There are a number of lists and compilations of moral principles and teachings from the world’s great religions, philosophers, and spiritual teachers. For example, see World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts (A Project of the International Religious Foundation, Paragon House, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1995).
C. S. Lewis published a list of universal moral principles he called “Illustrations of the Tao or Natural Law” in the appendix of his book The Abolition of Man (1944). He quoted from Christian, Jewish, Egyptian, Babylonian, Roman, Old Norse, Greek, Hindu, Australian Aborigine, Chinese, and American Indian sources.
The Universal Moral Code includes five of the Ten Commandments of Moses, found in the Jewish Torah and the Christian Bible (Exodus 20). Those five are:
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
Perhaps the best-known universal moral principle is “the golden rule” or ethic of reciprocity. Its negative form is “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” Its positive form is “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” The golden rule can be found in Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, and Confucian texts, among others. People around the world have been making a serious effort to live these moral principles for thousands of years – at least as far back as the Ten Commandments of Moses and the Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon. We know that we need to follow these moral principles in order to live together successfully in our families and communities. People who regularly lie, cheat, steal, and murder make up a very small percentage of the world’s population – perhaps only 5 or 6 percent. These people cause a lot of pain and tragedy, but they are a small minority. The most significant fact is that, literally, billions of people – the other 94 or 95 percent of the world’s population – follow fundamental, universal moral principles on a daily basis, regardless of their religiosity or atheism.
The Code of Hammurabi is one of the oldest moral/legal codes known to historians. Hammurabi was King of Babylon about 2250 B.C. The Code of Hammurabi has been translated into 282 sections that set forth business, family, social, and political rules. The sections include penalties for false accusations, adultery, incest, assault, medical malpractice, shoddy workmanship, and negligence. (See The Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon About 2250 B.C. by Robert Francis Harper, University Press of the Pacific, Honolulu, 2002.) Hammurabi was a great soldier and a pious, god-fearing king, who destroyed all his enemies to the North and South, and made his people to dwell in peace and security. He codified the existing laws that the strong might not oppress the weak, that they should give justice to the orphan and widow, and for the righting of wrong.
The value of empathy—putting oneself in the shoes of others, trying to feel their pain—has been recognized for centuries by all major religions and countless philosophers and human rights advocates. Empathy is seen as the major path to moral engagement, the psychological process whereby ethical people resist the chronic call to participate in man’s inhumanity to man. Moral engagement requires moral courage–that is, a commitment to behaving morally in regards to others despite social pressures to participate in or passively comply with policies and actions that are hurtful to others.
Being morally engaged requires:
- Accepting responsibility for one’s own behavior
- Being sympathetic and empathetic
- Acknowledging the negative effects on others of inhumane behavior
- Recognizing that the “enemy” – whoever the enemy of the day might be – is a human being who shares a common humanity with oneself.
Living a moral life is a meaningful and fulfilling thing to do. People surveyed about the sources of meaning in their lives and work have given very high ratings to “living my values” and “always doing what’s right.” These are important sources of personal meaning, and personal meaning is a key to being deeply happy, not just for a moment, but for the long term. The Universal Moral Code is a simple reminder of the basic moral principles that are the foundation for that meaning and happiness.