The purpose of living a moral life is to live a successful, fulfilled, and happy life. A moral life is one guided by ethical principles.
The whole reason for ethics is to provide the principles by which you can make the right choices in everything you think, believe, and do which benefit you and avoid all choices and behavior that will harm you or interfere in your success or prevent you from being happy.
But morality is badly misunderstood. There are seven common mistaken views about the nature and importance of living morally.
The Seven Biggest Mistakes About Ethics and Morality
[NOTE: Ethics and morality refer to the same thing: living correctly to live successfully. I define ethics as the principles of right living and morality as life lived according to ethical principles. In this article, moral means ethical and morals means ethical principles.]
That morals impose restrictions or limits on one's life. A young child who has just learned about hammers and nails might enjoy hammering nails into anything he can, but if he hammers nails into his favorite toy and destroys it he will discover there are consequences for doing whatever he feels like.
What the child learns from the experience is that he can choose to do whatever he feel likes, but he cannot choose the consequences of what he does. It is a lesson in morality. To do whatever you like is your choice, but the consequences are determined by reality and you have no choice about what those consequences will be. You may hammer nails into whatever you like but if you don't want to destroy your toys you cannot hammer nails into them.
The other thing the child learns is that reality doesn't care whether what he does is a mistake or defiance. Reality punishes all wrong choices and acts, mistaken or defiant, equally. The only difference is, the consequences of a wrong act out of ignorance is a learning experience that may prevent future mistakes, but the consequences of an act of defiance usually leads to resentment (of not being able to do whatever one likes) and more defiance.
There are two parts of reality that determine the consequences of choices: 1. the nature of physical reality which determines the physical consequences of all acts, and 2. human nature that determines the psychological consequences of all choices. Ethical principles describe which kinds of acts and choices produce which kinds of consequences.
One may choose to think of reality's consequences as restrictions on ones choices, but they are not restrictions, they define the principles by which all good things can be accomplished and achieved, what will work and what will not.
In my article, "Principles," I identify 10 ethical principles which I then explain:
These are moral or ethical principles. They are not commandments, not instructions, and not rules. No one is required to observe any of these principles, but no one can evade them without consequence or penalty—not a penalty imposed by some agency or by anyone else, but a penalty imposed by reality itself.
Are these principles hard? Yes they're hard and yes they are demanding, as hard and demanding as life itself. To evade them is to evade life. No moral individual regards them as limits or restrictions on their life, however, because they are the means of achieving and being all that life makes possible. Living by these principles is the only way to live a life that is worth living.
Like all true principles, they are not limits or restrictions, but the keys that open the doors to possibilities that do not exist without them. Like the principles of mathematics that make it possible to answer questions about quantities and measurements which are impossible to answer without them, moral principles make it possible to know how to live successfully and without failure. Just as mathematical principles determine how mathematical problems must be solved successfully, and if the rules are violated, the mathematics will fail, so moral principles determine how one must choose and act to live successfully, and if the principles are violated, one's life will fail. Mathematical principles are not restrictions on the mathematician, they are the means to his success; moral principles are not restrictions on an individual's life, they are the means to his prosperity and happiness.
That moral principles are not objective. There are two mistakes here. One is that moral principles cannot be based on reality itself, that is, "what is." The other mistake is the result of the first; if moral principles are not determined objectively they must be determined by something else.
The first mistake can be attributed to a very bad philosopher named Hume. Hume said, "no 'ought' can be deduce from any 'is.'" Those were not his exact words, but what he meant is, 'what one ought to do cannot be discovered by examining what is.' Hume made two mistakes. The first, like most other moralists, is a misunderstanding the nature of moral principles. Moral principles do not say, "you ought to do such'n'such, no matter what," moral principles say, "if you do such'n'such, this will be the consequence." But moral principles do not name any specific choices or acts, moral principles identify the kinds of consequences that result from kinds of choices and actions. A moral principle does not say, "do not lie," it says, "if you attempt to live by faking reality you will irreparably damage your own mind and ability to grasp the truth or reality."
Hume's second mistake is not understanding the nature of value terms. Words like, ought, should, good, and bad identify relationships and assume some objective, purpose, end, or goal. A thing is good if it furthers or achieves the goal or objective and is, therefore, what one ought or should do, and a thing is bad if it prevents or inhibits achieving the goal or objective and is, therefore, what one ought or should not do. In the case of moral principles the objective or goal is a successful happy life. Moral principles say, "if you want to live happily and successfully this is how reality (the "is") determines how you must, ("ought" to) live.
Obviously if one is deceived by Hume's mistake (which is very common today), no objective basis for moral principles exists and something will be substituted for moral principles. What is usually substituted is one of the following: one's culture and tradition, whatever is popularly accepted, or whatever feels right (conscience), which essentially means whatever large numbers of people believe or feel is moral. The consequences of that view explains most of the decadence, corruption, and violence in the world today.
That Conscience Is A Moral Guide. The most widely accepted of moral views based on, "feelings," is the belief that, "conscience," is a moral guide, that we are born with a moral sense and "just know what is right and wrong," but that belief is just wrong.
All human Feelings called emotions are produced by our bodies response to whatever we are conscious of, especially our consciousness of what we think and what we believe. Those feelings we call conscience, like all other feelings, are determined by what we think and believe. Conscience does not indicate what is right or wrong, it only reflects whatever we believe and think is right or wrong.
A woman who believes it is wrong to show her naked ankle will suffer conscious guilt if she willfully reveals what she believes is wrong to reveal. Another woman who believes there is nothing wrong with nudity feels no pangs of conscience while going topless. The cannibalistic natives of a certain tropical island believe it is their duty to eat a member of an enemy tribe if they kill him, and feel pangs of conscience if they fail to engage in that "moral" duty.
Depending on feelings of conscience as a guide to moral practice reverses the roles of the mind and feelings. It is moral principles that determine what is right and wrong, one's feelings of conscience will only be correct if they have right moral principles.
That moral principles are dictated. This view tacitly assumes there are no objective moral principles, and therefore, moral principles must be dictated by some authority, like a God, or a government.
All absolute truth is determined by reality and must be discovered. No truth is determined by the dictates of any authority. The pronouncement of an authority are not absolute, they are arbitrary. If truth were determined by the dictates of any authority, God or man, there could be no absolute truth, because the dictator would not be bound by his own dictates, and truth would be reduced to the whims of the dictator.
That morality is social. Again there are two mistakes here. The first is that the purpose of morals is in some way social, for the sake of one's community, society, or the world of others. The second mistake is that it is society itself that determines what is moral.
Moral principles are only a guide to those capable of making conscious choices. They do not apply to the animals, because they are not capable of making conscious choices, which is why they are not morally responsible. Moral principles do not apply to collections of individuals, families, communities, countries, or any other groups, because only individuals have conscious volitional minds. What is mistakenly called "choice" or "decision" when applied to things like societies, committees, or governments disguises the fact that only individuals make choices and the so-called collective choice is only the result of their individual choices, for which every individual is individually responsible, because moral principles only pertain to individuals.
The converse of this mistake is the belief that moral principles can be evaded if one is a member of some collection of individuals that all agree or participate in the same violation of moral principles. It is the basis of all the horrible things human beings do as members of gangs, unions, mobs, and religions.
The other version of this mistake is the view that the purpose of moral principles is society itself, that right, wrong, good, and bad are determined by whatever is good for society, which always reduces to, good for the greatest number of individuals in a society (because everyone is different and nothing is going to be the best for everyone), therefore the minority must always be sacrificed for the sake of, "the greater good," of the majority). The name of this view is democracy, in all it flavors.
The ethical "theory" based on the social view of morality is called "altruism." Altruism defines the moral good as whatever one does for the sake or benefit of others or for society as a whole. Altruism reverses the purpose of morals from one's own success and happiness to the success and happiness of everyone else, from their neighbor to the whole world. Altruism turns the good from being the source of human joy and happiness to being the basis for self-sacrifice and self-immolation.
That morality means whatever makes one happy. The correct name for this mistake, in all its forms, is hedonism. Hedonism is the view that the the moral good is whatever makes one happy—individually it means whatever gives me pleasure or makes me happy—collectively it means whatever gives pleasure to the most people or makes the most people happy.
Happiness is certainly the goal of moral principles, but hedonism attempts to make happiness the guide. The purpose of moral principles is to identify what happiness is and what is required to achieve it. One may declare, the good is whatever makes me happy, but without knowing what will make a human being happy, one is left with no guidance for achieving that happiness. Hedonism also mistakenly confuses pleasure with happiness. It claims, whatever gives me pleasure will make me happy, therefore whatever gives me pleasure is the good.
The mistake is obvious to anyone who has observed the kind of lives those who live for pleasure, especially pleasure for its own sake, disconnected from any reason or purpose, experience. Since the hedonist has no moral principles beyond the pleasure of the moment, life based on hedonism makes no provision for the future or the long-term consequences of one's present indulgences. Why would he?
A moral life will be filled with pleasure, the kinds of pleasure our natures give us for living moral lives, pleasure enjoyed as the reward of our achievements, pleasure that befits a moral life and benefits the individual both short term and long term, the pleasure of a fulfilled life, an ecstasy the hedonist can only dream of.
That morality is not important. There are lots of names for this mistake which includes all those who believe there are no moral principles (amoralists) or substitute some form of pragmatism (whatever works) for moral principles. The root of this belief is the consequence of all the wrong views of morality. Many intelligent people have seen the results of all the wrong views of reality and know they cannot possibly be true and therefore conclude there are no moral principles and therefore resort to a kind of whatever works view of morality. Unfortunately, "whatever works," never works because there is no principle by which what will or will not work can be determined. That view always ends meaning, whatever seems to work at the moment without regard to any long term consequences. (This is the dubious view of moral value all government policy is guided by.)
No one has to live by moral principles. To whatever extent your life is successful and you enjoy it, however, will be because the things you have chosen and do conform to moral principles, whether you recognize them or not. To whatever extent your life is a failure, and you experience trouble, disappointment, regret, or unhappiness will be because the things you have chosen and do are in defiance of moral principles, whether you recognize them or not.
Moral principles are just like all other principles. You cannot survive if you neglect the physical requirements of your body or defy the laws of nature, if you have survived it is because what you have chosen and done conforms to your biological requirements and have not defied the laws of physics, chemistry, or biology, even if you have no real knowledge of your biological requirements or of the laws of physical nature. To some extent the principles of physics can be defied, especially by children, and they won't die, but will still suffer the consequences with bloody knees, broken bones, and various scrapes, cuts, and burns. You can also defy your biological requirements to some extent without dying, but you will still suffer the consequences of defying those requirements, from minor ailments to severe disease.
Living without moral principles may not kill you or utterly destroy your life, at least not immediately, but the consequences cannot be avoided, and your life, your success, and your happiness will be diminished to whatever degree you live immorally. Why would you want to live a life that was less than moral. Why would you not prefer to live a moral life that is fulfilled, successful and happy?