The problem with ethical maxims is that we may or may not follow them. They are likely to operate on the level of good advice, such as to brush our teeth before turning out the light. There are lots of practical reasons to brush our teeth, but when we are lying there exhausted, we may well blow it off for just this one night. After all, tomorrow morning will come soon enough.
Ethical perspectives may express a wiser, more well-grounded authority than our own lived understanding. Yet when moral imperatives are rooted in a place of belief, rather than our own understanding—as wise and inspired as those beliefs may be—they cannot be counted on to hold sway in our individual lives nor to protect our communities.
We all use words such as: ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘ought to’, ‘required’, and ‘obliged’. But such language has an unfortunate characteristic. It separates the voice that is giving advice from the one who is expected to carry it out.
The “Ten Commandments”, with their “thou shalt nots”, tend to be more useful once we incorporate their maxims into our own ways of looking at life. When we see personally that dishonesty, killing, envy, stealing, and disrespecting what is important to others not only hurts others, but also ourselves, then we will no longer need a voice inside our heads telling us what to do and what not to do.
With only a little understanding we can count on ourselves to act in ways that make us feel good about ourselves.
We may not believe that it’s possible to hold society together, but we can recognize that we have the power to be more at peace with our own thoughts and behavior. We can also choose to invest our ‘talents’ on behalf of something broader and deeper than our own orbiting attachments and avoidances. We can join, in ways that our interests and capacities allow us, others who are doing worthwhile things. Things don’t have to be perfect and everyone we meet will reveal limitations, just as we do. The payoff will be in the positive and hopeful stream of life that we will find ourselves being carried along by.
No matter how powerless we may feel in the face of global momentums that we cannot control, the hope of the world rests in us. If we chose to give our time and energy in ways that allow us to remain hopeful about the future, the future is bound to lean in our direction. Then the fear that the future is hidden will dissolve and the present will open to whatever is to come.