In his letter to the Romans (2:15), Paul wrote: “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” Thankfully, we all have a conscience that can help us distinguish what is right from what is wrong – and studies have indicated all societies and major religions or belief systems share the same universal moral duties.
We all know that we ought to be benevolent and universalist (self-transcendent), above all other self-enhancing values (Schwartz, 2012). Benevolence is defined as the concern for others’ welfare, particularly within our in-groups, while universalism is defined as the understanding and appreciation of all people globally (Schwartz, 2012). All societies rank the moral ought of adopting a humane orientation over our perceptions of what is in our societies on that dimension (House et al., 2004). Humane orientation refers to “the degree to which an organization or society encourages and rewards individuals for being fair, altruistic, friendly, generous, caring, and kind to others” (House et al., 2004, p. 569). No matter the sources of guidance in our cultures, including all major religions, atheism, humanism, and the United Nations, we all know we ought to find a greater purpose and meaning in our lives and to follow the Golden Rule (Kinnear et al., 2000).
These selfless duties are furthermore objective, as they do not vary as a function of anyone’s opinions. They do not move about as shifting goalposts. They stand still as we aspire to achieve them and we measure our accomplishments against them. They are both steeped in our moral intuitions in a deontological ethical framework and our moral reasoning in a teleological ethical framework.
Where did our moral duties originate?
Given the fact we have universal and objective moral duties that transcend cultures, it follows that we consider their derivation. Where did our universal moral duties to act selflessly originate?
Immanual Kant (1785/2002) has the answer: “Everyone must admit that a law, if it is to be valid morally, i.e., as the ground of an obligation, has to carry absolute necessity with it; that the command ‘You ought not to lie’ is valid not merely for human beings, as though other rational beings did not have to heed it; and likewise all the other genuinely moral laws; hence that the ground of obligation here is to be sought not in the nature of the human being or the circumstances of the world in which he is placed, but a priori solely in concepts of pure reason, and that every other precept grounded on principles of mere experience, and even a precept that is universal in a certain aspect, insofar as it is supported in the smallest part on empirical grounds, perhaps only as to its motive, can be called a practical rule, but never a moral law…Thus a metaphysics of morals is indispensably necessary” (p. 24).
Surely this can be explained by evolution…
Skeptics often argue from an evolutionary perspective (e.g., Haidt & Joseph, 2004), yet evolution can only explain what is in a descriptive manner. It cannot explain what should be in a prescriptive sense. Evolution cannot explain our conscience and that inner sense that helps to distinguish what is morally right from what is wrong.
Skeptics may also claim that not all humans can distinguish right from wrong by pointing to the population of psychopaths. Yet a recent study has debunked the notion that psychopaths do not have a conscience (Baskin-Summers et al., 2016). Even psychopaths are not incapable of feeling regret and disappointment; they just have difficulty in using prior regretful experiences to make choices about current actions (Baskin-Summers et al., 2016). And some people may do what they can to squash their consciences (1 Timothy 2:4), which is not to say they never had working consciences.
In summary, studies have indicated we have objective and universal moral duties to do what’s right, which is to act selflessly for the benefit of others. These duties (or prescriptions) transcend our cultures and eras and are not explained by evolutionary biology, which is by definition only descriptive. These duties are grounded in a source that also transcends cultures and eras: our benevolent and loving moral lawgiver, God. Thank God.
Thank you for your time.
Baskin-Summers, A., Stuppy-Sullivan, A.M. & Buckholtz, J.W. (2016). Psychopathic individuals exhibit but do not avoid regret during counterfactual decision making. PNAS 113(50): 14438-14443. https://www.pnas.org/content/113/50/14438.abstract?sid=86944bec-69b9-4a01-b8ad-4dddf550374f
Haidt, J., & Joseph, C. (2004). Intuitive ethics: How innately prepared intuitions generate culturally variable virtues. Daedalus: Special Issue on Human Nature, 133(4), 55–66.
House, R.J., Hanges, P.J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P.W. & Gupta, V. (2004). Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Kant, I. (1785/2002). Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Kinnear, R.T., Kernes, J.L. & Dautheribes, T.M. (2000). A short list of universal moral values. Counseling and Values, 45: 4-17.
Schwartz, S.H. (2012). An overview of the Schwartz view of basic values. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1).https://doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1116