Morality is a word that most of us shy away from, perhaps partly because it’s been co-opted by those who like to tell us what morality is, which (surprise!) turns out to be a code of conduct that serves their own agenda. We have allowed such people to take control of the word “morality” for their own self-righteous power-seeking. But we must look deeply at our own moral truths in order to become truly ourselves and to become substantial against the distracting chatter of the world around us.
Avoiding moral questions comes at a great cost. Our moral shyness leaves us at the mercy of the cultural and commercial messages that bombard us daily, telling us how to live, how to behave, what to buy, what to believe, how to squander our precious lives without stopping to ask what really matters. By closing our ears to our own questions, our own answers, we allow ourselves to be easily manipulated, turned away from our own true nature, driven like sheep from actions that would benefit ourselves and the rest of the world. And let’s face it, perhaps the truth is that this suits us in some way, that we prefer not to ask our own questions because, under the covers, we really don’t want to know the answers, don’t want to take responsibility for our own actions, don’t want to discover that we may need to change, don’t want to experience our true lives after all. We are afraid of where an honest “soul-searching” journey might take us. There is only one way to confront this fear. We must take the time to ask ourselves, what are our own moral values? What is a moral life? And what does this mean to us?
Of course these are deeply personal questions. There are those who like to tell us that morality is a prescribed code, a set of rules that we should all follow. But nothing could be further from the truth. Following a prescribed code or pre-defined set of values means avoiding asking our own questions and deciding what is true for us, what we truly believe. Following a prescribed code is really the opposite of moral behaviour: it suggests that others know better than we do what matters to us, and makes it so very easy for others to manipulate us. It takes courage to be moral: we must ask ourselves: who am I? What really matters to me? How do I truly feel about the actions that I take each day? A moral person is one who constantly questions his or her assumptions in the light of experience and who always tries to act with awareness. A moral person chooses to be awake rather than to go through life as if sleep-walking. A moral person has the courage to change.
Becoming moral means recognising that my life is my own and no one else’s, to be lived in my own way, according to my own values and beliefs. It is difficult to release oneself of the expectations of others, and to question the assumptions that allows us to avoid the discomfort of personal decision-making. But the world is a total mess and so are we, and much of that is due to the fact that very few of us really ask what really and truly matters and what that means in terms of how we choose to live.
When we think of moral issues we usually consider the way we treat or mistreat others in our immediate lives: our partners, family, friends, people we meet and interact with. We think about things like honesty, fairness, physical and mental cruelty. When examining our moral behavior it’s easy to forget that we also participate in a very commercial and global world, where many of our actions take place not in our direct interactions with others, but indirectly. We interact with the lives of others whenever we make a purchase, whether in a store or online. We buy clothes, food products, cars, technology, all kinds of things, without really thinking about it, just because every one else does. But to gain our freedom, to find our own life, we must ask what each of these purchases really mean, what actions are we actively taking part in when we hand over our cash? How you spend your hard earned money is very a much a part of your moral life: how can there be a difference between the way you treat the person in the same room as the way you treat someone in another country? That is what it takes to lead a moral life. It means not turning away from difficult questions, not choosing not to know. And it turns out that this is the only way to truly have our own lives, because otherwise we are living by other people’s rules. We are what we do, and if we do things without questioning, then we are letting others control us, so that we end up sliding through our own life as if it is something to sneak past without being noticed, too ashamed or too frightened or too lazy to face up. Not very real, .. and then we die.
Think about the world we’re living in now, members of a human race that seems hell-bent on destroying the environment, creating untold suffering among other species, both in the wild and on factory farms, consuming, consuming, consuming more and more and more in a world of limited resources. And working so hard at this that there’s no time to watch what those in power are doing to destroy regulations and standards and social infrastructure in order to take more from all of us. We must each consider our own roles in all this. Do you go along with the rest, conning yourself into thinking that buying “fair trade” coffee or “free range” eggs lets you off the hook? Waiting for someone else to fix it? Or are you willing to take a more considered approach, ask yourself truly what you believe, what your own values are, take a little time to investigate the truth and then come to your own decisions? Do you know the working conditions of the people who produced the cheap clothing that you wear? What do you think about animal cruelty and imprisonment? Do you consume meat and dairy without learning anything about factory farming, about the way that animals are treated in their thousands and millions? Asking and answering these questions for ourselves is how we create true democracy. Our actions are our votes, our actions change the world. This is how we grow up, take on our own destiny, become real. This is being moral. There are no correct answers regarding how to behave, there are just your answers, my answers, the answers of each one of us, honestly asking, honestly coming to our own conclusions, always willing to ask again as we learn more, and become more experienced. And taking action according to our beliefs. This is what it means to have a moral life, to have any kind of life worth having. When you live a moral life, you are no longer a victim.