Socrates is purported to have claimed at his trial (for which he received the death penalty), “Are you not ashamed of caring so much for the making of money and for fame and prestige, when you neither think nor care about wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul?” This blog is about considering the moral consequences of all you do in life, from (as Socrates pointed out) work to entertaining yourself to eating to voting. A few additional interesting and unique quotes about the consequences of our behavior and the moral choices we make will be presented.
The Athenians, under as much such social pressure as they were, went along with what the late German poet Bertolt Brecht characterized as the following (when they put Socrates on trial for what amounted to morally dubious and legally questionable charges):
You heard of honest Socrates
The man who never lied:
They weren’t so grateful as you’d think;
Instead, the rulers fixed to have him tried,
And handed him the poisoned drink.
How honest was the people’s noble son.…
It’s honesty that brought him to that state;
How fortunate the man with none.
This sometimes happens with writing; you start to make one point, but are led to a somewhat different end by fate, facts, or chance. So, in this case, what I was attempting to do was to write a tribute to the moral choices we make every day – to say that virtues such as honesty or wisdom or dedication are worth the effort and the cost. However, Brecht’s poem brings some distinct counterevidence to the table. Look at those last two lines:
It’s honesty that brought him to that state;
How fortunate the man with none.
That doesn’t bode well for my thesis! But, c’est la vie. You can decide if it is better and wiser to be honest, forthright, honorable, up front, “real”, and plain-spoken, or if, as in Socrates’ case, that only leads to pain and sorrow. I am okay with either, because if you are out there in the world, making moral choices and living consciously, well, that’s praiseworthy. I will, however, try to make a bit of a case for choosing the good, the true, the noble, the caring, and the virtuous over their opposites. As Socrates did with his stunning statement:
Are you not ashamed of caring so much for the making of money and for fame and prestige, when you neither think nor care about wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul?
One of the first ways in which many or most of us don’t think about the moral choices we really ought to be considering is with work. Now, this is going to sound a bit preachy and possibly morally fastidious. I might appear to be on my high horse, acting as the “armchair philosopher” and judging others. I hope you read it more positively than that. But the truth is that I am questioning the morality and the honor of what most of us do day-in and day-out.
When you see a good crime drama on television, often the cop has to make tough moral choices: his or her partner did something wrong, and now the question is, “Do I come forward and tell Internal Affairs what really happened, or do I ‘toe the blue line’ and keep it quiet, protecting my brother in blue because if I let this creep get away with his criminal behavior, the streets will be less safe. And I will be pushing a pen and ostracized by my fellow police officers.” This is never easy because the consequences for either of the police officer’s moral choices can be stiff. It can come down to A criminal type guy goes to jail even though my partner bent the rule of law and disregarded proper procedure, or turn my partner in, tell the truth, and a guilty man walks.
Fortitude enables us to do what is right in the face of difficulty. The right decision in life is often the hard one.
Or how about simply working for some capitalist or soulless corporation who/which doesn’t offer good insurance or pay to a group of people to do some inane, repetitive, menial, meaningless, boring, profit-driven activity for forty hours a week. Is that what counts as living? I get it if you’re 17 and trying to make a buck flipping burgers or parking cars. But when you’re thirty or forty, and you’re doing something for money that makes little positive impact on the world, how do you stomach that?
If you’re feeling I am on my high horse, I apologize. I am merely suggesting that life is short and you only get to go around once. If you’re stuck as a marketing assistant hawking some corporation’s wares in the marketplace, living for the weekend, just trying to make ends meet, ask yourself if you can do better. Ask yourself what is stopping you from making a move. These are moral choices as well as practical ones. It’s not easy; we can get into ruts; change can be scary. I get all that.
While living I want to live well. I know I have to die someday, but even if the heavens were to fall on me, I want to do what is right.
Socrates and Jesus are two of history’s greatest moral teachers. One for the secular/humanistic and one for the faithful. They both chose to follow their hearts and their understanding of the law, and made some extremely difficult moral choices. Perhaps the hardest of all. Socrates didn’t want to disobey the law and try to escape or plead for leniancy; he was trying to tell Athens something at a time when they really needed to hear it. He was known as “The Athenian Gadfly” (like a horsefly) and was biting Athens until they squashed him. They drifted into obscurity and dishonor in the following generation or two. He tried to do his duty to God (yes, he was a believer) and help Athenians see the error of their ways (not being humble enough, not being wise enough, not being willing to change) and was willing to die rather than be cowardly, lie, or recant.
In addition to Jesus, folks such as Galileo, Rosa Parks, Giordano Bruno, MLK, Jr., Rachael Carson, and William Wallace made a big impact on history for choosing wisely and having the courage of their convictions. Suffragette Mary Wollenstonecraft famously asked us this question, which is brilliantly relevant today:
If women be educated for dependence; that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop?
Or consider 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai. She penned one of history’s greatest lines, “I don’t want to be remembered as the girl who was shot. I want to be remembered as the girl who stood up.” She also showed character with her quote, “I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is the story of many girls.”
Abigail Adams gave us this gem, and obviously made many challenging moral choices during the tumult and trouble that marked her era: “Great necessities call out great virtues.” The courageous author Anais Nin agrees that “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
Even when we know what is right, too often we fail to act. More often we grab greedily for the day, letting tomorrow bring what it will, putting off the unpleasant and unpopular.
Let me take a step back and ask you to consider this, as I have: “The mark of civic courage is taking a stand against your own kind, particularly when the payoff for so doing consists of cracking friendships, torrents of abuse, physical threats, and careers broken or abandoned. Until one has experienced those things, one should not deprecate the guts of those who have” (
Heroism focuses us on what is right with human nature. We care about heroic stories because they serve as powerful reminders that people are capable of resisting evil, of not giving in to temptations, of rising above mediocrity, and of heeding the call to action and to service when others fail to act.”
This is a mountain, but you can climb it. You don’t have to go it alone. Many have gone before you, and you have a support system (I hope). Even if you don’t have folks whom you can turn to in your everyday life, you have wise folks who have come before you. Think of it this way: “The ideas I stand for are not mine. I borrowed them from Socrates. I swiped them from Chesterfield. I stole them from Jesus. And I put them in a book. If you don’t like their rules, whose would you use?” — Dale Carnegie
I also want to note that of course the idea of trying to be ever-more moral and scrupulous can be viewed from the individual perspective (e.g., asking someone in a bind if they need your help), but there is also plenty of evidence in religion, politics, and the culture in general of a stunning lack of moral goodness writ large. I was reading something just today that jumped out at me as a salient case in point for this idea of money detracting from other more wholesome values (by Will Moredock):
In all the political advertising I observed over the past few weeks, I did not see a single Republican boasting that he or she protects the environment, protects our civil rights, or protects our schools. Those things cost money, of course, and apparently the white people of South Carolina care more about their money than they do about the commonwealth of our state. The result of this old and unchallenged behavior is that South Carolina perennially ranks near the bottom of the nation for such quality-of-life indices as education, personal income, life expectancy, crime, infant mortality, highway deaths – and the list goes on.
Below are a few more quotes about integrity, character, courage, wisdom, self-confidence, and of course, moral choices. Choose wisely!
Man or woman becomes fully human only by his or her choices and his or her commitment to them. People attain worth and dignity by the multitude of decisions they make from day to day. These decisions require courage.
Ethics, or morality, defines a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions — the choices and actions that determine the course of his life.
All persons ought to endeavor to follow what is right, and not what is established.
Living with integrity means: Not settling for less than what you know you deserve in your relationships. Asking for what you want and need from others. Speaking your truth, even though it might create conflict or tension. Behaving in ways that are in harmony with your personal values. Making choices based on what you believe, and not what others believe.
Ethics is about making a habit out of taking pains to determine what is right in a particular situation using general rules one has thought about ahead of time, and then doing that act faithfully. Every time. Slowly at first, and then it becomes second-nature. One day, you will have earned the right to call yourself good.
Integrity is the ability to discern what is right from what is wrong, acting on what you discern, even at personal cost, and saying openly that you’re acting on your understanding of right from wrong. A person of integrity is true to his or her own principles and beliefs. He or she doesn’t say one thing and do another.
We face ethical choices constantly in our personal relationships. We have opportunities to use people and discard them, or to remain loyal to them. We can stand up for what we believe, or make ourselves popular by going along with the group. ~ Peter Singer
All of the significant battles are waged within the self. ~ Sheldon Kopp
Making ethical decisions requires the ability to make distinctions between competing choices. ~ Wes Hanson