Doing the right thing
21. The moral pause
Ethics, character, behaviour, manners, laws, religion, rules, customs – these aspects of life fall into the class of morals. From time immemorial, lenses used to interpret particular actions have had a huge subjective and local origin. W. H. Auden’s poem, Law Like Love, captures this fluctuation very well. Flouting the morals of those wielding authority can be fatal unless the case is well prepared and supported. Sometimes, seeming to comply or moving away are better solutions, temporarily at least, to gather strength and access humanitarian aid.
However, most people would agree that some basic rules are essential to guide people in harmonious living, which depends on tolerance of a certain amount of restriction.Problems often arise when privileged people tend to short-change others into shouldering far more limitations by comparison. A wickedly ironic, real-life example is the classic book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, officially authored by Philip Rieff whose divorce settlement with his wife, Susan Sontag, included an agreement for her to revoke signs of her co-authorship of it! Sadly, such dishonesty and deceit abound. Beware those wearing moral laurels! Test first.
Not that altruism isn’t to be found. Indeed, widespread evidence in human settlements of moral deeds has been uncovered dating from pre-historic times, suggesting mores pre-existed the establishment of religions. As language flourished, groups also diversified in the religious structures they drafted. The Biblical Ten Commandments are still cited in Christian-related religions. The already-mentioned quite thorough and practical Eightfold Path along with the Five Mindfulness Trainings of Buddhism, aspire to maximum harmlessness, again echoing The Tao of letting things and beings be in peace wherever possible.
If followed, the Five Mindfulness Trainings in particular promote healing, transformation, and happiness for individuals and for the world, especially when accompanying self-monitoring of all aspects of daily life and choices made.Philosophy has always laid as much claim to expertise about morality as religion did, but its emphasis is different. Those before and after Aristotle (he wrote, Great Ethics) were preoccupied with providing sound rationales for why virtue enhances both the private and public good. Philosophy also contemplates whether people are actually free to choose to do the right thing at all if everything that happens is pre-ordained.
Moral relativism, the intuitively-attractive idea that decisions depend on context, is criticised for meaning that anything goes, anarchy reigns, taken to extremes. A description of how admiration can swing to annoyance nicely conveys the problem of abandoning any stability of standards. However, given the absolute manner in which rules can be enforced, Spanish Inquisition-like, making allowances for circumstances and complexities has often been a liberating Godsend.
Many life-times could be, have been, spent studying arguments for and against doing one thing rather than another, and linked beliefs.There’s no point getting too bogged down in Kafka-esque militaristic legalities, beyond following the dictum to do in Rome as the Romans do, change it or go elsewhere. Nonetheless, undertaking an honest moral inventory from time to time, along the lines of Step 4 in Anonymous 12 Step programmes, has a cleansing and clarifying effect. Thinking about the principles that guide decisions can lead to surprising new perspectives, and very possibly indicate taking a different course for the better. Be good, and put up with no less from others.