Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Considering the Moral Code

I was discussing something with a co-worker the other day when she inquired about something jokingly. She asked about a policy at our work and whether or not I would be dishonest about it for the sake of the store’s convenience when I answered her (jokingly but honestly) that I wouldn’t lie. She asked if it was against my moral code. I answered before I considered and I simply told her yes. Shortly after this, perhaps fifteen minutes at best, I realized the answer I gave her was wrong and I offered a different answer, which took her a little by surprise, I think.

Before I reach my second answer I would like to ponder the concept of a moral code. What is a moral code? First, let’s look at what each word of itself means, and then conjoin them and see what such a thing is. Oxford tells us that a “moral” is: #1 concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior; #2 following accepted standards of behavior. So morality is behavioral conditioning, and behavioral conditioning that can be influenced by societal change and pressure.

Oxford has a number of definitions for the word “code” but I think the one that best suits what we’re searching for is: a set of principles or rules of behavior. So a code is a group of rules and principles regarding behavior. A moral code then is concerned with issues that impact your behavior when it comes to matters of moral judgment.

A moral code, while often defined to some extent by external guidelines, tends to be refined by the individual in possession of it.  Such an individual, for instance, may not lie because it would violate their moral code. However, when the measure of one’s morality is internal, without an objective external reference, it can be highly malleable at times of convenience or temptation. I liken it to a threshold. We all know what one’s pain threshold is. It is the point at which one can tolerate pain to some level that permits them to continue functioning. The same holds true for a moral code; if you become comfortable with one small level of compromise with yourself it paves the way for further compromise, until certain areas of one’s life are entirely compromised. You’ve pushed the threshold past a tolerable point, mostly because your internal gauge does not always define right and wrong in black and white, but in shades of how much you can tolerate before enough is enough.

Further, I would venture a guess that not a single person lives up to their moral code. When the one we must answer to when we violate the moral code is ourselves, we find an extremely lenient judge hearing our plea afterward. The conscience excels at justifying our actions, even when we condemn others for failing to do what we ourselves have not done. A moral code may be altruistic to begin with but to staunchly adhere to it only plainly and painfully reveals our own inadequacy. It reveals something of human nature to us that we would do well to pay close attention to.

My answer to my co-worker, having had a moment to consider her question anew, was that I did not have a moral code. Instead, I had a rule book. I called it the Manufacturer’s Guide for Optimal Performance. Instead of being my own judge and relying on a vacillating sense of morality to see me through the challenges of recognizing good and evil I rely on a trusted authority who has taken great pains to define what good and evil is. Here I have an objective source of information about what is good and what is evil, and it does not change through time, culture or learning. Rather than working from the inside out these rules designed to protect me and those around me from myself are assimilated and practiced.

When I fail and transgress I am not the lenient judge pitying the defendant; rather I know that my Creator understands my sinful weakness and has provided the remedy in the person of the Savior. He’s not looking for me to demonstrate my outstanding morality; rather, He’s looking to manifest His holiness in me. The difference is as far as the cold light of a distant star and the soothing glow of a kindled camp fire. I obey not because of some misplaced sense of what I perceive of myself to be right, or what society deems is momentarily right, but because God has stated that there is good and there is evil, and the line to cross them is exceedingly narrow. Because He loves me despite my sinful nature, because His Son has given me eternal life in His name, I strive to obey Him regardless of the moral codes of others around me.

We have a book that tells us right from wrong: the Bible. God orchestrated these laws within its pages not to confine or bind us, but to set us at liberty to live in a way that is free from the horrible ravages that sin, guilt and shame can bring. The laws are relational toward men and our Creator. To heed them would remove the necessity of a moral code; we would have the clear light of a flawless God to provide for us what is good and profitable, and what is evil and destructive. A moral code will eventually corrupt, corrode or fail and indulge in what will destroy; either ourselves or another for the sake of self.  God’s word, motivated by love for man and the Lord, endures forever. I just wanted to share my reasons why I can say that, in this sense, I do not have a moral code. It was a strange thought, but leaning on God’s wisdom rather than my own is a deep comfort to me, Proverbs 3:5-6.


  1. Great post, Ian. You've touched on exactly why there are so many differences between peoples standards today. The human conscience is corrupted, and the human heart is desperately wicked. Neither gives a dependable standard.

  2. Thank you for the comment, dfish. It amazes me sometimes what I fail to contemplate until its dragged into the light, as it were.


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