Moral Rules

[A quote from - Human Conduct: Problems of Ethics, John Hospers. Pgs 10-12; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. New York. 1972; ISBN 0-15-540093-2]

Most people most of the time assent to a conglomeration of moral rules which they do not bother to question or examine. These rules are usually those they have been taught to believe, such as "Don't tell lies" and "Don't cheat your friends," plus a few which they find convenient or agreeable, such as "Mind your own business" and "Never give a sucker and even break." Usually these rules are not stated explicitly; they come out into the open only when the person is questioned. Very often one of the rules contradicts another, thus enabling the user to resort first to one and then to the other to suit his convenience or to accord with his pre-existing prejudices.

The unspoken moral code of many Americans consists, in part, of such directives as these: It is good to help out your friends and neighbors, but not so much that it causes you any great discomfort or keeps you from buying that second television set. It is not proper to argue with others about morals or religion because argument might cause ill will and hurt people's feelings. (Implication: it is more important for people to feel comfortable all the time than to explore together the truth about life and death, God and immortality, right and wrong.) It is not a good idea to question where a person's money comes from: if he has it, you look up to him, that's all. If a person keeps a low-paying job which he likes and turns down a high-paying job which he likes less, he ought to have his head examined. If he spends his money on books instead of on lavish cocktail parties, he must really be out of his mind. Negroes should never be permitted to go beyond the eighth grade in school or attend the same schools with whites because Negroes are an inferior race. The Unites States is the best country in the world, and anybody who criticizes it ought to be deported.

The following is the implicit [moral] code of large numbers of television viewers, especially of the younger generation: Giving a rotten character a break, especially if it happens to be a pretty girl, is the right thing to do even if it endangers the lives of others. A simple, direct man is the best for any job, even though he may not be very smart. A man who pretends that some political issue is complicated is only trying to cover up his ignorance with a lot of fancy double-talk. A hard-riding square-shooting cowboy is a better judge of right and wrong or of national policy and legislation than any lawyer or professor. To think about anything is a sign of weakness; it is better to just act. The best man is the one who is fastest with a gun; that's why the right side always wins out. If you are on the right side, you'll always win out in the end. Our country [the United States] is always in the right; and since the right must win, we are not in any danger and never can be. To deny this is un-American.

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of how little we think through the rules of conduct by which we profess to live runs as follows: The majority of Americans profess to be Christians and therefore to accept the Christian way of life; yet very few of them practice these rules. Few even reflect on the moral directives of Christianity which they have heard many times. They pay lip service to the moral commands found in the Gospels, but they would not dream of putting these precepts into practice; and if any of their neighbors did so, they would consider the neighbors fools. Officially these professed Christians believe it is their duty to turn the other cheek, but in daily life they retaliate even for small injuries. They consider it un-masculine to discuss anything rationally; the way to settle things is to see who wins in a fair fight. Officially they believe they should forgive, not once but seventy times seven; but in fact they seldom forgive at all, and when they do they usually make a great show of letting people know how forgiving they are. They are told in the Bible to take no thought for the morrow, what they shall eat or wear; but in fact they spend the greater part of their time in this enterprise. Although they are told that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven, their chief goal is to amass as much money and property as possible, not only for their comfort but to satisfy their exhibitionism and to cause envy among their neighbors. They believe that all men are brothers, but they associate only with those who are in an income group as high as their own. They prefer not to associate with people of different racial or religious backgrounds and feel uncomfortable in their presence. The Bible tells these so-called Christians that no man can serve both God and Mammon; but during a lifetime spent in trying to outdo their neighbors in serving Mammon, they assume that their Creator will reward them with eternal bliss for their efforts on His behalf. They are told that the meek shall inherit the earth; but if anyone they know is meek, they consider him a sissy or a sucker. They are told that of faith, hope, and charity, the greatest is charity, but they do not particularly mind that, owing to overpopulation and a lack of industrialization, the world does not produce enough to feed its people one square meal a day. While millions starve, these Christians spend more money each year on liquor than on all charitable enterprises combined. They are told to beware of false gods, but they believe in "America First" and frown on any attempt to alleviate world tensions because the enemy is wicked, communistic, and atheistic besides. Attempts at conciliation they brand "appeasement" and in some schools systems all books referring favourably to the concept of "One World" are banned. These Christians are supposed to believe that it is wrong to kill, yet "... from the time of Constantine to the time of global radiation and the uninterceptible missile, Christians have killed Christians and been blessed for doing so by other Christians." [The Causes of World War Three; C. Wright Mills; Simon and Schuster, Inc.]

Many people who conduct their lives as if these statements were true would be shocked and sometimes ashamed to see them listed in cold black and white. Nevertheless, it is important to bring out into the open the moral principles which are presupposed in our behavior so that we can have them before us and scrutinize them with care.


Although somewhat dated 35 years after publication, this description of the average American's effective moral code is still on the mark. It is, in fact, a frighteningly accurate depiction of the highly amoral and ethically irrational behaviour of the "common man". And despite being published in a rather obscure textbook on Ethics, it is a clarion call for a more reasoned approach to and analysis of our modern day system of Ethical and Moral beliefs.

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