What foundation is needed for morality?

I have observed and been the subject of many discussions with members of theist religions (that is, those who believe in a god of some sort) about what foundation is needed for morality. Theists typically argue that without belief in a god, there can be no foundation for morality. Those who do not believe in a god are often told that their absence of a god means they cannot appeal to ideas of right and wrong and that all they have are subjective opinions or feelings that provide no grounds or constraints on what is permitted. Everything goes. The aim of most theists who argue this is to try to prove that a god must exist or else we are left with no way of distinguishing between good and evil.

I have wrestled with this issue for many years with varying degrees of success. There are complicated arguments that go back and forth between theists and non-theists that never seem to result in much of value. I recently came across a comment by Jonathan Sacks, who happens to be a theist, in his book Morality which, for me, encapsulates the answer to this problem:

This seems so simple and yet it makes so much sense. benevolence + reciprocity = trust = morality. We don’t need religion to be moral beings. We just need to be willing to be kind to others and to reciprocate when someone is kind to us. That’s it. Religion may provide a framework within which to act benevolently and reciprocally, but these things don’t need to exist

Humans, because of the natural empathy we have for other members of our species, know what harms us and the consequences of those harms. We also know what helps us and the benefits of those actions. And it is in our interests to earn the trust of others, so they choose to reciprocate with the same care and concern. We don’t need religion to tell us these things. We just need to be willing to apply the basic rules of reciprocity and act with benevolence towards others.

When we do this, we create a foundation of trust on which groups can form. And it is these groups that make up the fabric of our society. It is no wonder that various forms of the so-called Golden Rule have appeared in various societies throughout history. For example, the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead includes a version of the Golden Rule: “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.” The Chinese philosopher Confucius taught: “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” And in the New Testament, Jesus is quoted as saying: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”

The foundation for morality is much simpler than we often make it out to be. All we need is benevolence and reciprocity. No god required.

What do you think? Do you agree that benevolence and reciprocity are all we need for a foundation of morality? Do you think religion is necessary for morality? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading!


Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. John Murray Press. Kindle Edition. 

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