The Beauty And Simplicity of Moral Clarity

My novel, The Breaking Dawn, opens in the voice of a man who believes himself to be the luckiest man ever born. He explains a bit about his gifts, then points the reader to the greatest of his blessings, that of clarity. He asks the reader to imagine living through their life a second time, knowing in advance when all the traumas would erupt, and experiencing far less fear than everyone else. This, he says, might give them a sense of how things were for him. He concludes with this:

So, a constantly healthy body and an exceptional mind were tremendous gifts – for which I am deeply grateful – but they were second to the blessing of clarity.

The one type of clarity that is open to us all is moral clarity, which happens to be the most important kind. To gift our children with moral clarity is to clear a path through life for them… a path that eliminates the thorns, weeds and underbrush that hinders most men and women. Said differently, by gifting our children with moral clarity, we save them from the life-long pain of confusion and uncertainty.

Moral clarity makes us happier, and it makes us better. In fact, if you want to make humans behave well, job number one is to help them see clearly… to give them moral clarity.

What’s also crucial to understand is that attaining moral clarity is not complicated. It’s actually very simple, provided that you value it more highly than its primary obstruction.

How Simple It Is

In the face of the shelves full of books on ethics, law libraries and the like, the idea that morality is simple can appear ridiculous. What I’ll tell you today is that nearly all our difficulties with morality are artificial, resting upon primitive and outdated dogma.

More or less every great moral teacher, over thousands of years, has come to the same basic formula for morality. It has been championed by the Greeks, the Chinese, the Hebrews and the Christians, as well as many others. And it’s a supremely simple dictum to live by.

This moral formulation, of course, is the Golden Rule. And as we know, this rule is almost trivially simple: What is hateful to you, do to no one.

Or, you may prefer a slight variant: Treat your neighbor as yourself.

These simple statements can solve 99% of the moral questions humans face, and living by them would additionally solve nearly all the practical difficulties we face.

Now, before I get to the reasons why people can’t just use the Golden Rule and make their lives simpler and better, I’d like you to imagine living by the Golden Rule alone; without weaseling away from it:

With moral clarity, we wouldn’t magically know the absolute right and wrong in every situation, but we’d have a simple tool for dividing right from wrong. Deciding what was right or wrong would merely be a matter of comparisons. In the vast majority of cases, we’d cut right through the now-normal confusion and arrive at a decision we could confidently rely upon.

In most cases, we’d divide between wise and foolish conclusions in mere seconds. It wouldn’t be entirely effortless, but it wouldn’t be taxing either.

Human life is complex, of course, and so crafting best responses to our situations would remain challenging, but we’d almost immediately define the moral pivot of any given situation, and we could move forward into responses both confidently and comfortably. In actual practice, this would improve not only our judgments, but our intellects. (You can see FMP #100 for background on this statement.)

The Difficulty

You’ll notice that I’ve said moral clarity was simple, but I didn’t say it was easy. And that’s because, at present, it can sometimes be frightening.

In a neutral world moral clarity would be easy, but this, unfortunately, isn’t a neutral world; it’s a world featuring a hard bias against moral clarity. Here, bluntly, is the crux of the matter:

Once you remove the position of “the ruler,” most of our struggles with ethics and morality collapse into the Golden Rule.

This is the difficulty. To attain moral clarity, we must ignore that which refuses to be ignored.

Those who refuse to be ignored demand that we reference outside standards and follow them without questioning. We are pushed into this with fear and with confusion.

The Golden Rule, then, remains available to us inside our homes, but relying upon it in the public sphere is a punishable offense. Politics is almighty in public, and politics stands as an open violation of the Golden Rule… the operative statement of the political realm being, Do what we say or we’ll hurt you.

I’m not going to spend time defending the statement above from all the knee-jerk responses it triggers. I’ve made my point, and whoever wishes to can wrestle with it himself or herself.

There are substantive challenges to the Golden Rule, but they revolve around wildly unlikely scenarios involving lifeboats, railroad switches, and choosing between who lives and dies. These are impossible choices that almost no one ever faces. To take them as some sort of over-arching concern is silly. They are tragic exceptions that one in ten million of us might face. They are nothing to base a life upon.

There are other desperate challenges, such as, “So, is it okay for a masochist to hurt you, since he likes hurting himself?” These are, again to be blunt, attempts to remove the Golden Rule, by fixating upon a single, imagined flaw, amongst hundreds of clear and beneficial applications. The Golden Rule obviously assumes a sane human being.

Last Words

I’ll close with a brilliant comment from Erich Fromm, in his book You Shall Be As Gods. I think it’s worthy of careful consideration:

The person whose conscience is essentially autonomous does the right things, not by forcing himself to obey the voice of the internalized authority, but because he enjoys doing what is right, even though often he will need some practice in following his principles before he can fully enjoy his action.

This is what we give to our children, and to ourselves, by daring to choose moral clarity.


Paul Rosenberg