Looking for an Ethical Touchstone

Looking for an Ethical Touchstone

Copyright 1998 David E. Cortesi


I use the term ethical touchstone to mean a concise, memorable guide to right behavior. A touchstone is not a complete moral system, but a summary that is easy to remember and to teach. As a memorable rule or short list of rules to which you can refer automatically at moments of stress, a touchstone has clear practical value for religious believers and unbelievers alike. However, it is surprisingly hard to find one in common use. In this essay I examine several candidates the Biblical Ten Commandments and Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, the Eightfold Way and Five Precepts of Buddhism, and two similar Imperatives by Sartre and Kant and find problems with all of them. One basic problem is: what is the authority base for an ethical system? I survey the possible bases, and suggest one that is culturally neutral. Immodestly, I finally offer a touchstone of my own creation, and urge the reader to develop his or her own.

Need for a Touchstone

Consider the following Associated Press story that I read in the San Jose (CA) Mercury-News on 9/5/97. (Norwalk and Downey are towns in Southern California.)

Suit says school shalt not refuse to post man's sign
Ten Commandments banned from outfield fence
Norwalk(AP) -- Edward Di Loreto wanted to give young baseball players some "rules to live by" by posting the Ten Commandments on a high school outfield fence, but the school district refused.

The 83-year-old businessman now is suing the Downey Unified School District Board of Education in state court for violating his rights to free speech and religion -- and for causing him emotional distress.

"Hallelujah," said Di Loreto, the owner of Yale engineering in Downey. He has maintained he's not trying to sell young athletes religion, but "rules to live by."

Superior Court Judge Thomas I. McKnew ruled Wednesday that Di Loreto could sue the district for refusing to post the sign he paid $400 for, but said he can't sue Superintendent Ed Sussman or board members Betty Ferraro and Margo Hoffer for punitive damages.

Last spring, the Downey High School varsity baseball team sought ads to help pay for new uniforms. Di Loreto paid $400 for space in the outfield and had a sign made up with the Ten Commandments.

However, after he submitted the sign, it was never put up and the board removed every other sign, according to Nancy Mahan-Lamb, attorney for the Downey Unified School District.

Di Loreto then filed a lawsuit in state court. His attorney, Patrict Manshardt of Los Angeles, also filed a federal action.

This story tells volumes about contemporary American attitudes toward ethics and religion, but to me, these are the most striking features:

The feeling that the Ten Commandments constitute a good ethical framework is widespread. During June, 1999, the US Congress debated and passed an amendment to a juvenile justice bill attempting to make it legal (contra several court rulings) to display the Commandments in courtrooms and schools. Mr. Aderholt of Alabama, proposing the amendment, asserted that

The Ten Commandments represent the very cornerstone of Western civilization and the basis of our legal system here in America.

I don't know how much thought Rep. Aderholt or Mr. Di Loreto put into this selection of "rules to live by." If they were thinking as an engineer would, they might have established these criteria for a list to put on a billboard:

  1. Prescriptive rules for right behavior (the ethicist's buzzword is "normative").
  2. Based in, or sanctioned by, some unquestionable authority.
  3. Compact enough to be easily remembered (and to fit on a single billboard).
  4. Offering complete coverage of the ethical issues of daily life.

A list of ethical rules that meets those criteria would have clear practical value:

Candidate Frameworks

However, I have found no list that meets all four criteria. Follow the links below for my detailed remarks on these candidates:
The Ten Commandments The automatic first choice, acknowledged by both Christians and Jews, but with many problems when you look closely.
The Golden Rule Widely known in many traditions, but when you think about it, it has many shortcomings as a general guide to life.
Two Moral Imperatives Two similar imperatives proposed by Kant and Sartre seem to give general guidance by are vulnerable to rationalizers.
A Mortal Imperative My own contribution to one-line moralizing, more general than the Golden Rule and more bulletproof than Kant's.
The Five Precepts The Buddha enumerated five essential precepts of moral living as part of the Eightfold Way.
The Beatitudes Christ's longest teaching, treated as central dogma by Catholics, but decidedly peculiar when read as rules of life.

None of these meet the four criteria given, as I try to show in the linked essays. I find this remarkable, because in fact it is not difficult at all to craft a personal framework. You can read mine in the next topic but one, but you really should craft your own.

Problem of Ethical Authority

Many people assume that any ethical system must gain moral force and authority by appeal to some principle higher than the individual. The usual authority lies in religion, but other authorities are possible.

Personal Affirmation

In the end, it is truly pointless to demand that an ethical system be guaranteed externally. If you, personally, do not willingly subscribe to its policies and consciously affirm them, you will not adhere to them when faced with a tough existential choice.

So in any ethical system, the essential guarantor is the individual's consent that the policies make sense and are valid guides to life. No better authority is possible! And truly, no other authority is really needed, except in philosophical arguments.

A Personal Alternative

The lack of more (and better) frameworks became more surprising to me after I found how easy it was to compose one.

After studying the Ten Commandments and making some critical notes on it, I decided to jot down my own "commandments." It was almost a joke: "Oh, you're so smart? Tell God what he should have said." But the list came out easily, and was substantially complete in an hour's work. Before you look at what I came up with, why not try it yourself? Grab a piece of paper and write down the half-dozen or ten rules that you actually live by.

No, really. It's fun! Try it!

OK, here's my version: a simple ethical framework that reflects how I've lived my life.

Simple and obvious though the list is, writing it down and memorizing it has changed my life, a little. I find myself doing things, or not doing them, just as before, but now I often remember the applicable policy as I do it. And perhaps I've started being a little more tolerant, for example, on the freeway, as a result of having thought through the implications of policy #2.

Acknowledgements and Links

I am indebted to The Blue Letter Bible for a convenient, searchable bible on the Web, and to The Bible Studies Foundation for providing concordance and study material. (I doubt that the sponsor of either site would appreciate or approve this essay, however.)

To begin an exploration of Buddhism on the web, you can't find a better starting point than Yahoo's Buddhism page.

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