Moral Standards

Responding to Martin Downes, who asks, "how do you define immorality at all? What is the standard?"

The presumption is in the belief that morality can be defined by something as simple as a standard, when it is in fact complex and difficult to describe succinctly.

For example, principles such as Kant's "treat people as ends in themselves" and his categorical imperative, or Mill's principle of utility, each play a role in morality and interact in complex and not always predictable ways.

None of them stands alone as a principle, and a system of morality based on only one such principle would, sooner or later, result in a perversion of morality in the name of the principle. Thus it is with all standard-base or principle-based moralities.

Morality is a complex weaving or tapestry formed from a variety of principles founded on various perspectives and understanding of people, their environment, and their beliefs.

The actual description of a morality may or may not involve a reference to God, but given an environment with numerous conflicting religions, not to mention the irreligious, a description of a morality founded on a particular theism is impractical and incomplete.

The nature of morality requires us to go beyond religion, requires us to see ourselves not as a privileged seat of moral understanding but as one player in a multifaceted chorus that, together, describes an interwoven, comprehensive, and in some senses infeffable morality.

The idea that religion provides some sort of dispensation from participation in this broader dialogue is what leads people to a narrower, self-justified sense of morality, one in which their personal understanding, to them, outweighs consideration of the broader ethos.

If we take seriously the precept that people matter in themselves, that their happiness is a matter of moral import, that spirituality and devotion are things that can happen in people other than ourselves, then it is necessary to think of morality as broader than religion, and therefore, not to be founded in religion.


  1. Am I missing something... what does immortality have to do with morality?

  2. the precept that people matter in themselves

    Doesn't that raise the question of a link between morality and values? For many people the precept that people matter in themselves is a religious value, and so morality cannot be divorced from religion.

  3. No, that doesn't follow. The fact that a value belongs to one religion does not mean it cannot belong to other religions, or to people who do not follow religion.

  4. No, that is not what I said. I was once a member of a political party that had members who were Chirstians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Humanists, Atheists. They had moral principles that they believed fould be realised, at least to some extent, by the policies of the party they belonged to. Their values sometimes differed, and sometimes they way they expressed them differed, yet they could come together and cooperate at a himan level. You could see something in common in the moral principles, but their reasons for holdingh such moral principles were often very different.

    This is too big a subject to deal with in a comment on a blog post, but I have elaborated on it in a post on my blog, which is at Religion, spirituality and politics: Khanya if you are interested.

  5. Yes, these are all very good points. But on the other hand, the search for a simple standard for morality is very fruitful. After all, your own morality seems to take into account Mill's and Kant's simple standards. Could we have them if they hadn't been looking for a unifying principle of morality? Could we understand them if people had not believed in them and seen where they would take us?

  6. It seems like the world is looking for some thing or some one to show them what the moral standards look like. People go into great detail and complication to try and find this standard and explain it. I don't know about you but I get confused and a little lost as I try and read these descriptions. I Believe God has set the moral standards for the world, and if you want to read and see them in action look at Jesus' life, He is our perfect example, and if we ask Him Jesus will help us to live a life that has some good moral standards in it. Try it.


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