People seek the good life or a good life, at least for themselves, and this is a proper subject for reflection. Indeed, it is a truism that people should strive to live well. Ethics (moral philosophy) is reflection on what is good and how what is good for one person may tie in with what is good for others or the wider community. It tends to focus on the long term, trying to impose cohesion on a whole life, or life as a whole, rather than on individual actions.
This said, much behaviour – good, bad and indifferent – is a matter of habit and context. Habits – again, whether good, bad or simply useless – are formed in early years. Some self-discipline is essential, but too much is too much. There is also a time for indulgence.
Understand that law and social conventions are fallible guides. On occasion, it may be right to break the law or risk censure. The general rule is to Comply or Explain. So when breaking the Common Law, or indeed the more contrived law of lawyers and lawmakers, when violating a code of conduct or just disregarding convention, be sure in your own mind why an exception is justified. To iterate: at times it may be right, or wise, or brave, to flout the law or risk censure.
Since you cannot be responsible for everything, and there are many things which others are better placed to assume responsibility for, you need to choose your responsibilities thoughtfully.
It will come down to your sense of identity, or what sort of person you are. To an extent this may be defined by the roles life imposes on you or that you choose: for example, as a family member, a friend, a neighbour, in a line of work, a calling even.
There is a limit to how "good" you can be in a given context. Among thieves you may thieve less, but you will always be complicit in some thieving. If this goes against the grain, then change your company. You may be judged, fairly or unfairly, by the company you keep. There you might try to be second best, which will usually be good enough, and gradually graduate to a social & cultural setting which is more considerate; and where you with your strengths may even shine. To iterate: you may judge yourself, rightly or wrongly, by the company you keep. Be wary of perfectionism in moral matters: it may lead to hubris. Besides, sometimes you will be blind since life is replete not only with deception but self-deception.
Living well is not only about personal conduct. It must also involve calling others to account. On occasion, failure to call out wrongdoing will make you complicit. This does not mean that you should be sanctimonious, seeking out bad behaviour in order to condemn it. Most will fall far outside your remit. A rule of thumb is to ask whether, firstly, speaking out at this moment will serve a purpose and, secondly, whose turn it is to speak out if not yours. Usually others will be better placed.
Avoid thinking in stark Manichaean terms – i.e. as if everything were a battle between Good and Evil. This does not mean that there is no evil, but most of the time distress and conflict are better understood as being caused by weakness of will, misplaced pride, bad religion or narrow morality.
Similarly, remember that rules are a means to an end, not an end in themselves: The Law was made for Man, not Man for the Law. Most rules are learning aids, and once what they are intended to teach, or imbue, has become part & parcel of a character, they can and should be forgotten.
Different characters need different rules. If you are not a kleptomaniac, you do not need a rule against shoplifting. It will simply not enter your mind. Such and similar rules would crowd out others which might correct for weaknesses you do have. As the years progress you should review and possibly jettison any rules of thumb you have previously adopted. To iterate: generally, a rule is a learning aid. Or else in tempestuous circumstances something to steady yourself by and find your footing.
Hence if there are going to be moral rules (as in Codes of Conduct) they need to be personalised, like therapy.
The crucial aspect which rules on right & wrong tend to omit is timing. There is a time for everything (Ecclesiastes). There is also a time, be it ever so rare, for emotions and actions directed at hurt and harm.
Popularly, among crude people, morality is confused with sexual mores, but abstinence too can be a sin. Universal abstinence is not sustainable.
Vulgar commentators on morality make a further – connected – error. This is to misunderstand the nature of the virtues and the vices. These get thought of as good and bad, much on the lines of the Manichaean heresy. But every "virtue" is at some time a vice: the person who is brave may become foolhardy; the generous can turn spendthrift; patience can be procrastination. Hence there is a time and occasion for jealousy, envy, revenge, violence, sex even...
A person or their conduct may be condemned as arrogant, but it can make sense to fight arrogance with arrogance, fire with fire, as violence may be checked successfully by yet greater violence. For example, an arrogant person is one whose foremost response to any challenge is arrogance. This does not make it wrong for anyone ever to be arrogant. Envy and vengefulness may drive rightful and essential correctives to gross injustice. They only become vicious when nurtured. It is true that in such cases the vengeful or envious person has become poisoned, and this is unfortunate, but instead of being condemned for weakness of character, they might be seen as making a personal sacrifice for the public good. If wrong-doers are not called to account they will persist.
It is now known from psychological experiments that, generally, people will punish anti-social behaviour even if this involves a cost – for example, a monetary cost – which they could otherwise avoid. Much as those who act bravely to defend others risk life & limb, which is surely irrational from a personal perspective. But we are not entirely ourselves: part of us always belongs to society and, on occasion, our social selves take precedence.
You may be initially hurt by the charge of arrogance or whatever but, on reflection, stand your ground and absorb the hurt or ostracism with pride. For this, you will need to have reflected more profoundly than your detractors. This will seldom be difficult.
The whole purpose of moral speech is to hurt; mildly or harshly. It is a way of setting limits. It is also a means of soft power. A person is respected by being held accountable. An animal or baby, by contrast, is not acknowledged as a person, or yet a full person, and therefore they are not subject to blame or shame. Nor are they properly a target of hate. Hate speech may be the most moral speech of all. As said at the outset, morality is more than conformity.
Power is omnipresent, but where there is a balance of power it may go unnoticed or be disregarded. Whereas power is often abused, it may be equally wrong to fail to exercise it when called for by circumstance.
A common error among the sanctimonious and spokespeople for vulgar religion is to conflate morality with altruism. It is true that morality treats primarily of how we should relate to other people. It is true that egoism, i.e. regard for one’s own self-interest, is so widespread and stark that it detracts from the necessary cohesion of society. None the less, morality cannot be reduced to altruism alone. Those who do so run the risk of being exploited by people much less good than they are. It is also imperative to have due regard for oneself, including personal growth to greater maturity. People who are good at heart are often neglectful here and pay dearly, not only on their own account. Hence we return to the assertion above that, in any given circumstances, there is a limit to how good you can be.
What is also ignored by the advocates of altruism is that there are many varieties of egoism. Not everyone is greedy for cake. Some hanker after a hearing. Self-sacrifice may be a means discreetly to assert power in the form of influence. A well-constructed society (polity) is able to harness the varieties of egoism for the greater good, as with Adam Smith’s self-interested early rising baker.
KEY THOUGHTS TO RETAIN:
* No-one is responsible for everything, but everyone is responsible for something.
* Vulgar morality is widespread and is a means of imposing power. Moral courage means risking moral censure and worse. It is the hallmark of Western culture.
* Avoid Reductionism, as when everything is seen in terms of Good versus Evil, or Altruism versus Egoism, or following Rules, or Virtues versus Vices.
* There is a time and place for everything.