The Myth of Moral Decay:Logic and Reasoning Can Define Values

We’ve all heard the complaint and it comes in two forms.  The first is a generalized complaint bemoaning the moral decay of today’s society.  The second is more specific. It is the accusation that moral decay represents what would happen if religion did not exist to give us our sense of morality. In other words, without a belief in a god the world is destined for nihilism.  Moral decay coincides with secularization, the decreasing role of religion in our lives, and is the consequence of the absence of religion. Both of these ideas assume two things: that there was an idealized religious past, an “age of religion,” in which morality was in its prime; and that religion, or belief in a creator god, is necessary for humans to define values and morality. Both of these ideas are problematic and untenable.

In the article, “Secularization, R.I.P.,” sociologist Rodney Stark makes a compelling argument that the “age of religion” is a myth. He examines the historical records of Christianity’s past in the West and concludes, in short, that “converting the king” was not an acceptable measure of gauging the religiosity of the populace. This article made short work of the secularization thesis and effectively destroyed it.  Even sociologist Peter Berger, one of the most well-known proponents of secularization, concluded that this idea was mistaken. Stark’s work demonstrates that our current age is many times more religious than ages past. Assuming that moral decay is occurring, does this suggest, perhaps, that there is a positive correlation between moral decay and increased religiosity? If so, why blame the atheists? (Remember, also, that the chorus against moral decay has a long history. It has been sung from at least the time of the Hebrew prophets).

The deeper issue here is the idea that a god is necessary to define values and morality. Plato was one of the earliest in Western philosophy to address this issue formally in the “Euthyphro dilemma.”  This dilemma is a conversation between Euthyphro and Socrates, who explore the idea of the source of morality. A modern version of the dilemma might read something like: is morality commanded by god because it is moral, or is morality defined by what god commands? If the answer is yes to “because it is moral,” then morality exists independent of a god and humans have access to what is moral without recourse to a divine being.  In other words, a god is not a necessary component to define values and morality. However, if the answer is yes to “defined by what god commands,” then morality is subject to change based upon divine decree. In other words, what is moral can become immoral and vice versa. The door of moral relativism swings wide on this answer. Therefore, anyone who argues that a god is necessary to define morality must then deal with the specter of moral relativism to defend that thesis.

There are hints at the idea of innate (or natural) morality throughout Christian history. The parable of the good Samaritan suggests that it is possible to do the right thing without being beholden to the law as given to Moses. Paul of Tarsus argues that morality, in this case “the law,” is “written on the hearts.” In the Book of Romans, chapter 2, for example, Paul writes:

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them…

He may not have approved of my use of his words or perhaps he would (there is a lot of debate as to whether Paul was a fully committed Pharisee or influenced by his Greek roots). But, as I said, this quote contains at least a hint at the idea of innate morality. The Gentiles, who have not been instructed in morality by the god of Abraham, are capable of being moral naturally. It recognizes that somehow humans are born with a moral compass.

Later in Christian history this idea is taken up by one of the most respected theologians, Thomas Aquinas. In Summa Theologica, using Paul’s description of the Gentiles, Aquinas argues that “all the moral precepts of the Law belong to the law of nature.” He continues by adding the element of human reason to the equation:

The moral precepts, distinct from the ceremonial and judicial precepts, are about things pertaining of their very nature to good morals. Now since human morals depend on their relation to reason, which is the proper principle of human acts, those morals are called good which accord with reason, and those are called bad which are discordant from reason…It is therefore evident that since the moral precepts are about matters which concern good morals; and since good morals are those which are in accord with reason; and since also every judgment of human reason must needs be derived in some way from natural reason; it follows, of necessity, that all the moral precepts belong to the law of nature; but not all in the same way.

Some moral precepts, he admits, like not making graven images, require divine instruction. However, the basic moral precepts are in accordance with human reasoning and are a part of natural law. There is, therefore, a long tradition of at least hinting at the relationship between good morals and human reasoning, the innateness of morality.

Modern science now confirms that humans have an innate moral instinct. Steven Pinker offers an excellent summary of the current research in neuroscience, psychology, sociology and anthropology, and its limitations, in the article, “The Moral Instinct.” What is clear from the research is that humans are born with an innate sense of morality that culture (or religion) then builds upon and refines.

Researchers divide moral instincts differently, but Jonathan Haidt counts five in “The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology:” Harm/care, Fairness/reciprocity, Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity. Each of these spheres appears to have evolutionary roots related to improving an individual’s survival and reproductive success within a group dynamic. This division raises an important question: can we have the same moral instincts but different expressions of those instincts? Haidt argues yes and, for example, compares the moral roots of liberals and conservatives.  He describes liberals as valuing care and fairness over the other three, while conservatives tend to value all five equally but at a lower level than liberals value care and fairness. Harvard researchers have also established a test to identify shared moral values. (You can take their Moral Sense Test here). The empirical evidence is growing yearly with similar conclusions: our moral sense is grounded in our biology.

The first clause of the Euthyphro dilemma may have only been hinted at throughout Christian history but the consequence of that clause, that a god is not necessary to define morality, has been vindicated by many avenues of empirical research. If a moral sense is grounded in our biology – “written in our hearts” – then it is well within our capacity to use logic and reasoning to define it. It is within the realm of scientific inquiry and examination. It also demonstrates that we need not fear a plunge into moral decay if religion were no longer in the picture. Why, then, have we had such a long chorus warning against moral decay? Perhaps it is a consequence of what Pinker calls the “Law of Conservation of Morality.” Simply stated, as certain behaviors are no longer treated as moral imperatives, other behaviors are added to replace them, or, I would add, there is a shift in emphasis from one sphere to another. How one understands these moral shifts is a matter of perspective – as Pinker pointed out, “people tend to align their moralization with their own lifestyles.”

The shaping of moral instincts in children into mature forms requires input from our parents and our culture in general. This is where religion plays a role. As a part of culture, religion provides some tools for the shaping and honing of moral instincts. We should not, however, confuse this role in shaping morals with being the source of morality. We also should not delude ourselves into thinking that religion is the only choice in filling this role. Believing that it is the only source is choosing to ignore the mounting evidence to the contrary. It also ignores a rich history of philosophical exploration of the subject.


Copyright © 2011 JP Laughlin


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About JP Laughlin

Originally intent on Christian ministry, I attended the College of Charleston where I earned a BA in Religious Studies (and where I also nearly completed a BA in Biology) and where I met my wife in our New Testament class. I attended graduate school at the University of Washington and earned a MA in International Studies – Comparative Religion. My areas of focus were Religion-and-Culture and American Religion. Somewhere along the way, I escaped from the prison of religious belief and found a new joy in living.

One response to “The Myth of Moral Decay:Logic and Reasoning Can Define Values”

  1. Jake M says :

    History has demonstrated over and over that a parting away from religious principles imposed by an external entity of ultimate authority is a suicide mission. For man to say that he can use his own ideas for shaping morality is complete deception. Man has not only already proven what he is capable of. But his intentions are clear. To give man the freedom to do as he pleases ALWAYS ends up in destruction. Societies of the past have shown us this. We are indeed under the burden of our own unhealthy desires. We are never above them. Greed and pleasure have always been a part of all humans. Yet, it is those things that lead us to serving ourselves while forsaking others. I must say. From a neutral point of view, it seems to me that the Holy Bible has presented the most accurate presentation of the nature of man and Sin. We were obviously designed to be led by authority. Else, we wouldn’t be imposing our own broken justice system. The laws that fall under God are the only ones that work 100% of the time. Deception is the primary weapon against us all. And there sure are a lot of people in the world that are deceived. Moral decay is a reality. And unlike the past when it wasn’t so prevalent all over the world. Today it is. And it is obvious. The world is developing an “anything goes” mentality and in time there is no doubt it will lead to major destruction in every way. The signs are here.

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