A Different Basis for Morality

A discourse delivered by James J. Geary
before the Harrisonburg Unitarian Universalist congregation
18 June 1995

Twice before, as some of you recall, I’ve talked to this group about my philosophy. The first talk was more than five years ago, the second some three years ago. Today I will talk about morality.

What? you might ask, is this old sinner doing talking about morality. Well I guess we are all sinners to an extent — depending on your definition of sin. I’m going to talk about a little different basis for morality, a different approach; a different reason to be moral. All the old bases, the old reasons, seem to be failing. What I have to say may seem a radical reason for moral behavior. But I think, to a certain extent, it’s a feeling we all have, instinctively.

What are my qualifications for talking on this subject? Well, for one thing, I’ve had a long life. Of course old age doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom. But I have seen much, have done quite a bit, and most importantly, I have thought a great deal. I have thought long and hard about being, the cosmos, infinity, the nature of life and death, and many of the other questions that philosophers and religious thinkers have wrestled with over the centuries. It seems to have been my nature to think about such questions since my early teens.

Some years ago I took courses at JMU in philosophy and Oriental religions. In 1985 I received a second bachelor’s degree, this one in philosophy. I took these courses because I wanted to be conversant with the thinking and terminology of the great thinkers of the past. My studies confirmed for me the fundamental beliefs I had held for most of my life.

Now I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve been living in an ivory tower. I have had many of the same heartbreaks, many of the same joys that you have had ~ or that you will have. I have been married three times and divorced twice. I have children and grandchildren. I am descended from Catholics on one side, and from Protestants on the other. I’ve lived in the South and in the
North, in the West and in the Midwest.

I’ve seen a lot of life and a lot of the world. As a teenager and as a college student I worked at a variety of jobs in several cities. I’ve played many sports, I’ve driven motorcycles and piloted airplanes. As a new college graduate I taught in a one-room school in the mountains of Southwest Virginia — six grades in one room. I’ve been a reporter for a newspaper and for the Associated Press, have known governors and shaken hands with presidents. As a World War II officer in the Navy, I’ve seen the military at first hand. I have built buildings, created exhibits, managed museums, directed a state-wide commemoration program.

I have traveled throughout this great country of ours, and on all the continents except Antarctica. I have gazed upon the Taj Mahal, the Himalayas of Nepal, have seen the slums of Bombay. My wife Pat and I have toured the Holy Land – Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth; we saw the walls of Jericho and sailed on the Sea of Galilee. We cruised the Nile, toured the ancient Egyptian city of Karnak, crossed the river to the Valley of the Kings.

I tell you these things, not to brag — I’ve just been lucky — but rather to let you know that I’ve seen a lot of the world and a lot of my fellow man and woman.

I’ve crossed the Atlantic by plane and by ship; and the same with the Pacific. I’ve ridden Japan’s Bullet Train, have seen some of the horrors of the red light district of Bangkok. I’ve seen the splendor of Versailles, and castles in Vienna, Madrid, Prague. I’ve shuddered at the sites at Auschwitz.

So I’ve seen a lot. But all of that would mean nothing in what I have to say to you, if I had not been thinking and questioning all along the way of the meaning of it all. Also, when I was young I had a guru. My guru was my Uncle Leslie. He had, in my estimation, a brilliant mind and a rare insight into the nature of we human beings. Today I give you my own elaboration on Leslie’s thought.

Let me review a bit: The first time I talked with you, I spoke of my view of life after death. I said I didn’t believe in life after death, in the usual sense of the word. But obviously what we are and what we do in life continues after our deaths. Like the waves from that proverbial pebble that is tossed into a pond, what we are and what we do goes on and on and on, with influences, however small, in our universe. Our lives are like little light bulbs, turned on for a moment and then turned off, but our rays, our deeds, go on for ever.

I said in that first talk that because I do not believe in life after death for the individual, I have no fear of death. I said if I were in an airplane 30,000 feet up that began a dive to certain destruction, I would be thankful that I had been a conscious part, for a little while, of this great and mysterious Universe. I would know that I as an individual would be no more, the pattern that was I would be gone; but all I had been and all I had done, like the rays of that little light bulb, would go on forever as a continuing influence in the Universe.

Three years ago I spoke to you again, and what I said then is the basis for my message today. I labeled it a message of hope. It was my prescription of hope for the individual. It was about salvation — not salvation from some jealous God who has been keeping track of whether we are good or evil. But rather salvation from despair, mitigation of those low points in life when all seems hopeless. It was both a philosophical and psychological message.

I said that pain and pleasure are opposite sides of the same coin and that they balance. And that this is the ultimate justice in the world. I said that happiness and unhappiness balance out, and that there is, in the long run, no excess of either for the individual. That therefore, if you can keep this in mind, it will smooth out the ups and downs in your life. It will temper your moments of triumph, and bring you down to earth a bit; but it will also help you over those devastating low points, those heart-rending developments in our lives, disappointments, foreboding, losses, even tragedies. I said it was the ultimate justice for all living things.

And now for the balance of this talk I want to lay the groundwork for my belief that this concept of justice can be a different basis for morality. It seems our world is so crying for some basic morality — some surcease from hate, violence, envy. . . greed — crimes of all kinds.

Every religion tries to articulate a system of justice in our world. Christianity looks to the next world to right the apparent injustices of this one. The meek shall inherit the earth. Sins will be paid for; good works will be rewarded; the evil will be punished, the righteous will occupy the house of the lord. This is Old Testament justice, and it has been the basis of morality in the Christian world — morality based on the fear of God. You must pray to be delivered of your sins so that you may have salvation.

Some of the oriental religions hold that while this life is a veil of tears, there will be eventual justice after many lives, many reincarnations. After you have built up much good karma, your soul will be freed from the dreadful cycle of life and death, of misery, and it will be one with the absolute, the ultimate mind which is beyond all knowing. If either of these beliefs gives you solace and a reason to be moral, well and good.

Like most religions, both are based on some written word. In that great film, ”Lawrence of Arabia," the Arab leader, arguing that’ something was impossible, said: "It is written." He was voicing our old reliance on some ancient written text — in his case, no doubt, the Koran. We have relied on texts written by men no wiser than our thinkers of today, and who were without our scientific knowledge of the world and of the mind.

There is not much evidence that the idea of punishment or reward in an afterlife has led to a very moral world, not only in modem times but throughout history.

Jesus said you should love your neighbor, you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I’m not a great student of the New Testament, but so far as I know, he didn’t give a reason other than reward in the afterlife. So far as I know he didn’t say it would make you feel good. Maybe he did. At any rate, that is what I am saying to you today. It will make you feel good. Some scholar said there is a version of the golden rule in all religions.

Well, more about that later. Let me repeat some of the arguments I gave you in my second talk for a balance between happiness and unhappiness, or between pain and pleasure, which are really the same things.

I suggest to you that justice is inherent in our lives if in fact pain and pleasure are balanced for the individual in this life. I say to you that justice is achieved if happiness and unhappiness complement each other, if they are, so to speak, opposite sides of the same coin. I don’t see how it could be any other way. If your life is balanced between pleasure and pain, is that not justice? Or
do you feel you were promised a bowl of cherries. Do you think you should always be happy, or at least happy most of the time.

On what do I base this strange idea that the poor are no less happy and no more unhappy than the rich; that the lame are no less happy, and no more unhappy, than the hale and healthy. Where do I get this idea that pain is rewarded with pleasure, that fear is rewarded with hope, that happiness is paid
for with unhappiness.

Well, for one thing, it is part of the written word. Philosophers have been saying as much for a long time. They may not have been saying they exactly balance, although Ralph Waldo Emerson said it, I believe, in his essay entitled "Compensation." "The dice of God are always loaded," he wrote, "Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty." He also wrote: ‘There is always some leveling circumstance that puts down the overbearing, the strong, the rich, the fortunate, substantially on the same ground with all others."

On what else do I base this belief  this conviction — that there is this leveling influence in people’s emotional lives? I base it on observation: observation of my own emotions over a long life; observation of other people; observation of animals, and even observation and contemplation of the physical world.

As Emerson said, there is a leveling influence everywhere. The waves of the ocean are leveled, but also the mountains are leveled; the peaks and the valleys are brought in line. Astronomers tell us that great suns die. And history tells us that great nations fall, great families dwindle away; towering figures of history are brought low.

Life is not a bowl of cherries. Show me where there was ever such a promise — not even in Mother Goose. If you want to know what life is like, watch the television program, "Nature," on Public TV Sunday evenings. But it’s not just on the Africa’s Serengeti Plain that the rule, eat or be eaten, is in effect. It’s in our own back yards, in our woods and fields, where life is a continual battle for survival, and the great majority of the young never make it. Do you think that this human animal, just because it has a superior brain, has escaped those relentless laws of Nature.? I doubt it, over the long haul.

Why do I believe that pleasure and pain are balanced for those animals that fight a desperate fight for survival, most of them never succeeding to maturity. I take it on faith. I believe in justice. I believe that life is as just for the antelope that is cut down when half grown as for the lioness that broke the antelope’s neck. I believe life was as just for my sister who died at the age of two as it was for my mother who lived to be 100.

I take it on faith that it couldn’t be any other way — not because of a compassionate God that arranges it that way, but because of natural laws. There is a duality in the world, as Emerson pointed out: male and female, hot and cold, up and down, in and out, positive and negative, strong and weak, day and light, life and death, pain and pleasure.

When I have high excitement, I know that I am often riding for a fall. Somewhere the inevitable reaction sets in. Have you ever noticed how a small child laughs most deliriously just before he or she starts to cry.

There is a reason for pain. It is Nature’s warning system. It tells us something is amiss, something is dangerous to our well being or even our existence. Pain is for survival. It is also for development. It is the pain of rejection that makes a young man or a young woman careful about human relations, or human commitments. It is the pain of embarrassment, the pain of wounded pride, that drives people to overcome defeat, to overcome deficiencies, to overcome discrimination.

Pain is for survival. Pleasure is for reward. The pleasure of eating is so we will eat, and thus sustain ourselves. Eating relieves the tension, the pain of hunger. The pleasure of sex is so the species will continue. It relieves the tension, the pain of desire. The pleasure of reading is that it makes us feel whole, more expansive; it relieves the feeling of boredom, of footlessness.

I take it on faith that the laws of physics apply to life. Every action causes an opposite and equal reaction. One sacrifices speed for power. A screw turns slowly, but it exerts far more power than just pressing or lifting. A switchback road up a mountain, with many hairpin curves, is much longer than one that would goes straight up, but it makes it easier to negotiate the climb, and with less power. You sacrifice today for gain tomorrow. Money and time spent on education pays dividends in the future. And good deeds pay dividends. You’ve heard it said many times: you get out of a relationship what you put in it. Tit for tat.

Let us assume for the moment that I am right —that pleasure and pain are balanced, that happiness and unhappiness are balanced. Let us examine whether, if we were convinced of that, it could be the basis for moral behavior, for friendlier and more peaceful communities — families, churches, neighborhoods, society as a whole.

Suppose everyone was convinced that wealth does not bring happiness — does not, that is, bring more happiness than one would have without it. If we were all convinced we could be just as happy with a modest life style as with a rich and elaborate one, would that not do much to eliminate the grasping greed, the keeping up with the Joneses, the arrogance and egotism that characterizes so much of our society? Would it not do much to eliminate the envy, the hate, the intolerance that we see so much of?

Take lying, for instance. If lying doesn’t profit us, give us more happiness than we would have otherwise, why lie? Why should I lie to my friend or my neighbor or my spouse, if all that is going to do is diminish my relationship with that person? I don’t think it matters whether the other person knows you are lying or not. You know it. And so it reduces the value of the relationship. You know you are not a trustworthy person, you have been diminished in your own self esteem. "No man is an island, entire of itself," said John Donne.

Why would you want to cheat on your spouse, if you knew that it would only diminish the quality of your most important relationship? It wouldn’t matter if your spouse knew; the relationship would be diminished anyway. You would have deceived yourself, as well as your partner, and you would know it.

If it is meaningless to try to keep up with the Joneses, why would you do it? If it does not bring more happiness, but only breeds envy, greed, and possibly ruthlessness; why would you do it? Why would a banker abscond with money from his bank if he knew in his heart that the rich life the money would buy is an illusion? Why would he take that chance?

Why would anyone murder another person, if he knew that he would be injuring himself more than the victim? The victim would be beyond remorse, while the perpetrator, whether caught or not, would have to live with the act for the rest of his life.

Why would anyone be envious? Emerson said there comes a time in everyone’s life when he realizes that envy is ignorance and imitation is suicide. Why would you envy someone else if you knew that person’s life was really no happier than yours — that he paid in more than money for his big house, that she paid in more than money for her fine clothes?

I have a 10-year-old clipping from the Northern Virginia Daily. It told about Tommy Hart of Grottoes, who lived with his wife in a one-room shanty. He picked up aluminum cans along the highway for money. He found a wallet with $150 in it, and he turned it over to the police. He said: "I don’t keep things that don’t belong to me. Honesty means more to me than anything else. It means more than all the money in the United States," That man valued his self respect more than $150.

Lou Gehrig knew he had a terminal disease when he retired from baseball. He made his farewell speech in Yankee stadium. He said: ‘Today I consider myself one of the luckiest men on earth; I may have been given a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for."

What if a whole society were convinced that the pursuit of happiness through material goods, through lying and cheating, through drugs, through hate, through revenge, through trickery, was an illusion? Would that not make for a more moral society? Would that not go a long way toward eliminating crime, drugs, envy, and greed?

All right, you say; so far so good. But there is a flip side to that argument. What if the person says to himself, it doesn’t matter what I do, I will have just as much happiness? I can steal a little money from the store, and buy a few extra things for myself and my family, and that better living will make up for any guilt I may feel. I can cheat on my wife, or my husband, and the pleasure of the encounter will make up for any remorse I might feel. I can do drugs, and the good feeling will make up for the damage it does to me later.

Well, I think we all know the answer to that last one. Drugs reap a terrible price. But what about the other scenarios? Those are good questions. Why indeed, if pleasure equals pain, if happiness and unhappiness are balanced, why should I walk the straight and narrow?

I’ll give you my answer: It is because we are social animals. Humankind, like most mammals, has a nurturing instinct, and a sympathetic instinct. I think it grows out of the need to nurture the young. I think the social instincts of many animals is an extension of this basic nurturing and sympathetic characteristic. It leads to the extended family, such as the lion pride, or the wolf pack. And it is reinforced by the acquired instinct that a larger social group makes for greater security.

In humans this basic social instinct, this propensity for community, has been reinforced, not just by the need for security, but also by the advantages of trade, of specialization, the pleasures of association and mutual enjoyment of culture.

The social instinct has led to the enlarged family, eventually to the tribe, to the nation, to the race, and today, for more enlightened people, to a feeling of brotherhood for humanity as a whole. And because we are social animals, we need a common philosophy; a religion if you will; a common ethos to help us live in harmony with one another. And like good manners, the idea of getting along peacefully must be cultivated.

We are a social animal. We don’t have the fear of God anymore, but we have the fear of being condemned by our fellows, our close family members, our neighbors, our townspeople. More importantly, we want to feel good about ourselves. Our egos come into play. We want to feel we are good specimens, some of nature’s noblemen and noblewomen. We want to feel we are in tune, in tune with nature, a healthy mind in a healthy body with a healthy outlook on the world. Most of us want to feel we are good parents, good family members, good neighbors, good citizens. We want to conform to what is generally held as right and good.

Now imagine, if there were a wide-spread conviction that the philosophy, or religion, or whatever, that I have outlined was true. Would that not make for a more moral community, whether that community were the family, or the neighborhood, or the nation, or the whole civilized world?

If it were generally held that anything one did that detracted from another person also detracted from the perpetrator, if most people believed that stealing, lying, cheating were stupid because they damaged the person who did these things, would that not lead to a more moral society?

If it were the generally received view in our community — or in our world — that good deeds result in good vibes, and that destructive behavior is destructive to the perpetrator, would that not make for a more moral community? Would not most people want to get on the band wagon? Would anyone want to consciously work to his or her own detriment or destruction?

If it were generally held that to be above your fellows was not acceptable, if keeping up with the Joneses was frowned upon, if a simple but rewarding life for everyone was looked upon as the norm, would that not make for more contentment, less envy, less greed, less crime — and a further dividend — less stress on the environment.

I think it would!

But how is this philosophy, or religion, or way of life to come about? I don’t know. Certainly not from me. I’m an old man. Perhaps from one of you. Maybe I’ll elaborate on these thoughts and try to publish them some day, and if so, possibly some charismatic person will spread the word.

In the meantime, you don’t have to wait. You can put this philosophy to work at any time. If what I have said enables any of you to live calmer lives, encourages you to eschew the continual accumulation of material wealth and keeping up with the Joneses, and thereby leads you to be an even more moral person, I’ll be glad.

You don’t have to wait for the whole world to adopt these views, or the whole country, or even your local community. You can put them into practice at any time, in your own family, or even in just your own behavior and outlook on life.

At any rate, these beliefs will continue to give me strength and calmness and reasons to be moral. However moral I might be, it is not because I have a fear of God, or of punishment or reward in the afterlife. If I am moral it is because it makes me feel that I am a viable, well-adjusted social animal to be so.

It is because I know there is no profit in lying, or cheating, or anti-social behavior; in hate or revenge, or brutality. I see the folly of grasping, of wanting ever more material goods. I choose a social plus rather than a social minus in my life. And, with Emerson, I believe every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty.