A Minimalist, Shared, Personal Morality

"...tis a cause that hath no mean dependance
Upon our joint and several dignities."
(William Shakespeare, 'Troilus and Cressida', Act II, Scene 2)

A friend of mine wishes me to comment on moral matters. I'm extremely reluctant to do so, partly because, at least until recently, I have been a young man "...whom Aristotle thought / Unfit to hear moral philosophy" (ibid.). I have flaws, and think those more skilled at the art of life may have more to say. Perhaps also, there is some truth to Lao Tzu's aphorism, "Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak, do not know". However, time waits for no man. Those who devote much time to theoretical thought and words may lack balance, unless they set aside some thoughts and words to moral matters, difficult and hard to demonstrate as these subjects may be.

The scientific method, our best guide to the how the world is; needs at the very least some care if applied to questions of value and of action. For example, I am conscious personal experimentation may be a poor guide to living well. Experimentation always delays the point of choice to some future time when we have 'found ourselves'; and the act of experimentation itself has moral implications. It is too late once we have experimented to know in advance what one should experiment on. In the case of the atmospheric experiment that humanity is carrying out at present, decisions over what to do now cannot wait until we have a full physical demonstration what the true consequences of our possible paths of action could be.

Given that a young man knows nothing about morality except that which he has instinctively or been taught, but that some sort of guidance seems to be essential when living in society - and given that at least those who think long and hard about life can be influenced by those thoughts -it seems necessary to adopt some sort of 'defensive' theory of morality - one that is not novel or new, but is guided by those who have come before. A theory of morality may require at least some experience of living; and since the young have not had much such experience; a mid sympathetic to empirical demonstration may argue in favour of granting the experienced at least some authority over such matters.

Such a defensive theory should not be over theoretical; it should deal with the common sense wisdom over how to live one's life, and with perhaps justified agnosticism over the sources of such wisdom.

Such a theory should not over extend itself by asking too much; we have justified skepticism over those who invent new laws to bind others in society. We are well aware that some people are powerful that lack certain virtues and some people with many virtues are not powerful. Our minimalist conception will focus on those virtues that are common to both parties.
The ancient concept of virtue (Arete in Ancient Greek; there is a possibly similar concept De in Chinese philosophy) tend to have the connotation of 'excellence' and 'power' in addition to our modern sense of personal goodness. Living a good life is good for the individual and is good for society; and we will focus on those principles that are in the intersection of the individual and the society good, leaving it to judgment where there may be a conflict.

Ancient Greek philosophers distinguished between moral laws specific to certain societies, and those that tend to be shared by all. In our minimalism we deal with only those that are shared by most successful civilizations.

I think such a defensive, minimalist, common-sense, practical, theory exists, and has been outlined by C.S.Lewis, for example. This outline is from Lewis and the notes in brackets are from here:
I. The Law of General Beneficence: (Golden Rule, help the community)
  • A. Negative (Do no harm, Golden Rule)
  • B. Positive (Preserve society, make people happy)
II. The Law of Special Beneficence (Put own family and friends first)

III. Duties to Parents, Elders, Ancestors (Respect and care for elders)


IV. Duties to Children and Posterity (Protect and care for children)


V. The Law of Justice:

  • A. Sexual Justice (No adultery)
  • B. Honesty (Re property, money)
  • C. Justice in Court (No bribes, no favoritism)
VI. The Law of Good Faith and Veracity (Tell truth, keep promises)

VII. The Law of Mercy (Be tender-hearted)


VIII. The Law of Magnanimity: (Soul should rule the body)

  • A. (Courage, defense against attacks)
  • B. (Death before dishonor)
  • C. ("Is not the love of Wisdom a practice of death? [Ancient Greek]")

The point of this post is not to outline anything new, of course, but the opposite. These are laws shared by many societies and successful civilizations around the world.

In order to slim down our obligations a little more (so as to preserve the core), we could examine the consistency of modern norms with these. The main way that modern Western man differs is in the concept of adultery (we have different norms below that of marriage) maybe a pragmatic response would be that conduct in such fields should be governed by 'good judgment' rather than moral stricture. But even we replace a moral stricture with 'good judgment' in that case, the spirit of the law and its justice still applies. Keeping promises is also sometimes difficult for our politicians; perhaps it is good to promise less in order to deliver more. It's helpful not to make inconsistent promises and to deliver upon them mechanically. We don't need to think about everything.

Our obligations in regard to climate change seem to be a case both of "Positive General Beneficence" and "Duties to Children and Posterity". So, even though we were careful to not over extend our idea of morality, we still have obligations to the future. Let us then proceed; strengthened by moral vigour of the principles of all successful and well-respected individuals and societies.

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