Is It Enough To Make The Right Decisions, Or Must We Have The Right Reasons?

The life of man is his struggle with moral and philosophical problems. The art of living involves a thousand daily compromises, decisions, and judgments; we stumble through the darkness as best we can, our way illuminated by a lantern which burns with the fire of our uncertain convictions. What to do, what not to do, and how to go about doing it: are these not the primary concerns for the man of action?

And yet our powers of decision often seem so woefully inadequate. They often feel prolonged in effort, and meager in result. So often dashed on the rocks of temptation and delusion, we can rely only on ourselves has helmsmen and pilots.


T.S. Eliot

Moments of great decision in our lives are attended by two related questions: (1) What is the correct course of action; and (2) what are the temptations that may deflect us from the right path. I now believe that there is a third, deeper question that follows from the preceding two: does the motivation behind the right decision matter? Stated another way:  does it matter if the right thing is done for the wrong reason, or is it better that the right thing be done for the right reason?

This question is rarely asked. I never gave it much thought myself. But a recent reading of T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral has made me view these matters in a different light. The motive behind a momentous decision does indeed matter.

Murder in the Cathedral uses a historical incident—the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury in 1170 by knights of King Henry II—as a vehicle to explore the moral questions stated above. The political issues leading up to the assassination were complex, and need not detain us here; what matters in the play are ideas, not historical details. Were T.S. Eliot alive today, he could doubtless just as easily have chosen the murder of Archbishop Romero in a church in El Salvador in the early 1980s as his subject matter.


We are the sum total of the decisions we make in our lives

It is sufficient for our purposes to note that, before his murder, Thomas had been engaged in a protracted power struggle with Henry over the relative role of the Church and the crown in English affairs of state. In the figure of Thomas, then, we have an embodiment of the classic conflict between the secular and the spiritual authorities of a European nation; it is a drama that would be played out many times across the continent, and in England would not be resolved until Henry VIII firmly subordinated the Church in favor of royal prerogative.

But Eliot is not interested in historical details. What concerns him is the moral trial that a man must undergo in making a momentous decision. What temptations does he face?  How does he overcome them? And how does he make peace with himself? The answers to these questions unfold in Eliot’s unrivaled ability as a master of the poetic medium.

Thomas knows that he must die. He knows his life must be forfeit. He knows that his feud with Henry has brought him to the point where no further compromise could be reached. He must die, and yet he hesitates. And who would not hesitate? His internal conflict is dramatized by his interaction with four “tempters” in human form who seek to talk him out of doing what he knows to be right. These tempters follow him about, whispering sweet words in his ear, in an effort to seduce him or break his will. One tempter dissuades him by reminding him of the seeming futility of human actions; only “a fool, fixed in his folly” would stoop to die for a principle. Why bother fighting for anything, after all? And does anyone care about lofty ideals?

Men learn little from others’ experience.

But in the life of one man, never

The same time returns.  Sever

The cord, shed the scale.  Only

The fool, fixed in his folly, may think

He can turn the wheel on which he turns.

In a powerful ode to nihilism and futility, the tempters together argue that nothing really matters in life (How often do we hear some version of this sentiment in these nihilistic, atheistic times!). Moral statements, moral judgments, and ethical “principles” alike dissolve into nothingness. In what may be the most powerful ode to despair ever penned, the tempters mock Thomas:

Man’s life is a cheat and a disappointment;

All things are unreal,

Unreal or disappointing:

The Catherine wheel, the pantomime cat,

The prizes given at the children’s party,

The prize awarded for the English Essay,

The scholar’s degree, the statesman’s decoration.

All things become less real, man passes

From unreality to unreality.

Another tempter, taking a different approach, appeals to his rationality by suggesting that he, Thomas, would be throwing his life away by letting himself be slain by Henry’s knights. He, Thomas, could do more good as a living political figure than as a dead cleric:

The Chancellorship that you resigned

When you were made Archbishop—that was a mistake

On your part—still may be regained.  Think, my Lord,

Power obtained grows to glory,

Life lasting, a permanent possession.

A templed mob, monument of marble.

Rule over men reckon no madness.

In the most powerful and insidious temptation, one of the tempters suggests that he should proceed with his planned martyrdom, because of the glory that it will bring his memory:

Yes, Thomas, yes; you have thought of that too.

What can compare with glory of Saints

Dwelling forever in presence of God?

What earthly glory, of king or emperor,

What earthly pride, that is not poverty

Compared with richness of heavenly grandeur?

Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest

On earth, to be high in heaven.

This appeal to Thomas’s vanity proves to be the most seductive temptation of all, because it played on his desire for glory and immortality as a martyr for a cause. But Thomas is able to shake off this temptation, and here delivers the key soliloquy of the play, in which he affirms his belief that our subjective intentions behind our actions really do matter:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:

Temptation shall not come in this kind again.

The last temptation is the greatest treason:

To do the right thing for the wrong reason.

Doing the right thing (dying as a martyr) is not enough: for his action to be sanctified by God, it must be done in a spirit of true humility and submission to God, without thought of any personal benefit of glory. And in this sentiment, the key message of the play is made clear: it is not enough simply to do what is right. What is more important—what is more transcendent—is to do the right thing for the right reason. Our reasons must spring from our innermost convictions, from our souls that have sincerely and honestly submitted to the authority of divine law. Only this sanctification gives our deeds any moral significance.

In a sermon later in the play, Thomas states his views of what constitutes a true martyr:

 A Christian martyr is never an accident, for Saints are not made by accident.  Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man’s will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men…It [martyrdom] is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.

We are the sum total of the decisions we make in our lives. Our decisions, steadily accreting upon each other day after day, define us. Most of the time, it is clear to us what is the right thing to do. Yet why can it be do difficult to do what is so self-evidently necessary? It is difficult because we are hounded by tempters at every step in the road. They whisper inducements in our ears, beseeching us to relax, to slow down, or to go with the flow of the herd; they trouble us with sly appeals to the apparent futility of all actions; and they seek to distract us from the right path with appeals to our hunger for riches and seraglios of women.

And if we can overcome these enticements, we still must face our own reckonings with conscience: are we doing the right thing for the right reason, or for the wrong reason?  This is the critical question, one that T.S. Eliot so masterfully has explored for us. To do the right thing is not enough. It must be done for the right reason.

Sincerity purifies purpose. Sincerity sanctifies purpose. A good deed, unless it springs from such inner sanctified motive, remains only an empty gesture, an action as arid and meaningless as “rats’ feet over broken glass” (to use another phrase from Eliot).

It is often said that no good deed goes unpunished. Until now, I never understood the true meaning of that saying.

Read More:  The Golden Rule Works

59 thoughts on “Is It Enough To Make The Right Decisions, Or Must We Have The Right Reasons?”

  1. This is excellent. I have known this concept to be true for some time but this has encouraged me to dig a little deeper into the purpose of my decisions. Thank you.

  2. Intentions Matter to God.
    Acts matter to men.
    Doing an evil act in the name of good is still evil.
    Doing a good act in the name of evil is still good.
    However, Both acts and intentions are weighed by god.

  3. Wonderful, thought provoking essay.
    You have raised a good ‘challenge’ for me!
    Thank you.

  4. Good and evil are products of Evolution. Evil is when someone harms your fitness, while good is when someone helps your fitness. For example, people who are “good” give you food, shelter, money, etc. All things that help your survival. Evil is the opposite, in particular if you are no threat to the “evil doer.” It’s not evil to kill someone who eminently threatens your life, but neither is it “good.” It’s a wash. It is evil to kill someone who is of no threat to you, for example, a baby. Good and evil are just ways of interpreting whether or not something is harmful or helpful to your biological fitness. If you use empathy to extend those rules from yourself to others you have the foundation of human ethics and law.
    Why did we evolve empathy? Simple, it puts us at an evolutionary advantage. Ever seriously injure yourself, and then show your injury to others? What do they do? They wince in pain. They are empathizing. They are putting themselves in your situation and learning from YOUR mistake, without having to commit the same mistake themselves. That’s why we evolved empathy. It’s useful for our survival.
    I reject any notion that human beings are anything other than vessels of DNA programmed to propagate themselves like all other organisms. Everything we do is based in one form or another on Evolution.

    1. Yes, this is true in basic form. Moral codes to tend to congeal around what is pleasing to Nature’s evolutionary processes. Very likely, what we now consider vices might once have been virtues, when we were primitive cavemen. But we exist in a state of civilization, not barbarism. What constitutes “good” is what helps the social group as a whole.

      1. Still, our “moral codes” are really just guidelines to help the human species fulfill its desire to be an invasive species. Control of the human population is only discussed when we risk damaging our host (the Earth), which would then damage our own survival. It all boils down to Evolution one way or another.

      2. ” What constitutes “good” is what helps the social group as a whole.”
        The problem with that, is deciding what helps the social group as a whole. The naive position that it is whatever it’s current “leaders” say it is, is most assuredly wrong, as no social group benefits from being reduced to a favor seeking court.

      3. Morals evolved like anything else; morality that was useful to the survival of the group was socially coded and passed down, while moral codes detrimental to survival were weeded out. Why is incest the most universal taboo across moral systems? Because the cultures that allowed it, before history had record of them, were outcompeted and destroyed by more robust and diverse people without genetic defects. Judaic morality was strict because its people were living on the fringe of survival in a harsh climate. Morality naturally becomes looser the more prosperous and powerful a culture is because there’s no longer a strict line to toe to get your genes passed down. Every culture that permitted homosexuality was rich, peaceful, and at the height of power; Classical Greece, Edo Japan, the modern West.

    2. ” ‘Good’ is when someone helps your biological fitness, while ‘evil’ is when someone harms your fitness. ”
      I guess then morals that would have us breed like rats or cockroaches would be seen as ‘good’?
      I do understand your point ( I think), though ‘biological fitness’ is just successful reproduction. It does not say much of the quality of life so much as the quantity of it. A moral good does not necessarily make us more ‘biologically fit’, but rather raises life to a higher level.
      That is, of course, not to say that moral goodness and biological fitness are antithetical. If you can’t even secure the reproduction of your own species, you’re doing it wrong!

      1. Most morals are rules that create an environment that’s optimal for breeding, if only for peace and comfort. Anything that harms human reproduction is seen as bad. For example, war, violence, civil disorder, famine, disease, etc. What is a moral that doesn’t make us more biologically fit? What do you mean by “raise life to a higher level”? Can you provide an example?
        I think there are some “morals” that harm human reproduction, but these tend to eventually be corrected, or that population goes extinct. For example, the Puritans thought it was only moral to not engage in sexual activities. The result was that the Puritans went extinct. Thus, “morals” are in a way self-correcting. If you made murder “moral” eventually either all of those people who disappear, or those people would change their morals to align with biology.

        1. I suppose I’m getting at the idea of r/K selection.
          That is to say then, an ‘r-selected’ population may be more biologically fit simply because they reproduce more, and have a larger population over a larger area, and as generalists may survive in a number of environments. Extreme example in the animal world might be cockroaches, rats or rabbits.
          However a ‘K-selected’ population, may be more specialised, and thus reliant on a specific niche, and perhaps stronger and smarter, thus requiring more resources for one individual and a longer gestation period. Because of those demands there is a limit to their reproduction, and thus their population. They are thus less ‘biologically fit’.
          Yet being stronger and more intelligent, as well as presumably longer living and more beautiful, are they not a ‘higher life form’?
          Think of a wolf or an elephant compared with a rabbit or a rat.
          One would imagine also, the morality described in your original post would apply to the latter example more so than the former. Morality breeds quality, but not necessarily quantity.
          Sorry for any rambling.

        2. Morality breeds quality, but not necessarily quantity.

          I see what your saying. I think whether quality or quantity is achieved ultimately doesn’t matter, although it may inform the type of morality that a society adopts. In my mind a society simply creates a stable environment for reproduction. I think our modern society definitely puts an emphasis on quantity, so that informs a certain modern bias. Eugenics programs were certainly considered “moral” by the people who created those programs in the early 20th century. I don’t think those people thought of themselves as “evil.” Same with ancient Sparta, how they used to discard of any deformed babies. Today that’s seen as immoral, but that’s a modern bias. Different times, different rules. Usually when these things are examined in depth, people have their reasons for doing things the way that they do.

        3. You need to study the Puritans. They were wuite fond of sexual intercourse within the institution of marriage. In fact they gave women and men both just cause for divorce if his/her spouse routinely refused sex.

    3. “Humans are, in reality, nothing more than an invasive species, and are programmed to behave as such.”
      Heh. I do indeed wonder just how true that may be. (Fully human) hominids had been living all over Eurasia and Africa for millions of years before ‘wham, bam and thank you ma’am’ modern humans toppled their supremacy across the world in an evolutionary eyeblink, and managed to wipe out the megafauna with them.

      1. The most terrifying, ferocious super-predator to ever walk this planet? Man. 😉 I know of no other animals that have the capability to destroy the entire planet many times over.

        1. Ha! Super predator or super parasite? I wonder if we can even say there is a difference!
          I mean, clearly Neanderthals for example, were top-tier predators. More robust, stronger bodies, larger brains, advanced tool-making for their time, and had been living in their parts of Europe and West Asia with continuity stretching back over millions of years, through some terrible conditions too.
          Then hops along the young upstart Homo Sapiens. Not stronger, not smarter, not more technologically advanced. Perhaps more fecund, perhaps a better runner, perhaps more of a generalist. Anyhow, presumably the reason he then knocked Neanderthal off his perch, was that he slaughtered the well managed herds Neanderthals had so long relied on, and then ate Neanderthals themselves.

        2. Actually we were more technologically advanced, and more aggressive. We have no way of knowing if Neanderthals were smarter, as brain mass does not correlate with intellect per se, else whales would all be nuclear physicists out of the womb.

    4. Our perception that a thing is “evil” comes from one of two sources: fear and disgust.

    5. Not so sure I totally agree with all the sentiments here. I get what you are onto, but consider this: humans are the only known species of organism that actually questions our actions. All creatures in the animal kingdom large and small just “do.” Some have more advanced brain functions and can problem solve, develop/use tools, and engage in recreation, but humans are the only ones that constantly question our own actions and purposes in existence. This is the reason we have vastly different societies across the globe with different ethics, laws, moral codes, and standards of living. There is no universal morality. There is no “right and wrong” aside from what each individual perceives for themselves. For any other animal on the planet, “right and wrong” is instinct. They simply live to propagate the species – humans live for different reasons dependent on the influences of other humans around them which actively separate themselves form the ideals and lifestyles of other humans that live further away.
      Consider that birds in the Middle East generally do the same things as birds in North America. Humans in the Middle East live vastly different lifestyles from humans in North America, and what they consider “right and wrong” differ. We are evolutionarily just about the exact same as our forefathers from the dark ages and before, but everything about how we live our lives and conduct our selves is different.
      What is right and wrong to one human may be different to another human – this is a product of the human condition.

    6. Your discussion of good and evil, with which you open this post of yours, isn’t about moral good and evil. It is about *non-moral good and evil. The article that appears above, on the other hand, to which you reply, amounts to a (literature-based) discussion of certain aspects of issues having to do with *moral* good and evil. So your reply here is practically irrelevant to the subject of the article. And your apparent conclusion, in your implicit argument about certain supposedly debunking consequences of the facts of evolution (and molecular genetics), doesn’t follow from your apparent premises, anyway. There are some sophisticated discussions that can be found, on the internet and elsewhere, of the genuine relation between evolution and morality, but your analysis here has a long way to go, for it to be numbered among them. If you consult some of the arguments about that relation that are made in those discussions, perhaps you will eventually recognize how misleadingly simplistic this beginner’s effort on your part has been. I say this all in a purely friendly spirit.

    1. Don’t focus on “God.” That’s not the point of the play. It’s irrelevant. This is not a religious issue. The point here is to examine how we make decisions, and speculate on what makes a good one or a bad one.

      1. If you remove the “authority of divine law” (God), then intention becomes impossible to discern. The only way a decision can be good/bad is based on outcome.
        “Hell is full of good intention or desires.”
        -Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

        1. I don’t believe so John. Intention influences the action/outcome.
          A simple exercise is to think of a phase, then say that phrase several different ways. The words remain the same but the intent behind those words determine how that message is received.
          The same is true of actions.

        2. Yes, of course intent does influence actions. However, no one can know whether the intent is truly altruistic or self-serving if given an action and subsequent outcome. Even if the actor states their causes. You can’t determine the veracity of their claims nor the objective value of their intentions. Unless of course there is some omniscient power present.

        3. The person doing the action knows, provided they have any sense of self awareness. As for those of us outside that mind, there are often tells that disclose the intent behind the action. That’s not to say that you will be immediately aware of the intent but these things are often revealed in the fullness of time.

      2. Intentions, from an objective point of view, mean very little. It’s the difference of a few neurons firing in the brain versus a few different ones. The only important thing is action, which is all that should matter to a man.

        1. Virtue is what doormat betas and feminists have. The “red pill” itself is about acknowledging that the world isn’t fair and you have to take advantage of that unfairness to succeed.

  5. good read; more contemporary examples could have been layed which would give an expanded touch to the readers.

  6. I started reading without seeing who was the author. After two paragraphs, i thought “this seems like Curtius style”. Your style is unique, sir.

  7. A good deed is a good deed – even if you do it for the wrong reasons. Over time if you continue doing good deeds, then you will change to a better being regardless of your motivations.
    Now it depends on what you define to be good – and here is the rather tricky point, since modern ethics is sometimes perfectly willing to supposedly sacrifice 10 people to save 1000. The rationalization of every evil deed as something positive for the “community” is one of the hallmarks of modern society.

    1. I also strongly suspect that the only way to discern good vs bad reason for doing deeds, is looking at the consistency with which the deeds done are good vs bad.

    2. This is indeed the heart of the problem. Is a good deed “good” if it is done for the wrong reasons? I used to think that intentions didn’t matter. Now I’m not so sure.
      I have begun to think that there is some pervasive, elusive Divine Law that permeates the universe. The Neoplatonists called this the “Logos.”
      These are deep waters.

      1. As I have been doing various meditative/contemplative techniques for more than a decade now it seems to me that there is something deep inside every living being – an entity that knows what is wrong or right.
        Even animals have that too when you observe a dog feeling guilty about having done something he was not supposed to do.
        We humans have sort of a deep inner moral compass. We can silence it via alcohol, drugs and plenty of rationalizations, but it resurfaces sooner or later.
        In my opinion that is one of the reasons why our current ruling elite is so paranoid – with all the negative actions they are executing, they will never be able to shake the feeling that they actually should be hanged on the nearest lamp-post. And they are probably right, but it is not us they have to fear, but the true eternal justice of life itself – there is no escaping it in the end.

      2. They are indeed.
        I believe that the litmus test that can be applied to many ‘good’ deeds is whether these are done for selfish reasons. Selfishness is universally seen as an undesirable trait and it is the intent on doing something to bring profit to yourself that provides a manifestation of that.
        The actions that are done to help others, defend that which is of benefit to others and that are done without thought for ‘how can this benefit me’ are those pure actions that Elliot speaks of.
        These are the right intentions. The actions and decisions made after death to self. Only then can one act to benefit others.

      3. Is a toxic vaccine acceptable when administered by a well meaning authority? How many adverse reactions must mount before intent becomes motive? When society becomes an etch-a-sketch screen completely blacked with ‘necessary evils’ it is necessary to erase to continue.

  8. Personally, I don’t believe in moral absolutes, nor do I believe that good and evil exist. Intentions? The road to hell is paved with good ones. Indeed, as Nietszche said, do-gooders often do the most harm. One must look at the consequences, not intentions of the action. What is the outcome? That is what is important.

    1. yes it is. Many saints, martyrs, religious & ‘secular’ have often behaved very anti-socially, acting sometimes without reference to their own welfare and sometimes also those of others, but there’s no reason in principle why consequences shouldn’t be considered as part seeking some kind of pure motive for moral action. In this sense as with the notion of duty (categorical imperative etc) there is no necessary content outside of that determined by the value system in question
      Such do-gooders are often not wise in the sense that you seem to mean, partially because they seem often to make decision that antagonise secular authority, and sometimes even physical necessity.
      Socrates pissed off the great and the good for example – there were always going to be consequences in those circumstances, but whether such recklessness is necessarily righteousness is a matter for debate

    2. Your statement is the rationalization of the notion that the ends justifies the means. A social philosophy that is destroying everything it touches with shocking speed these days.
      Your disbelief in good and evil would evaporate like water on the sun the moment you looked upon a snarling thug standing over the corpse of your only child. Guaranteed.

      1. Your depiction of evil is absolutely cartoonish. So called evil people aren’t out twirling their mustaches and doing evil for the sake of evil, all the while cackling about how great it will be to thwart the white cowboy hat wearing good guy. Stalin, Pol Pot, these guys thought they were doing good they were saving their people. Mao’s great leap forward wad intended to advance the Chinese. What was the result? Millions dead, and a country held back for a generation or two. Intentions are meaningless if the results suck.
        There are no moral absolutes, because absolute good is the same as absolute evil. It’s extremism not matter how you slice it.

  9. lovely essay, of the type I haven’t read in a long time. Iris Murdoch, who I think was a platonist named one of her novels the nice and the good, which – although I still havent got round to reading yet – related I believe to the platonic / christian notion
    of good done in and for itself, and without consideration of any kind of reward, temporal or spiritual that might accrue from such a good action. I don’t know what the source is (I assume it is Plato himself) but I believe one definition of the ‘just’ man in this sense imagined such a person acting according to their conception of the good without reference even to the judgement of God himself, which is hard for the christian / theist to understand given the supposed omniscience of the almighty – the definition thus would be what is the right thing to do even if God could not see its righteousness i.e. without even hope of reward (more intelligible I presume to
    the Ancient Greeks for I think even zeuz was not omniscient).
    inevitably all actions tend to be reinforced by reward, and contra-indicated by association with punishment. This relates also I think to the platonic notion of the Great Beast which is a metaphor for society abstracted from the individual, and
    returns us back to the notion of the nice versus the good. I think this is an idea very relevant for the present day, particularly in this day of lowest common denominators, where the avoidance of hurt feelings is a chief determinant of what passes for good rather than evil. The nice (i.e. incorrect version of the good) here is what makes the beast (no, not the beast of the book of revelation, we’re talking plato here) feel pleasure, just as the not nice (the incorrect inversion of good) is what makes the beast angry or feel displeasure. This is one of the reasons perhaps why plato rejected democracy, as he felt the demos / the people acting without the critical judgement achievable by the reasoning individual oriented towards good) was incapable of behaving in any other fashion than a dumb beast who likes or dislikes.
    Whether you consider platonism valid or invalid I do think the metaphor of the great beast has a bearing on modern society with its increasing tendency to appease the beast in absence of the kind of leadership that can promote a moral society.
    One further reflection that occurs to me is that just as Beckett acts as the platonic /
    christian just man should, the knights act in the same way as the appeasers of
    the beast. It may be that the legend of Henry’s uttering the famous words “who will rid be of this troublesome priest” were designed to indemnify the monarch of the murder of one of gods vicar generals, however to the extent that we can take those words as spoken, henry acts in a way analogous to the beast (as expressing displeasure) and the knights act as false moral agents who are no more than appeasers, i.e. those who seek to please the beast, and understand morality only in terms of rewards / punishments from the beast.
    There is also a reflection to be made here insofar as what we are trying to free ourselves from more generally, the tendency to attend to the fairer sex according to what pleases / displeases her with the hope of reward rather than punishment mirrors the above concerns.
    Please vote this comment up, otherwise I might as well not have written it

  10. Fantastic Essay. Your writings here continually inspire me, Quintus Curtius, as do the ideals that shine through in your work.
    I only ask, will you be releasing a book of some form? I know I would buy it quick, and I’m sure many other readers here at ROK would too. Even if it were a collection of what has so far been published here.
    Tits and hos may reach a larger audience, but your audience here would be grateful for something meatier!

  11. Hmm, this article also reminds me of the dichotomy between Kantian and Machiavellian ways of thinking. Do you make decisions based on principles and an inner morality or a more realistic pragmatism? I also sort of see it as a difference between feeling and thinking on the MBTI types.
    I’ve always tended to lean toward realism, and I have a strong preference for thinking over feeling, so maybe that’s why Kant never quite appealed to me, and things like the 48 Laws of Power did.
    I don’t think you can really say the “right” answer to these things, truthfully. We are simply the decisions we make, as you say.

    1. the strange thing about Kant I think is that he can be understood as permitting the possibility of either ‘thinking’ morality, or ‘feeling’ morality, although he approaches this as far as I can tell through a conception of reason as a foundation for duty. I’ve always assumed he was trying to rationalise the golden rule ‘act unto others as you have have them act towards you’. In both instance one could certainly question the wisdom of such a basis for morality as this isn’t even necessarily founded upon any kind of utilitarianism (i.e. it would be best for most people if everybody behaved this way) but as a way of making morality rational and universal in the same way as philosophy / logic / philosophy – at least I assume this.
      The interesting, and dangerous thing about Kantian morality is just like the golden rule it is arguably ‘contentless’, thus if you can define a categorical imperative that you believe could be operationalised as some kind of universal maxim of duty (i.e. that would work for everyone) then you could have something along the lines of “everyone should act according to their hearts desire (feeling) or you could have ‘everyone should act according to reason’, or in accordance with ‘rational self-interest’ etc. The groundwork for a metaphysic of morals is pretty unreadable (but probably still the most readable of his works nonetheless) so I’m still unsure whether I understand what he’s saying, but suffice it to say a lot of people who reckoned they did understand what he was saying consider its an imporant but imperfect basis for morality.
      Ultimately I think some kind of mix of both kantianism and utilitarianism is probably the only way to make it workable, the latter being capable of tempering the kind of unrestrained self-interest you get in the 48 laws of power, while still basing duty upon a balance of duty to both self and others, something which isn’t guaranteed with the categorical imperative alone.

      1. PS I think you probably can say how ‘right’ the 48 laws of power are. That book is about how the world works, not about how it should work….maybe its a kind of nietzchean morality, but with more sneakiness and less nobility of soul

        1. I was talking along the lines as a guide to decision-making, not specific moral systems. I don’t think you could call Machiavellian thought a system of ethics by any stretch of the word.
          As far as ethics go, consequentialism is IMO really the only thing that makes sense as an actual working system of morality.
          Interesting comments by the way. That’s why I love the discussions on some of these articles – particularly the ones Quintus writes. You won’t find this stuff anywhere else.

        2. very true, there are some great topics & discussions here: the very old and the very new, quite often at the same time

  12. That couplet has remained strong in my mind for many years, since I first read Murder in the Cathedral: “The last crime is the greatest treason; to do the right thing, for the wrong reason.”
    St. Augustine taught that “sin is in the will,” and that “it is by the will that we either sin, or live righteously.” By that, he meant that deeds considered apart from the will behind them, are in and of themselves no more moral or immoral than the Earth orbiting the Sun; they are simply things that occur. They may have results that are objectively good or bad, but without knowing the mind of the man who acted, we cannot say whether there is a question of sin or not. It is rather the motive of the man, the inner disposition of the will, that determines this question. Some men, few in number (thankfully) deliberately will evil as evil. More men commit evil knowing it to be evil, but out of weakness. Some men don’t bother to inform their conscience, and so, even if their will is not very deliberately yielding to evil, still there is the evil of their indifference. The Church has always observed these distinctions, for example, in recognizing that it is not possible to commit a mortal sin unless the man knows the evil and yet still consents to it with full freedom.
    This really does bring us to the heart of what St. Paul calls “the mystery of iniquity.” God has given man the power to freely choose sin or righteousness. Yet God is the ground of all existence, and all things that exist from moment to moment continue to do so by His deliberate will to “loan” existence from Himself to all things. Moreover, Aquinas teaches (in harmony with the Fathers of the Church) that for something to be a cause, it must have being; and anything that has being is of itself a good, because all being comes from the Supreme Being and Supreme Good. Even Satan’s existence is good, objectively considered. He thus goes on to affirm the saying of St. Augustine that, in a certain sense, the only possible cause of evil can be the good.
    At first, it seems that this would prove them right, who say that God is the cause of evil, or those who say that good and evil only exist in terms relative to each other (such that, if there were no evil, we would not know what good is). In reality, it confirms that the good exists in and of itself, and that evil can only take what “existence” it has, by defecting from the good. I.e., wrath cannot exist in a vacuum, but depends upon the good of existence, and of will, and of desire, and merely corrupts these things. Aquinas goes on to speak of the different kinds of causes – actual, formal, teleological, etc. – and explains that God is not the cause of evil in the sense of willing evil as such, but in the sense that He gave existence to beings along with the good of freedom of will, from which freedom “defect in the action” can produce evil contrary to the intended good. This is not to say that God is powerless to prevent the evil and preserve the intended good; rather, the intended good of giving man the freedom to choose is a good so great and so necessary to God’s purposes, that for the time being He forbears with our abuse of the good.
    And that, to come back to the point, does bring us to the center of the “Mystery of Iniquity.” All things that exist do so by the direct act of God, sharing existence with them. But every will that sins, chooses something that ought not exist – prefers, in fact, that which does not exist, to that true ground and being of all existence. Moreover, it uses the very gift of existence given by God, to will the non-existent. I know this has been a wordy and complex post, but if one can follow it, one sees right here the great horror of sin. If a man truly understood this – that in sin, a man uses his existence (which is at every moment joined to God’s self-giving) in order to join himself voluntarily not only to something non-existent, but to something that directly profanes and undoes existence – he would understand hell at once. He would see why sin is a deep horror and mystery, and not simply a matter of “breaking rules” arbitrarily given by God. He would understand how it is that hell is not something God inflicts upon us as a punishment, narrowly conceived, but is in fact the inevitable and necessary product of using the sacredness of existence to will the profanity of annihilation.
    This is why the effects of sin upon nature were called “φθορά” in Greek and “corruptio” in Latin; the Greek term’s early etymology refers to a breach or void (it came to mean “rottenness or decay from internal forces”) and the Latin term means “with breach or rupture.” Both refer to the void in existence that is sin; it has no positive existence; it only exists as a void or breach that preys upon existence itself. God will not deprive us of being; but if we resent our being and join ourselves to this mysterious principle of non-being, this void, this breach, then we can understand what hell is: the state of schism in which existence wills to be undone from itself and its Source, and cannot be.
    All this being the case, it is clear that the will, and not merely the act, is the key thing. And as I say, if we really pondered such realities in good faith, we would begin to see how our every act is fraught with holiness or profanation. There is no neutrality, and there is no accidental merit for good or ill. We will be judged on what it was that we *intended,* not simply on what happened to occur for good or ill. And just so it’s clear, the road to hell can still be paved with good intentions; being feckless in forming your intentions is also a choice! This is a manly philosophy that realizes the ideal of personal responsibility in the fullest possible dimension, not one that excuses any crime simply because your “heart is in the right place.” If your heart were in the right place, you would take care to get it right; you may still make a mistake, but you would at least take care to get it right. Speaking of, I should take care to shut up, now.

  13. Quintus, here’s one of my favourite scenes from the movie Becket. The childish man could easily watch the scene and say “ah, some religious fool going all Medieval,” but the womanly insobriety of so doing I’ll not bother to explain. Contrarily, the manful considerations you give above, reflecting on Eliot’s work, and the thoughts of Aquinas and Augustine on hell and sin, which I posted about, give us a more profound picture of the kinds of things that were likely on the mind of the noble archbishop. One can imagine Becket weighing for himself: “What is sin? What sin has been committed? What serious matters are now before me? We are chanting the Dies Irae and I am preparing to pass a grave spiritual judgment upon a Lord of the Realm – indeed, I am declaring that this man is damned, even as we sing the chant that expresses the Church’s prayer for deliverance from such a fate. Dare I wield this power against him? Dare I *not* wield this power against him? I must not do it if he has not chosen damnation; I must do it, if he has. Am I doing my duty well? This dreadful sentence that I pass upon him, shall it come back upon my head? My actions now could well lead to my own death; am I on the course that prepares me to meet it? Have I done the right thing? For the right reasons?” These things and more, I am sure Becket considered. Knowing that, one can appreciate the fire in his eyes and the steel in his voice in this scene where he passes the excommunication that set the final events of his life in motion.

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