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

10 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.


  3. “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?”

    G’day SJ

    It seems there is either a problem with your software that Christians are not having or you are moderating my comments into the bin. At least that means you have read them before deciding to discard them.
    So, let’s try this again from a slightly different angle.

    On a recent thread on an Atheist blog, a Theist vlogger put forward the proposition -“If Nazis ran the world, you’d feel something is objectively wrong. Doesn’t that show there exists an objective standard for morality?”

    I say yes it does show that there exists an objective standard for morality, but not by using Theism.
    An error some people make is thinking that Theism is the only option for grounding objective morality. Theism has had a 3,000 year head start and has been dominant in the marketing department in this area but does not own it.

    So, what is the event that is objectively wrong with the Nazis?

    I am of the conclusion that neither moral obligation nor moral values can be objectively grounded in Theism.

    But I seem to differ from most other Atheists in that I support the view that there is another option for objective morality; a secular objective standard of morality that can be used, and that non Theist Eastern thought came to this conclusion 2,500 years ago and East Asian society has been using this kind of secular grounded morality to order their societies ever since. They did this as they did not have a Theist mindset and did not see morality as a theological or an academic philosophical problem but as a practical socio-political nuts and bolts problem of everyday life.

    Morality is a practical political solution to a practical political problem – how do we create and maintain society because society is not optional, it is necessary. Morality is not a theological or academic philosophical issue. It is a political science/social science issue. Rousseau was heading down this track when he observed that “Those who desire to separate politics from morality will understand neither.”

    Putting the horse in front of the cart creates a discussion that starts with moral values, goes to grounding moral obligation and then goes to grounding moral values.

    The general moral values that are encompassed in the Western and Eastern versions of the Golden Rule are all political rules; rules for living socially with others.

    They are political as they deal with power relationships, be it physical, psychological or financial power.

    Don’t murder
    Don’t rape
    Don’t enslave
    Don’t steal
    Don’t lie
    Do practice mutual aid and get on with and value/love others
    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
    Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you.

    These are political rules for social living. They are not needed if you are living by yourself on a small desert island with no social contact.

    You can’t get a more political act than murder. It is the extreme of exercising power over another.

    So why do we need rules for social living?

    Because society is necessary. Humans are utterly useless as self-sufficiency. We need to cooperate with others in order to survive and prosper. If we don’t survive, we can’t prosper and make meaning in our lives. Left by themself, a human baby will not survive for more than a couple of days. It’s an observed fact that it takes a village (society) to raise a child.

    Moral obligation is a political act, so we ground it in a political idea – society and its necessity.
    Society is necessary so we ought to follow the rules of social living and behave morally, otherwise the society will collapse and the more sociopathic and exclusive a society is, the quicker it will degenerate and implode in disastrous manner. Like Nazism did.

    Moral values are political acts, so we ground them in a political idea – mutual peace between people – which creates a political event – society.

    Mutual peace, the uncoerced peace between people, is an objective event in the same way democracy is objective – it is external to the individual and an individual’s opinion of it does not change it.

    We can measure our behaviour against mutual peace.

    Actions which breach mutual peace with others are wrong and immoral.
    Actions which create or sustain mutual peace with others are right and moral.

    The world the Nazis ran was objectively wrong because breaching mutual peace with others was fundamental to and inherent in Nazi ideology and practice. Breaching mutual peace is the main event for Nazis.

    Murder is the most extreme breach of mutual peace.

    Mutual peace is another way of saying – peace on earth and goodwill to all, every day of the year.
    And not just at Christmas time.
    Give peace a chance

    I have used this approach to explain to my kids why these values are right and wrong. They understand this. They are not impressed with academic jargon as it does not communicate with them. And if we don’t communicate with children then we will end up behind the 8 ball with them as adults.

    Religions and secular philosophies have in common the importance of peaceful coexistence, at least in theory. There are those that do not practice what they preach as their moral compass points in a different direction depending on what page of their sacred text/manifesto you turn to. We certainly cannot use the Bible to explain why slavery and rape are wrong.

    Working out rules of social living is not difficult. Our distant cave dwelling ancestors did that.
    The difficult event is always abiding by all those rules.

    A god is not required for any of this.

    In fact, god doesn’t even get to first base as god cannot be used to ground moral obligation. It requires a non-optional reason to ground moral obligation, one that compels any human from any human species who has ever lived in society going back hundreds of thousands of years, to follow the rules of social living, and Theism’s god does not supply a non-optional reason. The reasons Theism gives for obeying the alleged commands of its alleged god are optional and can be dismissed out of hand or denied.

    The necessity of society cannot be dismissed out of hand or denied.

    And if you can’t ground moral obligation, then you can’t move on to grounding moral values.

    Here in Australia at the moment, there is a lot of talk and political protest about the politics of power as it pertains to the immorality of sexual abuse. There has been much discussion about this in my household and my wife attended the protest rally in our city. I was stuck at work. Our Evangelical Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is pointing his tin ear at the issue, and trying to sweep it under the carpet as his moral compass spins and spins as he relies on the Bible and his evangelical Pastor. He came out with a most patronising, condescending, disgusting comment in parliament recently where he tried to guilt trip all the women who were protesting into giving up protesting, by dealing in false equivalence and telling them they should be glad that they were not getting shot by government forces like protesters are in Burma. Typical of the religious conservative to guilt trip opponents who have a just cause. The response has been to keep protesting for social change and getting a PM who isn’t using relative morality that he gets from the totalitarian ancient ordering principle of Theism.

    There is nothing worthwhile in totalitarianism. And you can’t separate that totalitarian politics from Theism’s god.


    1. Your view is baseless. You can’t simply hand wave a position that “humanity is necessary” and we can ground our morality in a political idea to claim its truth. God grounds our morality in His own absolute and objective standard. He is further the enforcer. We’ve seen the atrocities in the East from a baseless system (e.g., Uyghurs in China today) and Communism. The logical outcome of political ideals is the potential for either free markets or communism. But since you tend to prefer to organize via power, only communism works. Hence = China. Mao starved millions. Pol Pot and Lenin/Stalin/Kruschev did too.


  4. You’ve missed all the points SJ and so did not address any of them.

    I didn’t say “humanity is necessary” did I.

    I said society is necessary.

    Rather different.

    It is not a hand wave, but if you’d like to start with refuting the observed fact that society is necessary, then go for it, and we can take it from there.


  5. “But since you tend to prefer to organize via power, only communism works. Hence = China. Mao starved millions. Pol Pot and Lenin/Stalin/Kruschev did too.”

    This is a major misrepresentation of my views and a deflection from the issue of grounding moral obligation.
    For the record, I’m a Liberal Social Democrat and a Secular Humanist.
    I loathe totalitarianism, be it run by a secular or religious enforcer.
    The USA is organized via power, just like Australia is.
    There is authoritarian power such as Communism, Fascism and Theism.
    And there is non authoritarian power, like Liberal Social Democracy in our countries.

    The base I use is the necessity of society.

    You need to put the horse in front of the cart with your argument.


  6. Too many conversations about morality put the cart in front of the horse and start with assertions about conclusions without establishing what people are talking about, resulting in  people often talking past each other.

    Both Atheists and Theists tend to start morality conversations by talking about grounding the moral values, without first having established a grounding for moral obligation and without establishing what these moral values are that we need to be obligated to follow and find a grounding for.

    So, I’m putting the horse back where it belongs.

    In my first unpacking post, I made a list of the generally agreed major moral values.
    So let’s start there.

    Do you agree with this list? If not, what do you consider are the major moral values generally agreed on by people of different world views?

    These values need to be binding on any human from any world view and any human who has ever lived from any species of human who lived in society and archaeology shows us that as far back as it looks, we find humans of any species living in society.

    Having agreed on the moral values we are talking about, we can look at grounding our obligation to enact these values.

    This obligation grounding our use of these moral values requires a non optional reason for why anyone who has ever lived and will ever live in society, ought to follow these values. That is, it needs to supply an ought from an is. The secular world view I outlined does this – Society is necessary so we ought to follow the rules of social living aka moral values. The necessity of society is a non optional reason for why we ought to follow moral values as they are the rules of social living.

    Despite the theme of this thread being how to ground moral obligation, you did not supply a non optional reason for being obligated to follow these moral values. For you that means you need to supply a non optional reason for why anyone ought to obey God.

    The great Scottish philosopher Adam Smith said in The Theory Of Moral Sentiment that there are only two possible reasons to obey God – 1. He is our creator and people should obey out of gratitude, or 2.  He will reward or punish people in an afterlife depending on whether they obey or not.

    Unfortunately for Smith and Christians who use these as reasons to obey God, they are both non optional reasons and can be easily dismissed out of hand or denied.

    Can you supply a non optional reason that can’t be dismissed out of hand or denied for why we ought to behave morally and follow these moral values?

    Without reaching a conclusion on these two areas, we cannot go on to talk about the actual grounding of these moral values and any attempt to go on will merely result in unsubstantiated assertions.


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