Morality is a Three-Legged Stool.

The Three Ingredients of Moral Behavior.

Have you ever witnessed the morality shift game?  Have you ever played it yourself?  Most of us have.  It goes something like this:

Jane:  You really hurt me when you made that comment last night.

John:  But I didn’t mean to! You’re over-reacting.

Or it goes like this:

John:  You were so mean when you told the boss that Sally was late

Jane:  She knows the rules–everyone is supposed to be on time.

John:  Yeah, but you enjoyed getting her into trouble.

Here’s the thing:  There are two major ingredients to moral behavior and a third more subtle ingredient as well.  Moral behavior happens only when we do the right thing, and for the right reasons, and more subtly, at the right time.  Leave any of these ingredients out and we have fallen short of truly moral behavior.  I’m hoping in this essay to help you move from simple action constructs of right and wrong, to appreciating the complexity of moral maturity. 

Let’s look at the first ingredient:  What you do.  Most of us have been taught that we are to do the right things and not do the wrong things.  This is in fact an early learning step in moral development.  Through the course of our childhood most of us are taught right from wrong.  It’s wrong to lie; it’s right to tell the truth.  It’s wrong to steal; it’s right to help or assist.  It’s wrong to be selfish; it’s right to allow another to have the bigger piece.  We are punished or disciplined for doing wrong things, and we are rewarded for doing right things.  At least we’re supposed to be, and so we associate outcomes with actions.

As we grow up we learn ever more increasing complexity about right and wrong.  Some of these rules become so much a part of us that we believe everyone knows them and it bothers us when they are violated. Some of the rules are quite specific to a family unit   or subculture however, and not everyone has learned these same rules of action.  This can cause tension certainly in cross-cultural settings when someone ignorantly violates a social rule of another group.  For some it’s wrong to smoke, for others it’s wrong to tell someone they can’t smoke.  It’s clear that on the large scale of things we’re not all appealing to the same rule book.

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (more information here, and here) studied how moral concepts are learned across the life span.  He showed how our understanding of morality flows from the concrete to the complex and abstract, and how initially we view an action’s morality simply based on the consequences it brings, but that as we grow we learn to apply more constructs to moral understanding.  We learn that some actions are moral regardless of the consequences; it’s wrong to steal even if you don’t get caught or that there may by moral consequences to our actions we may not see (such as buying a consumer product made from child labor).  The more we grow and develop the more aspects of moral action we discover.  If we seek to be a moral person the more rich and complex our moral understanding will become.  In later stages of moral development we may learn that it is moral to break an unjust law and in fact it may be our moral duty to do so.  Moral action does get complex.

But because not everyone is raised by the same moral constructs not everyone agrees on what constitutes a right or wrong action.  This gives rise to the questioning of long-established social mores and customs and to conflicts between generations and between sub-cultures. We are witnessing many of these conflicts now as our culture has shifted from a group determined moral base, to an individually determined one.  It’s getting harder and harder to appeal to a common understanding of what is right and what is wrong because there are so many different and individually determined concepts of what is right and what is wrong.  In fact one of the things that has become “wrong” is to suggest that some action is generally wrong – violating an individualistic ethos. 

We are in the post-modern era defined largely by a disillusionment with cultural norms, disillusionment with positivist thinking, and placing the emphasis on individual’s rights over the groups’ rights.  The rule with post-modern morality seems to be, “no one can tell me what’s right or wrong” or “there is no absolute right or wrong.”  Curiously this belief comes with the irrational corollary that there really are no consequences to immoral actions because there is not real right or wrong. It's all made up.  Remember the learning basis of moral development is founded on learning cause and effect relationships.  We live in the age where everyone receives the trophy, there are no grades, and positive self-esteem is more important than excellence or correctness.  So the lesson of action/outcome has not been learned, has been disbelieved, or has been lost in the post-modern distrust of moral authority.  When something goes wrong in the post-modern thinker’s life they genuinely believe it is someone else’s fault or that an artificial consequence is being imposed from an artificial source of morality. The post-modern person will not generally think that negative life circumstances are attributable to an error in their own moral decisions.  They tend to form their moral constructs on the second ingredient (keep reading) not the first. 

And then there is this:  Many people simply have never been taught the difference between right and wrong.  There seems to be (although I have no statistics to support my belief) a growing number of people that simply do not know basic moral conduct.  We are living in an age much like in the Old Testament book of Judges where “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6 – NASB).”  The consequence of this is chaos and personal and societal vulnerability.  We are favoring pluralism and multiculturalism (“that’s not wrong, that’s just how they do it”) and abandoning a belief in the existence of universal moral constructs. Because it is difficult to determine which of many moral views is correct there is a general abandonment of pursuing moral understanding altogether.   This is an intellectually weak and simplistic solution to understanding moral complexity.  We are reaping what we have sown with moral ignorance in what appears to be an increase in shootings, home invasions, thefts, shop-lifting, identify fraud, credit card fraud, murder, and sexual exploitation.  And all of us are paying for it in increased security costs and security inconvenience.  There are reasons sometimes that the individual must defer to the group for moral instruction.

To be sure however, reliance on moral rules alone is not enough.  We do get them wrong sometimes and we do at times apply our moral rules unjustly, inconsistently, and without concern for their effects on others.  This leads us to the second ingredient of moral behavior:  proper motivation and intention.

In perhaps the greatest moral lecture of all time, Jesus set out in The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, and 7), to deepen and expand our moral understanding.  Speaking to a culture that gauged all moral conduct by outward action and appearance, Jesus taught that the motive for our actions was equally important to the actions themselves.  He said,

 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment.  But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22).

Jesus taught that our intentions are just as important in moral behavior as our actions.  And He was clear on the point that neither action nor intention was more important than the other.  They work in tandem.  If we continue in our moral development we will learn that why we do something is every bit as important as what we do.  Kohlberg discovered that this understanding of motive is developed after a learning of the existence of moral rules.  We learn the rules first because we have to understand the concept of morality in general.  Then we learn that intention, motivation, and our hearts are equal ingredients to action in moral behavior.

This second ingredient, of course, is much more difficult to develop in ourselves than the first, and it’s much easier to manipulate in order to excuse ourselves of bad behavior because no one else can see it.  This is the origin of the morality shift game.  If we’re accused of bad behavior we can claim good intentions and require others to give us a pass.  If we’re accused of bad intentions we can claim the moral high-ground on our actions and again require a pass.  Jesus said to the outward moralists: “on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:28 Holman translation).

Most of us tend to favor one or the other of these ingredients when we evaluate our own consciences. We tend to be “action” moralists or “intention” moralists, but not both.  This gives rise to a good many conflicts in families and marriages.  When loved ones are confronted on their actions, they’ll claim good intentions. Or when they are confronted on their attitudes (intention) they lay claim to perfectly correct actions.  The arguments go round and round (I’ve witnessed a good many of them).  The shift is at times almost imperceptible and the injured partner in the marriage, for example, continues to feel hurt and misunderstood while the shifty partner feels morally superior, justified, and as if they have “won” the conflict. 

In a marital conflict I recommend trying to stay on message until the moral infraction, either action or intention, is understood.  Do not succumb to morality bait and switch.  So for example, when you confront a loved one that “you hurt me” and receive a dismissive, “but I didn’t mean to” the task is to stay on the message of, “but you actually hurt me, intention or not.  Will you take responsibility for your actions?”  Sometimes in a marriage we have to say “ouch” repeatedly before it’s heard. 

It is more difficult to confront an immoral intention when someone has technically done “what is right” or said “what is true.”  Remember scripture tells us it’s not enough to “speak truth” we have to “speak truth in love.”  Without the love motive, truth speaking can be harmful and hurtful.  Perhaps the relational challenge is to suggest, “I think you’re hurting me by your intentions” and to request, “will you at least think about why you did this?”  You can also follow the emotional trail because right actions done with wrong intentions are almost always accompanied by angry, sullen, jealous, or arrogant feelings.  So the communication may be “Well you said what was factually true, but you were so angry when you said it.  There’s more going on here.”  Ultimately in a marriage or any relationship really we need to work toward enough trust and respect and love so that when the other says “ouch” we take them seriously and not dismissively.

Our task is to morally “grow up” and realize that we are responsible for both our actions and our motives and that God judges both.  We are to become complete in Christ and not segment our actions and intentions.  Only when we accept both major ingredients to morality will we develop moral maturity.  Scripture is full of admonitions to self-exam our motives.  David writes, “See if there be any hurtful way in me and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:24).  Jesus said, “First take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 6:5).  Paul wrote, “But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat the bread and drink of the cup” (I Corinthians 11:27).  David also said, “Tremble and do not sin, meditate in your heart upon your bed and be still” (Psalm 4:4). 

There is one final ingredient to moral behavior that needs discussing – that is timing.  This aspect of moral development takes a good deal of wisdom I think.  It’s not always right to do the right thing. We have to do the right thing and not do the wrong thing, and we need to do it for the right reasons (intention) and we need to do it at the right time.  Only wisdom and experience can teach us the right time. 

There are several examples of moral timing, some familiar some not so familiar. In our parenting of our children we teach them what they need to know when they are of an age to make use of the information.  If we give them instructions too soon we may burden them with things they are not yet equipped to handle.  So when your four-year-old asks where babies come from it’s not the time to give instruction on intercourse.  The correct answer based on timing is, “when a mommy and daddy love each other they make a baby.”  When the timing is right the child usually responds with a simple, “Okay.”  The parenting principle here is to answer the question that is being asked, no more and no less, and certainly without lying or fabricating stories which only complicates moral instruction further down the road.

Another example involves truth telling.  It is not always and perhaps not often moral to tell all the truth that we know.  Truth is a powerful thing and when not given its proper context can lead people to make bad choices or manipulate perceptions in a negative way.  When a client comes to me for counseling assistance I can often discern the heart of a problem long before the client is psychologically ready to hear it.  To speak of the problem before the person is ready to hear it can cause harm and can evoke denial, anger, hurt, or some other emotion detrimental to change.  And it can erode trust.  It’s much more important to establish trust first so that the truth has a context in which to be presented. This principle is true in marriages, in parenting, and in business and community relationships as well.  There is a “season for everything under the sun” the preacher of Ecclesiastes tells us.  Timing is crucial for mature moral action.

One third thing, I think, will serve to illustrate the timing of morality.  It is a Biblical example of moral instruction and so certainly not all will agree with my example.  It’s simply this:  Sexual behavior is moral only under certain conditions and in the proper time.  The essential Biblical moral instruction is that sex is moral (and in fact good) after a man and women are married, but not before and not outside of that marriage.  One act: moral at some times and immoral at others.  There are hundreds of rationalizations to get around this instruction, and most show an ignorance of the morality of timing.  The Biblical instruction to “wait until you’re married” becomes, “well as long you love each other” and then slides to, “well as long as both are consenting.”  But the Bible teaches that marital sex is the only moral kind.  The issue of timing is related deeply to the great potential of harm sex can bring when it’s done in the wrong time (unwanted babies, emotional exploitation, psychological injury, STDs).  Sex at the wrong time can sometimes permanently impair the full development of sexual fulfillment in marriage.  So with sex, all three ingredients need to be in place:  proper action, proper motive, right timing. 

One final thought needs to be understood when contemplating moral behavior:  The intention of true morality is not to limit individual freedom, impose power on others, spoil personal pleasure, or affect social or political control.  True morality is motivated by love and is intended to protect the individual and the group from harm, to maximize potential blessing and enjoyment, and to safeguard one’s future.  When moral constructs are not used for these intentions they obscure one or more of the three ingredients and moral development becomes arrested.  Once again scripture says it eloquently, “For I know the plans I have for you” —this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11 Holman translation).  When moral constructs get hijacked for the specialized interests of a few, the moral learner becomes disillusioned, cynical, and abandons the pursuit of moral development.  Morality hijacked for a political cause leads people to conclude that there is no right or wrong, consequences are random, and that moral authority is always corrupt.  No one wins; everyone loses.  Ironically, people that abandon faith in a moral system for the sake of their own individual freedom will at some point become a slave to their own lusts and appetites: what we now call addictions.  True morality increases individual and group freedom across the lifetime of an individual and across the generations of a culture, rather than limit it.  Appeals to moral conduct and moral development must always be done for the sake of love, otherwise, “I have become a noisy gong or clanging cymbal” (I Corinthians 13:1 NASB).

We Repeat What We Practice

It is a true psychological principle that we repeat the things we practice.  A helpful question when you are stuck or experiencing something negative in life is to ask your self “What am I practicing?”  The difficulty in answering the question is that most of the mental or cognitive things we practice we have long since ceased being conscious of.  People practice all sorts of things that are not beneficial: irritation, anger, depression, sadness, indignation, pessimism, over-eating, not-standing up for yourself.  The list is long. 

Most of these behaviors we acquire at a time when they may make sense, but then we keep mentally practicing them long after they have stopped accomplishing anything worthwhile (this is the principle of adaptive behavior:  what is adaptive and beneficial in one context may be maladaptive in another or when the original context has ceased to exist).

I am a French Horn player, and I remember the beginning stages of learning.  I remember memorizing fingering charts and having to consciously make my fingers press the right valves in order to get the right notes. I remember making my self associate fingerings with written notes on a page.  When you play this way, you cannot play fast or musically, you can only play by rote.  As you improve, you no longer need to think of the finger combinations for particular notes, you simply see the note, and your fingers press the right keys, and you don’t think about it.  But even though you don’t think about it, every time you play you are still practicing those key combinations, increasing the likelihood that you will press them again.

Of course, if you practice the wrong combinations you will repeat those too, and it will be difficult to correct.  Some notes on the French Horn have multiple fingerings; the alternatives are easier to produce with your lips but are not as in tune. If you “cheat” with these alternatives you’ll have an easier time when you’re starting to play, but you won’t progress well and will have to un-learn the fingerings in the future in order to improve your musicianship.

Most people who play the French Horn learn on what is called a single horn.  A single horn has three valves that when used in combinations supply every note on the scale.  As you advance you acquire a double horn, which has four valves.  The fourth valve, operated by your thumb shifts the entire instrument to a different key/register (from the Key of F to the Key of Bb if you’re curious).  In order to realize the advantages of playing a double horn, you have to learn new key combinations.  The old ones still work, and there are times you will need them, but if you want to improve tone, flexibility, control, speed, volume etc., you have to learn how and when to use that thumb key. And you have to retrain your lips and lungs to work correctly with the new combinations.  It takes time.  It’s not as simple as having one more key to press; you have to unlearn a certain amount of what has now become automatic.

These days when I play my horn, and sit next to a novice and am asked “what’s the fingering for a C#” I have to stop and think about it, because I don’t think about it while I’m playing; I’m thinking about the music. The fingering has been practiced for so long that it’s now just a part of me.  I am still practicing those fingerings but I am practicing them without conscious thought.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, here’s the point:  You have all kinds of behaviors that you mentally practice without awareness.  Because you have practiced them you will do those behaviors without conscious thought.  The behaviors are so automatic that it feels like you have no choice or that it’s beyond your ability to influence or that you were just “born that way.”  But in truth, you are initiating those repetitive behaviors without awareness. The most common problematic behaviors have to do with anger or irritation, or being quick to take offense.  Here’s the sequence:  Someone does something, it triggers your emotional association, you respond with irritation.  Now you have just practiced the cycle, increasing the likelihood you’ll repeat it the next time somebody does the same thing.  Once the behavior is practiced and becomes automatic, you believe that the other guy has made you angry or irritable, or outraged or whatever. But really you have been practicing this behavior so much that you just do it, and the more you just do it, the more you are practicing it; increasing the likelihood that you will repeat the behavior.    When I see a C# on the page of music, my fingers press the thumb valve and the second and third valves automatically, and my lips squeeze to just the right tension and my lungs blow just the right pressure and I get a C# note out of my horn.  But I can tell you, I never believe that printed note on the page caused the whole thing.

We have rehearsed most of our emotional responses in our heads but we may not be aware of it.  If you find yourself dwelling on angry thoughts, or carrying on imaginary conversations you are practicing your reactions. You may not say out loud the things you say in your head, but you will certainly feel the negative feelings that go along with the words, and because you are practicing those feelings you will most likely have them over and over again.  We practice feelings just like every other behavior, we just don’t admit it to ourselves.  We kind of like the idea that we aren't responsible for our feelings.

But you can turn this same practicing phenomena to your advantage.  You can mentally practice positive outcomes, thoughts, hopes, and interactions.  The Apostle Paul says it this way,

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:15)

And he continues:

“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality,  idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”   (Galatians 5:19-23)

You can be intentional about practicing healthy behaviors, emotions and reactions.  The more you practice them the more likely you will be to repeat them, and the more in-control of yourself you will feel in social situations.  When you are less likely to repeat strong and automatic emotional reactions it will be much harder for others to manipulate you because you have not rehearsed the response or behavior they are trying to elicit.  So ask yourself what results are you getting in your life and what are you practicing that is producing those results.  And do you like the results you’re getting?