What does it mean to be a moral person?
This question comes up a lot whenever I talk about morality. Now – I’m not bringing up this subject to put a heavy weight of judgement on anyone else’s shoulders. I’m way too aware of my own moral failings to want to do that! And I’m not some moral crusader arguing for change. Society does need to change. But I don’t think our morals need to change.
I talk about morality because it is part of the body of evidence suggesting human beings are more than just a collection of atoms and molecules. We are much more than just that.
Now often when this comes up, we get into a discussion about what people do in society today…and sometimes we will compare that with what people did in society in the past. And the point will be made to me that – society is different now in comparison to ages past. Therefore morality must be different too. It has evolved with us. Therefore morals must also have changed.
But I think this is to mistake what it means to be a moral person. You cannot understand morality in terms of what people do and why they might do it. To understand what morality is – we need to look at why people SHOULD do something. It’s a discussion about obligations that press in on human beings, not how human beings behave.
The law of gravity is actually very mysterious. Scientists still have a lot to learn about what it is. But we can very easily measure the force and the effect that it has on objects in our Universe. Human morality works a similar way on the human heart. It is a force that we might not like very much – but it is there all the same.
To suggest that a human being or human society is a source or an explanation of morality is to miss the mark. Morality isn’t how people behave…rather it is how people are required TO behave. It’s the moral force that pushes in on each of us.
And what is fascinating is…when you study a variety of ancient cultures (Chinese, Babylonian, Hindu, Egyptian and Jewish) and compare them to 21st century society, you find common expectations and obligations that press in on the people who have lived at these different times in these very different cultures. This is a clue to the scope of the moral law that imposes itself on us.
- It is generally always right for one human being to show kindness to another.
- It is generally always right to help and provide for another human being who is suffering or in need.
- It is especially important to love and respect members of your own family. Whether its your parents, or your siblings or your own children. These people deserve special respect and care from you.
- Talking of children, it is always important to look after children.
By implication, anyone who does the reverse…is behaving in an immoral way. Notice something. We don’t need to have this explained to us. We just kind of know.
- It’s always wrong to commit adultery with someone else’s partner.
- It’s always wrong to steal, to benefit from stolen goods and to treat other people’s goods as my own.
- You must render justice towards an individual in court.
- It is always wrong to be a double minded person, to misrepresent oneself. It is better to be a person of integrity and good faith.
- People who are poor or sick require mercy from us.
- It is important to forgive people who have wronged us.
There is evidence of an absolute moral law that presses in on each of us…and it has done so down thru the ages past. What can we infer from this evidence? Well – the existence of a moral law allows us to infer the existence of a moral lawgiver.
If an archaeologist digs in the sand and finds the ruined foundations of a great city, then it is reasonable to infer a civilisation of people who built that city and lived there at some time.
If a philosopher or theologian digs into mankind’s nature and finds the traces of an ethical framework that is common to each person…then he is right to infer a source to that ethical framework that is located outside of these people and these different cultures. And that sounds very much like God.
But more than all that…look at people’s ability to talk in terms of good and evil, right and wrong. Stories and tales have been passed down thru the generations in the great myths. Here we talk in terms of what is good…and should be encouraged in people…and what is evil and should be resisted. And these great, ancient stories never go out of date! They might be updated for a modern audience and a different mindset (which is precisely what George Lucas did when he started the Star Wars saga in the 1970s…at what Lucasfilm continue to do to this day) but the core of what is good and what is evil has remained the same for millennia.
Moral values and obligations exist as a first principle of civilisation. You can’t deconstruct them…and like the force of gravity, it is always pressing upon us whether we like it or not.
“It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent…To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”
 C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.