Why should one be moral? Epistemology deals with truth versus opinion. Questions include what is truth, and what is its source? Is truth absolute or relative? Lastly, Ethics deals with right and wrong. It also deals with the interactions between people and their society. Students of Ethics might ask ‘What are our obligations to ourselves and society? ’ and ‘Why should one be moral? ’ I will attempt to answer this question. I think it is important to define morality and ethics, as I understand them.
Morals are a set of rules passed to us through social and religious experiences that serve to govern our independent actions. Moral beliefs rest only on our sense of right and wrong. It is important to note that morals only apply to individual action and consequence. Ethics, however, apply to the actions of two or more people. Ethics are meaningless unless applied in a social context. Ethics serve to define the acceptable actions of the individual within the social structure. Ethics are established through the consensus of many people and with the guidance of human experience.
With morality, ones behavior is held to an ideal code of conduct. Ethics, however, deals with an imperfect, but attainable set of practices. It is left to the individual to take a decision that is moral, regardless of its ethical standing. Socrates held that ‘To know the good is to do the good. ’ By this, he meant that no man knowingly acts against his own interest. Socrates believed that no man could consciously do wrong if that person truly knew the right course of action. Socrates defines moral as being the logical result of rational thought. Through reason, one will know morality.
Plato, a student of Socrates, held a similar view. Plato taught that moral values are absolute truths and thus are abstract perfect entities. He called this the ‘Idea of the Good. ’ The Idea of the Good is the supreme source of all values. Plato felt that this was the fulfillment of truth and reality. He also defines this good as unachievable. This good is something to be sought after, but never achieved. Aristotle held that there were two kinds of virtue: moral and intellectual. He felt that morals are the tempering of man’s natural desires and appetites.
Intellect, he says, is the development of acceptable habits through repetition. He believed that ‘We become just by doing just acts. ’ Aristotle argues that most virtues fall at a mean between more extreme character traits. According to Aristotle, it is not an easy task to find the perfect mean between extreme character traits. In fact, we need assistance from our reason to do this. Additionally, Aristotle disassociated morality from God. He taught that God is too pure to bother with such trifles. He states that God is ‘Thought thinking thought. ’
Through my discussions with several other people, I have come to the conclusion that morality and ethics are closely interrelated. I propose the idea that a person can be moral and ethical. I further believe that a person can be moral and unethical. I think, however, that a person cannot be immoral and ethical. I believe that ethical behavior is a direct result of morality. I will restate my definition of morals and ethics: morals are perfect and unachievable, and ethics are imperfect and achievable. It may seem odd that a person must first be perfect (moral), before he can be imperfect (ethical).
I posed several questions to my friends and family. They included the question ‘Can a lecherous president who performs all his political duties be considered moral and/or ethical? ’ Each person interviewed felt that neither was possible. Cited examples were that this president could propose laws concerning equal rights for women. His actions, however, would demonstrate that he did not in fact believe in the laws he mandated. His deeds (lechery) would be immoral and would therefore invalidate his laws. It would be a demonstration of the adage ‘Do as I say, not as I do.
The Golden Rule is a classic example of this. We should do unto others what we would have others do unto us. Since I do not want my neighbor to steal my belongings, then it is wrong for me to steal his belongings. Since I would want people to feed me if I was starving, then I should help feed starving people. Following this line of reasoning, it would be possible for me to determine whether any action is right or wrong. Therefore, based on the Golden Rule, it would also be wrong for me to lie to, harass, victimize or kill others.
It is from these kinds of moral judgments that society is able to define a larger set of fundamental principles; such as rights to life, liberty and happiness. This leads to the formation of a sort of democratic version of morality called ethics. A group selects certain rules of right conduct from a pool of rules of right conduct created by individuals and adopts them as the social norm. In this way, a composite ethical code evolves so that most of the people in the group are content to follow most of the rules most of the time. In this way, our society encourages people to be moral.