Methodology of the Morality Index

(C)Copyright 2002 by Carl Drews
Last update: September 10, 2003

Contents:Measurement A Standard of Morality Positive and Negative Indicators An Illustration Future Development

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How does one quantify the un-quantifiable?

My inspiration is the Consumer Price Index. This index is a measure of the cost of living for the average American consumer. The CPI takes the cost of everyday items such as milk, bread, and eggs, and adds them together to get a quantitative measure of the cost of living. By tracking this value over time, we can obtain a graph of the cost of living over some period of history. The CPI is useful for tracking inflation and forming a baseline for the cost of other goods.

There are stock indexes, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the NASDAQ. These indexes add together some representative stocks to form a measure of the overall stock market. The main indexes are closely monitored! Some of them are updated every hour.

In formulating a morality index, we need to measure some quantities that are representative of the nation's morality as a whole. Although morality is a not a numerical concept, there are behaviors like homicide and giving to charity that are definitely measurable! We'll base the Morality Index on those. But first we need to select some standard of moral behavior.

A Standard of Morality

There are quite a few moral codes to choose from. We could use Hammurabi's Code of Laws from ancient Babylon. The obvious problem is that it contains 282 individual items, and many of them are irrelevant in today's world. We could use the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you (Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31). Many religious faiths have some form of the Golden Rule, but it sounds like it would be hard to measure. We could use the United States Criminal Code. This code has changed somewhat over the years, but it is certainly a code of behavior in use today. The crime rate over time might be interesting. However, the criminal code is not so much a moral code as a standard of conduct for people to live in a functional society.

The Ten Commandments are an obvious choice. They were given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai sometime around the years 1,400-1,300 BC or so, and the people of Israel were commanded to follow them. The Ten Commandments have been in continuous use by Jews, Christians, and Muslims for about three thousand years. The Biblical text supplies a host of laws, but ancient and popular tradition has elevated these Ten to the top of our consideration. Here is the list from Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21:

1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
2. You shall not make any idol, nor bow down and worship them.
3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
4. Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
5. Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land.
6. You shall not commit murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor's house, nor his land, nor any of his possessions, nor anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

Jesus offered a commentary of sorts on the commandments in the year 30 AD or so. When asked to choose the greatest commandment, Jesus replied in Matthew 22:37-40 with the two greatest:

1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Those of us who believe that Jesus is the Son of God are not surprised that He focused on the heart of the matter - loving God and our fellow man - instead of mechanically following the letter of ten commands. I would much rather measure Jesus's Two Commandments instead of Moses's Ten! But I don't know how.

The Ten Commandments leave out some things. Kidnapping people is not explicitly prohibited, nor is beating them up, unless the motive is theft. Slavery appears to be okay, as well as child labor. However, only a theological idiot would stand before God on Judgment Day and say, "You never told me that kidnapping was forbidden!" We hope that the Ten Commandments cover enough ground for reasonable people to conclude that abduction and assault are sinful, too. Any morality index based on the Ten Commandments will suffer the same omission, but we expect that the kidnapping rate generally follows the rates of homicide and theft. So leaving out some crimes is not a huge problem for the index.

I would like to keep things simple. In collecting data, I imagine that we knock on people's door and ask them a question. They answer with a yes or no, and we take their word for it. In most cases we will keep to the original intent of the commandment, unless that original meaning is no longer relevant today. In some cases we should go beyond the letter of the law, as in the Ninth Commandment. "Bearing false witness" is not just limited to lying in legal cases. If we cannot get the data we want, then we will have to find an acceptable substitute.

The Old Testament does not assign a relative importance among the Ten Commandments. This is somewhat puzzling - surely murder is worse than skipping church! When Jesus is asked to name the most important commandment, He divides them into the two categories: our relationship with God (1-4), and our relationship with our neighbors (5-10). Note that God still comes first. Are the commandments about God more important than the commandments about our fellow man and woman? Maybe - Jesus indicates in Matthew 22:38 that His #1 is "the first and greatest commandment." But we assume here that the Ten Commandments all have equal weight for the Morality Index. God has not told us anything to the contrary. However, we do assign relative values to the acts that break or follow those commandments. This assignment has the effect of ranking the commandments, and achieves the intuitive result that murder is worse than theft. Both acts are 100% wrong, but murder causes more damage to society.

There is still the problem in relating murder with theft. What are the units we can use to add them together? We solve this problem by assigning a monetary value to a person's life. That value is based on one American's average lifetime earnings (about $1.4 million in 2002). It takes a lot of theft to add up to a single murder!

Anyone offended by the idea of attaching a monetary value to a human life might not want to read any further. Public-policy planners do it because they have to, because every tax dollar counts. Is a young life worth more than an older life, or less? Our criminal code makes no distinction on whether a murder victim is old or young. Of course I agree with that, and I don't make any adjustment for the age of homicide victims. I simply multiply a victim's expected lifetime earnings by the average fraction of their life that they lived (50% for all). Any quantitative methodology has to put some numerical value on a human life.

There are atheists who are interested in morality. Some of them are my friends. I'll let them explain their own reasons for being concerned about morality. It would be possible to produce a morality index that only included human relationships, simply by including only commandments 5-10. I'm not going to do that for you, because I believe that God and the Ten Commandments are inseparable. Nevertheless, I wish to point out that this methodology is adaptable to other areas of moral interest.

Positive and Negative

True morality goes beyond sitting on your hands at home and not committing any crimes. Although the Ten Commandments mostly follow the phrase "Thou shalt not...", most reasonable people would agree that a truly moral person makes an effort to do good deeds, too. Jesus directs us in Matthew 5:38-42 "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." We would like to measure when someone goes that extra mile to do the right thing, or when it costs them something to be moral.

The positive and negative components should not be simple mirrors of each other, because the second measure would not add any information to the Index. For example, let's assume that all marriages end in either death or divorce (how depressing!). In measuring marital morality, we might be tempted to pick "Ended in Death" as the positive component, and "Ended in Divorce" as the negative component. But since all marriages end in one or the other, we can simply derive one from the other. If we know that 100 marriages ended and 30 of them ended by divorce, we already know that 70 ended in death. We have merely doubled the quantity without measuring anything new. Instead, we look for two components that are not simply calculated from each other. For marital morality, we could measure the number of marriages each year that ended in death, and the number each year that ended in divorce. Marriages that survived the year intact are deemed "neutral" with regard to the index (although obviously it's a good thing!).

Keeping track of positive and negative measures also addresses a difficult statistical problem: underreporting. If we see the crime rate go up, is it because there is more crime or because more people are reporting crimes? If we keep track of a positive and negative component to each commandment, we have some hope that historical underreporting of the two sides will cancel each other out.

The positive component is also useful for alleviating people's frustration, and inspiring them to go beyond merely not sinning. A decent person might say, "I've never committed a murder in my life, and I don't plan to. Is there anything I can do to raise the nation's Morality Index with regard to the Sixth Commandment?" Yes, there is. Obviously you can work to prevent murders, by patrolling streets or supporting your local police department. But you can also work to save people's lives, lives that would otherwise be lost. You can take care of sick people, send medicine to places that need it, and volunteer to build and install safety equipment. But don't do it just to make the Morality Index go up a bit. Don't do it to earn your salvation. Don't do it to atone for past sins, because Jesus Christ has already taken care of that. Instead, do it because it's the right thing to do. Do it to reduce human sorrow and increase human joy. Do it because God commands us to. Do it out of love and thankfulness (John 14:15).


An indicator is a statistical technique for making an approximation for quantities that are not practical to measure. An indicator is the tip of the iceberg, a small quantity that reflects something bigger going on. Generally the small quantity is easy to measure, and the large quantity more difficult. To illustrate this point, let's take an extreme example: Rock Springs, Wyoming.

Rock Springs is an extremely nice town in southwestern Wyoming. My family and I were stranded there for two days by a snowstorm in September 2000 on a vacation to Yellowstone National Park. Thousand of truckers and other travelers were also stranded while Interstate 80 was closed. But the people of Rock Springs had seen this before, and they cheerfully did their best to lodge and feed us all until the snow melted and everyone could go on their merry way. We attended an Episcopal Church in town, went to the library, visited the dinosaur museum, and swam in the pool at the Recreation Center.

For two days I didn't see anyone break any of the Ten Commandments (no, I wasn't really looking). I did see a lot of illegal parking, but the police knew there was weather situation and they suspended ticketing for a few days. What a great place!

However, the people of Rock Springs are subject to Sin just like everybody else. In particular, they sometimes return their library books late. This is a trivial infraction, but the librarians keep track of it and levy a small fine. Suppose we had records of overdue library books going back many years. What could that tell us?

Suppose we somehow knew that the rate of overdue library books was indicative of a much bigger problem. People get lazy, sloppy, belligerent, or just don't care. This attitude would probably show up in the library and at the police station. So the overdue book rate might tell us a lot about the crime rate.

The biggest difficulty with statistical indicators is in proving that the indicator truly reflects the overall behavior of interest. If the overdue book rate goes up while the crime rate goes down, then the overdue book rate is a lousy indicator. If they move together, then it's a good indicator.

The Morality Index makes great use of statistical indicators. We cannot hope to record every crime and sin committed in America. We use measurable indicators in the belief that they reflect the overall picture, and that assumption must be checked every so often. Nevertheless, the Morality Index is based on measurable human behaviors that are indicative of our underlying morality.

An Illustration

Here is an example to illustrate how the Morality Index works. This is an illustration that Jesus Himself used - the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The passage begins with a discussion of the Law, and the parable is quite relevant to morality. From the New International Version, Luke 10:25-37:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" He replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite [temple assistant], when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a [despised] Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins [about $50] and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him', he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expenses you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

When I asked my Sunday School children, "What is a Samaritan?", they all replied, "Someone who helps people in trouble!" This answer shows that they have learned the Bible story well. I also filled them in on another historical detail: In Jesus' time a Samaritan was a hated member of another ethnic group, separate from the Jews. It took doubly extra effort for the good man in the story to do what he did, and that's just what we're looking for in the Morality Index.

Let's analyze the story. I remember an old Arch Book from my childhood that told this parable in rhyme, and the pictures helped me to visualize the scene. 30 years later I found the same book and read it to my own kids as a bedtime story! ("The Good Samaritan", written by Janice Kramer and illustrated by Sally Mathews, Arch Books, Concordia Publishing House, 1964.) The Arch Book uses a few embellishments that are not in the original text: the traveler becomes a merchant, carrying a load of goods to the market in Jericho on a donkey. It's clear that the beaten merchant will die if no one helps him. I'll follow their lead; these additions are okay as long as they are reasonable in the Scriptural and historical context, and as long as we don't base any doctrine on them. This gives the man a reason to travel to Jericho, and for the robbers to attack him. Making the traveling man into a merchant gives us more data to play with.

The Good Samaritan helping the wounded merchant, while his anxious donkey looks on.
Copyright 1964 Concordia Publishing House

The characters in the story are:

The merchant is the victim in the story. Unfortunately, he is unable to contribute anything to the Morality Index of the situation. He simply gets beaten up, robbed, ignored, and finally carried off to the inn.

The robbers commit two crimes according to the Ten Commandments: theft and attempted murder. The merchant will die soon if nobody comes to his aid, so the charge of attempted murder is appropriate. As noted earlier, assault and battery are not prohibited per se under the Ten Commandments. In the Arch book there are four robbers, but for the purposes of the Morality Index the number of perpetrators does not matter; we have one victim, one instance of theft, and one of attempted murder.

The priest contributes nothing to the Morality Index either, although it is obvious that Jesus greatly disapproves of his behavior. The priest neither helps nor hinders the wounded merchant. He doesn't offer assistance, nor does he give him a kick as he passes by. The priest's behavior is neutral, or zero. Same for the Levite.

The Samaritan is the hero of the story. He saves the merchant's life, thereby scoring a big point on the positive side of Commandment 6, "You shall not commit murder." He inconveniences himself greatly, and contributes at least $50 in cash to the merchant's care. The opposite of theft - taking what is not yours - is giving away what is yours. If the Samaritan is a good money manager he will deduct that $50 on his tax return and thereby have more to give the next time someone is in trouble. For the Morality Index we give him credit on the positive side of Commandment 8, "You shall not steal."

The innkeeper does not contribute anything to the Morality Index either. He simply supplies goods and services that are properly paid for. The story does not record him going out of his way to help the wounded merchant. Don't get me wrong - an honest day's work for an honest day's wage is fine! But for the Morality Index we are looking for that extra moral effort, not simply an exchange.

The Morality Index does not measure attempted murder, only completed murder. Originally this was because I was trying to keep things simple. I also needed a positive component to attempted murder, and I didn't know how to measure failed attempts to save someone's life. However, in working out the example of the Good Samaritan I notice a curious effect: The attempted murder by the robbers is not counted, yet the Samaritan's heroic efforts to save the merchant's life are counted. Is this correct?

The robbers are not any less evil just because somebody else came along and happened to save their victim from death. A sniper who misses hitting an innocent victim is not more moral just because he's a bad shot. And yet - the effect of only measuring completed murder, and successful life-saving, is that good can overcome evil. A noble effort can completely obliterate the effects of a crime. Good deeds do more than simply pile up points on the positive side of the equation - they can wipe out evil acts completely. I like that.

The purpose of the Morality Index is not to count how many people end up in heaven and how many end up in hell. That's God's job, and it depends on things other than our adherence to the Ten Commandments. The Morality Index seeks to measure the effect of morality on human society. Sin costs. The difference between the merchant living or dying makes a huge difference. As the story stands, the merchant will return to Jerusalem a few days late, probably to a worried but relieved family. He will come home bandaged and stripped of his goods and his donkey. His family will take a financial hit, but they'll get over it. He'll eventually build up his goods in stock, buy another donkey for transportation, and recover his business. Without the Good Samaritan the merchant's widow in first-century Palestine can expect a lifetime of poverty. His children will go to bed every night without their Abba to read them stories and tuck them in. One person's life really matters! Therefore I think it is correct to score this parable as a life not taken, but saved.

Here are the final numbers:

Future Development

I don't expect to get everything correct on the first try. In fact, it may take me a couple of years to get the Morality Index to where it's reliable and statistically sensible. It will take input from other people, people interested in improving the index by their constructive suggestions. So don't buy or sell your stock portfolio based on the Morality Index, at least not for a while.

This project is not just for the year 2002. I'm in this for the long haul. Although I have tried to make the Morality Index interesting right away by collecting historical statistics, I know that much of the usefulness of this index will come in the years ahead. I want people concerned with morality to check the Morality Index every so often to see if it's gone up or down.

I would like to update the value of the Morality Index as often as possible. The Dow Jones and NASDAQ stock indexes are updated on an hourly basis. Wouldn't that be interesting, to see the hourly morality of America? Or even the daily morality? Does our morality go up or down on weekends? Unfortunately, most of the statistical indicators are collected only on a yearly basis, and therefore the Morality Index cannot be updated any more often than its components. I'll be happy if I can achieve some adjustment on at least a monthly basis. Stay tuned!

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