Common Morality Aids Lutheran Thought

[1] This paper argues that there is a common morality. There are common moral principles all can know; they place demands on us; and we have the capacity to follow them. It is necessary to make the case for common morality today because many believe there are no objective moral standards. It is important for Christian theology because the proclamation of God’s forgiveness is good news only in light of the bad news that we fall short of objective moral standards. Finally, properly relating morality and theology has always been central to Lutheran thought. We see this at a number of points: questions over the correct response to moral failure-contrition, repentance, penance-prompted Luther’s 95 Theses; despair over the righteousness earned by moral works led to Luther’s key insights; properly relating law and gospel is a hallmark of Lutheran preaching; disagreements over how individual and social ethics follow from the gospel poses a challenge to the viability of Lutheran ethics. In a time when there seems to be no common standards for morality, theology or anything else, making the case for common morality can aid Lutheran thought.


[2] A riddle: what word does the ear hate but the mouth love? Or, what word do we hate to hear, but love to use? Answer: “ought.” We hate to hear “you ought,” but get pleasure saying “you ought” to others. The riddle suggests that our moral character is out of balance. We readily judge others for failing to follow moral principles but fail to see how the same principles judge us. The first chapter of Romans exposes the same propensity. Paul enumerates and denounces all forms of immorality among “them”-we can almost see Paul’s hearers rooting him on. Then abruptly he turns to his hearers and continues, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you are doing the very same things.” It is common for us to use moral principles to justify ourselves and criticize others.

[3] Can we say this propensity is part of our moral nature? Lutheran thought claims it is. This is important to note at the outset because this paper will claim that we have a common moral nature, and that there are common moral principles-“oughts”-to which we are all subject. This is important to note because if this propensity is an intractable part of our moral nature we will use those common principles to justify ourselves and criticize others, whatever those principles are. This temptation is all the greater for common morality because no one, presumably, has excuse for not knowing those principles. It is true that we all can know them; but the important Lutheran insight is that we all lack the will to do as we know we ought. All misuse or fail to use the principles we know. The principles of common morality are of such generality that they accuse everyone. Because common morality identifies something elemental about moral nature and principles-basic to all humans and not distinguishing us from each other-our individual successes and failures are at that level insignificant. We would realize that, circumstances being different, any one of us could be an angel or a scoundrel. Lutheran thought has affirmed that there are common moral principles-knowable by all-and a common moral nature-unbalanced in all. It maintains, further, that we cannot transform that nature, only God can. The result of a transformed moral life is humility-even self-forgetfulness-concerning one’s own works, and, with respect to the failings of others, the forbearance to conclude, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

[4] This initial insight also leads to a realization concerning how we come to be aware of common morality and moral education generally. Following the observation that we resist others telling us “you ought to,” experience convinces us that we cannot tell others “you ought to” and expect results either. I need to see for myself what I ought to do, as do others. This is not (if indeed there is a common morality) because everyone has their own moral standard to find and follow. It is rather that everyone needs to become aware of our common moral nature, and that to be true to it there are certain things we all ought to do. This is done indirectly, or by coming to see what must be true about us in order for us to be inquiring about morality at all. Our moral nature is so close to us, we might say, that it is hard to see. To proceed, then, we need to defend common morality from its challengers, and then propose how we come to it and what it tells us we ought to do.


[5] The riddle rings true because when we hear “you ought to” we move to defend ourselves or plan our escape. This is not difficult to do in our time. It is easy to avoid the force of the word or to explain it away. For example, if the highest authority is the individual, we need not recognize any demands upon us other than ones we choose. When we hear “you ought to” we immediately ask, “by whose or what authority?” and when there is no higher authority than one’s own choosing, we deflect the moral force of the word. And if that doesn’t stop the moral demand, the question “by whose or what standard?” will. Since it is ordinarily assumed that all moral standards are relative to time and place, or are the product of ulterior motives, we again dispatch the force of the “ought.” All of us have said “it’s all relative,” or “it’s in their self-interest” when we want to avoid moral responsibility.

[6] Now some might object that it is different for Christians. In Christian ethics, we suppose, there are authoritative sources and binding traditions. Many church members, though, seeing current battles over ethical issues, remembering mistaken moral judgments in the past, or grounding their own ethical decision-making in the freedom of the individual conscience, find themselves in the same quandary with these questions. Both secular and Christian ethics have difficulty grounding the “ought.”

[7] The attack on common morality usually comes from three “isms”: relativism, hedonism, egoism. Relativism claims that moral truth is determined by a particular time and place; hedonism claims that moral value is derived from whatever makes us happy; egoism claims that all moral behavior is driven by self-interest. All three undercut the idea that there are common moral principles which demand that we have concern for others and which cost us. These challenges, though decisive for many, can be met.

[8] In the first case, if morality is indeed “all relative,” we must turn a blind eye to evil, and accept horrible behavior no matter how much it turns our stomach. Most of us would feel that we have failed in our responsibility to others if we were kept from making such moral judgments. And to the relativist who would accuse us of hypocrisy when our own conduct comes up short, we need only point out that such criticism itself proves relativism false because it assumes that hypocrisy is wrong. Indeed it is wrong. Being hypocritical violates a moral principle everyone recognizes.

[9] Secondly, while it is often true that the pursuit of happiness consorts with moral values, value cannot be reduced to things which make us happy. If it were, we should be able to imagine being content with the satisfying feelings-let’s say by having our brains stimulated chemically or electronically-without the moral accomplishments. Put that way, we can see that the feelings of happiness are not enough. They may accompany our moral conduct, but it is accomplishing something of moral worth which is our real goal, not the pursuit of happiness.

[10] Finally, self-interest also may accompany our moral goals. But if it “all comes down to self-interest” then all our professions and displays of self-giving are false, even attempts to manipulate others for our own advantage. An egoist would be in the hypocritical position of not wanting others to be egoists, even encouraging others to be altruists, because that would give them advantage over others. All would be well for the egoist if no one else were egoists. But if we all were egoists we would be at each others’ throats, even using friends and loved ones as means to our own ends. This is a world no one can imagine for long.

[11] The standpoint of common morality, in distinction from these “isms,” is that the difference between right and wrong is real, it is not my own invention and it is not a social convention. It claims that there are things we ought and ought not do just because they are right or wrong, or that we ought and ought not do them for their own sake. It contends that we do not really act as though these “isms” are true. We believe, rather, thatthere are moral principles to which everyone is accountable. We are confident, moreover, that we can have some success in following them; yet we do not think anyone fully knows moral truth, and are wary of those who absolutely claim to. It assumes, then, that we have capacities moral life requires such as the passion to be sympathetic, the reason to be impartial, and the will to overcome self-interest and natural impulses. Whatthe difference is between right and wrong may be difficult to discern, but we have the ability to deliberate over such matters, to be honest, fair-minded, speak freely, and to treat one another with respect. This enables us to discern the difference between right and wrong in particular cases, though often we do not see clearly what that is.

[12] “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness…” (Romans 2:24). On the basis of texts such as this, Lutheran thought has affirmed that the moral law is available to everyone. Luther, e.g., could say that Moses was not the author of the Decalogue, but only the interpreter of laws written on our minds. Plus, the moral law is sufficient for us, its content being the same as the divine law. “It was not necessary for Christ to give instruction about this, for it was implanted in nature and written in their hearts. Furthermore, all books, with the exception of Holy Writ, are derived from that source and spring. Therefore, Christ’s words and doctrine must not be interpreted as though he had wanted to teach and ordain anything in addition to this or to institute anything better.”[1]

[13] How it is that our conscience bears witness to the moral law has to be worked out according to our understanding of nature and reason, and this has developed over the centuries. The natural law tradition claims that the moral law is implanted in nature by God and discovered by us. By contrast, common morality claims that reason constructs fundamental moral principles. These principles are objective for us in that our rational capacities, as they are utilized in our form of life, inevitably produce them. If the natural law tradition examines nature to find direction for morality, common morality reflects on our form of life to see how it accounts for morality, and exhorts us to be true to that life. The natural law tradition typically depends on natural theology to establish a natural Lawgiver, and yields laws which are imbedded in and read off of nature. Common morality is less ambitious and more modest. It appeals to Lutheran thought because it is reluctant to claim too much for ourselves, whether it is our ability to prove God exists or to know God’s law in detail.

[14] We gain insight into common morality by examining our language, judgments, sensibility, and moral development, all of which are inter-related. Ordinary conversation, e.g., is full of moral encouragement-exhortation to do what is right and avoid what is wrong-and moral evaluations-criticism of wayward conduct, making excuses, giving and receiving apologies, words of forgiveness etc. This makes sense only if there is a real difference between right and wrong, and if moral judgments are not simply subjective. When we contend with other nations concerning the violation of human rights, furthermore, we presume that our disagreements are not simply due to cultural differences. Otherwise there would no point in talking. We find in this regard, that common moral principles such as the golden rule appear in many different times and places. Finally, we see that we form moral judgments at an early age (“that’s not fair!”), and that these develop in recognizable patterns.[2]

[15] Much of this stems from what we know about the social form of human life. Sociability is innate in us, and the disposition for sympathy can be detected early in life.[3] In normal child development this natural sociability grows in a child’s early familial experiences and matures into empathy and concern for others.[4] Early childhood bonds between parents and siblings are the settings in life where self-interest turns into reciprocity, and reciprocity into a sense of fairness, and fairness into mutual obligation. In this way our natural sociability ordinarily develops into the disposition to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and into the conviction that this rule should be applied impartially and to all. As Robert M. Adams has observed, “These principles enjoy a general, even cross-cultural acceptance. It seems likely that we have a natural affinity for them.”[5] We reach moral maturity when our capacities for love and reason develop to the point where we think, “this person I dislike is someone else’s brother or best friend. His value to them is equal to my brother’s or best friend’s to me,” or, “the demand that I make on others for them to be kind to me makes the same demand on me.” With that realization the equal worth of individuals grasps us. A touchstone of moral character is that we spontaneously respond to a person’s urgent need and have “learned to act without any thought of justification.”[6] We do something good for no other reason than that it was good to do.

[16] This does not mean that being moral is innate or automatic. There is no morality gene. If being moral were common in that sense we would not praise moral conduct. But everyone knows that doing the right thing is often difficult. No gene makes it easy to keep a promise when it is no longer in one’s interest to do so and may even be costly. Being moral is not automatic but must be cultivated, and strives against selfishness, jealousy, hostility, and worse. It is true that cultivating our natural sociability is usually helpful to us individually and socially. But this is not always the case, and sometimes it disadvantages us. This is important to note because otherwise we are tempted to conclude “the ultimate source of these moral inklings is to promote self-interest or the survival of the species.”

[17] Sociability, however, or becoming companionable, or developing warm regard for others is not merely a means to an end, but something we pursue for its own sake. We see this when we consider the encouragement parents give their kids to make friends. They do this not only because being companionable will make them happy or be useful to them, but simply because it is how we should live. Cultivating our capacity to have affection for one another is part of what it means to be a human being. It is what there is for us to do as human beings and we pursue it for its own sake. “If I am not for others, what am I?”[7] Having friends, but, more importantly, becoming the kind of person who can be a friend, is an end in itself, and moves us nearer to the way humans are to live. It strengthens our trustworthiness and our capacity to lead moral lives.

[18] That is not to say that being moral has no evolutionary value. Those who have self-control and sympathy, who are fair-minded and impartial, and who are self-giving and trustworthy make better friends, parents, and co-workers, and so strengthen the sociability essential to us. Natural selection may have favored humans who were more companionable because they were most fit to co-operate in the tasks needed to survive. Nevertheless, we all know that self-interest continues to work strongly in us. It is evident to everyone, moreover, that opportunists and cheaters can be successful in life-even the most successful, if that means procuring the things needed for a secure life, and reproducing and providing for children. When it comes to individual decision making being moral is not automatic or natural. We have to work at it.

[19] The claim that there is a morality gene takes the “morality” out of common morality and so explains it away. But if altruism is in our genes, and morality is simply their expression, then we are mistaken when we applaud self-giving, or honor soldiers and public servants. What they did, supposedly, was completely natural and instinctual, so why should we? Just as many have used psychological theory and the subconscious to explain away moral conduct, claiming that self-interest, in some imperceptible way must be behind it, so now biological theory and genes supposedly explain away moral conduct by claiming that species-interest is behind it. The effect is the same in both instances: the elimination of moral responsibility by dismantling our capacities to respond to the “ought.”


[20] The standpoint of common morality is that we have a general understanding of what we should and should not do and the willpower to act on it. Kant begins his influential moral philosophy by taking for granted the validity of common morality. The idea of a good will is “a notion which exists already in the sound natural understanding, requiring rather to be cleared up than to be taught.”[8] His fundamental moral principle, moreover, that we should act according to a rule that could become a universal law, is really an abstraction from common morality: “Thus without quitting the moral knowledge of common human reason, we have arrived at its principle. And although, no doubt, common men do not conceive it in such an abstract and universal form, yet they always have it really before their eyes and use it as the standard of their decision…Indeed we might well have conjectured beforehand that the knowledge of what every man is bound to do, and therefore also to know, would be within the reach of every man, even the commonest…”[9] When his moral philosophy was criticized for not containing anything new, Kant responded, “Who would want to introduce a new principle of morality and, as it were, be its inventor, as if the world had hitherto been ignorant of what duty is or had been thoroughly wrong about it?”[10]

[21] Common morality is natural and objective for us in that when we utilize these moral capacities we generate its principles. Unlike natural law theories which find moral laws in nature, common morality establishes general principles. General principles provide guidelines which set boundaries for permissible conduct, and give direction and goals within those boundaries. They do not give exact prescriptions so much as provide a compass pointing the way, and give models demonstrating how we can be true our moral life.

[22] As we have gathered by now, the golden rule, appearing as it does in all major religions and in most all cultures is common morality’s chief principle.[11] Even if it does not always mean the identical thing in different times and places, it has an identifiable meaning nonetheless.[12] It works as a practical moral guide, not an axiom from which all moral laws can be deduced. As such, it does not tell us everything about morality, but it does tell us something. Plus, its use strengthens our moral capacities to be compassionate, fair-minded, and to overcome self-interest. Moreover, when the full sense of the rule sinks in we see that it issues a weighty charge on us. “Common” morality does not mean “minimal.” The charge to do unto others sets the needs of others before me. It is a principle which does not direct me merely to what I ought to avoid doing, but to what I ought to be doing. Kant thought that another way of formulating common morality’s fundamental principle was that we ought to treat human beings never merely as means but always as ends. “For the ends of any subject which is an end in itself ought as far as possible to be my ends also, if that conception is to have its full effect with me.”[13] The golden rule, far from being a lowest common denominator, presents us with a weighty and even unreachable demand. It pronounces “ought” over everyone. Seeing others in urgent need, then, I reason: if I were in distress and others could help me I would expect them to do so; therefore I ought to do the same for them.” If common morality as an expression of the moral law does this much, it prepares the way for the gospel, setting in motion a dynamic central to Lutheran thought.

End Notes

[1] Luther’s Works,

See, e.g., “Moral Development” by Don S. Browning in The Blackwell Companion to Religious Ethics, Wm. Schweiker, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2005)

See, e.g., Martin L. Hoffman, “The Contribution of Empathy to Justice and Moral Judgment,” in Empathy and Its Development, eds. Nancy Eisenberg and Janet Strayer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 47-80

James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense (New York: The Free Press, 1993,) p. 50

[5] Prospect for a Common Morality,
Outka and Reeder, eds. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 94

Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals (Chicago: Open Court 1999), p. 159

Hillel, cited in Not Only for Myself, by Martha Minow (New York: The New Press, 1997) p. 25

[8] Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals
(Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1949), p. 1

Ibid., p. 21

[10] The Critique of Practical Reason,
trans. with an Introduction by L. W. Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1788), p. 8

See, e.g., The Golden Rule, H. T. D. Rost (Oxford: George Ronald, 1986)

[12] The Golden Rule
, Jeffrey Wattles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) p. 5

[13] Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals
, p. 47

Ned Wisnefske

Ned Wisnefske is Schumann Professor of Lutheran Theology at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.