In two famous and often recited quotes, we learn morality and religion are crucial elements of a free and prosperous society. The first is from John Adams, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” Our second from George Washington when he recalled: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
Imperative debates, myriad of discussions, and copious Supreme Court cases have, to an extent solidified the indisputable text of the First Amendment. Religion and its importance to the function of our government has been discussed heavily, albeit not as ponderously as it should be. Morality, on the other hand, receives less attention than its counterpart religion, although they were always intended to be associated together. The First Amendment responsibly does not address morality, which perhaps, is why it is the least propounded and unfamiliar of these twin fundamental ideals. Philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose in-depth reasoning of goodwill, duty, and contentment, has demystified many misconceptions of morality as he addresses this paramount principle in his book Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Morality is the sum of doing your duty with no other motivation than to do good.
Consider the following scenario, the sun was setting, and the day coming to a close. A withered man walked forlornly down the street, clothes torn, head bent, he dragged his feet along the pavement. The occult thoughts of this man were not on matters of state or politics but upon his beloved family. The memory of his wife and children huddled around a table scraping food off plates haunted his steps. Their happy house, while not extravagant was a refuge for all who were blessed to call it home. But debts must be paid and consequences faced. The morose figure of this man was weighed down by the choice he will soon make. Does he lie to the bank, promise to pay back the money, and take out a loan, knowing that without a sustainable job he will be unable to pay it back? Or should he watch his family be evicted, cast out onto the streets, and abandoned?
Kant observed, “A good will is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes, nor because of its fitness to attain some proposed end; it is good only through its willing, i.e., it is good in itself.”(394) He continues “Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither augment nor diminish this value.”(394) We often associate good choices with good or preferred results, this is precisely what Kant is disputing. Qualities that we hold in high regard, are the same traits prevalent in both heroes and villains. Kant gives us a list of such qualities as “intelligence, wit, judgment,…temperament as courage, resolution,”(393) which he claims is not the foundation for morality. We find ourselves in this dilemma- we cannot define morality by the end result, neither the abilities used to achieve such an end unless there is a higher motivation for doing good will. If we place “certain subjective restrictions and hindrances”(397) upon good will, we discover what Kant identifies as duty, and subsequently, moral.
“We shall take up the concept of duty, which includes that of a good will”(397). We all have duties, responsibilities, some are enjoyable and pleasant endeavors, others are distasteful, tedious, and painful. All moral actions are hinged upon this idea of duty and its relation to inclinations. “Perform the action without any inclination at all, but solely from duty-then for the first time, his action has genuine moral worth.”(398) Morality is achieved when we do our duty, wholly because it is our duty, not because we wish too, or desire a particular outcome. The outcome or result of a choice should not be the motivation behind performing a duty. An action is moral and therefore worthy of esteem if it fulfills a duty, which is directly united to a universal law.
“Duty is the necessity of an action done out of respect for the law.”(400) Kant gives us a method, revolving around reason, to discern our duty amongst conflicting emotions. When making a decision between two choices, both of which are our duty, and it is impossible to accomplish both, we must first come to terms that one is a moral action and the other not. We discern the moral action, by making the reasons you would perform such an act, into a universal law.
“I only ask myself whether I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law. If not, then the maxim must be rejected, not because of any disadvantage occurring to me or even to others, but because it cannot be fitting as a principle in a possible legislation of universal law, and reason exacts from me immediate respect for such legislation.”(401) Moral actions are not to be confused with right vs. wrong. Holy and moral actions are always the right choice, but not every right choice is moral. We can identify right from moral by analyzing a world in which your reason for doing something was a universal law. If such a society, operating under your law, could not reasonably function, then that decision is not moral.
Living a life of good will and duty propels us toward a higher way of life, which is pure dutiful contentment. “To secure one’s own happiness is a duty (at least indirectly); for discontent with one’s condition under many pressing cares and amid unsatisfied wants might easily become a great temptation to transgress one’s duties.”(395) Contentment is not becoming stagnant in life or being satisfied with one’s character. Obtaining true contentment, and therefore unconditional happiness is performing one’s duty and doing good with no other motivation than simply doing good. Contentment is found in doing our duty and thereby performing moral actions which are the most elevated behavior we can obtain.
Religion and government were always intended to remain as two individual entities, this is not the case for morality. Morality is not an institution and does not vary depending on the individual, because of this it plays a significant function in our society and government. Our Constitution explicitly says in Article VI Clause 3 “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States.” Here is territory religion cannot trespass, but morality undebatably should. How well a candidate or officer will perform their duty, their perception of good will, and if they can achieve contentment should be a question we ask ourselves before we cast any ballot.
Our Constitution is a document regulating the government, morality is a code of honor regulating the people to be worthy and able to maintain such a government. The laws of the land will always reflect the morality of the people. Religion teaches morality, and if religion cannot influence government, it most certainly is morality’s duty to bridge the gap between religion and government. It can therefore be inferred that the founders of our Constitution, intended the Constitution to be regulated by a moral people, who have good will, adhere to their duty, and find contentment in this holy way of life.
-“Hillsdale College Online Courses.” Online.hillsdale.edu, online.hillsdale.edu/courses/introduction-to-western-philosophy.
-Immanuel Kant, and James W Ellington. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals : With on a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns. Indianapolis ; Cambridge, Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.