Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
It is necessary at the outset of this article to distinguish between morality and ethics, terms not seldom employed synonymously. Morality is antecedent to ethics: it denotes those concrete activities of which ethics is the science. It may be defined as human conduct in so far as it is freely subordinated to the ideal of what is right and fitting.
This ideal governing our free actions is common to the race. Though there is wide divergence as to theories of ethics, there is a fundamental agreement among men regarding the general lines of conduct desirable in public and private life. Thus Mr. Hobhouse has well said:
"The comparative study of ethics, which is apt in its earlier stages to impress the student with a bewildering sense of the diversity of moral judgments, ends rather by impressing them with a more fundamental and far-reaching uniformity. Through the greatest extent of time and space over which we have records, we find a recurrence of the common features of ordinary morality, which to my mind at least is not less impressive than the variations which also appear" (Morals in Evolution, I, i, n. 11).
Plainly this uniformity regards principles rather than their application. The actual rules of conduct differ widely. While reverence to parents may be universally acknowledged as obligatory, certain savage tribes believe that filial piety requires them to despatch their parents when the infirmities of old age appear. Yet making allowance for all such diversities, it may be said that the common voice of the race proclaims it to be right for a man to reverence his parents; to care and provide for his children; to be master of his lower appetites; to be honest and just in his dealings, even to his own damage; to show benevolence to his fellows in time of distress; to bear pain and misfortune with fortitude. And only within comparatively recent years has anyone been found to deny that beyond this a man is bound to honour God and to prefer his country's interests to his own. Thus, indeed, the advance of morality lies not so much in the discovery of new principles as in the better application of those already accepted, in the recognition of their true basis and their ultimate sanction, in the widening of the area within which they are held to bind, and in the removal of corruptions inconsistent with their observance.
The relation of morality to religion has been a subject of keen debate during the past century. In much recent ethical philosophy it is strenuously maintained that right moral action is altogether independent of religion. Such is the teaching alike of the Evolutionary, Positivist, and Idealist schools. And an active propaganda is being carried on with a view to the general substitution of this independent morality for morality based on the beliefs of Theism. On the other hand, the Church has ever affirmed that the two are essentially connected, and that apart from religion the observance of the moral law is impossible. This, indeed, follows as a necessary consequence from the Church's teaching as to the nature of morality. She admits that the moral law is knowable to reason: for the due regulation of our free actions, in which morality consists, is simply their right ordering with a view to the perfecting of our rational nature. But she insists that the law has its ultimate obligation in the will of the Creator by whom our nature was fashioned, and who imposes on us its right ordering as a duty; and that its ultimate sanction is the loss of God which its violation must entail. Further, among the duties which the moral law prescribes are some which are directly concerned with God Himself, and as such are of supreme importance. Where morality is divorced from religion, reason will, it is true, enable a man to recognize to a large extent the ideal to which his nature points. But much will be wanting. He will disregard some of his most essential duties. He will, further, be destitute of the strong motives for obedience to the law afforded by the sense of obligation to God and the knowledge of the tremendous sanction attached to its neglect motives which experience has proved to be necessary as a safeguard against the influence of the passions. And, finally, his actions even if in accordance with the moral law, will be based not on the obligation imposed by the Divine will, but on considerations of human dignity and on the good of human society. Such motives, however, cannot present themselves as, strictly speaking, obligatory. But where the motive of obligation is wanting, acting lacks an element essential to true morality. Moreover, in this connection the Church insists upon the doctrine of original sin. She teaches that in our present state there is a certain obscurity in reason's vision of the moral law, together with a morbid craving for independence impelling us to transgress it, and a lack of complete control over the passions; and that by reason of this inherited taint, man, unless supported by Divine aid, is unable to observe the moral law for any length of time. Newman has admirably described from the psychological point of view this weakness in our grasp of the moral law:
"The sense of right and wrong . . . is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted, so subtle in its argumentative methods, so impressionable by education, so biassed by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course, that in the struggle for existence amid the various exercises and triumphs of the human intellect, the sense is at once the highest of all teachers yet the least luminous" (Newman, "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk", in section on conscience).
In dealing with this subject, however, it is further necessary to take account of the historical argument. Various facts are adduced, which, it is alleged, show that morality is, in point of fact, capable of dissociation from religion. It is urged (1) that the most primitive peoples do not connect their religious beliefs with such moral code as they possess; and (2) that even where the moral consciousness and the religious system have reached a high degree of development, the spheres of religion and morality are sometimes regarded as separate. Thus the Greeks of classical times were in moral questions influenced rather by non-religious conceptions such as that of aidos (natural shame) than by fear of the gods; while one great religious system, namely Buddhism, explicitly taught the entire independence of the moral code from any belief in God. To these arguments we reply, first: that the savages of today are not primitives, but degenerates. It is the merest superstition to suppose that these degraded races can enlighten us as to what were the beliefs of man in his primitive state. It is among civilized races, where man has developed normally, that we must seek for knowledge as to what is natural to man. The evidence gathered from them is overwhelmingly in favour of the contention that human reason proclaims the essential dependence of morality on religious belief. In regard to the contrary instances alleged, it must be denied that the morality of the Greeks was unconnected with religion. Though they may not have realized that the laws prescribed by natural shame were derived from a divine command, they most certainly believed that their violation would be punished by the gods. As to Buddhist belief, a distinction must be drawn between the metaphysical teaching of the Buddha or of some of his disciples, and the practical interpretation of that teaching as expressed in the lives of the great mass of the adherents of the creed. It is only the Buddhist monks who have really followed the speculative teaching of their master on this point and have dissociated the moral law from belief in God. The mass of adherents never did so. Yet even the monks, while denying the existence of a personal God, regarded as a heretic any who disputed the existence of heaven and hell. Thus they too help to bear witness to the universal consensus that the moral law is based on supernatural sanctions. We may, however, readily admit that where the religious conceptions and the moral code were alike immature and inadequate, the relation between them was less clearly grasped in thought, and less intimate in practice, than it became when man found himself in possession of a fuller truth regarding them. A Greek or a Buddhist community may have preserved a certain healthiness of moral tone even though the religious obligation of the moral law was but obscurely felt, while ancestral precept and civic obligation were viewed as the preponderating motives. A broad distinction must be made between such cases and that of those nations which having once accepted the Christian faith with its clear profession of the connection between moral obligation and a Divine law, have subsequently repudiated this belief in favour of a purely natural morality. There is no parity between "Fore-Christians" and "After-Christians". The evidence at our command seems to establish as certain that it is impossible for these latter to return to the inadequate grounds of obligation which may sometimes suffice for nations still in the immaturity of their knowledge; and that for them the rejection of the religious sanction is invariably followed by a moral decay, leading rapidly to the corruptions of the most degraded periods of our history. We may see this wherever the great revolt from Christianity, which began in the eighteenth century, and which is so potent a factor today, has spread. It is naturally in France, where the revolt began, that the movement has attained its fullest development. There its effects are not disputed. The birth-rate has shrunk until the population, were it not for the immigration of Flemings and Italians, would be a diminishing quantity; Christian family life is disappearing; the number of divorces and of suicides multiplies annually; while one of the most ominous of all symptoms is the alarming increase of juvenile crime. But these effects are not peculiar to France. The movement away from Christianity has spread to certain sections of the population in the United States in England, in Germany, in Australia, countries providing in other respects a wide variety of circumstances. Wherever it is found, there in varying degrees the same results have followed, so that the unprejudiced observer can draw but one conclusion, namely: that for a nation which has attained maturity, morality is essentially dependent on the religious sanction, and that when this is rejected, morality will soon decay.
Granting religion to be the essential basis of moral action, we may further inquire what are the chief conditions requisite for the growth and development of morality in the individual and in the community. Three such may be singled out as of primary moment, namely: (1) a right education of the young, (2) a healthy public opinion, (3) sound legislation. It will be unnecessary for us to do more than touch in the briefest manner on these points.
(1) Under education we include the early training of the home as well as the subsequent years of school life. The family is the true school of morality, a school which nothing can replace. There the child is taught obedience, truthfulness, self-restraint, and the other primary virtues. The obligation to practise them is impressed upon him by those whose claim on him he at once recognizes, and whose word he does not dream of doubting; while the observance of the precept is made easy by the affection which unites him with those who impose it. It is, therefore, with reason that the Church has ever declared divorce to be fatal to the truest interests of a nation. Where divorce is frequent, family life in its higher form disappears and with it perishes the foundation of a nation's morality. Similarly the Church maintains, that during the years of school life, the moral and religious atmosphere is of vital importance, and that apart from this the possession of intellectual culture is a danger rather than a safeguard.
(2) It is hardly necessary to do more than call attention to the necessity of a sound public opinion. The great mass of men have neither opportunity nor leisure to determine a standard of morals for themselves. They accept that which prevails around them. If it is high, they will not question it. If it is low, they will aim no higher. When the nations were Catholic, public opinion was predominantly swayed by the teaching of the Church. In these days it is largely formed by the press; and since the press as a whole views morality apart from religion, the standard proposed is inevitably very different from what the Church would desiderate. Hence the immense importance of a Catholic press, which even in a non-Catholic environment will keep a true view before the minds of those who recognize the Church's authority. But public opinion is also largely influenced by voluntary associations of one form or another; and of recent years immense work has been done by Catholics in organizing associations with this purpose, the most notable instance being the German Volksverein.
(3) It may be said with truth that the greater part of a nation's legislation affects its morality in some way or other. This is of course manifestly the case with all laws connected with the family or with education; and with those, which like the laws regarding the drink traffic and the restriction of bad literature, have the public morals for their immediate object. But it is also true of all legislation which deals with the circumstances of the lives of the people. Laws, for instance, determining the conditions of labour and protecting the poor from the hands of the usurer, promote morality, for they save men from that degradation and despair in which moral life is practically impossible. It is thus evident how necessary it is, that in all such questions the Church should in every country have a definitely formed opinion and should make her voice heard. (See ETHICS; LAW.)
Cathrein, Religion und Moral (Freiburg, 1900); Fox, Religion and Morality (New York, 1899); Devas, Key to the World's Progress (London, 1906); Idem, Studies of Family Life (London, 1886); Balfour, Foundations of Belief (London, 1895), Part I, i; Catholic Truth Society's Lectures on the History of Religions (London, 1910).
APA citation. (1911). Morality. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10559a.htm
MLA citation. "Morality." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10559a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Robert H. Sarkissian.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.