Immanuel Kant said, “Morality is not properly the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.” In the past I was of the opinion that if a moral system makes people miserable, it is not a useful moral system at all, but I think perhaps I’m finally starting to grasp Kant’s meaning. Sometimes it takes me longer than I’d like to get things.
It seems to me now that there are two ways of viewing morality. First, we may seek out systems that give us guidance on how we may improve ourselves. Second, we may seek out systems that validate how we already are.
Over the past few decades (or is this problem much older?), we appear to have embraced a massive self-esteem movement that compels us to seek self-validation rather than self-reflection and self-criticism. Christian mega-churches now teach people that God wants them to be happy, so they should pursue whatever makes them happy: luxury homes, cars, vacations, or other possessions. No more are congregants taught the value of restraint and humility. Thus, immediate and intense gratification is combined with the arrogance of ones who must not be questioned. It is not that I want to see medieval flagellants in the streets, but humble servitude and stewardship might be a nice change. I do realize, of course, that such meek worshipers still exist, but they are too quiet to gain so much notice.
And many people who claim to be interested in Buddhism say that it helps them stay centered. By this, they mean, as far as I can tell, that it helps them cope with the stresses life throws their way. But Buddhism as I understand it teaches discipline and awareness of the suffering of life. Suffering is universal, and relief from suffering must also be universal. To relieve your own suffering, you must stop believing in your “own” suffering and work to relieve universal suffering through loving kindness that pervades all your actions, words, and thoughts. Your relief comes from the kindness you show others and your restraint from pursuing selfish desires, not from freeing your mind of unpleasant thoughts.
Finally, those who are not religious often turn to moral philosophy as a source of comfort. Rather than evaluating a moral system to see how sound it is and what advice it can offer for living a life that is good, proper, and noble, we read for a philosophy that exalts someone who is very much the way we already are.
When corporate leaders and other public figures are criticized for immoral behavior, they often react angrily and declare that it is their critics who are acting inappropriately. Of course, not all criticisms are valid, so sometimes they are correct, but imagine a world where the same people responded with an air of humility. We’ve entered an age where we constantly demand apologies of anyone in the public who says something we don’t like. I find apologies on demand to be extremely unsatisfying. I would much rather hear someone say, “I try to be a good person, but sometimes I make mistakes. I would ask you to show me the same forbearance and forgiveness that I promise to show you.” And maybe we can all set to the task of improving ourselves and our world.