The Power of Moral Principles in Action


Have you noticed that morally powerful quotes posted on social media from insightful thinkers get a lot of traction? Moral principles inspire people. “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children” (attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer) brings instant positive comment, as does “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” (generally though probably incorrectly ascribed to George Orwell). It’s the same with stories of people who stop at nothing to live up to the demands of their belief. Take the subject of Mel Gibson’s new movie, Hacksaw Ridge, about the Sabbath-keeping, pacifist medic Desmond Doss at the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. This noncombatant (unarmed) hero saved many wounded men by dragging them back from the front line at the height of battle. He was the only World War II conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. Two of his principles were derived from the Ten Commandments, which specify Sabbath rest and forbid murder.

Moral principles and the actions that flow from them are the truly big ideas. When principle is lived out in example, no matter the walk of life, it convinces and convicts.

Yet many too easily dismiss principled people’s actions in the same breath in which they praise their commitment. While admiring the Sabbath-keeper’s devotion to principle, they might voice the excuse that they wouldn’t want to be overly strict personally, effectively canceling out the action that led to admiration. In other words, let the other person live up to principle, but I don’t want to be a fanatic. We could consider this as an interesting maneuver on the part of human nature. Was Jesus a fanatic when He observed the Sabbath? Certainly not! Was the Pharisees’ strict obedience in keeping the day the problem, or was it their self-righteous and judgmental attitude toward others? Clearly the latter.

We are susceptible to self-deception every time our actions conflict with the lived-out principles we admire in others. It’s then that rationalization kicks in and we find a reason for our failure to be brave or persistent or committed. We tell ourselves that it’s too difficult to do what is right; or we hide behind “I’m no saint”; or we excuse our wrong behavior with “I’m just a weak person.”

But Jesus taught those who followed Him, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Belief had to be seen in good works—in the doing of the right thing. To profess and not do would not produce anything beneficial. As He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

Can human weakness be overcome so that right action can follow from right principle? Can we “be[come] perfect” as our Father is (Matthew 5:48)? It’s a tall order. But just before His death, Jesus assured His followers of His continuing help. It was closely connected with living out His teaching: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23). There can be no better help than that!

Tags: ethics and morality, character, moral principles