Chasing Righteousness

Righteous: "Meeting the standard of what is right and just; morally right; guiltless."
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Meeting the standard of what is right and just certainly sounds like a good idea. We ought to do right, and justice is essential to a sane society. We have a problem though with the standard. We don't all agree on what it should be. The Ten Commandments are a useful and popular standard. Few of us fully subscribe to all ten though. Even the fairly straightforward commandments, like "Thou shalt not kill" require interpretation. If we shall not kill, how can we have wars? How can we execute criminals? How can we stone adulteresses? Alright, we don't stone adulteresses anymore. We drew a line around that one. Still, many who believe in the Ten Commandments think it is acceptable to have wars and to execute criminals.

We could use sacred scripture as our standard. Which parts then? The parts in the Bible where slavery, genocide and animal sacrifice seem OK? The parts of Hindu scripture where a rigid caste system is advocated? No? Then we could use the opinions of the wise interpreters of the scriptures. Unfortunately, the authoritative scholars lived in times unlike our own. Should we base our beliefs about contraception on the long ago pronouncements of men who lived in a sparsely populated world when famine, disease and war swept lives away with alarming frequency? Should we follow men of a patriarchal society in their pronouncements about how to treat women?

A proper understanding of karma can help in our moral decision-making. Karma is cause and effect. Actions have consequences. If our behavior has beneficial consequences, the karma is good. If the consequences are harmful, the karma is bad. If your theology teaches that people should not use condoms, but people die of disease because of that, what kind of karma are you generating? You might say, "Well those people shouldn't be having sex!" But people do have sex. That's what happens among human beings sometimes. The way the world works perhaps should have some relevance to our moral decision-making. The Stoics considered natural law as their touchstone. They arrived at their understanding of it through reason. Taoists seek to live according to the Tao, which cannot truly be defined, but which roughly means the way things work naturally. Tao is the ultimate principle of the universe. You can disapprove of gravity, but when you build your house, you had better take its nature into consideration. You can live by strong moral principles, but if they don't coincide with the way of the universe, you are going to have some bad consequences. If the consequences of your morality are evil, how moral are you?

Knowing natural law through reason or grasping the meaning of the Tao can seem difficult, if not impossible. Perhaps we can find some simple principles upon which to base our morality. The Golden Rule in some version is found in all the major religions. It essentially says we ought to treat others as we would like to be treated. This seems sound, though we may do better to treat them as they would prefer to be treated, rather than assuming that they need what we need. Following the Golden Rule, missionaries and conquerors have made native peoples cut their hair, wear pants, give up their languages and their ways of life. Morality without kindness doesn't seem to work, and kindness without wisdom doesn't seem to work either.

Perhaps the best we can do is to seek to live a moral life, knowing that sometimes we will fail. We can seek to be kind. We can wish good upon our fellow beings. We can seek to be wise, which means that we must be willing to reflect upon complex issues with an open heart and mind. We can consider what other wise people have done in similar situations, or what they would do. What would Jesus do? What would Buddha do? What would Lao Tse or Confucius do? We can pray to know the will of God, the way of wisdom, the nature of Tao. We can seek compassion by meditating upon the suffering of others and desiring that they be free from suffering. We can affirm that our intentions are honest and kind, and then we can act with sincerity.

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© 2005 Tom Barrett