The Moral Way
December 23, 2013
Stuart W. Mirsky in Comparative Ethics, Cultures, Ethics, Ethics, Moral Philosophy, Stuart Mirsky, The Golden Rule

Although we may consider a great many issues – from how we comport ourselves in public or private, to what we have for dinner and whom we choose to marry – to be moral questions, there’s such a broad range of these that it’s not a simple matter to sort them all out – or to distinguish between them. Sometimes what we deem “moral” is just what fits with certain codes of conduct we acknowledge although, at other times, we may think it right to dispute the codes themselves. If the moral dimension involves assessment of intent, can the intent to abide by a given code be enough to establish a judgment of moral goodness?

If the code itself can be questioned, on what basis can a presumably right intent prevail where even particular moral codes are subject to moral consideration? A code that urges vengeance in blood, for instance, might seem morally unappealing to many in the modern world even as it may remain compellingly attractive to members of cultures in which it represents the norm. Just being the norm cannot be enough to render something morally good then.

What then do we look to? And how do we reconcile conflicting moral claims and codes? Here it may help to consider the way moral valuing actually works in real life, i.e., to take inventory of some actual examples of moral claims as these have been promulgated by human societies both now and in the past. Such a listing will have a prosaic quality to it, as it will largely consist of reporting the kinds of things we impute moral goodness to across societies. It may even seem too ordinary for philosophical inquiry. But if we’re to take a genuine stab at explaining what moral valuing is about, and why some things are thought to have moral value while others lack it, there’s no better place to start than by looking at the things we actually do.

But first we should discount for the familial relationships that characterize the use of “moral” because these will further complicate the picture. Right off the bat we need to recognize, and agree to disregard, the kinds of moral claims that seem to operate like taboos or ritual expressions rather than reasoned claims which demand justification insofar as they seem to reflect enrollment in particular communities or belief systems. These sorts of things are more a matter of allegiance to a common flag than examples of principled beliefs. As such, any claim of moral goodness that isn’t universal in the sense of reflecting principles that can be articulated and argued about independent of conformity to particular societal norms should be dropped from consideration since what we’re after now is some basis for discovering and following moral precepts that are not society-dependent. The society-specific sort of claims are easy enough to find but of only limited interest in the effort to discover core moral precepts because they lack the compelling element of being arguable. So questions about dress codes, for instance, and dietary rules, to the extent they are limited to that, may reasonably be dropped. Unfortunately, not everything that seems to be culture-specific in this way can be dealt with so perfunctorily. Opposition to abortion or unorthodox sexual behavior or gay marriage, for instance, all seem to be specific to particular cultural points of view yet, in the case of abortion at least, something more seems to be at work. Here the issue is not merely personal to an individual (what serves the individual mother’s interests) but involves interrelationship with others, i.e., whether or not the unborn child still in the womb has rights as a person that deserve or require recognition or whether such rights only accrue with a certain amount of in utero development, birth, etc. Other issues, such as societal impact and the rights of the mother, herself a separate and autonomous agent, also come into play, presenting a much more complex picture than one that makes this merely a matter of whether a particular society condones aborting or not.

At least in the matter of societal impact, even seemingly culture-specific issues can be seen to take on a dimension reflecting interrelational questions between agents – and thus a role for feelings of empathy. But we’re unlikely to get anywhere by focusing on marginal or tangential moral cases, at least for now. More significant for now would be isolating and understanding moral claims which have a universal standing, i.e., which seem to be entirely focused on interrelations between persons and which therefore resonate across cultures rather than taking on their full significance and value only within a particular culture.

It’s here that cultural constraints take a back seat to something deeper, for others we may encounter are not limited to members of one culture only and our practices with regard to them will have a human to human (or human to equivalent) basis rather than a culture bound quality. While a culture may teach, and even enforce, certain established norms for such interrelations, the fact that the relations in question are between persons in general and not a person and himself or a person and a deity or even his own immediate fellows within the same society, removes the issue from the cultural milieu alone. Relating to other intentional agents is not therefore merely a cultural matter even if it is that, too.

What then are the general rules we tend to suppose apply to the case of relations between agential specimens like ourselves?

Here it will be helpful to think of the various moral rules we actually call on in making moral claims, the kinds of moral rules or codes to be found in something like religious scripture. In the Judeo-Christian West the Ten Commandments crucially plays this role. Although it appears in the Biblical sources in a number of different iterations (depending on how we count, some of these don’t even work out to precisely ten distinct rules of moral behavior!), there are certain important “commandments” which repeat in all the iterations. These include the prohibition on killing (actually the ancient Hebrew text prohibits murder, a form of non-sanctioned killing, for the Bible never demands complete pacifism of its people). Other prohibitions involve proscriptions against stealing, bearing false witness (presumably referring to testifying falsely to a court or before one’s peers concerning the acts of another). Taking these in the broader sense, as we tend to do today, we have converted them into blanket prohibitions of killing, theft and lying, though such broader generalities are not necessarily implied in the original text. But, even broadening them as we do, we recognize exceptions, since our larger belief system continues to allow killing in some cases, including self-defense or in wartime (presuming the war is deemed legitimate), etc. There are some sub-groups who see a more stringent interpretation as appropriate and eschew killing entirely but it’s at least arguable that their survival depends on their inclusion within larger groups that do countenance these other forms of killing.

Another of the Ten Commandments involves an injunction against worshipping any other gods but the one who has given the Commandments in the first place and still another against making graven images (presumably of any god at all, though some interpretations have read this as a prohibition on any image whatsoever, whether man or beast, including images in either three dimensions or two, effectively proscribing painting and other forms of illustration of humans or animals along with proscription of statues and engravings which, in fairness, seem to most qualify as “graven images”).

Beyond these, which lack the same universal standing as the first ones mentioned (don’t kill, steal, or lie), there is also a commandment not to covet a neighbor’s belongings (including his wife, home or donkey – does it follow that a woman should also not covet her neighbor’s husband, or his donkey even if the commandment is addressed to males?).

Coveting, however, appears to be more state of mind than action – though how we are to judge another’s mental state without observing his or her actions is left unaddressed. Perhaps that is too much to expect of a simple moral code?

It’s possible the anti-coveting dictum was merely intended to preempt certain actions and only the actions themselves, when seen to violate the proscription, are counted for purposes of praise or condemnation. On the other hand, perhaps the point was to tell us to guard our thoughts as well as our actions.

Another commandment requires keeping a particular day holy by resting on it (refraining from labor, though what counts as labor is also not fully spelled out – though later commentaries among the Jews, the historical source of this moral code, would spell this out in substantial detail). The various groups who have chosen to recognize the potency of this list of “moral” dos and don’ts have differed over which day is to count as the holy day, however. Jews choose our modern Saturday, in keeping with the original tradition of their time, while Christians chose Sunday to honor their savior and Muslims selected Friday, most likely to differentiate themselves from the other two groups (since the other two days were already taken).

Another commandment demands the honoring of one’s parents (though how that’s to be implemented would seem to be fairly culture-specific, too). And another proscribes committing adultery, having a sexual relationship with another’s wife or husband.

The Ten Commandments are very much a mixed bag but, to the extent that they form the basis of many a modern moral and legal code, we can find in them the kinds of universal elements that appear in human cultures across the planet more generally. Refraining from taking life, lying or stealing are all fairly common proscriptions across the range of human societies and this makes sense since a society requires a degree of amity among its members, including respect for the rights and prerogatives of other members, if it is to cohere, survive and prosper. So, too then, do the commandments not to covet or commit adultery have a societal implication for this sort of proscribed behavior can also be destabilizing to societies, especially fairly small ones where everyone knows one another. A society must have rules which its members observe to preserve cohesiveness so it can hardly be surprising that rules against lying (and cheating, which we may think of as a form of lying), as well as against unsanctioned killings and theft will show up more or less universally, along with rules proscribing cheating on one’s spouse, contemplating the acquisition of goods not one’s own, and so forth.

But there is a patchwork quality to these rules, particularly because of their intermixture with other more obviously culture-specific injunctions like which gods to worship, how not to do so, what days to honor, etc. The injunctions which have more than a cultural basis however do appear to boil down to a still more general rule: a requirement to respect other persons, where such “respect” will mean to avoid violating their rights as fellow persons, as recognizers of intentionality in others.

A great many societies, however, have sanctioned and even honored the violation of these injunctions when applied to outsiders. The Bible itself directs its adherents to apply these rules to their neighbors. But being a neighbor is, itself, an open question. Is one’s neighbor only the person or persons living next door, down the street, in the same town, the same community, the same nation? Where do we draw the line?

Certainly the ancient Israelites who first adhered to these rules treated members of other nations differently than themselves in some cases – and the larger body of religious teaching, the Torah, in which the particular listings we have come to know as the Ten Commandments occurs, is not precise in its instructions for making the differentiation. However, there are numerous instances in the large body of writings with examples of the broader application of these general rules and later teachers in the Judaic tradition tended to generalize, and so seek for some essential basis of the commandments, to a greater and greater extent. By the time of the First Century B.C.E., the Talmudic rabbi Hillel is recorded as replying to an inquiry about the essence of the Jewish Law by stating that, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

Later Jesus, revered in the Christian tradition, offered a reformulation of this same dictum which is commonly known today in the Western Christian world as the Golden Rule and stated as follows: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” But this maxim is hardly unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Wikipedia ( reports that Confucius, a revered Chinese sage (sometimes rendered as “Kung-fu Tzu”), who is credited with setting down the main religious tradition of China which came to be called Confucianism, told his followers to: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself."

His contemporary, Lao-Tzu, regarded as the founder of another Chinese religious tradition, Taoism (following the Way) offered this in the same period: “The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful."

Much earlier, in the era of Ancient Egypt, there’s evidence of recognition of this principle, too. During the era of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040–1650 B.C.E.) there’s a story containing the following admonition: "Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you." And later, from an Egyptian papyrus dated somewhere from 664 – 323 B.C.E., we read: "That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another."

From ancient India, the Mahabharrata: “Listening to wise scriptures, austerity, sacrifice, respectful faith, social welfare, forgiveness, purity of intent, compassion, truth and self-control – [these] are the ten wealths of character (self) . . . by self-control and by making dharma (right conduct) your main focus, treat others as you treat yourself."

Buddhism, an outgrowth of the Hindu tradition in India, is no less insistent on the requirement of seeing ourselves in others and acting accordingly (from Wikipedia):

Comparing oneself to others in such terms as "Just as I am so are they, just as they are so am I," he should neither kill nor cause others to kill. (Sutta Nipata 705)

One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter. (Dhammapada 10. Violence)

Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. (Udanavarga 5:18)

Importantly, in all these examples we find a notion that feeling kindly towards others is the appropriate way to interrelate to them. Sometimes, as in the case of the so-called Golden Rule, the affirmative to do to others as you would want done to you is emphasized while other times, as in the earlier rendition by the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Hillel, the negative is emphasized, i.e., to refrain from doing to another what you wouldn’t want done to yourself.

Sometimes, too, we find the notion of treating others as ourselves expanded upon, as the Buddhist examples show, where specifics like not doing another harm, either through violence alone or outright killing, are included. The important thing to note is that the general aspect of the particular injunctions are summarized and expressed in similar ways: Treat others as we want to be treated. And the basis for thinking thus can be found in the recognition in the other of a creature much like ourselves, with the capacity to see and feel the world much as we do, i.e., with a comparable intentionality.

Thus it is at least arguable that the most general moral rule or injunction that we discover across human cultures is one that exalts the idea of relating with empathy to our fellows. Why empathy? Its very basis lies in the nature of what we are. To the extent that we have developed the capacity to recognize intentional behavior in others, that this recognition is part of our genetic inheritance, the fruit of evolutionary development, it carries with it certain implications for intentions in others, implies a likeness with ourselves and, seeing that likeness, we are moved to feel what they feel -- as if we stood in their place. There is an almost logical corollary that follows from the recognition of intentionality in another which obliges us to recognize that they also have what we have, are like us. And to the extent that is so, we have an inclination, perhaps separately bequeathed to us by evolution, to see ourselves in them. This manifests as feeling what they seem to feel based on what we know of them through their behaviors.

But, of course, empathy is not an absolute. And it appears that it is not even a given for it’s perfectly possible that some of us don’t have it at all, or only have it to a minimal degree. If empathy is entirely the result of our genetic makeup, then, if we lack it, we lack it. How can anyone be condemned for failing to have what none of us have control over having?

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