The history of this planet is replete with failed examples of ‘forced morality’. For centuries we have tried to force people to be moral, with threats of hell. That hasn’t worked either. Only we, freely and on our own, can adapt a common sense moral code, and only we can gently offer our ideas on morality to our friends and family. We can offer those ideas gently to others, and some will accept, just as we have, the offer this common sense moral code. Ethics and morality cannot be forced onto one. He will never become ethical because of fear, either fear of god, fear of hell or fear of jail. Fear can control behavior, but not morality. That has been the mistake made down through time.
Moral virtue is a habit formed by free choice on our part. Every action we perform that develops either a virtuous or vicious habit is itself a free chosen act. Free choice operates at every stage in the development of moral virtue, no one attempting to inculcate moral virtue by teaching can succeed.
Moral virtue by itself is not enough to make a good life. Were it sufficient by itself, there would be no point whatsoever in all the political, social, and economic reforms that have brought about progress in the external condition of human life. If morally virtuous persons can live well and become happy in spite of dire poverty; in spite of being enslaved, in spite of being compelled by circumstances to lead two or three part lives, with insufficient time for leisure, in spite of an unhealthy environment, in spite of being disfranchise and treated as nonparticipating subjects of government, rather than as citizens with a voice in their own government, then the social, political and economic reforms that eliminate these conditions and replace them with better ones make no contribution to the human happiness.
Our first moral criticisms are exercised upon the characters and conduct of other people. And we are all very forward to observe how each of those affects us. But we soon learn that other people are equally frank with regard to our own. We become anxious to know how far we deserve their censure or applause, and whether to them we must necessarily appear those agreeable or disagreeable creatures which they represent us. We begin, upon this account, to examine our own passions and conduct, and to consider how these must appear to them by considering how they would appear to us if in their situation. We suppose ourselves the spectators of our own behavior, and endeavor to imagine what effect it would in this light, produce upon us. This is the only looking-glass by which we can, in some measure, with the eyes of other people, scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct. If in this view it pleases us, we are tolerably satisfied.
To be amiable and to be notorious, that is, to deserve love and to deserve reward, are the great characters of virtue, and to be odious and punishable of vice. Virtue is not said to be amiable or to be notorious, because it is the object of its own love, or of its own gratitude but because it excites those sentiments in other men. What so great happiness as to be beloved? What so great misery as to be hated, and to know that we deserve to be hated?
Men naturally desires, not only to be loved but to be lovely, or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads not only to be hated , but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires not only praise, but praiseworthiness or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blameworthiness; or to be the thing which, though it be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame.
If moral virtue were identical with knowledge, it could be taught but it is not identical with knowledge. We are acquainted with instances, in our own life and the life of others, where individuals know what they ought to do and fail to do it, or do what they know they ought not to do. The free choices that enters at every step into the formation of moral character and does not enter into the development of excellent behavior on the part of domesticated animals is the crux of the matter. That is why we can train horses and dogs to behave well habitually, but not human beings.
Unfortunately, one’s moral character gets formed, one way or another, in youth. It can of course be changed later, but only by heroic effort and without these, seldom successfully. Toward the end of our lives when maturity enables us to take the long-term point of view and think about our lives as a whole, little time is left for judgments about what is best in the long run. The young who have, ample time ahead of them, and so should profit from thinking about their life as a whole are prevented by their immaturity from taking thought for the future. They are unable to profit from the experience of an older generation.
Those who cannot profit from the mistakes of others are condemned to repeat them. Thus they are destined to find out everything for themselves by trial and error. How this enables some of them to grow into adults of sound moral character and others to grow up into adults lacking moral virtue, no one knows. With all intensity, our position, our survival, our safety, and even our health, all of this depend on the morality of those who are close to us…..those on whom we depend for support. The amount of the future survival depends among other things, on the level of morality.And people tend to gravitate toward the morality of a group. If you join a group and find its morals far lower then your own, get out!
Adapted from :
Mortimer J. Adler, PhD, ‘Is anyone ever happy perfectly virtuous or completely happy?’.
Mortimer J Adler, PhD, ‘How can one individual help another to become morally virtuous’.
Adam Smith, ‘Of the foundations of our judgments’.