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Reflections on Ethics 44
How About Some Suggestions? 

by Lester C. Graham

This article submitted by George G. Ardell and reprinted with permission from “God, Do You Exist: The Questions of a Curious Agnostic” by Lester C. Graham, authorHouse, Bloomington, IND, ©2004.

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We’re BAD!!  We are sinners!  No laws can make us moral.  Even gods spouting Commandments cannot do so.  The primary product of laws and Commandments has been people who use them as “clubs” to accuse, judge and punish their fellow humans.  That has produced little, if any, morality.  The hard truth is that the way to morality is not defined by laws or Commandments.  Ultimately, they can only lead to a Police State where so-called morality is enforced (without much success), and true morality is lost in the struggle. 

What can we do?  What can the gods do -- if any gods exist?  There has been other “input” which some people believe came from the gods.  Some of it can be quickly listed in simplified form: 

Love your neighbor. 

Turn the other cheek.

Judge not. 

First remove the mote from your own eye. 

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

Those statements were not given as laws or Commandments, nor were they carved on stone tablets by any god.  They have merely been mentioned by various religious figures (and even by some nonreligious figures).  What should we call them?  Could we call them Suggestions?  If we could shift our attention from Commandments to such Suggestions, would it enable us to achieve true morality?  Shouldn’t we examine that idea to see how it might work? 

Take the Suggestion that we love our neighbors for example.  Does it mean loving the Jewish and the African-American families down the street (assuming we haven’t conspired to keep them from moving into our neighborhood in the first place)?  How about the Muslims or the agnostics across the way?  And don’t the homosexual couples and the junkies and the paroled sex-offenders and a host of others have to be included in our neighborhood and in our love?  Not many people who profess a desire to be moral will agree that all of the groups mentioned should be included in their “neighborhood”.  The potential for the idea of loving our neighbors to produce morality has too often been defeated by our efforts to clean out our neighborhood before we start.  That has led to the many cults and ghettoes and even the Jonestown’s and Waco’s that have plagued our history.  The problem is that for the idea of loving our neighbors to work, we have to work at it!  It is the right thing to do and it would reduce our problems, but it seem to be too hard for us to put into practice. 

Similar problems arise when we examine the idea of turning the other cheek.  It would work okay (just requiring us to endure a little more pain) if we could be sure that all we were going to receive would be another slap.  But what if the other person uses a set of brass knuckles to knock out a few teeth or perhaps a sword to cut off our head while we have our eyes turned?  How could we (or someone who loved us) then resist the temptation to seek vengeance?  It would seem that something more is needed to make turning the other cheek actually result in morality.  Maybe it would work in a world where a much higher level of morality than exists in our world has already been achieved.  But it can only contribute to a decrease in morality in a world such as ours where it would give the advantage to those who are immoral enough to destroy people willing to try to follow such a Suggestion.  Sadly, there is a need for us to defend ourselves and those we love in this world even while we try to be moral

When it is suggested that we should not judge, we usually take that to mean we should not try to usurp the judgment of a god.  But we cannot live morally or even safely in this world if we do not exercise judgment.  For example, even if we would like to turn the other cheek, we must judge the character of the person who slapped us.  Will that person use an open hand or a fist or a sword on our other cheek?  If we do not judge the character and motives of other people, we will make ourselves vulnerable to all sorts of crooks and scam artists even if we don’t turn the other cheek.  Perhaps a better Suggestion would be to say that we should not let judgment cause us to seek vengeance.  That would surely help increase morality if we could just follow it faithfully. 

Removing a mote from one’s eye also requires judgment.  It requires self-judgment!  And it also requires the courage to look carefully and honestly into a “mirror” (unless we are already moral enough to accept the judgment of other people without protest).  Actually, it requires that we have already reached a certain level of morality to even admit that a mote might exist in our own eye.  There is a sort of vicious circle implied.  In order to become moral by removing a mote from our own eye, we must already be moral enough to recognize that one exists.  Once again, it is a good Suggestion; but it requires individual effort to produce moral behavior and is difficult to follow in general. 

Finally, consider the idea of treating others in the way you would like to be treated.  Perhaps that is the crowning Suggestion whether it be found in religion or secularism.  Surely it has the greatest potential for producing moral behavior of any statement ever uttered by humans or gods.  Why doesn’t it produce more morality?  Perhaps the reason has to do with our almost irresistible human selfishness.  Perhaps we have too great a tendency to interpret it as saying something like, “Do good to others so that they will do good to you”.  If we could just rephrase the Suggestion to say, “Treat others with love and compassion because you want them to feel the joy and happiness such treatment can bring.”, it might lead us more quickly to some measure of morality. 

Well, the above examination doesn’t yield any certainty that morality will result from trying to follow Suggestions any more than it has from our attempts to enforce Commandments.  I guess there is no use to post either of them in our schools. 

What’s wrong?  It must be our faulty human nature.  Whether we were deliberately created or just grew like Topsy, our innate character is the largest barrier between us and morality that can be found.  Yet we also have (most of us) an innate capacity for love and compassion and forgiveness.  We can only hope that our capacity for love and compassion is great enough to save us.  In his book entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning” Viktor Frankl(1) said that there are really only two races of humans:  those who are decent and those who are indecent.  He claimed that this division runs through all groups of society.  There is no group that is composed entirely of decent people or entirely of indecent people.  He based his statements on the experiences he had while enduring and surviving the Nazi death camps of World War II where some of his guards were kinder than some of the prisoners.  If we could substitute the word moral for the word decent, maybe it would give us a reason for hope.  It might at least give us reason to believe that morality really exists; and, since the Nazis were defeated, there may even be hope that morality has the power to spread if we allow it to do so. 

We live in a moral jungle.  No one who has any intelligence at all can deny that.  If there is a road out of this jungle, it is indeed hard to find.  Perhaps that is because we all look for it through eyes which are distorted by our individual prejudices -- prejudices arising from our personal and selfish concepts of morality.  Or perhaps it is because Dr. Frankl’s division of the decent from the indecent runs, not only through all groups of humans, but even through each individual human being.  

Whatever the case, the road to morality doesn’t seem to be constructed of either Commandments or Suggestions.  It may be up to us to construct one.  But, though the Suggestions do not pave or even light the way, they are nevertheless more valuable than Commandments.  Commandments are like a twisted road sign pointing us in a false direction and trapping us in the jungle.  The Suggestions are like beacons or floodlights shining into the sky as if to say, “Morality lies over here.  Come this way if you would be moral.”  We must still make our way through the jungle on our own; but, if we would just keep our eyes on those beacons in the sky, we could at least know that the road we are building is going in the right direction. 


  1. Frankl, Viktor E., “Man’s Search For Meaning”, a Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster