Defining Morality

February 10, 2012 by Rabbi Michoel Gourarie
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Most normal human beings have a desire to pursue moral behaviour..writes Rabbi Michoel Gourarie.

Rabbi Michol Gourarie photo: Henry Benjamin

The only question is what the definition of morality is. The Oxford definition – principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour – only shifts the question from ‘what is moral?’ to ‘what is right?’

There is a common perception that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are defined by the effect on others. Harming other people, negatively controlling those that are helpless or ignoring the plight of those who suffer is immoral. However, as long as I do not adversely affect anyone else I am free to do whatever I please and will still be defined as a moral human being.

The Jewish definition is very different.

The Torah views morality not as a gauge of social conduct but rather as an intrinsic distinction between good and evil. We are encouraged to engage in that which is good and distance ourselves from evil, even when it has no effect on others.

Here is a simple example. The Torah warns us not to use false weights and measurements. However, this command not only bans the actual use of false measurements – the law against theft already covers this. This prohibition includes even the passive act of holding them in one’s possession even if they are never used. We are simply not permitted to keep something deceptive in our homes. 

Using false weights is stealing and is harmful to our fellow being. Keeping them in our home is connecting to something false and therefore evil. Moral behaviour is not a strategy for effective social conduct. Morality is virtuous behaviour for sake of the pursuit of that which is intrinsically good and pure. We are not defined only by how we act towards others but rather by the goodness that is within.