Last week, I set off on a journey to further explore the “true meaning of moral life” by reading Mark Matousek’s book, “Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life”.
I was drawn to this book because it was referenced in an article that l was reading. And when l read a review comment about the book by Daniel Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence”, I immediately felt the need to get right into it; into the mind of Matousek to understand the moral aspect of our nature more.
This is what Goleman is quoted to have said about the book: “A riveting, fun, and insightful tour of life’s meaning and purpose, essential reading for anyone drawn to the query, ‘How ought we to live?'”
And what have l found myself? Well, l am still on the “journey”, as l am not done reading, but from the pages that l have read from the book so far, l am already convinced about Matousek’s argument that emotions are the bedrock of ethical life, as without them, human beings cannot be empathetic, moral or good.
I am sure by the time l finish reading the book, l would be able to understand Matousek more, and all the good things that the book promises: How to make the judgement call between self-interest and caring for others, what being good really means and all the other areas that could lead to further exposition on ethical wisdom.
Well, let me just quickly add that this introduction does not mean that this week, I am going to do a review of Matousek’s book. No, that would be premature and unfair because without reading the whole book, a review would not present the right picture. Please, just wait for it later!
But, I have brought in Matousek’s book because the more lines l read, the more I appreciated my own exposition on ethical wisdom- and other teachings that I have come across.
In some of the articles that l have written about morality in this column, I have expressed other profound “wisdom” on how good morals can help shape the world, and make it a better place for us all.
Yes, we may have the consideration for climate risks mitigation, sustainability measures, and the promotion of inclusive growth at all levels, but all of these must be underpinned by strong ethical considerations too, that, which revolves around the nuggets of wisdom in this space.
Matousek plays on the emotional side of it, there are other considerations too.
So, let us take a look at some of the things that l have also expressed in this column on ethical considerations, and whether values are relative or absolute. This question must help in this context: Can you explain why people who pride themselves in being highly moral stray from their principles when money is in the offing?
In fact, I tried to explain this in the October 3, 2014 edition of this column. That is almost nine years ago, but l believe that there are important texts in that edition that need repeating.
In the October 3, 2014 edition, l explained the different interpretations and meaning structures that have formed, as far as ethics is concerned. In fact, as l explained, ethical considerations, which gives meaning and effect to morality can be taught using the model of absolute values, or as some theologians and philosophers say, first principles, or it can be taught in terms of how we all have our own individual way of seeing things; so values become relative to individuals and the situations in which they find themselves. You see how perspective is creeping in, and how the application of these models could create one’s own “wisdom”!
“In the 1990s, George Carey, who was then the Archbishop of Canterbury commented that, the people who hold the view that morality was relative to individuals and situations were responsible for the wickedness of the world,” I stated in the referenced edition.
In this scenario, the wisdom is that there certainly must be absolute values of some sort, if morality is to have universal appeal.
Of course, whose wisdom?
Debates about ethics have raged on for a very long time because of people’s disposition to what ethics is.
For instance, whereas one school of thought considers the consequences of an action to determine whether it is ethical or not-teleological theory, another school focuses on the decision itself-deontological theory.
And there are still a variety of ethical philosophies, such as the rights theory, that holds that certain human rights are fundamental and must be respected by other humans.
In the October 3, 2014 edition, for instance, this is what l wrote: “Now consider this to make your own mind up: An 18th Century German philosopher called Immanuel Kant (many describe him as a strict deontologist) proposed that humans are moral actors free to make choices and are able to judge the morality of any action by applying his famous Categorical Imperative.”
Kant’s claim is that one must “Act only on that maxim whereby at the same time, you can will that it shall become a universal law.” In other words, we judge an action by applying it universally.
So, for example, borrowing money, even though you know you will never repay it, using the categorical imperative approach, would imply the following rule/maxim: “When I want money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, even though I know I won’t repay it”.
Obviously, this fails the categorical imperative test, therefore, you are compelled, morally, NOT to promise falsely that you will repay a loan.
I am sure now you can see why l fell in “fall in love” with Matousek’s book.
The book serves as the right guide to help us to cross our own murky moral terrain; and forced me, in particular, to literally go back in time; to something l wrote about nine years ago. Really cool, isn’t it?
Taken together, the moral is that you must always act to treat humanity, whether in yourself or others, as an end in itself, never merely as a means.
In other words, we may not use or manipulate others to achieve our own happiness. In the example above, you are using the individual/entity that you are borrowing from because if they knew all the facts, they wouldn’t agree to the loan.