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Defining Morality

Last week I wrote an article here, “The Easy Path or the Hard Path”, discussing morality. I said that I plan to offer more on morality but that I am unsure what form it will take or when. I remain uncertain of that but since posting that article, God gave me the idea for this article. Should not one begin discussion on a topic by defining what it is?

Since I am concerned with the decline of morality in society in general, it seems appropriate to start with a definition of morality from a secular dictionary.

Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary (The Riverside Publishing Company. 1984.) begins its definition of “morality” with “1. The quality of being in accord with stands of good or right conduct. 2. A system of ideas of right and wrong conduct.”

I think this definition gets to the core of my concern about morality. To be moral is to know the difference between right and wrong and to choose the right.

However, this definition of morality says nothing about how right and wrong is determined. This gets to what I see as the core of morality in society today, “who determines what is right and wrong.”

There are those who believe there is no universal right and wrong. They say everyone gets to decide what is right and wrong for themselves. We call this “relativism.” They have rejected the very notion of “truth” (see my video presentation Where Do We Go for Truth? for more on “truth).

Paul speaks of those who reject sound doctrine in 2 Timothy 4:3, “For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths.”

Fortunately, not everyone has rejected truth.

Some rely on Psychology for answers. Psychology is a tool to help understand right and wrong behavior and to help us choose the right behavior. However, Psychology does determine what it is right and wrong.

Others will say right and wrong is determined by majority opinion. The first problem with this is that it means what is right and wrong can change as people’s opinion changes. How do even determine what the majority really thinks? What if it is a very slim majority? How does one count people who say they won’t do it themselves but feel others should be free to choose for themselves? An example of this is abortion. There are people who say they would never have an abortion but don’t feel they should impose their beliefs on others.

I emphasis “their” beliefs because if it were just “their” beliefs, they might be right. However, for morality, we have a higher source that we can turn to, God.

God’s Law is good for us. It tells us what right conduct is. Take a look at the Commandments (see “God’s Commandments”). For example, the commandment against stealing is good for society. If everyone went around stealing, we would not be able to trust one another. Trust is necessary for society to fully function. Likewise, telling the truth (“You shall not bear false witness”) is necessary for society.

When we observe commandments like these, people will see us as “a wise and discerning people” (Deuteronomy 4:6, see Deuteronomy 4:1-8 for whole passage). Yet, there are people who would disagree with some of the commandments like “You shall not commit adultery.”

We need to listen to God. Why should we? In John 15:13 Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus did just this. He laid down his life for us on the Cross. He did this because He loves us. We can trust Jesus.

This points us to points us to a definition of morality found in the online Catholic Culture Dictionary. It begins its definition of morality, “Relations between a human act and the final destiny of a human being. It is the norm of behavior that flows from each person’s ultimate end, which is the possession of God in the beatific vision” (see full definition at https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/dictionary/index.cfm?id=34966).

Our morality is rooted in something larger than our actions and decisions at any one particular moment. Our morality is based on our “final destiny,” our “ultimate end.” Our morality is based on our desire to spend eternity with God.

Peace,

Fr. Jeff

P.S. For further reading see my article, “Do We Listen to our Conscience?”

2 Comments

  1. Linda House says:

    There seems to be many different terms relating to morality. Just to mention a few: inner feelings, moral compass, conscience, or ethics. Do you feel they all mean the same thing? Some terms seem to pertain to our relationship with society and others more direct to our relationship with God. Does that matter or is the key point that God is the determiner of the “rules” necessary to help us attain eternal life.

  2. Fr. Jeff says:

    Yes, there are several different terms that apply when discussing morality. The terms you mentioned are related but I do not think they necessarily mean the exact same thing.

    For instance, “inner feelings” can take on various means. One might use in a way synonymous with conscience where “conscience” is that feeling within us that leads us to do good (moral compass also applies here). However, sometime “inner feelings” may be used to describe our emotional response. For example, when someone commits an act of violence against us, the emotion of “anger” might lead us to retaliate with more violence while a well-formed conscience would lead us to seek justice without the use of violence.

    Some definitions of “moral compass” are the same as morality. I personally might see “moral compass” focusing on the application of “morality” to our daily lives.

    Likewise, ethics can be defined as completely synonymous with morality. When I think of ethics, I think of philosophy methods of determining the proper course of action. For instance, “hedonism” says we determine our actions based on the pleasure it brings us while “utilitarianism” focuses on the greatest good for the greatest number. Ethics can be solely philosophical endeavor but “Christian Ethics” has God as a foundational principle.

    Likewise, people can speak of “conscience” in completely secular terms. However, our Catholic understanding of a well-formed conscience has God’s Word as a foundational in what our conscience leads us to.

    While, as Catholics, God is foundational to knowing what is right and wrong, it is possible for people to know some of what God teaches through reason and natural law. Natural law points to what nature reveals as normal. For instance, the way males and females are different and come together point to what is natural while to same-sex activity does not fit since it is not open to biological procreation.

    I think any of the terms you asked about can be used with or without relation to God. Thus, the use of the word “Christian” with any of these terms (ex. Christian Ethics or Christian Morality) help it be clear the place of God in our Christian “values.”

    Peace,

    Fr. Jeff

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