Richard Kyte

Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University. He also is a member of the Tribune's editorial board.

Is traditional morality obsolete?

According to Harvard University education professor Howard Gardner, it is. In a recent New York Times opinion piece titled “Reinventing Ethics,” he argues that the world has become too large and complex for the moral codes devised for small localized communities: “As I see it, human beings and citizens in complex, modern democratic societies regularly confront situations in which traditional morality provides little if any guidance.”

Gardner is not the only one saying this. The world is changing, and our understanding of the world is advancing along with those changes. The idea that ethics must change as the world changes is commonplace.

But many critics of traditional morality base their criticisms on a misunderstanding that Gardner shares.

“If my argument is correct,” he writes, “the professional deals every day with issues that cannot possibly be decided simply by consulting the Bible or some other traditional moral code.”

To think that traditional morality consists of simplistic applications of prescriptions is itself a simplistic notion.

Despite what critics of the Christian Gospels frequently claim, Jesus never says, “Follow these rules and you will be saved.” Rather, he tells stories, he challenges religious authorities, and he questions his own followers, never allowing them to feel satisfied with their understanding of right and wrong.

Anyone who thinks the Bible provides moral certainty has not read it carefully.  

One has only to notice how Jesus responds to the Pharisees, how the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Corinth or how the rabbis interpret the Torah in the Talmud, to see that determining the right thing to do is not a simple exercise but requires humility, wisdom and imagination.

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To be fair to Gardner, it is true that technological developments present us with circumstances never encountered before. Once scientists mapped the human genome, the question of how to use this knowledge was raised for the first time. Such developments require new thinking, but they do not necessarily require us to abandon traditional concepts.

On the contrary, the more the world changes, the more important it is to recover the traditional concepts that our ancestors developed to meet the challenges of their changing world. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; we just have to figure out how to make it work on new roads.

Just because we cannot turn to Confucius or Aristotle for specific answers to contemporary moral dilemmas involving end-of-life decisions, or Internet privacy, or genetic modifications does not mean that traditional moral sources are obsolete. Classical ethical texts endure because they deal with basic concepts that underlie and inform our understanding of how to live. In his letter to the Corinthians, for example, the Apostle Paul tried to explain why love is essential to human flourishing, not provide an exhaustive list of acceptable behaviors.

Whether it is the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita or Plato’s Republic, sources of traditional moral concepts are important because they remind us that certain ideas endure because they are grounded in fundamental insights into human nature. And even though technology, medicine, economics and politics change over time, human nature stays pretty much the same.

Maybe that’s why contemporary research into the conditions of human happiness confirms the central notions of traditional morality. The key contributors to happiness are a modest income and stable, committed relationships. In other words, obtaining an education, finding meaningful work, getting married, having children, being involved in the community — all these traditional activities tend to make a person happy.

What contributes to unhappiness? Pursuing wealth at the expense of family, having extramarital affairs, being self-indulgent or suspicious, persistent gambling, drinking to excess, isolating oneself from others — anything that destroys relationships.        

It turns out the Apostle Paul was right: Love really is the greatest virtue because more than anything else it characterizes healthy relationships.

And the seven deadly sins really are deadly — they destroy relationships and therefore make us (and those around us) miserable.

The most recent, sophisticated research on happiness has not provided us with new answers to life’s persistent questions; it has merely confirmed the age-old answers. So instead of constantly trying to change morality to fit what society has become, maybe we should look again at the traditional moral sources to learn how to change ourselves.

The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.


(3) comments

Michael Welch

When I was studying theology at St John's University in Collegeville MN a priest who was teaching Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon and Job noted the contradictory emphases (plural) in each as one compared.

Someone asked him about that and he shrugged "It's a big book," i. e., the Bible, "The Book," and it depends on what "you" are looking for -- something more "optimistic" and certain, try Proverbs; something more sophisticated, Ecclesiates; something "dark," Job; something uh maybe a little pornographic hmm, Song?

EVERY "believer" is a "cafeteria" Catholic or protestant or Jew or Muslim or Buddhist, Hindu, whatever. You pays yer money an' you picks yer Jesus, Buddha, Muhammed, Moses, Krishna et al. And many of the STORIES are great -- often terrible and terrifying but great -- and as Hollywood (founded by Jews after all and VERY "ecumenical"!) knows better than most, it's the STORY that matters.

And the "moral"? Well hey boychik -- THAT's up to you!...


On the subject of slavery, of owning another human being as property. Few things could be more clearly, obviously immoral. However the bible condones, dare I say endorses it- repeatedly. If the bible is this wrong on one of the clearest issues of morality, what are the odds it is right in less obvious areas? Euthanasia, stem cell research, the morning after pill, contraception, blood transfusions, etc.

Why turn to the bible on these issues for guidance, when it has so clearly and obviously failed in one of the most obvious manifestations of moral guidance there could be? Society had to figure out on its own that owning people was wrong, despite what the bible said. To now go back to this book that was written by bronze aged desert nomads, and try to tease out complex moral issues from people who believed in demon possession being the cause of disease, that women were unclean to be around when menstruating, and that keeping slaves was okay...? I expected better, Richard.


Normally your articles are insightful, Richard, but this one missed the mark entirely. In Sam Harris' book, "The Moral Landscape," he shows that science provides a far superior morality to that of any religion. The good aspects of morality that can be teased out of religion were merely humanistic concepts that were borrowed BY the religion, not from the religion. You mention the apostle Paul 3 times, as though he is some amazing source of morality. This is the same guy who said that no woman should be in a position above men, that they should remain silent in church, and if they have questions they should ask their husbands later. The rest of the Bible isn't much better- it ascribes the death penalty to those who pick up sticks on the Sabbath, to gays, and to "witches". It says that those who are blind or lame are unworthy to approach the altar in the church. Also, menstruating women are unclean. And Don't eat shellfish. Is this really where we are to get our morality from?

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