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The Bible often makes references to the law being written on our hearts, for example:

The mouth of the righteous speaks wisdom, And his tongue talks of justice. The law of his God is in his heart; None of his steps shall slide.

Psalm 37:30-31 (NKJV)

I know it's not being literal when it says the law (morals) are written on our hearts. So how do we get morals?

  • Are we born knowing (genetic?).
  • Is it spiritual and morals are transmitted to our brains from our spirits?
  • Are they learned from reading the Bible?
  • Are they passed down from generation to generation?
  • Something else?

Background (my justification for asking the question)

I'm an agnostic atheist and an emotivist. I enjoy watching debates between atheists and theists.

The theists frequently ask the atheists:

If god isn't real, then how do you know what is right and wrong?

Which is a good question, but I rarely hear the reverse asked:

If god is real, then how do you know what is right and wrong?

Thanks.

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4 Answers

The Euthypro dilemma has bearing on this question. Generally the Christian view has been that we should base our morality not on anything God has arbitrally commanded but rather on Gods character.

We should not lie because God cannot lie.

Titus 1:2 >> New American Standard Bible (©1995) in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago...

He is the moral standard to which we all should strive.

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God has given us a set of guidelines in the Old Testament and solidified them into morals in the New Testament.

In the OT we get things like "Do not commit adultery". But then along comes Jesus and he says something that completely throws the old rules on its head:

Matthew 5:27-28

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

He completely topples the old regime and institutes a law of the heart: a law of morality.

God actually told Israel that this would happen in the Old Testament:

Hebrews 8:8-10 (NIV)

8 But God found fault with the people and said:
   “The days are coming, declares the Lord,
   when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
   and with the people of Judah.
9 It will not be like the covenant
   I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
   to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
   and I turned away from them,
            declares the Lord.
10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
   after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
   and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
   and they will be my people.

Here, he's saying that his old covenant will pass away and that the new covenant will be one that is written on the hearts of man.

He is declaring that the day will come when his laws will not be ones of ink and stone, but ones of the heart: moral laws.

So, how does God give us the ability to know right from wrong? He has written those laws on our hearts.

Without God, there would be no morality. The bible is quite clear on this.

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Interesting, then, how much religious morality varies with culture and sect (even within the same religion), and has varied with time and politics. It could be argued very successfully that an agreed morality is bound more to society, rather than religion. –  Marc Gravell Aug 31 '11 at 13:08
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@Marc Gravell Don't confuse ethics with morals. Morals are regarding absolute right and wrong. Ethics, on the other hand, are determined by society. –  Richard Aug 31 '11 at 13:12
    
That seems to be a case of picking between the two to suit the purpose. Saying it is "morality" if it is an absolute, and it is an absolute because it is written in the Bible is a bit circular. What, then, would you cite as an example of "morality" rather than an "ethic"? Actually, I'm not sure that is a useful direction; but - I think that is trying to box things a little too cleanly. –  Marc Gravell Aug 31 '11 at 15:54
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Actually, the difference between morals and ethics is a huge topic in sociology and psychology. So, I don't consider this unuseful at all! Here is a link that backs up this idea. From a non-Christian perspective: Morals: Is cold-blooded murder wrong? (Yes, because societies throughout history have called it "wrong".) Ethics: Is homosexuality wrong? (Maybe, depending on the society and point in history that you are talking about.) A Christian perspective Morals are repeated in the bible many times. Ethics are outside the bible. –  Richard Aug 31 '11 at 16:02
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Maybe you misunderstood. From a non-Christian perspective, homosexuality is an ethic. From the Christian perspective it's a moral. Unfortunately, the line between these gets a little blurry. ;) (Also, that question you posted is a nice question.) –  Richard Aug 31 '11 at 16:51
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If you are asking how is morality defined, or "who decides what is moral and immoral?" then Christians believe that God decides that, and that He makes His will known to us through various means, like the Bible, tradition, revelation, prophets, etc. Various Christian religions dissent on the exact details here.

If you are asking how people become moral, then a big, big part of morality comes from education, from family, society, etc. Morality is certainly taught and Christ is described as a teacher very clearly in the Gospels.

Its also quite evident if you look at different Faiths. Muslims truly consider immoral to eat pigs, whereas Christians wouldn't flinch. If morals were innate we would all share the same morality, which we clearly don't.

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While rules about food vary a lot (in part probably due to different hygiene issues when and where the rules were made), other moral rules are more universal (e.g. don't kill/murder, don't steal). –  starblue Sep 2 '11 at 9:29
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This isn't a complete answer, but I think that because humans have free will, certain parts of what is moral and immoral are situational. While we are provided guidelines from the old Law and then in the person of Christ, these guidelines do not form a complete moral law. The rest, provided it does not go against the basis, must be built by the Christians according to their situation.

A few thoughts are

  • Consequences of actions are important, and these include eternal consequences
  • We do not always know the full consequence of an action
  • Immoral acts are sometimes 'hand-waved' for the sake of mercy, but this does not make the act permissable
  • There is a hierarchy of values, the highest of which seems to be 'obedience to God' (see the conflict that happens in the Garden of Gethsemane.)
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