It is my belief that moral reasoning is an art rather than a science. This means that one must seek to develop their innate sense of beauty, proportion, and meaning before attempting to consistently act with moral purpose.
Above all, one should turn towards their own experience of the world in order to inform their understanding of the whys and wherefores of proper action. In lieu of experience, however, the tales of others can serve as an aid to one’s understanding. In this vein, I offer these tales and experiences, which might lend themselves to your own edification.
Tale 1: Spectator
My grandfather once told me a story about his childhood. He always wanted to play football with his friends, but his mother wouldn’t let him because it was too dangerous. One day he decided to got to the park with the others, but he had determined not to play, just to watch from the sidelines. The other boys mocked his timidity, but he insisted that he had his orders from above.
As it would happen, someone was driven into him while he stood there watching and his leg was broken. While being carried home by a policeman, the only thought on his mind was this: “Mother, while I may have been injured, cheer up, because I did not disobey you, I did not play.” His mother laughed ironically when she heard this, and she still punished him.
Moral: If you are standing on the sidelines you cannot win or lose, but you can still get hurt and you will certainly be judged.
Tale 2: Narcissism
I woke up to a tragedy one day. I saw on the news that a massive earthquake had shook Chile and would go on to threaten tsunamis for the surrounding coastal regions and far-off littorals. I watched for a bit and then decided that I should eat something. I began to prepare my breakfast and came back to the TV to watch some more, hoping to feel something that would remind that I had a connection to these people who were suffering. I did not feel sad or distraught, I did not feel like helping, nor did I feel hopeful that others would help. I was enervated by the images of rubble; all I felt was indifference.
After some time I heard something, the sound of splashing water coming from the kitchen. I leapt up to see what it could be. The coffee maker was jammed and the liquid was spilling everywhere on the counter and floor. I unplugged the coffee maker and began to consider the clean up, all that bending and wiping and drying, all that effort with no payoff but a return to where I had begun (wanting a cup of coffee). I cursed the coffee maker. Before I could clean however, I had to investigate that smell. Something was burning, and I quickly discovered that it was my toast. I released the lever and angrily watched the smoking briquettes.
I punched the counter in a rage, then I took a bite of my toast to confirm its bitterness. I tried to savor its char but I realized at that moment that I hated everyone in Chile for ruining my morning.
Moral: A personal annoyance and momentary delay can be perceived as a greater disaster than the annihilation of distant peoples.
Tale 3: Arrogance
The greatest swimmer in all the lands of ancient Greece once proclaimed that he could conquer the unconquerable, and that he would do so by swimming across the Aegean Sea faster than Odysseus could have contrived. The people of his city became enamored with the man’s skill at navigating perilous waters without the aid of ship and oar, and so they deemed his proposed feat to be fit for a god, to which they gladly likened him. His retort was none too humble either, exclaiming, “When you witness my triumph, you will then know of what gods and men are capable.”
On the appointed day of his setting sail for Troy (believing it most fitting for him to swim from Troy to Ithaca in mockery of Odysseus), a storm could be seen over the horizon. In spite of admonitions from knowing merchants who could see that the season was not ripe for such a venture, the hero reasoned, “If the sea will dictate the manner of my departure now, how shall I ever make a show of conquering her in my return?” The hero feared too much the passion of his spectators, not enough the unconcern of the sea.
So, the hero departed for Troy to great fanfare and heightened expectation, fearing nothing from the mighty Aegean. Not even a day had lapsed when the sea began to violently rock his ship. The man stood confidently at the prow and egged on Poseidon to do his worst. Before the words finished leaving his mouth, the shipmen watched in horror as he was swept away by a rogue wave. Being lost in the darkness and confusion of the storm, the captain decided it would be best to leave the man to his own special craft while the rest of them sought refuge. The next day the ship returned to port, short one man. The hero had drowned, succumbing to the very forces he presumed to have mastered.
Moral: Nemesis punishes Hubris with Irony as her consort.
Tale 4: Motivation
While extracting a tooth, the dentist accidentally created a gap between two of my molars when he released the tension provided by the bad tooth that was pressing the others together. Within this gap, food is regularly and painfully lodged. In order to remove the obstruction, I am forced to floss after every meal. Whereas I now floss regularly and pay much heed to the taking of my meals, I was before reckless in the caring for my teeth and the filling of my belly. The painful gap has thus been turned into quite a prize.
Moral: One minor flaw can effect a more perfect whole.
Tale 5: Distinction
In high school, I never used drugs or drank alcohol. My senior year, I stayed up all night before the last day of school finishing my final term paper. It was the paper I had placed the most effort into writing and the one I was most proud of producing. Naturally, I was exhausted during the final school day. It was a tradition at my school for all seniors to destroy their textbooks and throw them into the middle of the quad area while celebrating and howling like buffoons. It could be taken for granted that half of these students were either drunk or high on some illegal substance.
Now, I never had a taste for the bacchanalian, and I was tired anyways, so I sat motionless and watched my classmates with lazy eyes. Of all the students acting out, I was the one approached by the school counselor and accused of being on drugs. He grabbed my arm and stared at me as if I were the embodiment of everything terrible happening at that moment. Through gritted teeth he said, “I know what you did, and you’re stupid for doing it. If I brought you into my office and gave you a drug test right now, do you think you would pass?”
I was shocked more by his aggression than his question, and answered, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Of course I would.” He maintained his grip on my bicep, stared at me for a few more seconds, then thrust my arm away and left. From the look of him, he walked away before indulging an impulse to punch me in the face.
Moral: Go with the crowd and your reputation is secure; be your own man and you must fight for what you deserve.
Tale 6: Humility
On a number of occasions, I have told people who cared about me that I did not care what they thought about certain decisions of mine. This brought them to tears, and it caused them to care less about me.
Moral: When asserting your freedom of conscience, use tact if you are offending the affection of others.
Tale 7: Savior
When my brother was young, he saw a yellow jacket caught in a spider’s web. He wanted to save the frantic insect, but instead of poking it with a stick, he tried to free it with his finger. My brother was stung for his kindness.
Moral: While helping those in extreme duress, keep a safe distance.
Tale 8: Disease
I spent years making my hands calloused and strong so that they would be fit for use whenever I might need them. One time I had to demolish a concrete wall with a hammer. By the end of the day my hand was a bloody mess; I had gotten blisters in between all of the calluses.
Moral: If inoculation leads to false confidence, then it will disease the rest.
Tale 9: Cure
I had previously suffered a knee injury that limited my motion for years. While hobbling down the stairs one day, I slipped and felt my knee buckle and pop during the fall. Afterwards my knee swelled and I became frightened that the prior injury would be exacerbated. When the swelling went down, I discovered that my knee had actually been fixed.
Moral: Hardship can lead to its own cure.
Tale 10: Prudence
A young man read these tales and drew contradictory lessons. He determined to live in the following ways:
- To never spectate nor play, but instead to withdraw himself completely
- To never care enough about his own needs since others were certainly fairing worse
- To never extend himself beyond his weaknesses for fear of the consequences when grasping too much
- To use his flaws as an excuse to rest merely with his revealed strengths
- To never stand out from the group for fear of becoming a target
- To always tell people what they want to hear so as not to offend them and to stay in their good graces
- To never offer aid for fear of being dragged into the melee
- To never rely upon a unique strength when danger is on the fringe
- To always wait for pains to subside on their own
This man ended in disaster—dying old but with much to regret. He allowed his fears to rob him of the vigor and passion that make of life something more than merely not dying.
Moral: The key to all moral application is prudence. You can draw contradictory lessons from most experiences, however the art of moral reasoning is jurisprudence: knowing principles but also knowing when and how to apply them.
Read More: The Lives Of Great Men As Moral Instruction