Morality-in-the-Making: A New Look at Some Old Foundations

by William Daniel Cobb

Dr. Cobb is professor of religious studies and philosophy at Eureka, Illinois.

This is the first in a series on New Turns in Religious Thought. This article appeared in The Christian Century, January 1-8, 1975 pp. 8-12. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The only way of coping effectively with the kind of world we live in is to deal seriously and constantly with the questions that point toward at least relatively satisfactory answers to why we are what we are and do as we do.

In the past the Christian Century has asked religious thinkers to tell us either "How My Mind Has Changed" or "How I Am Making Up My Mind." The current series belongs more in the latter than in the former category. We have asked more than a dozen people who range anywhere from "promising" to "mid-career" to describe their work in progress and to project it into the future. Beyond saying that they are people about whom most of you probably had not heard ten years ago but about whom we think you’ll be hearing ten years from now, we would rather not describe their generation in too great detail. Let common themes and differences unfold in the course of the series, just as they did exactly ten years ago when we last asked a generation to speak up.

The turbulence of the past decade has had a confounding effect both on our individual lives and on our collective life in society. As is apparent to those of us who teach undergraduates, youth in particular has suffered because of the confusion and conflicts that characterize these times. The events that have brought about our present condition are so painfully familiar that they need no recounting. Only the most ardent optimist will suggest that we shall soon be "out of the woods."

For my own part, I am convinced that we will not be able to cope effectively with the kind of world we live in unless we are willing to deal seriously and constantly with what I want to call the "foundational questions"; i.e., the questions that point toward at least relatively satisfactory answers to why we are what we are and do as we do. I have come to this conclusion partly because of the influence of the University of Chicago’s approach to graduate education, and partly because of the view of the purposes of liberal education to which my teaching has led me. Foundational questions can, of course, be so formalized that we fail to get to the substantive, practical questions of day-to-day living, but unless we are somehow willing to cope with the basic assumptions and beliefs which serve as the justifications for what we think and do, we are virtually certain to become the victims of whatever forces happen to be dominant at any given moment of our lives.

Grounds for Judgment: The Prior Question

As teacher, ethicist and theologian, I am particularly concerned about the moral and religious foundations on which we base our lives. I have been even more concerned about this problem in recent years because of the array of popular fads that have attracted and confused so many. I take seriously the "radical monotheism" of my teacher H. Richard Niebuhr. At the same time, I recognize the validity of the problem of "relativism" with which he and a host of others -- among them his brother Reinhold and my teachers at Chicago, Joseph Haroutunian, Langdon Gilkey and Alvin Pitcher -- were and are preoccupied. Thus the central and essential foundational question for me has to do with the basis on which each individual person (and each purposive community) resolves the issues of meaning and value for his or her (or its) life. It is this question with which I attempt to challenge my students, and it is this question which I have attempted to answer for myself from the time of my student days at Yale and Chicago.

Stated formally, we may put the question this way: On what grounds are we to base our judgments of value and thus our moral, social and political decision-making? As I have already implied, this is the prior question which must be addressed before we can approach the equally important but second question, What are we to do? (or What ought we to do?). During the past year, I have attempted to answer this question (among others) in a book-length manuscript. In this essay, then, I shall undertake to provide something of an introduction to this larger work and, at the same time, to stimulate further discussion of the theological foundations of moral value. Students of ethics will recognize in this piece continuities not only with some of the men mentioned above but also with Paul Tillich, James M.Gustafson and others -- including, as I am discovering, Karl Rahner.

Three Options

In the intellectual and cultural history of the West, competing answers to our question have emerged. It has been proposed that value is determined by cultural forces and social expectations; that values have their roots in the history, traditions and circumstances of a people and constitute the form of that people’s integrity. This is the view of the cultural anthropologists, and it has had a significant impact on the thinking of modem man. Moral and legal rules are the product of society, and, though they may have validity in a particular cultural setting, they ought not to be "universalized" to apply to all peoples in all societies. Values are "conventional" and therefore "relative" to the situation out of which they arise. This perspective can lead to either of two positions regarding the source and justification of moral judgments.

One position is that value is simply what any given individual says it is; hence there can be no "external" justification of morality (virtue, justice, etc.) in anything other than one’s own desires or feelings; i.e., value is entirely a matter of "taste." This point of view has been popularized by the phrase "Do your own thing," and it has resulted in an affirmation of just about every goal imaginable within the plethora of possible objectives that people could choose -- pleasure, power, wealth, prestige, even violent activism for social betterment.

The other position stemming from a recognition of cultural relativism is a positivism or "conventionalism" which says that, even though there may be no "transcendent" basis for moral values, they have a basis in the will of the society as such. That is, it is necessary to affirm the socially established and accepted norms for the sake of social order, social responsibility, and/or the advancement of one’s interests and welfare within the society, with respect both to oneself and to the groups one is loyal to.

Alternatively, and in contrast to the first two positions, there is the view that value is rooted in a "moral universe" which can be at least fairly well known and approximated by man through his rational capacities; this moral universe participates in, yet in its fullness transcends, the actual shape of culture, history and human will; and the task of moral agents is to discover and act on the principles, laws and rules that this universe contains and reveals to the discerning moral conscience. This moral universe has been variously described as a Platonic world of "Forms" (or "Ideas"), a cosmologically rooted "natural law" or array of "natural rights" defining the essential conditions of human nature, and a divinely given "will of God" or set of "divine laws" to which man is required to conform simply because God is God and man is man subject to God’s rule.

It seems clear that any one of these approaches to the justification of a moral stance can be made into a parody. Indeed, more often than not it is the zealots of a point of view who provide living parodies of their own positions, thus leaving their opponents with the task of simply pointing a finger in their direction and saying "Aha!" The relativist who acts only on his own desires can easily be exposed as a "nihilist" or "anarchist" or "dangerous deviant" (or, assuming him to be a benign influence on the established order of things, a mere eccentric). The conventionalist can easily be caricatured as an establishmentarian" whose conformity to "the system" can only be explained in terms of his own self-interests. And finally, the idealist (using Reinhold Niebuhr’s term for this position) can easily be made to resemble a "rigid legalist" with no appreciation for the complexities and novelties bf "the situation." Or, if he is a "liberal," he can be shown to be a starry-eyed idealist" who is not capable of understanding "the realities" of the world of human affairs.

Appreciation and Critique

At the same time, if we look more closely, each view does seem to have a finger on something that is true about the foundations of moral discernment and decision-making. The relativist can be appreciated for the concern he expresses for the "autonomy" of the individual and the requirement that moral value be subjectively meaningful to the person. Aristotle’s emphasis on "habits" of virtue and the existentialist’s concern for "passionate commitment" and "authentic choice" have something in common here, though they are surely expressed in different moods and from different sets of presuppositions. Nonetheless, if there is no possibility for appeal to some transcendent referent or "ground" of moral value, then there is no way to justify a particular set of habits or commitments. In the end, therefore, the relativist is the victim of his own inclinations" (Kant), and though we may want to think of these as subjectively "located," they remain the product of external determination, since inclinations tend, in the final analysis, to be biologically and/or socially conditioned responses (cf. Monod and Skinner).

In regard to the conventional moralist, there is a recognition that we are the product of our cultural heritage. In this respect, we are determined to live within certain finite limits of moral possibility, and it would seem to be in our best (not necessarily our "baser") interests to accept the standards which are provided for us. At the same time, we need to ask how these culturally enmeshed orders of value came to be what they are. Are they the willy-nilly product of mechanical and/or evolutionary causation? Or are they, at least to some degree, the product of human rationality, initiative and choice? One can argue, I think, that not only the forces of circumstance but also men and women acting on their circumstances make the future what it is. If this is so, we can recognize that the "stuff" of our moral lives is only partly what is given; and it is partly what we make of it. Still, in the final analysis, our history makes us what we are now, and the conventions of our present social, political, economic and moral world constitute a realm of external determination on our lives.

And third, the idealist is quite right in pointing to the "existence" of a moral universe. In terms of both the natural and the historical conditions of human life, there are continuities that can be discovered -- albeit falteringly and incompletely. Without the affirmation of a moral universe, without the recognition of some kind of realm of "ultimacy," there can be no ontological basis on which we can justify making moral judgments at all. If we do not believe in and affirm the reality of "moral universality," however we conceive of its shape, we are left with no ontological basis on which we can justify recommending a course of moral action to others, except that of our own desires and interests. In short, without a moral universe, there is no moral appeal that can be made. (This is the point made by the "absurdist existentialists," such as Sartre and Camus, though Camus qualifies his absurdism significantly.)

Still, it is exceedingly easy to think of "natural law" or the "will of God" in terms of absolute and immutable laws. In this respect, even though we might want to affirm that man has some degree of free choice as to whether or not he will abide by such laws, the moral universe would still be a realm of external determination which would, in the final analysis, depend on some nonhuman rationality, if it were assumed to be rational at all. The concept of "acquired freedom," as Mortimer Adler defines it (in his two-volume The Idea of Freedom), is such a view, and this permeates much of theological as well as secular ethics, particularly of a Platonic-Augustinian variety. In this view, one is accomplishing the "good life" when one conforms to the external dictates of a realm of Form, the natural law, the law of God, or whatever. Indeed, such an ethical perspective does not need man at all. He even seems to be in the way of the perfect harmony that the universe seeks. Here there is little place for creative moral choosing. In moral situations, one can only say "yea" or "nay" to the given "good" or "right." Moreover, to accept such a view is not only to give up any conception of man as an "individual," but to sacrifice any profound and dynamic or creative concept of human community. In this conception, in effect, ethics gives way to ontology, freedom to order, and man to the universe as a whole.

It would seem, then, that we are left with no basis for making our moral judgments and decisions that is in any way genuinely moral. After all, if man is nothing more than an externally determined "actor on a stage," the very most he can do is have the option of remembering or forgetting his "lines" (or perhaps refusing to say them). Surely this is not an acceptable definition of the moral life. In short, none of the traditional models for answering the original question is sufficient by itself.

The Moral Agent

Well, what then? How are we to understand the foundations of morality? We cannot fully explore the answer to this question here, but perhaps it will be possible to offer at least an outline of a perspective that, though it requires much elaboration, can point us in a more fruitful direction.

First, moral decision-making is normative decision-making. A moral agent may not abdicate his or her responsibility for giving a normative explanation that can serve as a justification for his or her moral choices. In this context, "norms" are not to be thought of in the narrow sense as "rules" only; they should be viewed in a broader sense as any rationally chosen factors determinative of moral action. Without defining what type of material content such norms should have, I want to say only that the formal requirement for moral decisions is that they be rationally and self-consciously, not naturally and "blindly," determined. Otherwise, actions are neither "moral" nor "immoral," but "natural."

Second, however, moral agents are not atomically isolated individuals with no roots in their surroundings; they are integrally and "organically" related to the world around them. The moral life is life-in-relationships. Thus the moral agent is inextricably bound up in what we have called the external determinations of his or her natural and historical surroundings. This is the human condition, and moral agents cannot escape it. In fact, it is precisely in relation to these surroundings that they find the resources for shaping moral value in ways that are genuinely human. Moral judging and decision-making can only occur, in other words, by means of the given "raw material" of already established moral orders. Thus, for the most part, normative justifications will take place with reference to these already available moral orders.

Third, a moral agent cannot abdicate his or her responsibility for taking hold of and playing a contributing part in the shaping and reshaping of these moral orders by simply conforming his or her value-decisions ("mechanically," as it were) to any of these external orders. We must often defer to the existing rules and expectations, but it is simply not enough to say "It’s the law (society’s or God’s)!" or "It’s the will of God!" or "I just ‘feel’ this way!" However we define the moral universe in which we live -- individualistically, conventionally or idealistically -- we must, I believe, deny that it is either complete or static. Of course, some might agree that it is not complete without wanting to say that it is not static. That is, some might agree that we have not yet achieved moral "perfection," either in terms of our understanding of it or in terms of practical achievement (surely not the latter!). Still, those who argue this way might want to say that the fact of moral "perfection" must be postulated as true. In other words, they might want to argue that the moral values, rules and laws are "complete" and that the moral task is to discover and act in conformity with them. In this view, moral reasoning must move deductively "from the top down," as it were. Even on an individualistic-relativistic and not an idealistic-legalistic stance, the tendency is to view the ends of moral striving in terms of self-fulfillment, a "perfectionistic" image.

Man as Moral Creator

In contrast, I would argue for the imagery of a moral universe in the making. I would argue further in favor of the Judeo-Christian affirmation of man as created "in the image of God," and that part of what this means is: Man, like God, was not intended to be simply another natural being but to be an active participant in and creator of the moral orders of the universe. That is, man was intended by God to be a moral and communal-historical being. Man’s responsibility in this regard must be exercised in and with varying degrees of deference to the external moral (and natural) orders he inherits in virtue of his past and present relationships with God, other individuals, groups, nature, history, culture, and a variety of moral communities. At the same time, if he allows these orders to rule him completely, then he is living "heteronomously" and therefore amorally. In fact, this is a sinful response to his created nature, for it is in direct contravention of the will of God for his creation. The will of God in this sense does not consist of specific rules and goals for human beings to conform to and seek, but of an intention that men and women exercise their creative moral powers to construct a human universe of moral order confluent with yet transcendent of the natural universe of physical order.

In this context, man as species and man as person acts as creator of a moral universe. As species, man produces the configurations of history, culture, society, technology, politics, economics, the arts and religion which serve as his "life-world" and represent his "dominion over the earth." Nature cannot be altogether controlled, but it can be subdued for human ends. As person, man acts individually and in relatively close communities to shape and reshape his "life-world" according to the immediate demands and goals of the present moment. In this respect, he interacts with what is given -- naturally, historically, and in the immediacy of his own subjectivity -- to "make what was not" for the sake of fulfilling presently conceived moral ends. Indeed, we might say that God created man with the intention that man should "make what God did not make" and, what is more, that man "make what God did not think to make" as a consequence of God’s gracious self-limitation of his own power in the act of creating man. In this process, then, man exercises a rationally informed will in molding his circumstances to an order that he finds acceptable. This constitutes his moral autonomy, and at the same time defines his moral responsibility.

To be sure, this process is not unambiguous. Quite apart from the obvious limitations and ambiguities of his natural finiteness, man uses his creative moral power not only for constructive ends but for destructive ones as well. We cannot here pursue a discussion of sin and evil, but we can affirm the insight of Reinhold Niebuhr that this creative capability of human nature (of man as "spirit," as Niebuhr puts it) is the source of both man’s greatness and his misery. While I want to deny here that the moral universe is static and is to be "legalistically" interpreted in a "perfectionistic" manner, I think we ought to recognize that there are continuities that emerge within the matrix of the human-moral process. (Niebuhr talks about "harmony," and, though this is a useful concept, it is tied to a perfectionistic notion of agape that is not altogether consistent with what I want to say about moral creativity.) These continuities can be related to in healthy and unhealthy ways, depending on the admixture of good and bad motivations that function in the lives of moral agents. And even with the "best" of motives, the unintended consequences of moral creativity are often discontinuous with what is most advantageous for human betterment. This notion requires much more elaboration, but the main point is that the "image of God" is not an uncorrupted one in human nature as it actually exists, and this fact prevents us from taking too sanguine a view of our divinely given, unique powers. On the contrary, it makes us all the more conscious of our responsibilities. (Think here of Luther’s "spiritual" use of the law.)

Still, in light of God’s willingness to have faith in his creature by intending these moral powers for man and limiting his own powers for the sake of giving man "space" in which to be more than a "robot" or a "puppet" in a "stage play," and most especially in light of God’s willingness to enter into the worst of man’s human-historical condition via the incarnation for the sake of redeeming the "lifeworld" that man, by his powers, has corrupted through sin, the moral agent can ultimately affirm his or her moral nature in confidence that this "image of God" will not only not be lost but will continue to be affirmed and redeemed to the glory of God.

The perspective I have only begun to outline here is surely a "risky" one; a "moral universe in the making" is not as secure as one that is already given. And it is confining in its responsibility as well; it would be much less trouble to "do one’s own thing" as one "felt." However, those who crave for simplicity will not find an ally in me. I find little promise in "back-to-nature" movements or "one way" religion (either neo-pietistic fundamentalism or Oriental mysticism) or psychoanalytic fads or any number of other popular trends. To meet the moral challenges of the complexities and conflicts of our age will require that we resist the temptations of simple answers and resolve instead to be responsive to and responsible. for a moral universe that is characterized by both continuity and open-ended-ness. Perhaps as we do this we shall be able to create some more adequate frames of reference for understanding the moral life in the midst of the kind of world we have inherited, and perhaps we can face our moral responsibilities to preserve and innovatively reconstruct our moral universe with some equanimity. As I assess the confusion of our present condition, this is precisely the task with which we must challenge our students, our religious communions, our society, and ourselves.