Paul Tillich (1886-1965): “Moralisms and Morality: Theonomous Ethics”

Does religion have anything to offer to ethics? Certainly, an atheist can behave very morally — many of the most moral people I have known have been atheists. Also, many countries and cultures that existed before the time of Abraham and Jesus were able to recognize the ethical principles that we follow today.

However, Paul Tillich argues that religion can contribute to ethics. Religion can change a person’s life around and make that person into a new person who will act morally for the right reason — who will act the way a person of faith ought to act.

Therefore, religion offers something more than a set of moral rules of the kind that Kai Nielsen writes about. (Nielsen argues that an acceptable system of ethics could be based on two moral principles, neither of which is religious.) According to Tillich, religion offers a new way of life to the person of faith. Religion can result in a new orientation in a person’s life — an orientation that would lead to acting morally in a way consistent with their faith.

Morality Unconditional; Moralisms Conditional

The first thing that we need to do is to define “moralisms.” According to Tillich, moralisms are mere moral codes — lists of rules that we must follow. However, morality is something much greater, and much more important.

According to Tillich, moralisms are conditional; whereas morality is unconditional. This is actually a concept that comes from Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who is famous for the categorical imperative. Kant believed that in determining whether an act is moral, we must consider the motive of the person doing the act and not the consequences. According to Kant, two people can do an act that has exactly the same consequence and yet only one of the two people has acted morally.

For example, let’s take two people who are charitable. Both people decide to give $1 million to a hospital. One person is a politician who donates the money in order to get favorable publicity. The other person is an anonymous donor who donates the money out of a moral duty to relieve human suffering.

The acts of the two people have exactly the same main consequence: $1 million is donated to a hospital. However, according to Kant, only one of the donors has acted morally. The moral person is the person who has acted unconditionally; that is, the moral person has acted only out of a sense of moral duty and not because he or she hoped to personally gain from the act.

The politician, in contrast, has not acted morally because he acted conditionally. The politician thought, “If I want to gain favorable publicity, then I ought to donate $1 million to a hospital.” The politician donated the money on the condition that the donation would bring him favorable publicity.

The main point here is this: Morality is unconditional. Morality unconditionally demands that we do our duty, whatever our duty may be. That is why only the anonymous donor has done a moral act. This is something that Kant argued, and something that Tillich agrees with.

Another way to look at this issue is in terms of positive law and of natural law, a distinction made by medieval philosophers. Positive law is concerned with specific issues, while natural law is concerned with general principles.

An example of natural law is, Human life is precious and ought to be preserved. In following this natural law, states may pass different kinds of traffic laws; for example, states in the sparsely populated Western areas may have higher speed limits than states in the densely populated Eastern areas because Western states realize that people can safely drive at higher speeds in the West than in the East. These traffic laws are examples of positive law. The point of all this is that moralisms are positive laws, whereas morality is natural law.

Essential and Actual Being

Another way to bring light on this issue is to consider the distinction between ideal being and actual being, which is illustrated in the table belows:

Our Ideal Being

(What we ought to be)


Our Actual Being

(What we actually are)


This table points out a gulf between our two selves. Our actual being is what we actually are; in this kind of being, moral obligation is thought of as a list of rules to be followed (moralisms).

However, there is also our ideal being, which is what we ought to be. This ideal being is a moral being that is concerned with morality; the ideal being always does his or her duty — it does things not because a rule or law says to do them, but because those things are the right things to do.

It’s important to note that merely following moralisms cannot make you moral. You can obey all the 10 Commandments all your life, but you will not be moral unless you obey them for the right reason. If you obey the 10 Commandments simply because you wish to be a Very Important Politician and obeying the 10 Commandments helps you achieve that goal (political races nowadays focus largely on character; if you don’t commit adultery and don’t break any of the other commandments, your opponent will find it hard to dig up dirt on you), then you are not acting morally. To be moral, you have to obey the 10 Commandments for the right reason; because obeying them is your moral duty — obeying the 10 Commandments is the right thing to do.

Note well: There is an estrangement between our ideal being and our actual being. None of us is perfect, even though we may try every day to achieve our ideal being. In addition, moralisms can make this estrangement worse. When we realize that we sometimes break those moral rules that we ought to obey because they are the right things to do, then we become aware that we have not achieved our ideal self. This can lead to guilt and despair.

In addition, moralisms can estrange us from our ideal self in another way. Suppose that we do keep all the 10 Commandments. It is possible that we can become proud of this fact and think that we have achieved our ideal self when we have not. For example, a person may follow the rule of giving a certain percentage of his income to charity, but when a disaster occurs in his hometown, he could refuse to help his neighbors because “I have already given to charity.” A truly charitable person would give more than his or usual amount to charity in times of emergency. Being proud of keeping the 10 Commandments can lead to self-complacency.

According to Tillich,

Legalism drives either to self-complacency (I have kept all commandments) or to despair (I cannot keep any commandment). Moralism of law makes pharisees or cynics, or it produces in the majority of people an indifference which lowers the moral imperative to conventional behavior.

Forgiveness and Regeneration

So what can we do? Are we doomed forever to have a split between our actual being and our ideal being? No, because Tillich points out two important elements in religion that can help us overcome this split: forgiveness and regeneration. The word “forgiveness” means acceptance, including self-acceptance. The word “regeneration” means becoming a new being that moves toward what we ought to be.

Fortunately, the grace of God will give us forgiveness and regeneration. As Tillich points out, “Moralism necessarily ends in the quest for grace. … Grace unites two elements: the overcoming of guilt and the overcoming of estrangement.”

Grace overcomes guilt through the forgiveness of sins. I have known people who are filled with guilt because they don’t think that God can forgive their sins. This awareness of their sins keeps before them the split between their actual being and their ideal being. These people could benefit through realizing that God can forgive all sins.

According to Tillich, grace overcomes estrangement through regeneration or “the ‘entering into the new being’ which is above the split between what we are and what we ought to be.” With regeneration, we become a new person — we become a person of faith who will act the way that a person of faith ought to act.

So, according to Tillich, religion does offer something different from mere moralisms. It offers a way of overcoming the split between our actual self and our ideal self and of thus becoming truly moral.

Note: The quotations by Paul Tillich that appear in this essay are from Ministry and Medicine in Human Relations, edited by Iago Galdston (copyright 1955 by International Universities Press).

By the way, if you are wondering about the title “Moralisms and Morality: Theonomous Ethics,” theonomy means “the state of being subject to divine rule or law,” according to W. L. Reese’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion.

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2 Responses to Paul Tillich (1886-1965): “Moralisms and Morality: Theonomous Ethics”

  1. Quaker Mutualist says:

    This is a really nice article. I have been trying to research Tillich but he is so nuanced that it is hard to find simple explanations for his ethics. I came across a source that says he basically adhered to some weird form of natural law ethics however other sources on his ethics make no such claim. To further complicate matters, the source saying he adhered to a form of natural law made points about it not being able to be compared to other natural law theories. I was wondering if you could clarify this subject for me.

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