Summary of a discussion from Arts and Sciences Lodge No. 792, Hilliard Ohio held December 16, 2010.
At a regular stated meeting of Arts and Sciences Lodge No. 792, a discussion was held which is an integral part of the activities of this Lodge. Discussions are always held in a Socratic format moderated by the Master who is responsible for producing a summary of each discussion to be shared with others.
At this particular meeting, the topic of discussion was an important and fundamental question: What Is Morality?
In the entered apprentice degree, we are taught that the square teaches us Morality. Yet, there is no clear explanation or further illumination about what is meant by the term Morality.
Several definitions of this term were initially presented for consideration. One definition offered was that Morality is a "code or rules that we grow up with helping us learn bad from good. They are ingrained in us and are an essential part of successful societies."
Another definition offered was "a set of standards decided upon by us throughout our lives guided by a higher power. It is easily summed up by do unto others…."
A third definition put forth the find Morality as "an evolving set of rules and guidelines to govern our behavior."
The discussion then began to raise questions about differentiating two levels of standards guiding our behavior: Ethics and Morality. Ethics was defined as "an agreed-upon set of behavior(s) that is necessary to keep society operating" while Morality was further defined as "behaviors in support of survival."
In differentiating Morality from Ethics, Morality was seen as more fundamental and powerful than Ethics. Conversely, Ethics was seen as more powerful and fundamental than rules. Therefore, it was determined that Morality creates a foundation from which Ethics are defined within a group of people. Rules are then put forth from formal power structures to delineate behaviors and allow enforcement of these principles. Morality was seen as residing within the individual, Ethics is determined by society, and rules are formed by the formal power structures which are created to govern society.
Questions were raised about whether or not Morality is learned or biologically based. If they are learned, then where or from who are they learned? It was observed that many different societies and cultures have found similar and complementary "universal truths" regarding what is or is not Moral suggesting a possible biological basis. It was observed that rampant behaviors generally defined as "immoral" generally lead to the collapse of a society placing survival at risk while following fundamental rules of Morality often leads to peaceful cooperation to the benefit of the species. This raised questions about the fundamental nature of man being essentially good if left to his own devices or essentially uncivilized when left to his own devices. Philosophers such as Locke and Hobbes have raised these questions and were clearly among the authors that may have been influenced or been influential to those who formed speculative Freemasonry in the 18th century.
There was strong support for the opinion that morality is learned with our families being identified as important sources of this learning. Our experiences through childhood and youth provide us with many opportunities to explore various choices and, through our experiences, developed a clear sense of what is "right" or "wrong." However, the fact that not everyone who was taught well behaves well and that there are many who develop excellent "morals" without benefit of proper instruction raises the question about the absolute nature of this possibility.
The possibility that Morality might be situational was raised based on observations that people often behave differently in different situations. This idea was challenged based upon a belief that Morality represents fundamental beliefs about behaviors that are inappropriate and leave us feeling uncomfortable regardless of situation.
Questions arose about whether or not culturally defined traditions and their related behaviors can automatically result in a culture being "immoral" in the eyes of another culture just because of those differences. Various religious practices and differences in the way people are treated based upon gender, age, race, etc. were identified as possible examples of this.
During this discussion, the universal nature of Freemasonry was celebrated in that there is room within Freemasonry for many cultural differences as long as fundamental elements of Morality are reflected and celebrated.
It became clear that Freemasonry provides us with a mechanism to discover our own moral standards through our work in Lodges. It allows us to define that point within a circle illustrated by the cardinal virtues. It allows us to define the ideal set of behaviors we aspire to maintain. We recognize that variability exists within our behaviors across situations but Freemasonry challenges us to determine when we have "strayed too far" from that ideal point of perfection.
When considering applicants for our order, the question of assessing a man's "moral character" was raised. The consensus was that we must first start with "good men" who already possess the fundamental elements of what is seen as good moral character by those investigating the applicant. We trust the judgment of this committee because our experiences in Lodge have demonstrated the common moral beliefs that we share with these men and look for these common moral beliefs in our applicants. These applicants, after becoming new brothers, are then to be taught the lessons of Freemasonry and the morality associated with it in their Lodges. They are expected to improve themselves throughout their lives eventually using the trestle board to draw their own path through life guided by their own moral beliefs and the Great Lights.
At the conclusion of the discussion, it became clear that there is no simple answer to this question. However, the experience of discussing this question in Lodge and wrestling with it on a personal level will bring this important matter to the forefront of our awareness. This should cause us to be ever vigilant regarding the importance of Morality, as we understand it, in our day-to-day decision-making which is represented by the square.