Where does our sense of morality which impels us to right conduct come from?

Is it something internal to us, or perhaps it is external to us? Is it physical or spiritual, etc.

For example, does our sense of right and wrong stem from thought, such as thinking about the distress of others (potential or actual) and feeling empathy thereby refraining from doing something which may harm them. Or perhaps it stems from some kind of spiritual sense in us.

Perhaps an explanation of what is the "yetzer tov" would answer this if that is the driving force.

  • 2
    R' Aharon Lichtenstein has an interesting discussion on this in his article, "Does Judaism Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha?" (also found here).
    – Fred
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 7:02
  • Do you mean like a Yetzer Tov?
    – Double AA
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 7:20
  • @DoubleAA maybe. whatever that is.
    – ray
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 7:22
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    Using vague terms does little to help others answer your question. I think @Fred understood your question differently than you just answered me, for instance.
    – Double AA
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 7:23
  • @DoubleAA R' Lichtenstein addresses the question of whether a person's innate sense of morality can have any bearing on objective morality. Ray, is that relevant to your question?
    – Fred
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 7:29

4 Answers 4


R' Yosef Alcastille, in a responsum quoted in Beis Hashem of the Shela"h, says that there is not, and cannot be, an answer to this question.

כי אם אתה נותן סיבה וטעם למה שרצה האדם בזה הדבר יותר מבזה, א"כ סיבה הניעה לרצונו שיבחר בזה יוזר מבזה.

As if you attribute a cause and a reason as to why a person has a will for this thing over that, if so the cause is what moved him to his will to choose this more than that.

Meaning, as much as there are factors that go into your decision and external things which may influence you, at the end of the day there is something which we cannot explain, that is beyond the factors which influence your decisions, that causes you to choose right or wrong.

This is really implicit in reward and punishment. If every decision you made was based entirely on the preponderance of factors leaning in one direction, and there was no "you" involved in making the decision, then you could hardly be held accountable. I once heard this nicely illustrated by R' Dovid Gottlieb. The Stoics (an ancient philosophic society) asked a challenge to the concept of free will. When a person makes a decision, practically how does it work? If there is a random mechanism which fires and decides yes or no at random, then the person is not really making a decision. If there is some internal calculus which quickly processes a number of factors and then makes the decision accordingly, then still the person is not making a decision - whoever placed the system of factors is making the decision. If there is an outside mechanism which is the catalysts for your decisions, then they aren't your decisions.

This is what מהר"י אלקאשטילא is addressing in pointing out that this is, indeed, something that we cannot identify, but it exists nonetheless.

  • are you saying it is not physical? thnx
    – ray
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 20:43
  • @ray definitely. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 20:53
  • i hear. is it then from the nefesh, the ruach, the neshama, etc.?
    – ray
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 20:58
  • @ray This is seemingly a different question than the one in this thread. I have reasons to believe that it comes from the ruach but it would take much longer than a comment allows to support that point. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 21:06

From Rav Hirsch it seems morality is the God given free spirit which was placed in man, and personally guided by God.

I'll mash up some quotes from the Collected Writings.

Let others believe that the power of their material-moral drive is invincible. Every Jew should be a repudiation of the lie that the free Godly spirit is subject to the material; every Jew shal be a priest and herald of a moral life which is governed, led and consecrated by the free Godly spirit in man. Vol 2, page 381.

The prevailing belief was that nature and history were governed solely by physical forces and laws so that the cleverest ans strongest would prevail. The people forgot that there is one God who reigns over nature and society; that He has established morality as the sole basis for the relations of man to nature and of man to man. They forgot that only when man is prepared to obey the laws of morality will God grant him mastery over nature and will give stability, security and lasting happiness to the society of man. God-Hashem-educates mankind throughout the ages in preparation for the advent of the reign on earth of His laws of morality. Volume 4, page 47.

Guided by the principle that the moral law is safeguarded by God Himself, the Psalm poses the question to the nations למה רגשו גוים ולאמים יהגו ריק. Volume 4, page 285.

  • thanks. having a hard time seeing which part of the quote there explains the mechanism behind our sense of morality.
    – ray
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 21:16
  • Thats the one part of your question he didn't give details about:) But we do see it is an internalized, externally guided, seemingly spiritual phenomenon.
    – user6591
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 21:25
  • There is one more place I'm thinking of now. Let's see.
    – user6591
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 21:37
  • 1
    @ray what do you mean by mechanism?
    – user6591
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 21:44
  • I mean - what is this driving force? what is it.
    – ray
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 22:18

The Two Souls

Every individual Jew, righteous or wicked, has two souls . . . One soul derives from kelipah (the “husks” of creation) and sitra achra (the “other side”), and clothes itself in the blood to animate the body. . . . From it derive the evil traits . . . and also the Jew’s instinctive good traits. . . . The second soul in the Jew is literally a part of G‑d above.

—Likkutei Amarim Tanya Chapters 1–2

How to Love a Fellow

When one’s body is viewed with scorn and contempt, and one’s joy is in the (G-dly) soul alone, this constitutes a direct and simple way to fulfill the commandment “Love your fellow as yourself” toward every Jew, great or small. . . . For the source of their souls is in the One G‑d, and they are divided only by virtue of their bodies. Therefore, those who give priority to their body over their soul find it impossible to share true love and brotherhood, except that which is conditional on some benefit. This is what Hillel the Elder meant when he said about this commandment [the love of Israel]: “This is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary.” For the foundation and source of all Torah is to elevate and give ascendancy to the soul over the body . . .

—Likkutei Amarim Tanya Chapter 32

  • the Jews instinctive good traits come from the kelipah?
    – ray
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 22:00
  • yes, since the Jew's soul from klipah is from Klipas Nogah - which contains good and bad. (the instinctive good traits btw is referring to Rachmonim, Gomlei chassadim, etc)
    – 11213
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 22:06
  • so you are saying the source of morality is spiritual - from some kind of soul level? can you elaborate a bit?
    – ray
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 5:53

Many G'onim / Rishonim discuss "mitzvos sichlios"; obligations which stem from our own intellectual-moral perception. Evidently we recognize not just the halacha as a source for moral guidance, but also our human impressions. That being the case, this impression could come from anywhere in a person: emotions, intellect, experience, education, etc (I realize there is overlap in these categories) and still be a guide to our behavior.

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    The question was so bizarrely worded that I just took an educated guesss at what it meant.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 18:48
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    I took the question as asking where the sense of morality originates. Your answer doesn't seem to answer that.
    – Scimonster
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 18:50
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    @Cnsersmoit based on this answer/comments and the comments to the other answer, I am voting to close the question as unclear. Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 4:27
  • 1
    @Cnsersmoit which apparently I can't do while there's a bounty... Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 4:28
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    @user813801 Answers can't be closed. They can be deleted if they are not an answer. But if a question attracts several answers which all understand the question differently, and several comments to that effect, then even if you happen to think you know what it means, it is clearly not lucid enough. Being too clear never hurt anyone. If the question is not clear enough to attract answers, it should be closed until it is clarified to avoid further misunderstanding-based answers. Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 18:22

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