Where Did Our Moral Obligation to Follow the Golden Rule Originate?

Unlike all other life forms on our planet, humans are unique in that we are innately wired with the knowledge that we have certain moral obligations to do what’s right. No other life forms have these obligations. In other words, animals who forcibly copulate, kill, or take food from one another are not bound by any rules or a conscience suggesting they should not do so. Animals do not feel badly when they forcibly copulate or kill or take food from one another. They’re merely surviving with the means that they have available to do so.

Kinnier,  Kernes, and Dautheribes (2000, pp. 9-10) collected data from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Humanism, Atheism, and the United Nations and identified the following list of universal moral values, which were supported by most (and in some cases all):

“1. Commitment to something greater than oneself

  • To recognize the existence of and be committed to a Supreme Being, higher principle, transcendent purpose or meaning to one’s existence
  • To seek the truth (or truths)
  • To seek justice
  1. Self-respect, but with humility, self-discipline, and acceptance of personal responsibility
  • To respect and care for oneself
  • To not exalt oneself or overindulge – to show humility and avoid gluttony, greed, or other forms of selfishness or self-centeredness
  • To act in accordance with one’s conscience and to accept responsibility for one’s behavior
  1. Respect and caring for others (i.e., the Golden Rule)
  • To recognize the connectedness between all people
  • To serve humankind and to be helpful to individuals
  • To be caring, respectful, compassionate, tolerant, and forgiving of others
  • To not hurt others (e.g., do not murder, abuse, steal from, cheat, or lie to others)
  1. Caring for other living things and the environment”

Since the evidence demonstrates that all of humanity shares universal moral values and obligations, one must ask to whom are we held accountable? Where did these moral obligations that are transcendent to cultures and generations arise? Who is the transcendent moral lawgiver who loves humanity so much that He wired within us the desire to be selfless, respectful, caring, purposeful, moral and committed to something greater than ourselves? The answer is God.

1. If humanity has universal, objective moral values and obligations to do what’s right, there must be a universal source of righteousness that transcends generations.

2. Humanity has universal, objective moral values and obligations to do what’s right.

3. There is a universal source of righteousness: God.

Does everyone believe we’re held accountable?

Some people believe that we are not held accountable to a higher power for living morally. Atheists may say that we “ought” to do what’s right, but they have no objective moral standard against which to make such a determination. Atheists like Richard Dawkins who are moral relativists believe that morality is culturally-contingent. So people who became Nazis who slaughtered six million Jews in Germany were acting in ways consistent with what their cultures advocated. People who became Stalinists and participated in the slaughter of between eight and twenty million were acting in ways their cultures considered appropriate. Cultural relativists who do not believe in a moral lawgiver have no objective standard against which to judge culturally-appropriate actions. And those who acted in these ways often died free men and atheists believe they will never be held accountable.

Are all atheists moral relativists?

To be fair, some atheists do not consider themselves to be moral relativists. Sam Harris (2010) believes that humanity has an objective moral value, which he grounds in the maximization of well-being. In other words, Harris believes that a commonality shared by all humans is to maximize well-being (which he relates to happiness and pleasure), so that is the moral foundation upon which we behave. To be objective means that the value does not vary as a function of our opinions about it. Yet the means people use to achieve happiness and pleasure vary greatly and what is used by murderers and rapists to achieve pleasure comes causes extreme pain for victims. What is used by the obese to achieve pleasure comes at the expense of the obese person’s physical health. What is used by the sexually deviant to achieve pleasure comes at the expense of the deviant’s psychological health. Finally, the ancient Canaanites sacrificed their infants by burning them in the arms of a statue to their god Baal to ensure he gave them abundant crops. Crops increased their happiness and pleasure.

At issue is Harris’ rather arbitrary choice of a terminal value that is subject only to our wants and desires and not to any moral obligations. A terminal value is an “ends” value, which contrasts an instrumental value or “means” to that ends. Seminal research by Milton Rokeach identified many other terminal values, including a world at peace, social recognition, equality, freedom, mature love, inner harmony, a comfortable life and a sense of accomplishment. Our desires for these values vary at the individual and cultural levels. Further, the means people use to achieve these ends (e.g., forgiving, courageous, polite, loving, logical) vary at both levels as well (e.g., Schwartz, 2012).

So the fact Harris believes that he was able to find a common grounding to all humans in our wants and desires to maximize our well-being does not explain variation within and across cultures, the varying and sometimes evil or unhealthy means people will use to achieve such ends, or the way the achievement of one person’s happiness and pleasure may come at the expense of that same person or another. Accordingly, well-being is a relative measure that varies from person to person and is not objectively grounded. It is descriptive and subjectively based on what people “want” and not prescriptive and based on what we are morally obligated to do. The former is at the individual level, which is relative, while the latter is at the universal level, which is objective.

We are not morally obligated to maximize our well-being – or to do anything in an atheistic world with subjectively-derived moral systems. In an atheistic world, we’re no better than animals. In fact, some atheists on social media have expressed their indignation when I suggest we are.


In conclusion, humanity shares a set of universal values and obligations that transcend generations. Since we know we have these altruistic and selfless obligations, we must be honest about seeking the source who obligated us. To Christians, the source is obvious, as Jesus Christ perfectly served as our moral exemplar. If Sam Harris wants an objective moral standard upon which he can ground our values and duties, he should look no further than Jesus Christ. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

“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.” Romans 2:15

Thank you for your time.


Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press.

Kinnier, R.T., Kernes, J.L., and Dautheribes, T.M. (2000). A Short List of Universal Moral Values. Counseling and Values, 45: 4-16.

Schwartz, S. H. (2012). An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1116

5 Replies to “Where Did Our Moral Obligation to Follow the Golden Rule Originate?”

  1. I really enjoyed this post. Harris and company also fail in explaining why a common idea is itself objective morality. Even if everyone agreed that something is right how does that make it objectively right? If everyone’s opinion changes, does what is right change? One cannot escape the idea that a truly objective morality points to a Law Giver.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The greatest example of immorality is the drip fed morality of god that lags centuries behind regular people and even other religions superior morality to Christianity. You have identified humans as superior, Christians as great caretakers of the earth, and animals with no moral code of conduct. The evidence says otherwise. This idea that morality comes from god is ridiculous when we have hard evidence that says otherwise.


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