Sometimes, as in the case of such nearly indefinable concepts as love and happiness, we must define “right” from “wrong” by determining not what is right in a particular situation but rather what is wrong. We mortals are such self-deluded creatures that to imagine we can possibly go by what, on the surface, feels right or seems right, is to risk hurting both ourselves and those whom we care about. Self-deception may cause many things, not the least of which is the ability to convince ourselves that anything we have the inkling to do—if that is, we perceive it will bring us even temporary gratification—is basically “all right”.
If you imagine I am suggesting that you are to rely on some higher power—God, a Creator, Buddha, or something of that nature—to lead you in the direction you should go when it comes to issues of ethics, you are very much mistaken. The fundamental principle to guide you, me, and everyone else who has questions as to what is “right” or what is “wrong” is to ask ourselves, “How would I wish to be treated if I were the other person in this situation?” Unless you harbor the desire to bring harm to yourself, you will have at least a basic starting point as to what you should do.
As children, we are oftentimes given lots of rules as to what it is “right” to do and what it is “wrong” to do. Unfortunately, all of these “should nots” and “shall nots” tend to deprive us of the opportunity of developing an individual code of ethics that we can carry into adulthood. In fact, when we grow up in a particularly judgmental household full of self-righteousness or hypocrisy, for example, we may totally rebel against the ethics we have been taught and convince ourselves that, to use a somewhat trite yet still pertinent phrase, “anything goes.”
Well, “anything” doesn’t go. And you and I both know that, if we’re courageous enough to be honest with ourselves. Strength will never be found by those who are unable to control their whims, fancies, and passions. Rather, strength is found in acknowledging all that we feel and in transcending those feelings that, if we acted upon them, would not be in the best interest of other people.
This, of course, does not mean that we will not make mistakes no matter how much we may strive not to do so. For many, if not most, of us, there will be times when we lose sight of the long-term effects that a choice we are contemplating will have upon us and/or others if we should put the possible pleasures of the moment first. Yet, the moment of decision remains—the moment between contemplation and action.
If we do not give ourselves full credit for having the power not to act on a feeling that we have, then we are putting ourselves in the same category as animals, who are guided by instinct alone. We, as humans, are empowered by the gift of reason which enables us to make choices and form habits that, at some point, build what might be termed character. So, am I saying character consists of choices and habits?
No, although the habits we form and the choices we make will ultimately determine the character—or, conversely, lack of character—that we possess. Character has absolutely nothing to do with being a perfect or virtuous being. What it does have to do with is demonstrating behavior that we know to be decent and that others will most probably view in the same light.
In his book, After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre examines the possibility that even though we may say that we have “lost our comprehension” of morality, both from a theoretical and practical standpoint, we are only removing the word “morality”. Yet we are still completely aware of a certain code of ethical behavior that we believe we ought to be adhering to.
Casting aside the deceptively convincing emotivism that G.E. Moore expounded upon in his seminal work, Principia Ethica, MacIntyre asserts, “Our capacity to use moral language, to be guided by moral reasoning, to define our transactions with others in moral terms is so central to our view of ourselves that even to envisage the possibility of our radical incapacity in these respects is to ask for a shift in our view of what we are and do which is going to be difficult to achieve.”
As for religion and the role that it plays in forming someone’s character, there are plenty of “religious” people who possess absolutely no character whatsoever. For, it isn’t the so-called creeds that we say we live by that define our actions. You cannot do what is “good” merely because religious texts, other people, or cultural influences tell you that you must do what is “good”. Doing good for these reasons will never provide you with an understanding of what “good” is. Nor will you ever comprehend why you should want to do what is good as opposed to what is bad.
I think Jacob Needleman makes a strong point in his book, “Why Can’t We Be Good?” when he places love at being of the root of good and ethical behavior. If we can get to the point where we love that which is good and shun that which is bad, doing good will no longer be a sacrifice but rather a pleasure.
“But why should I strive to be good,” you may ask, “when others make no effort towards it? Am I not entitled to all of the pleasure that others get by not being ‘good’ all the time?” The way I would answer this is by asking you whether others not being good gives you a justification for not being so yourself. If so, are you not guided just as much by the “bad” behavior of others as you might tell me that you were guided by your parents’ rules and regulations when you were a child?
Are we to look towards what those around us are doing in order to direct our own behavior? And, if we do, are we not engaging in just another form of conformity? You can just as easily conform to bad behavior as you can to good behavior. Conformity doesn’t necessarily imply that you are meeting some respectable standard of conduct.
You may just as easily be conforming to what society wants by being promiscuous, getting drunk all the time, and smoking marijuana. Who has ever said that non-conformity cannot be setting higher standards than the rest of the world? At this point in time, with the breakdown of principles and values, it would seem to me that to conform would be less about doing what is right and virtuous and more about living “in the moment” and gratifying your own pleasures.
It’s interesting to note what Needleman says on the subject of ethics when he chronicles his experiences when broaching the subject to his classes of philosophy students throughout the years. “We would approach the subject of ethics,” he writes, “of good and evil, of right and wrong, and always they would speak of whether something made them ‘feel good’ or made them ‘feel bad’ or ‘feel guilty. Not whether or not they were guilty, but only whether or not they felt guilty. Not whether or not it was good and bad, but only whether it made them feel good or bad.”
Needleman goes on to point out the truth beneath language that is expressed in these terms. Clearly, it is an attempt to evade acknowledging that we are actually capable of being good or bad or acting in a way that is right or wrong. It is always tempting to use feelings when we wish to cover a canvas that has been painted in black and white with shades of grey. But, would it not be better at least to acknowledge that we have done that which is wrong even if we have every intention of doing the same thing again? Can we possibly say that telling ourselves, “You only feel guilty, but you didn’t really do anything wrong” will obviate us from actions that truly were wrong?
How much better it is, no matter what code of ethics we subscribe to, to drop the false humility and confess to ourselves that when we do wrong we know very well that we are doing it! Are not we usually aware when we have done a good deed? Do we not usually have at least a temporary feeling of self-satisfaction when we think we have behaved in a way that has made someone else’s life better?
Then, if we are capable of knowing when we do good, how is it that we do not know when we have done bad? It wouldn’t make sense that we could have knowledge of what is right without having knowledge of what is wrong. It would be rather like saying that we can know what sunshine is like without understanding what rain “is all about,” even though we have experienced both.
Whatever we may do, to my thinking, there can be no clarity in any area of our lives unless we take a long, hard look within ourselves. We must acknowledge what is there, no matter how unattractive it may appear to our eyes. Moreover, we will never be capable of improving any aspect of ourselves or of our lives unless we cease to deceive ourselves.
Although we may think that we are giving ourselves more freedom to do as we like by turning our eyes away from the truth and making the vehement declaration that “there is no true morality,” I think most of us know that this is not so. And if we have any genuine self-respect, we will cease to pretend that it is not so.
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