Perspective

The Imperative for Moral Education

In Brief: 

The moral teachings of the world's great religions offer a basic framework for moral development – once we look beyond the differences in religious ritual, cultural practice or theological dogma that have blinded so many to the inherent oneness of religious truth.

The case for moral education is made most starkly by asking: Would this century's notorious death camps and campaigns of ethnic or racial purging have occurred if the world's population had achieved a higher level of moral development? 

Beyond such dramatic examples, even a cursory glance at current global concerns points to the need for a renewed emphasis on developing in every individual an inner guide, an ethical vision, or, as many commonly say now, a "moral compass."

Consider the degree to which emerging democracies will require the vigorous, enlightened and principled participation of their entire citizenry if they are to be successful. Or the necessity for businesspeople to moderate their concern for profits with human-centered values if the world's current preference for the market system is to avoid a catastrophic polarization of wealth.

Or consider the dissipation of human capital that now occurs in the quest for an untempered and narcissistic materialism. Cultivated through world-girdling media, the attitudes conveyed by such an outlook implicitly condone drug and alcohol abuse, unrestrained sexual appetites, and other self-centered pursuits. Such attitudes ultimately degrade the individual and bring harm to family, friends and neighbors.

These and other trends cry for a collective reflection on the necessity of and the means for the promotion of moral development on a global scale. And, accordingly, many have called recently for the adoption of a global ethic, a universal moral vision appropriate for our new age of human interdependence.

Yet the idea of promoting specific morals or values is a controversial one, especially in this age of humanistic relativism. Too often in the past, campaigns to promote morality have been associated with repressive religious practices, oppressive political ideologies or narrow and limited visions of the common good, as based on a particular nationalistic, cultural or ethnic framework.

The key to resolving this controversy lies in recognizing that there are, essentially, two approaches to the promotion of moral behavior. The first, which is the traditional approach, lies in the formulation of a code of conduct, in which "rules" are given to individuals and "enforced" by various authorities (such as police or priests).

Sadly, despite the good intentions of the authoritarian approach, it has too often led to the excesses - or failed utterly, as when so-called "civilized" societies engage in genocide. As well, there will always be clever lawbreakers who will escape detection and punishment. Of course systems of law cannot be rejected entirely; indeed, our nascent world civilization requires that new institutions to promote justice be established at the global level. Yet it is also clear that something more is needed.

The second approach to moral development lies in a direction that seeks to empower individuals to develop their own moral conscience, such that they will personally make the "right" decision and follow the "right" way of life - even at the sacrifice of their immediate interests.

It is the second approach that needs to be fully examined and pursued in any course of action to promote moral education and development. For this approach, which upholds the inherent dignity of all individuals and indeed recognizes their intrinsic worth and capacity, is more consonant with the dominant principle of our age: the oneness of humanity.

In truth, it is the principle of oneness that must now become the foundation for all ethics. For while there are common moral principles that have been in the past and will continue to be important planks in any program of moral education - principles such as the imperative for honesty, the injunction against theft, and the condemnation of violence - it is also clear that the growing momentum towards world unity impels us to consider again the relationships among all.

For example, goodness, when defined in passive terms (to mind one's own business and not to harm anyone), is simply inadequate in an age of interdependence. Likewise, limited concepts of good - national good, corporate good, tribal good - are insufficient when our neighborhood has become global.

Reflection on these two key concepts - that each individual must develop his or her own inner guide and that all morality today must be viewed through the lens of human oneness - can best be pursued by recognizing the spiritual nature of human reality.

All of the world's religions have sought not only to define what is good and what is bad, but also to develop the inner faculty that can help the individual to perceive and apply such ethics in difficult situations. This inner faculty relies in large part on acknowledgment that we all have rational souls, and that we are responsible for our actions before the Creator.

The moral teachings of the world's great religions, likewise, offer a basic framework for moral development - once we look beyond the differences in religious ritual, cultural practice or theological dogma that have blinded so many to the inherent oneness of religious truth.

One starting point for moral development today, then, lies in a concerted reflection on the commonalties inherent in the great religious and moral systems, a reflection which inevitably reveals that each one espouses unity, cooperation and harmony among people, establishes guidelines for responsible behavior and supports the development of virtues which are the foundation of trust-based and principled interactions. Every religion has taught that morality begins with the so-called Golden Rule - that one should act towards one's neighbor as one wishes others would act towards oneself.

The Golden Rule must now be applied on the global level, such that all are considered as our neighbors. As Bahá'u'lláh wrote more than a century ago: "That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race… It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world."

Bahá'ís accept the idea of religious oneness - as well as the reality of human oneness - as a matter of fundamental belief. From these concepts flow other important ideas that must become a mainstay in any program of moral development in our age. These include the following concepts:

that rectitude of conduct, trustworthiness and honesty are essential elements in the foundation of stability and progress in the world;

that purity of motive offers a guiding light for all human endeavor, inasmuch as sincerity of purpose is a trait that can be recognized and practiced by any soul, regardless of his or her culture, education or background;

that service to humanity - not the pursuit of money, position or status - is the source of happiness, honor and meaning in life.

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