Universal Morality: In the Final Analysis

Thirty years after he wrote them, Dr. Kent Keith was shocked and thrilled to hear his “Paradoxical Commandments” (see below) read as a poem attributed to Mother Theresa. He discovered the basis of the connection between himself and Mother Theresa through library research and began to speak about his work again.

Since then, Dr. Keith has become a renowned writer and public speaker (and lawyer) who has put years of work into parsing out universal ethics and exploring the field of positive psychology.


In addition to writing beautifully, Keith has produced a clear list of universal ethics–ideas that are common among all the major religions and on which we can agree even if we do not believe in a higher power. He calls this The Universal Moral Code.

Keith’s Universal Moral Code can be distilled into two main tenets: “Do no harm” and “Do Good.” The complete list contains twenty-two actions we can take (“Be generous,” “Take care of your children when they are young”) or not take (“Do not physically or verbally abuse others,” “Do not do to others what you would not like for them to do to you”) to be moral, ethical humans.

I am fascinated by the commonalities among the beliefs of ethical people and am always curious to discover what ethics seem to be innate in humans (most ethics) and which are ‘created’ through religious idiosyncrasies or legal peculiarities.

Keith and I are not the only people who seek clarity on what ethics we can all agree upon.

"Penn Fraser Jillette (born March 5, 1955) is an American magician, comedian, illusionist, juggler, bassist and a best-selling author." I copied that directly from Wikipedia, because it is awesome.

In 2011, Glen Beck challenged Penn Jilette (of Penn and Teller) to come up with an Athiest’s version of the Ten Commandments and this is what he came up with.

Jilette’s list has a lot in common with Keith’s, but it is more parsimonious and elegant. He includes a commandment to rest, to “Put aside some time to rest and think” in his fourth commandment. This commandment encompasses all forms of religious ‘rest’ (Shabbat, Sunday for Christians, snake-handling, whatever). His other commandments include the abstract: “The highest ideals are human intelligence, creativity and love. Respect these above all.” And the simple: “Keep your promises. (If you can’t be sexually exclusive to your spouse, don’t make that deal).”

Keith and Jilette each provide a wonderful base of commonality among all humans: religious, spiritual, and non-believing. What a beautiful project. What ethics do you think are universal? Is there anything missing from Keith’s or Jilette’s list? Is there anything that should be taken out of either list?

The Final Analysis (Dr. Kent M. Keith)
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies. Succeed anyway.
If  you are honest and frank, people may cheat you. Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight. Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough. Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the FINAL analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.


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Filed under Ethics, Psychology

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