November 2012

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Contemporary Definition

by Carmine Gorga 


Too frequently one hears that “morality is not practical” or that “morality is one thing, and politics (or economics) is something else”. These statements are becoming part and parcel of our culture. They are becoming accepted truths. As with other self-fulfilling prophesies, it is becoming increasingly difficult to challenge these statements because they rather fairly represent today’s reality. 

My intent is neither to analyze the broad social and economic reality from which these statements spring, nor to promise solutions and recommendations. Rather, it is an attempt to define the issues on the firm belief that a partial truth will make us at least partially free. 

The basic statement of fact arrived at through this investigation is that morality is not fully practiced not so much because the prevailing socioeconomic conditions make it “impractical”—as because its central command needs to be redefined in the light of our contemporary reality. 

That there is confusion on the meaning of morality barely deserves mention. Perhaps, the most glamorous case in point was—and it likely still is—Jeb Stuart Magruder’s statement to the Senate “Watergate” Committee. He felt entitled to break the law, he said, because “We saw continual violations of the law by men like William Sloan Coffin (his ethics teacher). Now he tells me my ethics are bad”. 

Of course it is possible to answer such a statement in sociological, legal, and political terms as many priests, ministers, and rabbis implicitly do when they become social workers or get actively involved in politics. However, by following this approach it seems to me that moralityjust as many other disciplines today—is made to look outward, to become external to the essential reality of the soul or the character of each person. 

Thus, the most that is ever achieved is to arouse an intellectual curiosity about the person who is subject to pain and suffering. At best, we feel a vicarious and superficial pain. But we never have empathywe never intimately and personally suffer (or rejoice) with that person. We never have compassion. We never have pity. And without these essential elements, we never become indignant enough to want to change the situation which brought about that pain. 

The moral dilemma of today, it seems to me, is not so much the harm that the Magruders of this world do to other people. This harm is often questionable and invisible. The real dilemma is the harm they allow other people to do to themselves. It is the harm they ultimately do to themselves. Therefore the attempt is made here to demonstrate that the accepted meaning of morality as “do not do harm to other people” needs to be integrated with two complementary parts: “do not allow other people to do harm to you” and “do not do ham to yourself”.

Three Meanings of Morality in the Judeo/Christian Tradition 

The printed line, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out—or better yet, the discovery of the perspective in the paintings of the Quattrocento—has accustomed us to think in linear terms. Things have to have a beginning and an end. This pattern of thought has also accustomed us to reject any organic—complementary and relational—form of thinking. Somehow, we have left the preserve of this form of thinking to the Eastern tradition. And we have downgraded it. We have concluded that our preference for linear, “rational” thought processes has helped us make all those wonderful scientific and technological discoveries (which in accordance with our biases we either praise or despise) and that the form of organic thinking has prevented the Eastern mind from achieving similar feats. 

With the discovery of the atom bomb, television, and the Internet, science and technology have reached their apex in the Western World. Their path has been downhill ever since, at least as far as public and, lately, financial support is concerned. (The atom bomb threatens even the life of men in power, and television is impalpably destroying the mantel of mystery surrounding the work of scientists and politicians. Television shows many results of that work; it also shows that both scientists and “men in power” are primarily human beings). 

At the same time, scientists are progressively becoming the true philosophers of our age, and they are beginning to run into the intricacies of the relational pattern of life. In correspondence with a molecular “body”, they are beginning to look forand discoveran anti-body. In correspondence with DNA, they are beginning to think in terms of reverse DNA, namely RNA. In correspondence with matter, they are beginning to think in terms of anti-matter. As Eastern philosophers would say, for every Yin there is a Yang. Somehow, this new form of thinking has filtered down to (or has it actually been spurred by) the layman. Eastern philosophies are being avidly studied

In this new cultural atmosphere, it will be easier perhaps to recognize that our Judeo-Christian tradition once was closer to the Eastern mind than it is at present. After all, there were too many linkages between the two traditions—even though these linkages and similarities are rarely emphasized.

More than looking for indirect proofs of these connections between the Eastern and the Judeo-Christian tradition, let us not take into account the many minor examples but that distilled quintessence of the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount. To the Yin expression: “How blest are those who know that they are poor”, there corresponds the Yang expression: “the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” And so, “How blest are the sorrowful; they shall find consolation.” Or, “How blest are those of a gentle spirit; they shall have the earth for their possession”. 

This is not circular reasoning. The complexity of this thought, its organicity, its 

complementarity is generally lost on us. We are tempted to reduce it to a “linear” thought by wanting to read after each first line: “on earth;” and after each second line: “in Heaven” and Heaven, of course, is conceived as regarding exclusively the afterlife. These words, these constructs—notwithstanding much literature to the contrary are not there and should not be read in the text. This interpolation is not justified in terms of linguistic scholarship perhaps, and certainly it is without foundation in fact or reason. After Berkeley, Hegel, and Einstein—quite apart from the experience of the mystics—we realize that the quantum jump between a stone and a plant, a plant and an animal, an animal and a human being is more apparent than real. We realize that there is continuity in life; that those outward manifestations of life are all expressions of a strikingly identical “energy”. 

Of course, by accepting this scientifically proven fact, one does not touch at all upon the metaphysical questions: What is this energy? What is its origin? What is its purpose? However, the acceptance of the idea of continuity in life makes it more improbable to conceive Heaven as something regarding exclusively the afterlife. What we conceive as Heaven must be—indeed, the mystics assure us that it is—experienced at least in part in this life.

No. It seems to me that the introduction of the words Heaven and earth after each lucid sentence of the Sermon on the Mount serves only to downgrade the depth of understanding that those sentences express. It serves only to make them very “concrete”, stone like—but this process destroys their meaning. No, quite apart from what might be true in the afterlife, those sentences also have daily practical applications in this life. And morality should be concerned with these applications. 

The central concern of morality is not—or at least should not be—the set of relationships between man and God. These involve each person individually, and they are more properly left to religion. The central concern of morality, it seems to me, is the effect upon the soul of each person of the set of relationships between man and himself (how it treats his body, his mind, his soul), man and other human beings, man and the world. Put it succinctly, the atheist can be a thoroughly moral person. While religion is concerned with atheism, morality is not necessarily stretched that far. 

Modern psychology which focuses its attention primarily on the aberrations of these same relationships between man and himself, man and other human beings, man and the world, and studies them from a non-judgmental/non-hortatory point of view is fully aware of the complexities and apparent contradictions of the human mind and soul. It observes reactions such as those listed in the Sermon on the Mount not as dichotomies between two different worlds, but as activities unleashed in the soul of each person. 

No, to read especially the New Testament in terms of Heaven and earth is an expression of an unconscious determination to remove from us the obligations toward ourselves, other people and the outside world. It is an expression of an unconscious desire to remove from us also the joys which were promised us in this life. In this way nothing is left but an abstract moral absolutism—a concept which, Benedetto Croce (the most important modern Italian philosopher) said, is espoused by people who by the way have their good motives to put morality outside of history, high, very high, a position which makes for “reverence from far away and non-observance from close by”. 

This statement brings me to the core of our topic. Our predominant, rather simplistic, linear way of thinking has made us stress only one of the principal meanings of morality: “You shall not do harm to other people”. In this way morality has become an abstract concept. Everyone is familiar with the string of “practical” questions this definition raises: Why? What is harm? How do I know that other people are going to suffer? Are not other people going to suffer anyway? If I do not do this or that, will not other people do it? Will not other people benefit from that action, to the direct or indirect detriment of my interests? Is not my first obligation to protect myself and my family? And then comes the “clincher”: If other people—say, the poor—were to protect their own interests, would we not have the “best of all possible worlds”? The market is supposed to balance all interests.[If these people were serious, they should be ready to analyze that set of social, economic, legal, and political conditions which in a harmonious way would allow everyone to protect their “interest”. This indeed is the only way to achieve “the best of all possible worlds”. Generally, however, they are not ready to go that far either and we will certainly not be engaged in this discussion at present]. 

Almost everyone has somehow participated in this type of discussion concerning morality. Arguments and counter-arguments fly and the discussion, if it follows any rational path at all, becomes more and more abstract, more and more removed from ourselves. It seems to me that to anchor the discussion to reality we have to complement the often repeated command “You shall not do harm to other people” with its rather hidden counterpart: “You shall not allow other people to do harm to you.” This complementary meaning of morality is not usually emphasized, but it has great relevance to today’s conditions. 

As far as I can discern, this conclusion cannot be based on direct evidence and authority. It can be reached only pursuing the following line of reasoning. What is the harm that other people can do to me? Certainly, according to the Bible, this is not physical harm: “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid; what can man do to me?” Clearly, the only harm which other people can do to me is a moral harm. They can suggest, they can invite, they can pressure, they can order me to act in an immoral wayin a way which is against my conscience whether the activity is directed against myself or others. This is the only harm they can do to me. This is the only harm they do. 

The Bible is very emphatic on this issue. When people try to do moral harm to me, the Bible does not say turn the other cheek; allow other people to do harm to you. No. A “cheek” stands for no more than it says; it is a symbol of physical harm. This symbol is used with the specific purpose of rejecting the “old morality: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—in itself a command to keep a balance between offense and retribution. (It is difficult for me to let the occasion go by. The Tonkin Incident in 1964 which sparked the war in Vietnam might have been as grave and unpardonable as one wants to believe. But certainly the immediate retributionnot to speak of subsequent actions—was out of proportion with the offense.) The new morality contains the well-known wondrous advancement: “…love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. 

In relation to the moral harm that other people can do to me, the Bible indeed warns us in many different ways: “... let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or a wrong-doer, or a mischief-maker... Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world”.

And who is the devil? The Bible simply defines the devil as “him who has the power of death”. And death, of course, is often defined in spiritual terms. To reduce this deep mystical and metaphysical concept to simple terms, could it not be said that the other man is—or, more precisely—can be the “devil”? Why would Jesus have had to retire to the wilderness before he could go into the world and meet other men? 

The specific temptations from the “devil” which Jesus resisted on this occasion can be read as giving content to the second meaning of morality that I have been discussing here. Briefly, they were: Live by bread alone [and for ASSURED (?) bread]; then, temptation in general; then, the “kingdoms of the world and the glory of them”in exchange for “worship,” adulation, loyalty!

Are not these the “gifts,” progressively, offered to man by other men—especially men “in power”? Are not these the temptations we all experience everyday? It could not be otherwise— at least for those who believe that Jesus lives in us and we live in Jesus; for those who believe that we are all sons of God. 

It seems to me that the second half of the moral command, “do not allow other people to do harm to you” is implicit in the Judeo-Christian tradition and, at least at the present moment, it is perhaps even more compelling than the first half of the moral command, “do not do harm to other people”.

The Contemporary Issue 

Although the problem of the definition of morality cannot be considered settled with these few paragraphsand indeed it can never be considered settled because it needs to be adapted to the changing reality—a question must still be asked. Why is it that the second part of the moral command has not been defined? The answer must be found in the realities of the times. At the time of the Old Testament, the major issue was: “Thou shall not kill”. At the time of the New Testament, the major issue was: “Love your enemies and pray for those who prosecute you”. Keeping in mind that the “old” issues, at best, are settled only intellectually while in fact they are recurring, ever-present oneskeeping in mind what Jesus had to say in this regard:  “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them”—it must be realized that the major moral issue of the present is: Let us not allow anyone to do harm to us; let us love other people to the point of preventing them from doing harm to us. 

The harm other people can do to us, the snares awaiting us can best be derived from the list of “temptations” resisted by Jesus: 

  1. Live by bread alone. Here the moral issue is the selling of our right and duty to a free and unfettered life “for a mess of pottage” (a single meal)—in exchange for assured daily bread;

  2. Temptation in general; i. e., not the satisfaction of basic physical necessities, but pleasures, comforts and luxuries. Here the moral issue is the danger of a negative growth; greater and greater denial of our personality, the starting of deceit and lies, etc. , etc.—to protect and increase our luxuries;

  3. “All kingdoms of the world and the glory of them”—in exchange for adulation, worship and loyalty. Here the moral issue is the complete annihilation of our personality and its fusion with that of the organization or the person offering those rewards. 

A number of tangential points need to be brought forward here. First, the harm which in the process is done to other people has not been stressed in this discussion; but, almost inevitably, it is there. Second, the possible inference that “morality” requires self-denial and abstinence from “material” possessions is not warranted. It is society—as organized today—that too often puts the acquisition of material possessions in conflict with morality. Material possessions by themselves are neutral; no moral meaning is attached to them. The point is that we potentially can, and should, obtain material possessions in a thoroughly moral way—like “birds” and “lilies in the field”. If God had wanted otherwise, He would have not created immense material riches; neither can we assume that He created them just to tempt us. I cannot conceive of a “sneaky” God. It is more accurate perhaps to assume that God created bountiful material richesnot to have us attached to them and fearful of losing them—but to make all of us deeply, intensely enjoy them, to let us see Him in those riches.

The third point to be emphasized here is that the “bill of particulars” which has been included under these three categories is by no means complete. Many more specific cases could be listed, organized, and analyzed. Let us remain, for instance, a little longer on one of the more evident specific cases, that of loyalty. Our contemporary socio-political context gives ample proof that loyaltyin its minor or major formsis strongly demanded in private corporations as well as in public offices. When loyalty is demanded in these places to obtain complete “dedication” to such an outer entity as “the organization”whether the corporation, the state, or societythe moral harm can stop there, in the total annihilation of one’s personality. (The “good” organization is the one which makes people free, or freer than they would be if they were operating alone.) However, quite often the harm is compounded. Loyalty is demanded to make me do harm to other people. This case is so common today that it deserves to be looked at more extensively. 

Loyalty is often demanded to provide the courage to do things or to extend the physical, legal or illegal power of already powerful men and women. How could Hitler exterminate six million Jewish people by himself? Even with the help of his immediate cohorts, he could have not done that. 

The case of Nazism is given here because it is vivid and indisputable. However, similar, less flagrant cases occur every day. The thousand examples of loyalty demanded in our big corporations, the ITT and the Watergate and the S&Ls and the Enron and the Fannie Mae and the Banksters and the LIBOR scandals provide ample proof of the severity of the overall problem. 

The Roots of Today’s Moral Dilemma 

The overall moral issue, it seems to me, is clear, irrefutable, and of enormous importance. I am a subordinate (and at least 99 percent of the population is)—or a “boss.” My boss or my boss’s boss asks or suggests to me to do, to write, to say (or be silent) about something which is clearly against my conscience. “What am I to do”? I know that if I refuse, or refuse too often, my job—or my career advancement—is “on the line”. Especially if I do not immediately and directly see the effects of my actions, I am liable to “go along” with my boss. After all, his or hers is the “ultimate responsibility.” Remember the Nuremberg Trial? 

This dispersion of guilt, this vicarious execution of evil acts serves two purposes. One, it leaves “Hitler” almost free to say: “I did not commit those acts myself.” Two, it leaves the subordinate almost free to say: “I would have not committed those acts if I had not been ordered—or simply invited or pressured—to do so”. Yet, more than the practical purposes this dispersion of guilt serves, it is important perhaps to identify the fertile ground from which these acts germinate.

As Frank Lloyd Wright used to point out with especial force, we are living in a vicarious age. Since no one has power of his ownnot a stockholder, not a chairman of the board of directors of our major corporations, not one of their managers, not one of their employees or workers, not a publicly elected official, not even the President of the United States—since almost everyone’s life depends on the will of other people, it is increasingly difficult to resist outside pressures, to resist other people doing harm to us.

This general loss of power and autonomous authority, it seems to me, is the fertile ground from which so many illegal, unethical, and immoral acts stem today. Once the source of power for our actions is external to us, we lose confidence in ourselves. We lose confidence that we can ever joyfully explore, understand, and live our own life. This process is delicate. It is slow and uncertain. We need to be ready to run the risk of committing errors; we need to be ready to admit and correct errors. We need to be strong. We need to be able to resist outside interferences. 

We need to face reality.

We need to realize that it is not good to corrupt a language. It is not good to spread falsehoods. It is not good to foster such known falsehoods that “to keep up with the Joneses” is almost a social duty. It is not good to spread such known falsehoods as “greed is good”. It is not good to embroil people—or governments—in (public or private) unsustainable debt. It is not good to cover up “cooked up” accounting books. It is not good to lie about the irrefutable health hazard of fluoride in public waters. It is not good to hide the fact that fluoride is a hard-to-dispose toxic residue of the fertilizer and nuclear industry. It is not good to inject drugs in restless children. It is not good to underestimate the dangers of chemicals that spread from agri-business and accumulate in our aquifers and oceans. It is not good to deny the dangers of nuclear waste. It is not good to feign that such impossible plots as Ponzi schemes might succeed—whether in private or public financial life. It is not good to bet against the interests of one’s unaware clients. It is not good to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. It is not good to attack public officials who are doing their best to protect the health and welfare of the public. It is not good to corrupt a public official. It is not good for a public official to be corrupted. It is not good to support unsustainable public policies. It is not good not to call for alternatives to failed public policies. It is not good to destroy life in any form, even in the form of creation of genetically modified and patent-protected seeds. These seeds do not regenerate themselves.

As the situation stands today, we do not want to explore; we do not want to understand life. We know that our fears would be confirmed: We would certainly find out that our life has indeed been gutted of its most precious value, namely the power to assess situations, to take independent decisions, and to assume full responsibility for our actions. 

No. It is safer not only to act vicariously; but even to live vicariously. It is safer to live through (and not “in” or at least “with”) the things we do, the things we buy, our “customers”, our audience, our friends. Indeed, do we not do or buy things simply to tell our friends about themor about the things other people do or buy? It is safer to live vicariously—than to live our own life; it is safer to relay on other people’s judgment; it is safer to be loyal to other people, to the peer group, to the organization. 

Some Practical Implications 

The integral concept of morality discussed here, if I am not mistaken, has considerable practical consequences not only in terms of everyday actions, in small as well as large momentous affairs. It is also important in relation to economics and politics—as well as the understanding of the field of morality itself. 

As far as economics is concerned, this integral concept of morality suggests the need for the gradual acquisition of economic independence—for all, for ever. Economic independence would eliminate at least nine tenths of the present moral dilemmas. It would immunize people against pressures to suffer direct harm or, worse, to do harm to other people. The ground would be cut from under vicarious living. Normal human beings would no longer be compelled to choose between being a hero, a martyr, or a slave. We would be free to walk away from a situation which runs against our conscience. We would no longer be compelled to choose between two impossible alternatives: either suffer economically or suffer from the direct or indirect tolerance or commission of immoral acts. Why should we be compelled to walk a tightrope between the two commands of moralitywhich, of course, come down to the basic (but still double) command: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. There should be a better way of living. As pointed out in many of my writings, there is a better way of living. 

As far as politics is concerned, although this integral concept of morality does not justify tyrannicide—no one is entitled to take the life of even a Mussolini or a Hitlerit certainly invites civil disobedience.

One can develop a list of guidelines to define the concept of civil disobedience. But in the final analysis it is only the individual conscience which can determine whether such an act is warranted. In this way human beings are put back again at the center of the universe—just as in centuries past. They are free to judge each particular situation and to act accordingly. Then they are fully responsible for the consequences of their actions. 

There are people who are concerned that civil disobedience, or freedom in general, leads to social and political chaos. Their concerns are indeed justified on the basis of history and human psychology. People who have been socially, economically, and politically oppressed for thousands of years cannot be trusted to act responsibly. These fears cannot be allayed except by the actions of each free person—each human being acting responsibly to the point of being willing to go to jail if s/he should break any law in the process. It is this approach which has earned greatness and almost universal respect for Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther Kingnot to mention Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus of Nazareth or Socrates. In the atom bomb age, non-violence—joined to true respect for any person holding opposite points view—is the only acceptable and responsible approach for either national or international change. 

On the other hand, persons who are afraid of the consequences of freedom have also to be constantly reminded that social and political order are not values in themselves. They serve only, as Louis D. Brandeis was fond of pointing out, to foster the development of each human being. To the obligation of each person who wants to become free to act responsibly, in other words, there must correspond the obligation of people in power—be they parents, teachers or industrial and political leaders—not to obstruct responsible acts.

If these two obligations are met, the result of freedom will not be chaos but social and political harmony.

Two More Consequences

What is the most important consequence of resisting the will of other people to do harm to us—whether or not they are conscious of the harm that they do to us? The answer is so self-evident that it is almost embarrassing to bring it forward. We will avoid the harm that we do to ourselves.

What is the ultimate result of doing harm to others as well as letting others do harm to us? In either case, we do harm to ourselves!

Why? Religion has the ultimate answer: To act immorally, we are denied salvation. That secularized religion that is psychology, puts it in different words but reaches the same conclusion: To act immorally, deprives us of happiness.

Wait. Father Kevin Culligan, OCD bridges the gap: He translates “beatitude” as happiness. There is more. Is Buddhist bliss any different from beatitude?

The Contemporary Definition of Morality

We have reached the end of our labors. The fruit is a comprehensive definition of morality, which can be grasped diagrammatically with the following figure:

Figure 1. A Comprehensive Definition of Morality

This figure establishes the following equivalence: Do not do harm to others ↔ Do not do harm to yourself ↔ Don not let others do harm to you. Each point of view gives an equivalent, but partial understanding of morality.

The fullness of morality can be appreciated only by gathering a synthetic understanding of all three points of view at once.

Some Closing Comments 

There are no recommendations which flow from the above discussion. One should refrain from the obvious recommendation: “Do not put yourself in a condition to allow other people to do harm to you”. We should refrain from this recommendation for a variety of reasons. First of all, morality itself does not deal with recommendations. It deals with ordersorders which can be transgressed only at one’s own peril, because moral orders carry with them a set of inescapable penalties. And the penalties, apart from whatever might he adjudicated in the afterlife, are to be experienced in this life. Moral orders which are transgressed carry with them automatic penalties in terms of loss of peace of mind, happiness, and joy. 

In the second place, recommendations in the field of morality are to be excluded because they would carry with them a need to sit in judgment of the result of those recommendations. And no one—except God—can sit in judgment of other people. As a matter of fact, especially the words of Jesus provide innumerable explicit prohibitions of sitting in judgment on other people. This attitude can even be considered as the single cardinal sin. And the reasons are evident. Every situation is so complex that only each person and his God can sit in judgment. At times, not even the person who is at the center of the situation can pass any judgment, unless s/he goes through a lot of sifting and simmering in search of true values, and plenty of time has gone by.

In the third place, to offer recommendations in the field of morality is presumptuous and vain. Morality is forever associated with freedom. Every one of us is endowed with a conscience, a set of natural inclinations, which allows us to discriminate between “good” and “evil”. Good preaching can only reinforce a solid conscience; bad preaching will do much to weaken a weak conscience. Every breakthrough in the state of morality has occurred in the past, not by vague preaching, but when these two conditions have occurred: 1) when an inch more of the truth has been conquered—whether it was a scientific, philosophical, or moral truth; and, 2) when this new truth has been used to improve the objective social, economic, legal, and physical conditions in which people live, when this new truth has been used to gain one extra inch of responsibility and freedom for all of us.

Although the above discussion does not lead to any recommendation, it leads to one exhortation. Perhaps, the social, economic, political, and moral issues outlined here should be expressed in other terms—or they should be based on a different and stronger “authority”. The reader is invited to do so and is begged not to take issue with the manner in which these issues have been presented here.

I am not a theologian. Theologians, I trust, in the meantime will forgive me. They are well aware of the Chinese maxim: “Those who know do not talk; those who talk do not know”.

Mr. Gorga would like to acknowledge the invaluable editorial assistance received from Peter J. Bearse and David S. Wise.

Carmine Gorga, a former Fulbright Scholar, is president of The Somist Institute, a research organization in Gloucester, Mass. Through The Economic Process, To My Polis, and numerous other publications in economic theory and policy, he has transformed economics from a linear to a relational discipline. Dr. Gorga blogs at and