The push and the pull of the conversation was escalating. The tone and posture of both involved made it clear the subject was intense. And then, in apparent exasperation, she dismissively exclaimed, “You cannot legislate morality!”
The trump card. The secret weapon. The ace in the hole. Confidently asserted to shut down debate or dismiss an interlocutor’s claim.
But he would not stand down.
Back and forth they went as he pressed to invalidate her declaration. As they did, her motivations clarified. And though she could not persuade him to come to her side, her principal contention was plain: “you should not impose your private morality on others.”
On that point, they found agreement. If we believe in the free moral agency of the individual, then we are required to agree wholeheartedly.
“It would be unjust for me to force my view on you. Immoral even.” He consented. “But at some point, a moral code must be implemented to govern the actions of individuals, lest their actions invade the free moral agency of others. What then is the mere morality that we can agree upon?”
That is a deep and challenging question. It is a question moral theorists have wrestled with for centuries and often seems further from an answer than when they began.
Civil societies cannot long endure without some sort of code or rule to govern the affairs of men. Despite the theories of some as to the innate goodness of humanity, the conundrum of malevolence and evil continues. Thus, the necessity of a legislative body and a judicial system and some consensus on an agreed-upon ethical order. A mere morality.
Is there such a thing? A “first principle” of morality? A foundational ethic to govern interaction? I suggest there is.
Before we endeavor to consider it, it is necessary to make clear that, though there is a mere morality, it does not mean that malevolence and evil will be wholly eradicated. A perfectly good society a mere morality will not make. It may restrain evil but it cannot purge it. As Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.” And that is our ultimate aim. Civil societies cannot long endure without some sort of code or rule to govern the affairs of men.
So what then is our mere morality?
Some would argue that the mere morality is expressed simply by nearly every world religion, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and all the rest. It is articulated positively by Jesus Christ in what is called “The Sermon on the Mount.” In Gospel According to Luke, it is recorded thus, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31, NIV). In the Gospel According to Matthew, we have the further inclusion, “this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12, NIV). And this simple sentiment—as stated previously—is not unique to Christ or Christianity.
The Torah records, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah” (Talmud, Shabbat 31a). From the Buddhist tradition, we find, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udanavarga 5:18). Also, from the teaching of Hinduism, “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma” (Brihaspati, Mahabharata 13.113.8). Islam as well, “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (Hadith 13).
The “Golden Rule,” as it is commonly called, is a simple and seemingly universal mere morality. Even the secular irreligious might well agree. And while I, too, find this ethic to be splendidly good, I am compelled to argue that there is something far greater.
In the Gospel According to Matthew, inquisitors test Christ in chapter 22. One of them, an expert in the law, asked, “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest? “ To which Jesus responded:
“‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”Matthew 22:37-40, NKJV
Jesus’ mere morality, His “first principles” of the law, is summed up in this, “Love God above all, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
The secularist will chafe at what Christ identifies as the first and greatest commandment, in that he (the secularist) does not affirm the existence of a being like the God revealed in the Bible (or any god, for that matter). As a theist, I have no issue with it. But for the sake of the secularist, I will secularize the command by saying, “love the highest ideal of truth, goodness, and beauty.” Such a love impels the lover to emulate what they love and value. But if the secularist persists, and resists the great commandment of Christ, then we have this from one of His apostles.
For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”Galatians 5:14
Is there a mere morality that we can agree upon? Certainly, the Golden Rule has found its way into the hearts and minds of nearly every civilization. It has endured, in some form or another, for millennia and it would not be bad if it found a revival in our times. But the law of love goes further than a general rule of reciprocity, for love seeks the highest and best good of the beloved. And in this mere morality—Love your neighbor as yourself—we have the basis for a society oriented toward the common good of all.
photo Brenton Clarke, LightStock
Miles is the senior pastor of Cross Connection Church in North San Diego County, California. He serves as a board member at Enduring Word and Blue Letter Bible.
Miles has a master of divinity degree from Gateway Seminary in California, and is finishing a doctor of educational ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
Miles and his wife Andrea have four children, two dogs, three rabbits, a tortoise, a chinchilla, a hamster, a cat, and a crested gecko.