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On Ethics and Morality
Fundamentals of Freemasonry

Arthur Mark
PGM, Grand Lodge of the State of Israel
Reprinted from The Israeli Freemason

Masonic Values

Freemasonry's spiritual values are based on the Laws of Ethics and Morality. Their application in our lives, as Freemasons, are of cardinal importance, if we want to fulfill the meaning and the scope of the Royal Craft. This vast subject encompasses centuries of philosophical thinking and I apologize for limiting myself to a sketchy and partial presentation of this unlimited subject.

Firstly, let me say a few words about the definition of Ethics. Ethics, from the Greek word "ethos" - character, is the systematic study of the nature of value concepts: good, bad, right, wrong and of the general principles, which justify us in applying them to anything. In one of its most frequent uses, it refers to a code or set of principles, by which men live. There are many ways of classifying ethical theories. All of these different classifications are important, because they help us, not only to organize the various doctrines into groupings, which make them simpler to understand, but also because they help direct our attention to certain features, which make the theories distinctive. The simplest and most obvious classification is an historical one. We can divide theories into those which are "classical" and those which are "modern." Roughly speaking, a theory will be classical, if it does one of two things, or both: if it attempts to answer the question "What is the good life for man" and if it attempts to answer the question "How should men act?" In this lecture we shall deal only with the more important "classical" theories, the "modern" ones we will leave for another occasion. It would be a mistake to regard Ethics as purely academic study, having no intimate connection with the daily life of men. Every man who is reflective and who is troubled by certain situations in his daily life, is a philosopher of ethics, to that extent. The difference between the reflections of the ordinary man and those of the philosopher is that the latter is more systematic. The ordinary man may simply try to solve a particular problem, by deciding on a particular course of action, in the relevant circumstances. The philosopher tries to generalize. Ethics is also called "moral philosophy." The word "philosophy" is also derived from the Greek, meaning "love of wisdom." Philosophy is generally regarded as perhaps the most abstract of all subjects, far removed from the affairs of ordinary life. But, although many people think of it as being remote from ordinary interests and beyond comprehension, nearly all of us have some philosophical views, whether we are aware of them or not. It is curious that although most people are vague about what philosophy is, the term appears frequently in their conversation. By and large, in spite of different ways we may use the word "philosophy" or "philosophical" in ordinary speech, we tend to think of philosophy as some extremely complex intellectual activity. The philosopher is engaged in considering problems that are of importance to all of us, directly or indirectly. Through careful critical examination, he tries to evaluate the information and beliefs we have about the Universe at large and the world of human affairs. From this investigation, the philosopher attempts to work out a general, systematic, coherent, and consistent picture of all that we know and think. This sort of understanding provides an outlook or framework, in which the ordinary person can place his own — possibly more limited — conception of the world and of human affairs. It provides as well a focus through which we can see our own roles and activities and determine if they have any significance. Through such an examination and evaluation, we may all be better qualified to assess our ideals and aspirations, as well as to understand why we accept them, and whether we ought to.

After this lengthy introduction, I will proceed with our subject. Studying human history, we learn that even among the most primitive tribes, there were accepted rules of conduct, without which no society, be it rudimentary in structure as it may be, could not have existed, as a tribe or as any other form of society. Philosophers have had little comparative experience in the study of primitive morality, and anthropologists, preoccupied with more concrete problems, sometimes believed that primitive peoples were controlled by automatic obedience to custom, with little need for moral choice. However, it was become clear, that all people have moral concepts and rules, governing their behavior.

The language of primitive peoples employs terms involving concepts, which can be translated as good and bad, right and wrong, true and false. Such categories refer not only to correctness of statement, but also to a moral quality. In many respects, the rules of primitive morality accord fairly closely with those observed in a sophisticated civilized society. But while no human group approves, for example, of indiscriminate lying, cheating or stealing, societies differ in their reasons for disapproval and in their definition of the conditions, under which lying or stealing are forgivable or tolerable or even demanded. For example, the Navajo tribe in North America, regards truth and honesty as virtues, but do not appeal to abstract morality or to divine principles. They stress practical considerations like: -"If you don't tell the truth, your fellows won't trust you, or, you will shame your relatives, or, you will never get along in the world that way."

We can say that moral concepts and rules are closely related to the structure of society and morality is therefore relative, in the sense that, as the ends of each society vary, so do the standards of right or wrong. The first Ethical Laws, known to us from antiquity, are those of Hammurabi, Moses, and the Greek philosophers. In this paper, I will deal with these ethical laws in a very sketchy way, although they deserve extensive study and thorough examination. The great Code of Hammurabi (18th Century BCE) is the most complete and perfect monument of Babylonian Law. The existing text is in Akkadian (a Semitic Language). The Code was meant to be applied not to a single country, but to a wider realm. Despite a few primitive remains, relating to family solidarity, district responsibility, trial by ordeal, and the "lex talionis" or law of retaliation, the code was advanced far beyond tribal custom and recognized no blood feud, private retribution, or marriage by capture. The Code has provisions that regulate the laws concerning social classes, property, family, and Criminal Law. The Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, delivered to the Jewish people by Moses (13th Century BCE) represent the Ethical Principles of the Jewish people, which were later accepted by the civilized world. Basic to them is the interdependence of morality and religion. They forbid the deification of Nature, as well as the making of graven images, and enjoin the observance of a day of rest, to honor one's parents, respect for property, life and a woman's honor, and eschewing any deed or thought potentially inimical to one's fellow man. The Decalogue can be regarded as the text of a Covenant between G-d and Israel. Moses' impact on the Jewish faith was to communicate a revelation of G-d as a redeeming Power, who makes exclusive Ethical demands on man's will and at the same time, to build a community around that revelation.

The ethical speculations of Greece and therefore of Europe, had no clear cut beginning, and we are speaking of approximately the 5th Century BCE. In Greek philosophy before Socrates, there are ideas which form rudimentary and crude beginnings of a reflection on moral life. I will present only the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. No system of Ethics could be constructed until full attention had been directed to the special features of moral experience and to the contradiction of ordinary moral opinions. This required a philosophic intellect of the first rank, focusing on the problems of conduct. In Socrates, these requirements were met. It is difficult to set exact bounds between the achievements of Socrates and those of Plato, because Socrates is the principal speaker in almost all of Plato's dialogues, from which we have to extract Plato's views. Socrates went about showing that all those who claimed to teach men how to live, poets, orators, and sophists, were unable to defend their views by argument or even to give adequate definitions of what they were claiming to explain. Socrates looked for release from this ignorance, first through clear undestanding of the words that we use, that is, definitions. But he refused to put forward such definitions himself. He alone knew better than the rest, he said, because he was aware of his own ignorance. His function was to galvanize his hearers into intellectual activity. Therefore, while the specific results of his discussions with his victims were negative, they implied and indeed gave birth to the famous Socratic maxim that "virtue is knowledge." He said: -"We must know what courage and justice and law and government are, before we can be effectively just, or brave or good citizens, or good rulers. More particularly, everyone wishes for his own good and will get it if he could, and no one will deny that justice and virtue are of all goods, the best". The problem is thus, to find what things are good and how they are related to each other. If we knew that, we should inevitably lead good lives. Men err by pursuing things which they think good, but which are really inferior to other greater goods. This involves the paradoxes that no man errs willingly, that all sin is ignorance and that no man, knowing good, would do evil, and these paradoxes Socrates seems to have accepted willingly. The Ethics of Plato cannot be treated as finished product, but rather as a continuous movement from the position of Socrates, toward the more fully articulated system of Aristotle. Plato maintained that finding the nature of the good life is an intellectual task, very similar to the discovery of mathematical truths. He concluded that such realities as justice, courage, etc., which he called "forms," were permanent and unchanging entities, existing independently of particular things and actions. Since the "forms" alone are real, he held that men's reason, which leads him to knowledge, is the highest side of his nature and that most akin to the eternal and divine. Further corollaries of Plato's theory of "forms" were, that supreme virtue (knowledge) was possible only for a few selected and trained people, and their supreme activity (philosophy) could occupy only part of their time, for they would also have to rule their cities. Plato recognized, in addition to reason and bodily desires, the existence of a third psychological element, called by him "spirit" (thynus), which is the spring of action, aggression, competition, and ambition. He related the psychological elements to the traditional four cardinal virtues. Wisdom, is the virtue of the rational part of the soul, Courage, the subordination of "spirit" to reason. Temperance, the subordination of bodily desires to reason, and Justice, the harmonious development of the whole self.

Aristotle was a pupil of Plato for 20 years and his views of Ethics were conditioned, both in their resemblances and in their reactions, by those of Plato. He distinguishes between matters which admit of exact and infallible knowledge and those on which only probable and approximate conclusions can be drawn. Mathematics and Theology belong to the first class, moral and political truths, to the second. Aristotle retained Plato's view, that knowledge of the first kind is the highest possible human achievement and the life of contemplation of these eternal truths, the highest form of life. Aristotle noticed that the various lives, which men of common sense consider to be "good", contain one common characteristic — "happiness." And similarly, the lives which ordinary people regard as being bad lives, all have in common the characteristic of being "unhappy." Therefore, the answer to the question "What is the good life for man?". Aristotle's answer can be stated in one sentence: "It is a life of happiness." Moral principles however, have to be discovered inductively, by examining the opinions and actions of men, particularly good men. Men become good by education, but education does not mean literary or technical or intellectual education, but character training, that a man receives by being brought up in a good family and a good city. Aristotle found a general formula for good action, in his doctrine of the mean. This has been much misunderstood, as if it recommended mediocrity or setting one's mark not too high. What he maintained is, that each kind of situation stimulated a certain kind of emotion or action: fear, anger, expenditure, and punishment. In any situation, there is one degree of the naturally appropriate emotion or action, which is correct. Vice consists of exhibiting too much or too little of it. Fear is the reaction appropriate to danger; too much is cowardice, too little is foolhardiness. Spending is the action appropriate for the possession of great wealth; too much is vulgarity, too little is meanness, the right amount is liberality. If this seems to reduce vice and virtue too much to quantitative terms, Aristotle reminds us, that apart from the right amount, there is also the right time and place, the right people to whom to respond, and so on. It is noticeable that both in Plato and in Aristotle, there is no recognition of what we call "duty" or of the interrelated notions of sin, guilt and free will, which we owe to Jewish tradition and to Christianity. For Plato and Aristotle, each man does what his own character prompts. His character is the result of his natural gifts, as developed by his moral education. The problem of Ethics then became the question, which natural or acquired characteristics are the best and how are they to be fostered or instilled. Thus, the Greek found it difficult to draw a line between moral excellence and other forms of excellence, beauty, charm, health, and intelligence. This supported the Aristocratic tendency to restrict the best life to a few people, especially favored by talent, birth, wealth, and education. Plato referred to manual work as degraded and Aristotle said that there were some jobs, in which it was impossible for a man to be virtuous. Jewish and Christian traditions find moral goodness in doing one's best, with whatever natural endowment and in any circumstances one may find oneself. It links this moral worth with freedom of will. Unlike the ancient Greeks, we do not hold what a man does, that is wholly determined by heredity and environment. Therefore, we think, that a man may be a good man and do his duty in the highest degree, no matter what his profession, whether he is rich, handsome, healthy and intelligent, or poor, ugly, ill and slow-witted. By the logic of this philosophy, not less than by the inspiration of its faith, Freemasonry has been impelled to make its historic demand for liberty of conscience, for the freedom of the intellect, and for the right of all men to be equal before G-d and the Law, each respecting the rights of his fellows. The real question after all is not as to the quantity of life, but its quality, its depth, its purity, its fortitude, and its spiritual refinement. Masonry insists upon the building of character and the practice of righteousness, upon moral culture and spiritual vision. He who achieves the highest degree of moral conduct, towards himself and towards other, in accordance with the philosophical and ethical ideas here expounded, gains the respect and love of his fellow men and contributes to the formation of a society worth living in. Having brought before you these conclusions, which every Mason must strive to apply to his masonic way of life, I will conclude and spare you this time, the vast field of modern philosophy, which cannot be dealt with in a single article. My fervent hope is, that this paper will have aroused your interest in the subjects, even in those who, are familiar with it, and by meditating on the few but important philosophical and ethical theories here dealt with, your masonic conduct will gain in understanding and improve in its implementation, for your own good and for the benefit of our society in general.