic religions and this problem takes center stage when it comes to morality. It seems inconceivable to me that any human can agree to give up any kind of freedom, particularly the “freedom of thought” which directly influences one’s ability to determine one’s own morality.

Moral contradiction

Not only do the monotheistic religions impose their absolute rules of morality upon their subjects they go one critical step further. They threaten their subjects with the most extreme punishment imaginable in the event that they do not adhere to their moral code and their moral code only. The juxtaposition is ridiculous at best and exceedingly damaging at worst. Threatening people with a punishment worse than death if they do not follow a moral code is itself the peak of immorality. 

Moral psychology

Morality is ultimately an integrated system of rules that enables groups of people to cohabitate in something that resembles harmony. Morality is modern society’s way of avoiding conflict or mitigating the response to aggression or punishing aggression in a manner that pours water on the fire instead of pouring fuel in a fire.

Are we born with morality? 

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom says that we are born with a hardwired morality and that we start life with a deep sense of good and evil. His research revealed that babies and toddlers can judge good and bad actions of others and, further, they want to reward the good and punish the bad. They also acted to help those in distress and they felt guilt, shame, pride, and righteous anger. 

The research was conducted at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center, also known as the baby lab. The lab is run by Dr. Karen Wynn and has been studying the minds and behaviors of babies for several decades. For several years, the researchers have been studying babies under 24 months to see how much they know about good and bad behavior. 

The first test involved showing the baby good and bad behavior and allowing the baby to decide which one it liked best. The babies watched a video where a cat was trying to open a box. In one video a green bunny came along and helped to open the box and in another video, an orange bunny came along and slammed the box shut. Then a staff member that doesn’t know which bunny behaved well or badly asked the baby which one they liked best. More than 80% of the babies in the study preferred the good green bunny. The babies have the ability to understand the difference between good and bad before being able to speak or walk and appear to have a basic sense of justice. Bloom says that “we are by nature indifferent, even hostile to strangers; we are prone toward parochialism and bigotry. Some of our instinctive emotional responses most notably discussed spur us to do terrible things, including acts of genocide.” Bloom suggests that the role of parents and society is to address this by developing the innate moral beliefs that already exist inside a baby’s mind. This research is in direct contrast to the view that humans require religion in order to have morality.

Next article in this series: “Gratitude”

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