Moral Courage (Part 1)

(cc) Walt Stoneburner - Flickr

(cc) Walt Stoneburner - Flickr

What do you think of when you hear the words “moral courage”?

Webster defines “morals” as: “moral practices or teachings; modes of conduct; ethics”. [1]

“Ethics” is defined as: “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation; a set of moral principles; a theory or system of moral values; the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group; a guiding philosophy; a set of moral issues or aspects (as rightness)”. [2]

So your morals can be defined as “what you believe about what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad, what your moral duties and obligations are, and how you should conduct yourself”.

Do you believe that it is wrong to steal? Then that is part of your moral code.

Do you believe that it is good to tell the truth? Then that is part of your moral code.

Do you believe that you have an obligation to take care of your parents when they grow old? That, too, is part of your moral code.

There needs to be a standard

Where do all the components of our moral code come from? Theoretically, every person’s moral code could be completely different (and, in reality, probably is to some extent). If it’s just left up to each individual to determine what is right and what is wrong based on his own personal desires and wishes, imagine the resulting confusion, chaos, unfairness, and imbalance.

If you believe that you have an obligation to provide for your parents in their old age, but your brothers and sisters feel no such obligation, you may be stuck footing the entire bill for their eldercare.

Perhaps I have no moral restraint that would keep me from having sex with as many people as I want to, while my wife believes strongly in monogamy as the only right option in a marriage. If such is the case, our marriage probably isn’t going to last very long.

I might believe that it is wrong to murder, while your own personal moral compass includes no such restriction. (Bad news for me!)

If there is no authoritative standard which establishes societal norms for what is right and what is wrong, the result is anarchy.

So let’s see if we can answer that question — “Where do all the components of our moral code come from?” — by examining the different moral influences that most people experience throughout the course of their lives.


The first “society” that most people experience is their immediate family. As a child grows, he begins to learn “the rules” from parental instruction and discipline, as well as from observation. These are the first stages in the development of a person’s moral code.

As a boy, I never heard the phrase, “You just wait until your father gets home”. My sweet Mom could swing a belt at least as effectively as my Dad could, and fortunately that belt found its way across my gluteus maximus on a number of occasions. I say “fortunately”, because those spankings helped me learn, in a very memorable way, the importance of being nice to other people (even your stinkin’ brothers), of always telling the truth (especially to your parents, because they’re going to find out the truth anyway), and of speaking respectfully to older people. My Dad’s belt helped in a big way to shape my moral code from an early age.

It is interesting to me, in light of today’s philosophy concerning spanking children (i.e. DON’T), that it never once crossed my mind that I was being abused … because I wasn’t. The problem in today’s society is that too many parents choose one extreme or the other: neglect or abuse.

Too many parents don’t place any restrictions on their children, or if they do, there are no appreciable consequences. As a result, those children learn from an early age that they can pretty much do whatever they want to do, and it’s OK. They fail to make the connection in their formative years between actions and consequences. This is unfortunate, because it has the real potential to set them up for heartache and misery down the road.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are parents who blow up at their kids for the least little thing, never showing any tenderness or love toward those same children. Uncontrollable anger, rage, and even physical violence are not uncommon in such families. This often leaves a child with the impression that “I can’t do anything right”, or worse, “I must be a bad person” or “I’m just worthless”. The emotional scars from such traumatic abuse run deep, and often lead to a lifetime of relationship difficulties.

As with most things in life, balance is the key. Children deserve to be smothered with love. They need to know that they are important, that they are special. They need to have a deep-seated sense of value and intrinsic worth. Home needs to be a safe haven, a place where they feel comfortable, a place where they belong. Having established that nurturing environment around their children, parents can use punishment (even corporal punishment when warranted) as an effective tool to help children understand and remember the difference between right and wrong. Love is the key. It is the balance.

The reason I never suspected that I was being abused as a child is that I knew how much my parents loved me. Hugs and kisses and pats on the back and “I’m so proud of you” and having my back scratched in church were the norm. There was no doubt in my mind that Mom and Dad loved me from the bottom of their hearts, and that I was infinitely important to them. In that context, corporal punishment was not even remotely imagined as being abusive. Love and punishment were the essential balance that helped me learn right from wrong.


When a child is old enough to attend school, suddenly he is faced with a whole new set of rules and expectations.

Do your homework well and turn it in on time (responsibility, punctuality), and you will receive a good grade. Do sloppy work, or don’t turn it in on time, and you will receive a bad grade.

Stay at your appropriate place in line (orderliness, consideration of others), and you will get to eat lunch as soon as possible. Cut in line or act unruly, and you will be placed at the end of the line and have to wait on everyone else.

Follow the dress code (respect for self, cleanliness, appropriate attire), and your day will go much more smoothly. Refuse to follow the dress code and face any of a number of unpleasantries (wearing ugly or over-sized clothing provided by the school, detention, in-school suspension).

Place graffiti in the restrooms or on other school property, and you will likely receive serious punishment because you have failed to show respect for other people’s property.

Cheat on a test, and you will probably get a “zero” in the teacher’s grade book, because you showed dishonesty and a lack of integrity by trying to claim someone else’s work as your own.

Schools teach much more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. Whether they will admit it or not, they also teach morality. By helping students understand the relationship between actions and consequences, schools are a crucial component in helping children to develop their moral code.

The law

As a citizen of Waxahachie, Texas, there are certain city ordinances by which I must abide.

I may not “sell, or use, discharge, explode, or fire any fireworks within the city limits”. [3]

I may not “climb or ascend any water tower, windmill tower, telephone, telegraph, electric light or any other publicly or privately owned pole in the city”. [4]

If my dog poops in your yard, I have committed an offense. [5]

As a citizen of the Great State of Texas:

I cannot sell you my eye! Seriously, it’s a Class A misdemeanor. [6]

If I drive faster than the speed limit on a state highway, I am likely to be stopped by a Highway Patrol officer, issued a citation, and required to pay a hefty fine.

The point is this: As a member of society, there are laws that govern my conduct every day. These laws establish those “societal norms” discussed earlier regarding behavior that is acceptable and behavior that is unacceptable. These laws help to shape my moral code.

It’s my choice

Here is where the rubber of morality meets the road of life.

Mom and Dad told me what I could and could not do during my childhood and teenage years. The school system told me what was expected of me as a student. The laws of the land continue to place restrictions and expectations on me throughout my entire life.

In each of those scenarios, I get to choose whether or not to abide by those rules, those expectations, those laws. There are consequences to my decision, but the decision is still mine. The rules are there to help me understand the societal norms of right and wrong. Every time I make a decision to abide by or disregard one of those rules, I am shaping and refining my own moral code.

An eternal perspective

The true importance of my own personal moral code is only fully realized when placed against the backdrop of eternity.

God created everything, including me. He has established eternal principles of right and wrong, and has delivered those principles to me in the form of His holy word, the Bible. He has told me the ultimate consequence of my decisions regarding my personal adherence (or lack thereof) to His code. If I choose to live by His principles and follow His rules, I will be rewarded beyond measure. If I choose to disregard His moral code and live by my own rules, I will forfeit my reward and experience His wrath instead.

And now for a brief Theological Aside:

I am not discounting God’s amazing grace in my simplified statement above: “Follow the rules, get heaven; thumb your nose at the rules, prepare to burn”. I do not subscribe to the notion of a “checklist religion”, as some would call it, where I earn my way into heaven by checking off all the little boxes, much like a Boy Scout earns his Merit Badge by checking off all the requirements for that badge. I certainly understand that I can never “earn” my way into heaven, no matter how good I am or how many boxes I have checked. I absolutely understand that it is only by God’s grace that I have any hope of salvation.

However, as in all areas of life, we must find balance in our understanding of grace and works, and what role each plays in our acceptance of God’s incredible offer of salvation. We must remember that the very reason we were made new in Christ Jesus (grace) is to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). So, if I don’t do good works, I am not fulfilling my purpose. I am not, in fact, living my life by God’s moral code. If I choose not to live by God’s principles of right and wrong, then I have crawled out from under the umbrella of God’s grace, and am no longer covered by it.

Moral Courage

My original question, way back at the beginning of this article, was “What do you think of when you hear the words ‘moral courage’?” We have examined the definition of morals and the origins of morality. In my next article, we will discuss the idea of moral courage, which manifests itself not only in living by our morals, but also in speaking up and taking a stand for those morals. I hope you will join me for that discussion as well.

Until then, God bless you!
Paul O'Rear Signature

Photo Credit:

  1. Compass” by Walt Stoneburner (Flickr), Creative Commons License


  1. morals“, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  2. ethics“, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  3. Code of Ordinances; City of Waxahachie, Texas; Chapter 21: Offenses and Miscellaneous Provisions; Article I: In General; Sec. 21-6: Sale and discharge of firearms, discharge of firearms
  4. Code of Ordinances; City of Waxahachie, Texas; Chapter 21: Offenses and Miscellaneous Provisions; Article III: Offenses Against Property; Sec. 21-33: Water towers, poles, similar structures; climbing
  5. Code of Ordinances; City of Waxahachie, Texas; Chapter 6: Animals and Fowl; Article II: Dogs and Cats; Sec. 6-18. Dogs defecating on public and private property
  6. Texas Statutes; Penal Code; Title 10: Offenses Against Public Health, Safety, and Morals; Chapter 48: Conduct Affecting Public Health; Sec. 48.02: Prohibition of the Purchase and Sale of Human Organs


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