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Ethics and Religion Talk: Where does Morality Come From?

Fred asks, “What is morality and where does it come from?”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Chris Curia, the Director of Youth Ministries at Fairway Christian Reformed Church, responds:

“The American Psychological Association defines morality as the belief or value system(s) that pertains to right conduct and distinguishes acceptable from unacceptable behavior. So, where does is it derived? According to our definition, morality comes from the person(s) who set those beliefs or value systems in the first place.

“Left to our own beliefs or value systems, we could easily find ourselves using these barometers to determine the worth of other people, too, in a way that promotes condescension and creates superiority complexes within certain religious groups. Frankly, we see these kinds of power-grabbing dehumanization tactics all the time from those who hold power in society. But we cannot determine human dignity by starting with people's adherence to instructions within belief or value systems. 

“God does not love because of what we do or how religious or morally good we are. The word gospel, or good news, presupposes that all people equally bear God's image and therefore are worthy of love, no matter their behavior. Societal virtue rises when we start by naming this, a person's true identity as worthy of love, and then reminding one another to live into our most authentic selves. When we fixate less on strict adherence to moral code and focus more on this kind of freedom for all, we elevate social consciousness.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“It is obvious that different cultures express morality in various ways.  Even the same culture can modify its understanding of morality over time. For instance, it is likely that the most conservatively dressed woman in our 21st century would end up in the stocks if she suddenly appeared in the 17th century. While most Hindus would agree to live up to the ethical standards of their current country and era, there are guidelines from our scriptures that indicate a morality that transcends time and place. Yet even these have a sense of flexibility built into them. Hindus see this universe as relative, with no absolutes outside of God. 

“What this means is that all proscriptions against killing, lying, stealing, etc. can be negated under the right circumstances. For example, an Allied spy could employ any of the aforementioned ‘vices’ in the duty of defeating the Nazis without a challenge of conscience. The key to discerning morality for the Hindu hinges on whether the acts taken are for the greater good, and not merely for personal gain or pleasure.

“As to where morality originated, there seems to be close to universal agreement among anthropologists that it developed evolutionarily. Those tribes who learned to cooperate and display attitudes of self-sacrifice and order thrived in a way others did not.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Much depends upon what you mean by ‘morality.’ The word can refer merely to what behavior is acceptable, according to the manners or customs (Latin: mores) of a particular society or ​nation. The origin of such manners or customs is often lost in the mists of time. These ‘morals’ are mere conventions of social life. Such ‘consensus morality’ results in the empty and hypocritical business of ‘keeping up appearances,’ lest our neighbors think or speak ill of us. We conform only because we fear to do otherwise.

“Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have a different starting point for morality. We begin with God and His will for our lives. God’s law was written on the human heart at creation (Romans 2:13-15). We sometimes call it ‘conscience,’ but the law is God’s revelation that instructs and directs our conscience. Without God’s law, we are ships navigating without chart or compass. God’s creatures should consult and obey the will of their Creator. God’s people should walk in the light of His Word. Faith in Christ and love for Christ leads to Christian obedience, as the Lord Jesus says: ‘He that hath My commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth Me’ (John 14:21).”

My response:

For me and for traditional Judaism, morality begins with the first five books of the Bible, which we call ‘Torah,’ or instruction and continues with the rest of the Hebrew Bible, which both  reinforces and modifies the Torah’s voice. However, Jews do not read the Bible’s commanding voice directly, but rather filter it through the lens of the Talmud, later codes of Jewish law, and other commentaries. This introduces the wisdom of the generations into the conversation defining morality, and allows for the possibility that what was moral for a previous generation, such as limited forms of slavery or reduced rights for women, is not moral for our generation.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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