Moral Values

Since the presidential election, the term “moral values” has been in the spotlight. This seems like a good opportunity to reflect on the role of moral and ethical codes in our spiritual lives.

Needless to say, no particular voting block, and no single religion or sect, has a monopoly on either morals or values. Every tradition prescribes standards of right behavior, and if you peel back the surface and look at their foundational principles, they are remarkably alike. They all, for instance, have their own version of the Golden Rule. Take Confucius: “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” Or Muhammad: “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.” The rule is considered golden because it encapsulates the eternal verities that govern human decency everywhere on the planet: love, compassion, kindness, fairness, honesty and generosity.

All too often, finger-wagging religious authorities prescribe do’s and don’ts as a kind of afterlife insurance: “Do what we say or we’ll cancel your ticket to heaven.” But the deepest moral guidelines have everyday practical value. They not only help maintain order within families and communities, they can also promote individual spiritual development. If you play fast and loose with ethical standards, you’re likely to experience regret, guilt, messy predicaments, ostracism and other consequences that offer no spiritual advantages whatsoever. On the other hand, when you do something kind or generous or thoughtful, you expand beyond your own self-interest and connect to something bigger—the very point of spiritual growth. And each small deposit of decency yields concrete spiritual returns: harmonious surroundings, the love and respect of others, guilt-free inner peace and so on. Not to mention whatever cosmic dividends your belief system promises, for every spiritual tradition posits some kind of reap-what-you-sow justice system, whether it’s regulated by a judging deity or the intricate mechanism of karma. For the sake of spiritual progress, therefore, it’s to our advantage to aim for the kindest, most compassionate, least harmful action we can muster at any given moment.

Having said all that, let’s add a caveat: one of the traps of the spiritual path is that it’s easy to take the call to goodness too far. While you’re busy trying to love unconditionally and feel compassion for all beings, you can lose sight of your own needs and become a sap or a doormat or a martyr. Another potential trap is expecting too much of yourself. You can end up treating yourself unkindly for not being kind enough. You can judge yourself too harshly for being judgmental. So, save some of your compassion for yourself and lighten up. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. We all fall short, even the holiest and most pious among us. “How to do good I find not,” lamented Paul (Romans 7:19), “for the good that I would, I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do.” Maybe the Goodness Hall of Fame is like baseball’s, filled with superstars who got on base only once in every three attempts.

Of course, it’s not always easy to translate abstract virtues into concrete choices in everyday life (not to mention the thicket of public policy). We wrestle with the meaning of specific do’s and don’ts; we argue about the relevance of ancient rules to today’s world; we struggle over what compassion really means and where kindness ends and codependency begins, and so forth. But, if we look into our hearts, we usually know the right thing to do. The problem is, on the way from right thought to right action, that self-centered part of ourselves we call the ego will step in, like a left foot hitting the brake, and try to maneuver around our values to satisfy its insatiable desires. But the answer to the ego’s resistance is often as simple as the advice Miles Davis is said to have given the young John Coltrane. As the saxophonist in Davis’s band, Coltrane was playing long, ecstatic solos. Davis told the prodigy to cut it short. Coltrane said he couldn’t help it; the creative rush was so intoxicating that he lost all sense of time. Miles responded, “Just put down the horn, man.”

Most of the time we know the rules of the road. We just have to put down our solo-playing ego and harmonize with the rest of the band. “Assume the virtue, even if you have it not,” wrote Shakespeare. “For use almost can change the stamp of nature.” Or, as they say in 12-Step Programs, “Fake it till you make it.”

Everyone, whether they’re religious or not, has a personal code. How would you describe yours? What is your biggest moral or ethical challenge? How will you move toward greater goodness without holding yourself to impossible standards? Those are questions each of us should contemplate during the moral values debate.

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Written by Philip Goldberg

Explore Wellness in 2021