[Caveat: All of my observations, or essays, however dubbed, are simply reflections on lessons that life has taught me, which I here pass along to my loved ones and to any others who choose to read them. I make no claim to prescience, wisdom or mastery of any of these life-lessons. They simply reflect observations and goals to which I still aspire.]
Know thyself; presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Alexander Pope, poet, essayist (1688-1744)
Premise: Morality is the cornerstone of religion — and of reason.
Most religious scriptures espouse high standards of morality, for which we should be eternally grateful! Many of same use blind faith in a Deity and often a fear of their belief’s perceived Hereafter, e.g., Hell, as the stimulus for moral conduct. Any approach that leads to moral conduct merits our approbation to be sure.
It is worthy of note that reason dictates equally august standards of conduct. Indeed, reason affords us compelling grounds on which to base morality, and, at the very least, it offers a parallel road or option and equally positive route to journey to the same Valhalla: morality and the infinitely more rewarding life that it accords us.
Many great minds have supported this logic, and, for those readers interested in the history on point, see my Note below. In faithful Socratic fashion, we begin by defining “morality”, which, to Webster and the Oxford Unabridged, is “conformity to rules of right human conduct…to goodness or rightness”. Be it grounded in Epictetus’ stoic wisdom or in Moses’ Commandments or Jesus’ Beatitudes, the essence of morality might be distilled in today’s now trite version of the Golden Rule:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Paraphrasing Matt. 7:12, Epicurus, Epictetus, Hindu’s Mahabharata, Confucius, et seq
What simpler rule or more clear synopsis could there be? That apothegm not only contains morality, it contains reason, as its irrefutable counterpoint is:
If you mistreat others, you must expect to be mistreated equally or more.
The logic of this reciprocal aphorism is sufficiently strong to rest one’s case and request a summary-ruling that morality can be based solely on reason (as Kant, Hegel, Hume and others aver), but let’s probe further to make sure that the premise is correct.
The laws of cause and effect apply in physics, philosophy and everyday living. To use another cliché: “What we throw against the wall bounces back.” There can be no mistake about this and no surprise in it. We can confidently predict the consequences of most actions and inactions. Consider these few obvious examples of cause and effect:
Eat too much and suffer all manner of debilitating ailments.
Drink too much (alcohol) and suffer much worse.
Become captive of habit-forming drugs and endure more agony and even death.
Mental or physical idleness results in decay, shrinking and languid dependency.
Failure to feed our minds results in vacuous, static and effete brains.
Verbal and physical abuse of others destroys self.
Lying destroys credibility.
Theft eats at one’s conscience and results in furtive self-hate.
Swearing insults others, destroys social relationships and degrades self-image.
Breaking laws you don’t like (e.g., taxes) leads to greater losses than gains, eventually.
Charitable actions lead to self-esteem.
The highest purpose equals the highest self-esteem.
Love begets love and, hence, happiness.
Forgive the platitudinous examples, but the simplest truths often prove the most profound points:
Morality isn’t an option in life; it’s a prerequisite to a happy life.
Logic tells us so, as does religion. All of us know it. We don’t require fear or even faith, or any other stimulus, to know this truth, although all such stimuli add further efficacy to the inescapable conclusions that morality is inescapably grounded in reason.
The challenge, obviously, is to impose the sometimes disagreeable self-discipline to conduct ourselves in the most moral way. Each of us must do our best, and the level of our happiness, long term, will roughly match the degree of our success in abiding by the highest moral standards. This ongoing, daily, hourly, minute-by-minute struggle within ourselves is a subject separate from the point of this essay, which remains:
Reason dictates moral conduct in all facets of life, period.
Reason and morality are flip sides of the same coin.
We are immoral at our peril.
You know it.
Note. History’s leading exemplar on point was Epictetus, the Greek slave, stoic-existentialist-philosopher (c. 55BC-135AD), who developed a code of morality based on reason. (See my essay on Serenity.) The much loved Roman Emperor and stoic Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD or CE, as you prefer) echoed Epictetus in Aurelius’ Meditations. Contemporary history’s most prominent proponent of this theme is Emanuel Kant (1724-1804), a German icon, the last great philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment, who, in his Critique of Pure Reason, his magnum opus, gave us the most detailed articulation of the reasons to join epistemology (study of the origins of knowledge) and metaphysics; in simplest terms, Kant showed us how to achieve morality through logical reasoning. Kant gave us a formula to achieve morality, not a new or different morality. All morality is one. Kant’s immediate predecessors (the giants Locke, Beckley and Hume) had given us inklings of this, but Kant’s canvass was much larger, more detailed and more lucid. The point of my comments above is not to attempt to add layers to the sagacity of Kant et al (which is beyond my ken) but, rather, to put same in a more contemporary context that may make the concepts more user-friendly to 21st Century minds. Some readings on point that you may find of interest include: Epictetus Discourses; Aurelius’ Meditations; of course, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason; Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason; Hegel’s Science of Logic; Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance; Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Bertrand Russell’s essays and books; and Christopher Hitchens’ essays, to list a few brilliant writers on this subject.