The previous article to this series, Morality Mistakes, described the seven most common mistaken views of ethics. The article Principles describes what true moral principles are and lists ten moral principles. This article is the first in a series that discusses the practical application of those moral principles to every day life and describes the benefits of living morally.
Moral Principles Are Practical
Moral principles are reality based. They are determined by the reality of physical existence and our own natures as human beings. The purpose of those principles is to guide our choices and actions to achieve success as human beings and to be all we can be. The ultimate purpose of moral principle is the enjoyment of our lives.
Everything you do you must consciously choose to do, and everything you have ever done you consciously chose to do.
Choosing is our nature. It is what distinguishes human beings from all other creatures. The reason the animals are not morally responsible for what they do is because they do not consciously choose what they do. Their entire lives are determined by instinct.
It is impossible to escape the fact that everything we do we choose to do. It is possible to attempt to evade responsibility for our choices. We can blame other things for what we do, like feelings, or desires, or genetics, or society, our health, moods, or the provocation of others, but none of those excuses cover up the fact that whatever we do, we do because we have chosen to do it.
Whatever we fail to do is because we do not choose to do it. We can use all the same excuses to evade responsibility for what we do not do as we do for what we do, but nothing covers up the fact that all our behavior is determined by what we choose. Nothing makes us do anything we do but our own conscious choice.
Recognizing that everything we do is by choice is the beginning of a moral fulfilled life of achievement, success, and happiness. So long as we deny that everything we do is chosen, our life is not in our control—it is in the control of whatever we surrender that control to. Knowing we never have to allow anything else to control us is the beginning of living a fulfilled, happy life.
What's Wrong With Excuses?
There are excuses for not doing things: "I'm too tired," "I don't know how," "I have a headache," and "I just can't do it," and excuses for doing things, "I couldn't help it," "I lost my temper," "I cannot stop doing it," and "I just can't help myself;" but both kinds of excuses are meant to hide or deny what we do or don't do is what we have chosen to do or not do.
Every excuse is an attempt to blame something else for our actions, like our feelings, our desires, our moods, or our subconscious, but there is nothing else that can make us do anything or prevent us from doing something, unless it is physically impossible.
When children use the excuse, "I can't," it almost always means, "I don't want to," and there is usually some explanation, like, "I have a headache," or, "I'm not hungry," or, "I can't find it." Parents quickly learn to see through such excuses and to tell the difference between those cases when the child really can't do something, and the frequent cases of when "I can't," really means, "I don't want to."
Most children outgrow making excuses because they learn the advantages of doing things they don't particularly like for the reward that comes from doing them, and the fact that excuses don't usually work.
Childhood excuses are usually intended to convince someone else. Adult excuses are more likely intended to convince oneself. The problem with excuses is that we are deceiving ourselves into believing that something other than our own choices is causing our behavior.
The reason for the excuses is obvious. If we aren't choosing what we are doing, we are not responsible for our behavior. Whatever we do or fail to do is not our fault if something else makes us do what we do. But that self deception is very dangerous.
It would be better to admit we are choosing to do or not do something for whatever reason we choose, rather than to deceive ourselves into believing we have some kind of physical or mental defect causing our behavior. An excuse is being dishonest with ourselves and very often one becomes convinced they are controlled or limited by whatever thing they use to excuse their behavior.
If you are honest with yourself, if you say, "I'm choosing to do this because this is what I want," for whatever reason, you will at least not fill yourself with self-doubt, and if you are honest with yourself you may be able to discover the real reason for your choices and do something to change them. If you lie to yourself that there is nothing you can do about what you do, you will never examine the real reason you make the choice you do or be able to correct them.
Common Excuses For Not Choosing
All of these excuses are meant to excuse one's behavior by blaming something else for what one does. There is only one thing that determines what you do, what you choose to do.
The excuse of inability We simply do not have the ability to do everything. It is good to know what our true capabilities are. Attempting to do things we just cannot do is a frequent costly mistake. Choosing not to do something one is truly not qualified to do is always a wise choice. Blaming inability to avoid doing something is just an excuse when one is perfectly capable of doing the thing they choose not to do.
When the overweight person claims they, "just can't stop eating," when the girl that always says the wrong thing says, "I can't help it," when the procrastinator says, "I just can't get started," or when anyone says, "I'm too tired," "I'm too afraid," or, "it hurts too much," they are simply blaming something, "they can't help," or, "is not their fault," for what is in fact nothing more than what they have chosen to do or not do.
Of course we are sometime really too tired to go on with some things, but when one is always too tired, there is either some physical problem or they are just attempting to excuse their choices. Fear can be debilitating, but that kind of fear is rare and one can alway choose to do something, even if they are afraid. No one likes pain but pain is a part of life and no one lives without it. Chronic pain means something is physiologically wrong, but the pain that goes with anything difficult or strenuous is a natural part of life. Pain never killed anyone and pain never made anyone do anything, but using pain to avoid doing what is necessary is perhaps the most common excuse for bad choices.
The excuse of feelings Pain is only one of the feelings people use as an excuse for their choices, like feeling tired or feeling afraid. But any feeling might be used as an excuse, from a feeling of empathy or sympathy used as an excuse for giving in to someone else's behavior, or a feeling of frustration used as an excuse for some destructive or hateful behavior. None of those feelings cause the behavior, it is one's own choice that causes the behavior.
The excuse of desires and appetites This is the most common excuse for people's behavior, both for one's own behavior and the behavior of others. There is an idea that some desires or passions in some way actually make people do what they do, and courts and society forgive the worst and most self-destructive of human behavior on the grounds, "he or she could not help it," because they were taken over by their desire, passion, or other appetite.
Some of these supposed irresistible desires, it is taught, are inborn, or come from some other unidentifiable source. But every Desire and Feeling has an explanation. Even if there weren't an explanation for our feelings and desires, if there were some mysterious force causing us to have desires to do or have things we could not explain, those desires could not cause our behavior. It might be difficult to ignore such desires, even painful to resist them, but the desires cannot cause our behavior. We still must choose what we will do about those desires or any other kind of feelings we have.
The excuse of ignorance I readily admit I have used this excuse, not to excuse my behavior, but to escape the unreasonable consequences of violating some irrational bureaucratic rule or law on the basis that it is easier to get forgiveness than to get permission. "I didn't know," will usually get you off with a warning, and perhaps a small fine. The problem with the excuse of ignorance is when it is used not as an excuse for a choice, which mine was, but as the cause of one's behavior. It is used that way to excuse both a failure to do something, "I don't know how to do it," and as an excuse for doing something, "I didn't know it was wrong." We know we're blaming ignorance for our behavior whenever our explanation for our behavior begins, "I don't know," or, "I didn't know," as if behavior based on ignorance is not chosen.
The excuse of overpowering emotion The most common form of this excuse is the excuse of anger, rage, or fury. How many individuals have destroyed things, lost friends, lost jobs, and destroyed marriages because of behavior they blame on their anger or rage. It is so common for individuals to allow anger to determine their choices that a whole psychological field, called, "anger management," has grown up. But the very name is wrong. It is not one's anger that needs to be managed, but one's choices. If you or I experience frequent anger or rage which is unreasonable, it is important to discover why, but the problem with anger is not the feeling of anger, but what we choose to do about that feeling.
Please understand, almost all these things can be one's reason for making a choice, whether those reasons are good or bad. One may choose to do or not do something because they believe they are unable to do it, or have feelings they choose to follow, or desires they choose to indulge, or an overwhelming emotion they refuse to resist. So long as one admits the feeling or desire or emotion did not cause their behavior, though the choice may be a bad mistake, it is still a choice. It is when any of things are are claimed to be the cause of one's behavior they are an excuse. Allow your anger to make you choose to fight or break things, but admit your crude behavior was what you chose. No feeling, no desire, no inability, no emotion makes you do anything, only your choice determines what you do.
Nothing Makes You Do Anything
Let me tell you a story. The details are fiction, but the story is true and based on actual experiences I've had.
I once knew a very pretty young girl who was a kleptomaniac. She was a bright college student from a moderately wealthy home and had no need to steal anything. She had recently been caught shop-lifting and was very concerned about her problem and confided in me that the reason she stole things was because she liked the feeling and the thrill it gave her so much that she simply could not resist the desire to steal.
I asked her, "where do you have this feeling?" She looked bewildered for a moment, but finally said, "it's a kind-of all over excitement."
So I asked her, "when you have this feeling, how do you know it means you should steal something?"
"Because stealing something is the only thing that satisfies the desire."
"By, 'satisfies the desire,' do you mean, the desire goes away?" I asked.
"Yes, for a while," she said. "In fact I feel like a failure afterward and hate that I've done it. But that doesn't last either and the feeling always comes back."
"Now that this feeling has gotten you into trouble, do you still want to have that feeling?"
"No!," she said. "It's in control of me and I hate it."
"Well," I said. "The feeling does not make you steal. You steal because you choose to. But I'll come back to that. How long have you been stealing?"
"About two years," she said.
"Well, if you want to stop stealing and be rid of the desire to steal it will probably take a year, and it won't be easy. You can stop the stealing immediately, but the feeling will take some time to go away," I said.
"Alright. What do I do."
"One more question. When you have this feeling, what are you thinking about?"
"I'm thinking about doing it. I think of it as a kind of risky adventure and how I'll feel almost heroic afterward when I've pulled it off. Sometimes I think about the risk, about wishing I didn't have the feeling, but I shrug it off, because I know how thrilling it is and I want it so badly."
"OK, here's what you must do," I began. "First you have to admit to yourself that the feeling and the desire do not make you steal. The only reason you steal is because you choose to steal. You like the feeling of the desire to steal and you like the feeling stealing gives you and that makes you want to steal, but it does not make you steal.
"When you go into a store with that feeling, you have to choose to go into the store. You have to choose to look for something to steal, you have to choose to look around to make sure no one sees you, you have to choose the item to steal, you have to choose to pick it up and hide it. The feeling can't make you do any of those things.
"Secondly, you have to pay attention to what you are thinking when you have that feeling. You cannot control the feeling but you can choose what you think and it is your thinking that causes the feeling. When you have that feeling you must concentrate on why you don't want to steal, the trouble it gets you into, and the feeling of failure you have each time you steal. If you change how you think about stealing it will change how you feel about it. If you think the thrill of stealing was good, the feeling of self-control and being what you want will be ten times more rewarding than the temporary thrill you got from stealing."
"Thirdly, you have to choose not to steal no matter how much you want to steal or how strong the desire is. It means not going into a store when you have that feeling, or leaving a store when you begin to have that feeling. I know that sounds almost impossible, but it's not.
"Do you remember the first time you stole?" I asked her."
"Yes. I was frightened to death I'd be caught."
"But you did it anyway. Was it hard to do?"
"Oh, yes!" she said.
"Well not stealing won't be any harder than the first time you stole something," I said. "The problem is you've been stealing for two years and you've developed a pattern of thought and behavior based on the feeling and desire to steal. It will take some time to change that pattern and it will sometimes be unpleasant, but you certainly can do it, and it is the only way you can rid yourself of those feelings and desires you think are controlling you. They aren't controlling you, but you are letting them influence your choices. The only way to overcome them is to choose what you really know you want to choose, not to steal, in defiance of those feelings. You can do it, and you must, and then you'll be free."
She did actually stop stealing. Another time she told me she stopped having any desire to steal when she looked at what she was becoming. "I saw that what I was doing, the immediate thrill was ruining my whole future. I thought about every time I refused to steal and the wonderful feeling of victory it gave me. And you were right, when I began to have that old tug, I'd think about what I am now and how I never wanted to be what I was, and the feeling would go away."
The problem with anecdotes is that the experience of no two individuals are alike, or even very similar. What is always true, no matter what an individual's experience is, no feeling and no desire makes them do anything, only their choice determines what they do.
The alcoholic's desire for a drink does not make him drive to the liquor store, buy the liquor, bring it home, pour it into a glass and drink it. Each of those steps must be deliberately chosen. Even after having done those things many times, when it seems he does them without thinking, he must still consciously choose, from choosing to leave the house, to choosing to pay for the booze, to actually drinking it.
No matter how strong a feeling is or how long one indulges that feeling, a feeling can never make you do anything. It may be very difficult to choose not to indulge a feeling or a desire, but you can make that choice, and the first step is always to admit, it is your choice.
What You Are Is What You Choose
"Nobody can help what they are," the excuse begins. Well, we can't help whatever characteristics we are born with. We certainly do not choose our complexion, stature, physical skills, or whatever talents and mental ability we are born with, but those things are only the raw material out of which we make ourselves into the person we choose to be. None of those things make a person what they are.
What you are, the kind of person you are at any moment of your life, is the sum of all the things you have done, achieved, and accomplished, or failed to do, achieve, and accomplish up to that point in your life. That means everything from the way you talk, walk, and stand, how you groom yourself, how you interact with others, what you know and what you are able to do are how you have chosen to develop yourself, what you have chosen to learn, and what you have chosen to do.
No matter where you are in your life or whatever you have done with it so far, how you will live in the future and what you will be in the future is still yours to choose. The only difference your past makes is to what degree your past choices have limited possible future choice by whatever harm you have done to your self physically, mentally, and financially. Obviously, the earlier you start living by choice, the more you will be able to do with your life, but it is never to late to take charge of your life and to choose to be the best you can possibly be.
I once had a brilliant individual working in one of my departments as both a software engineer and a technical writer. Grooming-wise he was a mess. I don't think he was dirty, I'm sure he bathed, but he didn't shave or comb his hair and though his nails were clean they were mostly chewed off and certainly not cut. Sneakers, no socks, ill-fitting jeans, tee-shirts, or sweat shirts were his uniform. I have to admit, he always looked comfortable, slovenly comfortable.
He had an opportunity for a promotion, which he wanted, but it was a management position and the company required business attire for its managers, and though I recommended him for the position, I knew his, "style," was going to prevent him from receiving the promotion. He knew it too, and talked to me about it.
"I can't stand wearing a tie," he said. "It's just not me. I can't be a hypocrite. I have to be myself. I really don't see what difference it makes what you wear if you can do the job," he explained.
I could have talked about rules and either conforming or accepting the consequences. I could have explained, that when someone took a contract to work for someone else, the one paying for the work determined how the work he was paying for ought to be done. If someone pays you to paint their house some color you think is hideous, you paint it that color, not some color you think would be better. If someone pays you to be a manager, they decide how they want their managers to dress, no matter how ridiculous it is, its their house and they are paying for it. If you aren't willing to do the job the way the customer wants, don't take the job, and don't complain about it.
But I didn't. Instead I asked him what he thought, "being myself," meant.
"It's being whatever fits me, the kind of person I am, not somebody else's idea of what I'm supposed to be," and some other things about being free and thinking for himself, which I agreed with, though they were irrelevant to the question.
"You know," I said, "your not born what you are, you choose what you are," and followed that with a little speech similar to what I wrote above about who and what you are being the sum of your choices and what you have made of yourself.
"That means everything from the way how you talk, walk, and stand, how you groom yourself, how you interact with others, what you know and what you are able to do are how you have chosen to develop yourself, what you have chosen to learn, and what you have chosen to do."
Then I reminded him that he had said, "I really don't see what difference it makes what you wear if you can do the job."
"Doesn't that mean you think clothing is not that important?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"But you have made clothing very important, so important you'd give up having a job you want for the sake of it," I continued. "But I happen to think you are wrong about clothing. I agree with you that clothing should fit the kind of person you are, that it should be a reflection of your own estimate of your own character, dignity, and worth as a human being. It certainly doesn't have to be somebody else's idea of what is fitting, but it should be a style that truly fits what you are. You are not a slovenly bum in your mind or your work or your manners, why do you want to look like one?" He listened, but I was not sure if I had helped him, or simply offended him.
Though I had grave doubts the vice president still wanted to interview him the next day.
Well, he still had on jeans when showed up the next morning, but they were well ironed and he was wearing smartly polished Oxford shoes, a tweed jacket over a blue button-down shirt with a paisley print tie. His hair was combed and he looked like what he was, intelligent, self-assured, and independent. He got the job.
One should certainly be oneself, the self one has made, not some vague idea of a self that just happend to them. Be yourself, the self you choose to be.
The Enemies Of Choice
It is very unlikely that you have ever heard that your life is entirely yours to make what you choose to make it. That everything you do you choose to do, that to do anything you must choose to do it, and that you are able to choose anything within the limits of physical possibility and your own ability. It is very likely that is an entirely new idea to you.
It is because almost the entire world is the enemy of individual choice. Every form of media from the press to movies promotes the idea that what people do is caused: by their genetic make-up, their culture, their social environment, their education, their financial status, their race, or their ethnic background. The psychologists teach that it is people's subconscious that determines what they do, the evolutionists teach it is one's evolutionary heritage that determines what they do, the academics teach it is one's social prejudices that determines what they do. No one teaches that nothing determines what anyone does except what an individual chooses to do and nothing makes them do anything they do not choose to do.
I really do not know why there is an almost universal hatred for the idea that the ability and necessity of conscious choice is the essence of human nature. It may be fear of the fact that if everything one does is by choice, it means they are responsible for everything they do. Perhaps all those things they want to make the "cause" of human behavior are a desperate search for relief from the responsibility of choosing. It might also be a kind of self-doubt, a fear of failing to be or become any kind of real success. If they can find something else to blame for what they do and who they are, it will relieve their sense of guilt and failure.
Whatever their reason or their purpose you must never let them rob you of the certainty that you can choose to do, achieve, and be whatever you are willing to make the effort and have the ability to do and be, and that nothing makes you do anything you do not choose to do.
Choosing Is Freedom And Power
Refusing to recognize all we do we choose to do and attempting to evade responsibility for our choices by blaming something for our behavior is not self-deception, it is psychologically crippling. It is a kind of self-induced disability that makes it impossible to fully realize our capacity for living happily and successfully.
So long as one believes they are not in complete control of their own behavior, of all they think and choose, the sense that one is out of control and the subject of forces and causes he does not understand are inevitable.
The realization, which is really just admitting to oneself, that nothing makes them think or do anything, that everything they think and do is in their own power to choose, is like a brilliant light that turns the world from a place of mystery and danger into a world of infinite possibility to explore and discover and use for their own pleasure and to make their own.
Some never discover that power to be in total control of their life and future, but those who do, whenever they do are suddenly able to correct all of those things in their life that have been standing in the way of their success and happiness. Ridding oneself of all the excuses for one's wrong behavior makes one free to make right choices.
For a human being, living means choosing. Knowing one is always free to choose means they are free to live and live fully as a human being, choosing to be all they can be, enjoying that adventure of a life lived as one chooses with no limit or outside control.