Can morality exist outside of religion? This question has been debated throughout history, addressed by ancient philosophers such as Plato and Socrates, as well as by modern thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Unquestionably, we possess the capacity for moral thought and decision-making even without religious instruction.
Prior to Sinai and divine revelation, criminal behavior in man was severely punished. For his crime of murder, Cain was condemned to nomadic wandering, while a morally dissolute world was washed away by a global flood. A ruthless Egyptian tyrant was punished for enslaving and torturing our people.
Even without divine instructions, humans are expected to act upon basic moral instincts and their innate sense of right and wrong. Evidently, human beings enjoy an internal moral compass and are held accountable for immoral behavior. God’s laws aren’t necessary for moral integrity.
For many secularists, this moral impulse exists independent of God. Kant proposed the shared ability of humans to reason as the basis for moral behavior. Modern post-Darwinians highlight evolutionary foundations for unselfish behavior. Altruism to others elicits reciprocal generosity, which greatly improves our common chances of survival. Similarly, selfless acts are necessary to form larger groups or herds, which in turn gain greater odds to survive the evolutionary process. Secular utilitarians believe that humans possess an internal tendency to act in a manner that effects the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.
For all these secular moralists, a deeply lodged instinct drives moral behavior. Religion isn’t necessary for morality. As Albert Einstein wrote in 1930: “A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.”
“A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.”Albert Einstein
Religious people acknowledge these instincts but trace them to a divine author. God implanted us with Kant’s reason, with Darwinistic evolutionary instincts, and with a utilitarian desire to effect maximal good. What secular moralists define as moral intuition unrelated to God, religious people trace to divine programming. Morality may exist without divine instruction, but it cannot exist without divine engineering.
Though God created innate moral sensibility within the human heart, he also delivered His word and His system of laws, and expects us to shape our moral experience to that system.
Our double-tiered system of morality, instinctive and legal, is reflected in the two very different passages that bracket the Torah’s account of Sinai.
In the section immediately preceding the delivery of the Torah, in parashat Yitro, Moses erects a rudimentary judicial system to enforce law and order. He also counsels people, “from morning ‘til evening,” about ethics and social virtues. Even prior to divine revelation and the emergence of a legal system, moral instincts motivated us to improve our personal behavior and to assemble an ethical society.
The passage immediately after Mount Sinai, contained in parashat Mishpatim, once again details moral responsibilities and ethical consciousness.
The very first section delivered after Sinai details the laws of slaves, damages, legal litigation, general law enforcement and social welfare for weaker members of society such as widows, orphans, converts and the poor. Moral behavior is the foundation of religious experience and is commanded prior to the laws governing festivals, sacrifices and religious rituals.
Even though we had displayed moral sensibilities prior to Sinai, our moral system was now updated based on the divine will and God’s revealed word. Even though humans possess an internal moral instinct, God’s word alters and improves the texture of our moral experience.
How does the added divine layer of morality affect and enhance moral experience?
Sustained moral behavior requires absolute standards, infinite reference points to guide our decision-making. Moral challenges are complex, and we can easily justify selfish behavior by gauging them against social standards. Over time, social standards decline, tempting us to calibrate our own moral code based on these relaxed social expectations. Employing relative standards of morality, we can easily validate dishonest or unethical behavior. This leads to gradual moral erosion, the type of which we are witnessing in many modern Western societies.
God’s will provides immutable moral expectations, which aren’t affected by social or historical context, challenging us to surpassing and absolute moral behavior.
Worse than slowly eroding moral standards, secular moralism also encourages subjective morality, in which there is no absolute moral truth, only the truths that a particular individual or culture happen to believe in. Without absolute “good” and “evil,” even heinous crimes can be justified, and all sense of right and wrong becomes discarded.
Religious morality sets objective and fixed absolutes, yielding a more durable and stable moral experience.
Decentralizing human ego
When struggling with moral questions, human beings are often caught between two powerful internal forces. One is our innate desire for altruism, generosity and selflessness. Alternatively, we are also powerfully driven by ego and self-interest, intensely preoccupied with serving our own needs. In this battle of wills, sometimes our ego wins out, diverting us from moral behavior in preservation of our own interests. Humans may possess an innate moral compass, but they also possess a strong and hungry ego.
Religious experience is predicated upon decentralizing our ego and our needs, while submitting human interest to a higher being. Once ego is decentralized, moral behavior becomes more natural. Successfully submitting our needs to God generally promotes our ability to serve the needs of others. Once the self is decentralized, moral behavior is more easily achieved.
God fashioned man as the masterpiece of His creation. He created us in His likeness, vesting us with distinctive features which no other creatures possess. We refer to these qualities, such as intelligence, creativity, speech and consciousness, as man’s divine image.
Hardship and suffering deplete the divine image and its potential, and our moral behavior restores them. Moral acts are performed not just altruistically but out of a duty to repair man’s divine gift. Moral acts are part of a divine mission and not just a social service. Through our charity and generosity, we partner with our creator in sculpting a more perfect world.
Morality motivated by the divine image extends moral interest beyond the individual, extending it to the social arena. For this reason, religious morality is responsible for social and political evolution. Belief in man compels us to construct societies that preserve human dignity and freedom, allowing man to express his talents without economic encumbrance or political repression. Religion forces us to think of the larger social calculus or morality.
What happens when human moral spirit falters and our discipline weakens?
Human beings are weak by nature and, when left to their own moral instincts, will often come up short.
Religion establishes accountability to an omniscient God who observes all human behavior. Almost every moral imperative in the Torah is suffixed by the admonition that God redeemed us from Egypt – that is to say, He is part of history, punishes the wicked and surveils human behavior. This divine scrutiny establishes moral accountability and braces our behavior. Even when moral instincts fail, we still stand in the presence of God and must behave in accordance with His expectations.
In our moral journey we aren’t alone. God delivers absolute standards and watches and registers our behavior.
Moral role models
So, we believe in human morality but also in divinely legislated moral law. We should build our moral consciousness upon each of these two pillars, both human instinct and divine law.
Often, religious people smugly dismiss secular morality, arguing, as Ivan Karamazov asserted in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, that without God, everything is lawful. This is factually untrue, and to assert such is condescending. We should be inspired by moral courage, even when exhibited by nonreligious individuals.
Ironically, it is often easier to identify moral courage in those outside of religious practice. Just the same, our moral code is formatted by the will of God and is unalterable. Religious people should be inspired to act morally, based on their inner voice, as well as the divine command. ■
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.