Is it possible to achieve a moral and ethical society while leaving G‑d out of the equation? Many today maintain that not only is this eminently possible, but morality which is not predicated on religion is a far better alternative to ethics that stem from blind adherence to a particular canon. The human heart, they argue, inherently possesses a moral compass. Religion all too often warps this inborn sense of right and wrong, and is simply another outdated device that enlightened societies can do without.
To address this issue, we must first take a brief dip into the deep waters of human psychology and anthropology. What indeed is the source of the natural moral compass, and why do certain people seem to lack this quality? And how is it that a creature which is naturally selfish, motivated above all by self preservation and aggrandizement, should also be naturally kind and concerned for the welfare of others?
Are we outraged because we are better people, or because we are not as of yet in power?An analysis of those people who engage in cruel and oppressive acts clarifies the issue. As a rule, these are people who are in power who torment the helpless -- tyrants bullying their victims, a nation's ruling ethnic group persecuting a weak minority, soldiers on the battlefield viciously mistreating their enemy, or, to a lesser degree, politicians corruptly misusing their office. In all instances, the oppressors are confident in their power and positions, and feel themselves to be immune from retribution, certain that their victims can never repay them in kind.
The rest of us are horrified by the immoral acts of these despotic individuals. Are we outraged because we are better people, or because we are not as of yet in power? Our righteous indignation upon hearing of incidence of murder, violence and injustice -- are they perhaps due to a subconscious fear that we could, G‑d forbid, be the next victims? Can it be said that our "moral compass" is nothing more than another self-preservation mechanism designed to protect ourselves from a society that could potentially descend into a state of anarchy in the absence of law and order?
Without compunction we trap mice and crush roaches that dare invade our homes. Why? Because we do not fear invading battalions of armed avenging rodents or insects. What if we viewed another segment of the population in a similar light? No, this is not simply remote conjecture; this actually occurred in a highly enlightened and civilized society less than a century ago!
And here is the scariest thought: even if our society as a whole never again deteriorates to that dreadful point, what if in our personal lives we encounter a situation wherein we feel completely secure in doing an immoral act, confident that the victim will never know who wronged him, or certain that he will never have the means to retaliate?
Maimonides writes (Laws of Kings 9:11):
"One who accepts the Seven Noahide Laws and is meticulous in their observance is from the righteous of the nations of the world and has a share in the World-to-Come -- provided that he does so because G‑d commanded so in the Torah. . . If, however, he observes them because his mind so dictates, he is not from the righteous of the nations nor is he from their wise ones [alternative version: rather he is from their wise ones]."
Perhaps Maimonides himself penned both versions. They are both equally correct.
These laws are wise whether or not they are observed with the proper intentionsA society is wise to adopt the Seven Noahide Laws (seven universal laws, which include prohibitions against murder, theft, etc.) as part of their legal system. They are prudent laws that form the basis of a moral legal code. These laws are wise whether or not they are observed with the proper intentions.
Ultimately, however, it is not wise to follow these moral principles independent of their Giver. Such a moral system may work for most of the people most of the time, but inevitably it will fail -- either society-wide, or in the individual lives of citizens in certain situations. Absolute morality can only be a product of the unchanging realization that there is an absolute Divine "eye that sees, ear that hears, and all your actions are chronicled in a ledger."
Perhaps our Founding Fathers recognized this truth when they opened the Declaration of Independence with the words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." A return to this idea would go a long way towards improving our nation's moral fabric.