Posted December 27th, 2006

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By Andrew Akpan


Wisdom tells us that it is good to be good. This holds true because reality proves that in most times people may forget what one said or did but they will always remember the refrain: “He is a good man”. This refrain, to a great extent implies ones moral responsibility. This moral responsibility should not be one-sided but should attain the level of objectivity: Responsibility to God and Humanity (Cf. the preamble of the Basic Law of German State).

The question arises, what propels moral responsibility, ethics (reason) or religion (faith)? Having accepted the contribution of each to moral life, to what extent does each propel responsibility? If religion tries independently it will lead to moral blindness and if ethics tries alone it results to moral lameness. Which support which? To what extent? The rest is “story”, analysis to justify their complement.

A Good Life

I equate moral responsibility with a good life. We see this in honesty to conscience, courageous and real with strength, faithful in spirit and determining in focus. In this issue of responsibility, Hans Jones, a philosopher gives a standard: “so act that the consequences of your action support the continuance of authentic human life on earth. Put negatively, “so act that the consequence of your action will not be destructive to the future conditions of life”. It is setting limit to our worldly (human) desire. In the other way, I see responsibility as applied cardinal virtues: Prudence (knowing the good and the right means to it), justice (giving what we owe to God and others), fortitude (being courageous to resist temptation and to overcome obstacles) and temperance( moderating our desires for pleasurable good). It is being humanly civil in ordinary human act.

The Extent of Ethics

By ethics here I mean the rules of behaviour. It draws it principles from reason. It has its foundation in the first principle of natural law: (Possible) good must be done and (possible) evil must be avoided. Reason assuming the frailty of man formulates laws to moderate our negative tendencies. The laws are regulate human acts in the social order so that man relates with civility in respect to one another. This is because it takes a plurality to live a moral life and it takes formulated laws to maintain the tension that is experienced in plurality.

Within this level, there are fundamental principles: reverence for life, non-injury (to things) and goodwill (in action). Some of its formulations were in the codes of Hammurabi that existed in the 17th – 18th centuries before Christ. Later some of the formulations formed religious oriental laws. Moreover, five basic c commands based on reason have a wide application in business world and politics before we associate them with religion: 1. Do not kill 2. Do not lie. 3. Do not steal. 4. Do not practice immorality 5. Respect parents and love children. Even the Golden Rule is based on reason. Its observance is not only hypothetical and conditional; but also categorical, apodeitic and unconditionally practical in every situation. Kant’s (moral philosophical principle) the categorical imperative could be taken as a modernization, rationalization and secularization of this Golden Rule: “Act in such a way that the maxims of your action at any time may can be taken at the same time as the principle of universal application.” Furthermore, the Declaration of the thirteen states of America on June 4, 1776 is based on reason, a recognition of the humanness in other: “… these are self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed…with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness…” (Cf.
James Q Wilson, American Government- Institutions and Policies, U.S.A.: Heath and |Co., 1980, p. 621). Even the Article 1 of in the United Nations Declaration on December 10, 1948 emphasizes freedom, equality, rights and human dignity. To recognize this in others is to have made a giant stride in the ladder of moral responsibility.

Ethics has its operational point. It propels from without by means of law: Prohibitions, a streams of
don’ts. This propels a man who then controls his impulses, or otherwise faces the dark side of the law. To find relevance, one tries to keep the code that maintains the I-THOU relationship. This forces him to live a morally responsible life to avoid sanctions.

Ethics also has that to be responsible is to struggle to attain the realization of the human person. One’s conscience (power of discrimination), updated by the ethos of the society, helps him to decides what promotes authentic self-realization. However, his conscience is not infallible but reason tells him that the voice of conscience, even when it errs must be unconditionally followed. What of when conscience becomes lax? Is the effect not abhorrent to reason?

The Extent Of Religion

A problem: there are many religions in the worlds and moral responsibility may be relative, as it were. History submits fact to show that some religions do not respect the primary principle like reverence for life. Moreover, some “Holy Horrors”, which are most time unreasonable are committed in God’s Name. What seems good for one religion may not be considered same in another. I will not go through the struggle of mentioning particular religions and their acts. Instead I will be confessional, speaking from a Christian perspective as a background to religion as a human phenomenon influencing morality.

In religion, what propels moral responsibility is the demand of God as the supreme Value. One acts for the promises of God: a happy death, escape from eternal punishment etc. the classical example of this can be seen in the book of Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, that if God did not exist, then everything is permissible. Another man puts more succinctly, “If God does not exist then the wicked man will be the only reasonable man.” In religion “God alone demands moral responsibility”. In moral issues, one is not answerable to self, or society but to God alone. Some actions are judged wrong not because of the harms they cause to self or to others or to the sacred tradition of reason but that they do not fit into God’s requirement. In contrast to ethics, nothing can be excused in one time and justified in other time. For instance in Christian tradition, there are four sins/crimes that cry towards heaven for immediate answer: 1.murder 2.sodomy 3.oppression of the people especially the widows, foreigners and orphans 4. Dishonesty in wage payment to workers. These can never be justified in any circumstance.

With the mentality that religion propels moral responsibility, a very practical example is noticed when one sends his children to schools run by religious leaders with a view that they will make them morally responsible. People with this kind of mentality are predisposed to scandal when religious leaders like bishops, pastors, Imams, nuns etc live a morally irresponsible life. For them any immoral life is a revolt against the law-giver (God). There is also a strong aversion of the so-called atheist( a non-religious person) no matter how responsible he is in his moral conduct. For a Christian believer, morality is closely related with faith. In other words, morality depends on faith.


Actually one does not need to be religious to live a morally responsible life. Reality proves that even people who have strong religious affiliation are not sometimes better in moral conduct. Our society expects one to understand right and wrong, good and bad outside religious sentiments. The conscience, our last judge is there. This is where the Church holds that “…an atheist is not excluded from salvation on the condition that his atheism has not made him act against his moral conscience.”(Cf. Karl Rahner S.J. Concilium- The Pastoral Approach to Atheism, New York: Paulist press, p.11). With this background I personally conclude that an atheist has a faith that God alone knows hence he can live a morally responsible life. However, this should not be exaggerated by turning an atheist’s position to be the right or the best in our secular world. Here I personally put an atheist in the plan of the salvation of mankind so that the world goes round, as it were.

Moreover the goals of ethics and religion will prove that they need each other to meet the objective responsibility: Responsibility to God and Humankind.” In as much as reason propels moral responsibility, one cannot dwell on reason alone since there is no such thing as a purely natural man. At least from the Christian background, Christ has redeemed man and his reason for moral responsibility is opened to faith. For our Muslim brothers/sisters, they are being guided by the teachings of the Revered Prophet of Allah, Mohammed. Hence man with his limited moral ability needs assistance from faith. We have to rise above ethical principles of moral responsibility to compassion principles. In Christianity, these principles (compassion) were introduced into human history by her key figure, Jesus, the Christ. We can see these in the following: “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you!” “Do not revenge!” “Forgivr!” “be merciful!” To stress further, this moral responsibility will include the care of the ecosystem to justify our cosmic mission as custodians of creation – to the care of the earth. We do not need reason alone but also the grace of God to live a morally responsible life since “the course of man is not in his control, nor is it in man’s power as he goes his way to guide his steps” (Cf. Jeremiah 10:23)

By Andrew Akpan 08063139646

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