Conversations on Morality: Jefferson's Moral Principles

Conversations on Morality

Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics

Jefferson's Moral Principles

    Having glanced at the "quotes" section in the E.C. site, it is interesting to see how fleeting glimpses of Jefferson's interest in a nontheological recension of the gospels crop up again and again in his private writings. This might be a fruitful path of study for someone with more time, alas, than I currently have.
Eyler Coates
    Two sections at my Jefferson Quotes site that group together excerpts related to morality may also be of interest for our purposes here:

    Sect. 3. . . Moral Principles


    Sect. 4. . . Moral Degeneracy

    Jefferson believed that the more essential part of our moral sense was innate and intuitive, that our reason at best only assisted that innate sense of morality.

    And here is where we could really have some interesting feedback, both with respect to Jefferson's individual take on the nature of humanity's sense of ethics/morality--or lack thereof--and on an ultimate question relating to "origins", a chief concern of this site: viz., from whence stems a person's ethics.
Eyler Coates
    Jefferson made an interesting point with respect to the innate moral judgment of ordinary persons in the following quote:

      "Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality... The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call Common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787.

    No one could dispute the observation upon which Jefferson's statement is based: ordinary persons have as good and reliable a moral sense as can be found anywhere. This is the basis for our jury system. It is also what caused William F. Buckley, Jr., to say that he would rather be judged by the first ten names in the Boston telephone directory than the faculty of the Harvard law school (or something to that effect). But the question is, Does such a moral sense actually come installed in our consciousness from birth, or is it something that is so well implanted from birth by our parents and teachers that it seems to be a part of our nature? Personally, I am more inclined toward the latter. We see in public all about us parents raising their little monsters with no respect for other persons in a library or in a restaurant, for example. The nature of most children seems to be to do whatever they can get away with, and this tendency seems to be checked only by a diligent parent or guardian. Comportment in public may not be exactly the same as moral behavior, but I can't help believe that they are intimately related. This, perhaps, stems from another belief of mine which may raise yet another sticky issue, and that is, What, indeed, is the foundation of moral behavior? I believe it is a respect for the persons and rights of others, and, we must also add, of ourselves as well. This moral principle is at the heart of the political principle, "All men are created equal" (from which proceeds our "inherent and inalienable rights"), as well as the ethical principle, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." In fact, I prefer the former expression to the latter, because the latter, in a weird turnabout, might convert masochists into sadists. The former, by contrast, states precisely what the relationship is.

Stephen Daisy
    I would like to comment on Jefferson's idea of man's intuitive sense of morality. If God created man with no such sense, then we have to admit that God is mad. But why do some men act without conscience? The answer may be that this intuitive awareness of right from wrong must be drawn from within in prayer. I know that Christ stressed the need for daily prayer, the means by which we draw close to God and his gentle infusion of grace and enlightenment. If we don't take time out to pray on a daily basis, we may tend to lose that intuitive, moral sense.

    The kind of prayer I refer to, however, is more in line with Christ's teaching that when you pray, "do not use many phrases...your heavenly Father knows well what your needs are before you ask him" (Matthew, 6:7-9). This also echoes Isaiah "...and when you multiply prayer, I will not hear" (Isaiah, 1:15). Also from Psalm 45:11: "Be still and know that I am God."

    We need to be close to God in this silent kind of prayer which, as far as I am concerned, means that we just sit still and permit that touch of the Holy Spirit to come to us each day with its gentleness, encouragement, strength and love, above all, love. We don't have to do anything or say anything. (That simple posture of not interfering in any way is enough.) If the heart is filled with gentleness and love, this is the basis of good behavior. In the daily prayer of silence, in the loving and quiet embrace of the Holy Spirit, we grow in God-consciousness and the inevitable consequence of that awareness, loving thy neighbor as oneself. This is a growing awareness as consciousness expands and we realize that the inner self and the outer world are intimately related.

    In the prayer of silence, no words are necessary but we just sit still like a child waiting to be, so to speak, embraced by our heavenly Mother. (Men may not like this analogy.) Pious words, images or interior aspirations are unnecessary we need only to sit still and wait a little and then the mind in a few minutes begins to feel the touch of the Spirit, an inner feeling of comfort and calm as the burdens and stresses of the day are removed by the gentle restfulness of this experience. If the mind wanders, let it, since this is a sign of the release of stress. Just don't do anything but sit for 20 to 30 minutes and come out slowly since the experience of deep rest is profound. This is all automatic and natural and everybody can prove this to him/herself by taking time out to do nothing (and accomplish everything).

The Morality of Equality
Clifford Sharp
    The myth is that 'all men are created equal IN THE SIGHT OF GOD' whereas the reality is that all men and women are different. I suggest that these differences stem from our genetic inheritance and apply even to our individual ability to 'catch' those values which lead to behaviour regarded in our culture as 'fair' and 'decent.' The distribution may well be somewhat similar to the normal curve so that while the majority have no difficulty in 'catching' those values which lead to what we regard as 'normal' behaviour there will be those at the ends of the distribution curve who cannot do so and become the psychopaths, the serial murderers, the rapists and the pedophiles whose behaviour cannot be tolerated if society is to function reasonably smoothly. Christ's imperative to show toleration, to love our enemies must have limits if equity and fairness (the ultimate tests in my view) are to be preserved.

Eyler Coates
    Confusion seems to rise constantly on the meaning of the principle, "All men are created equal." To all persons of ordinary understanding, it is necessarily taken in context, and means All persons have equal civil and political rights. That it should be taken to mean that all persons are equal in abilities, physical appearance, etc., is too absurd a proposition to be considered seriously by intelligent people.

    To characterize the principle as a myth, however, is an unnecessary denigration of one of the fundamental premises of a democratic society. If such a society is not founded on the political equality of all members, then we are compelled to ask, On what principle is it founded? The alternative is some kind of inequality, and we are then compelled to ask, Who is it that declares some members superior to others, and on what basis? If on a moral basis, Who makes this moral judgment?

    Even the persons who are lacking in moral character are not for that reason deprived of their civil rights, except as a consequence of their criminal acts. Discrimination is based on deeds, not on personal characteristics or genetic inheritance.

    Equity and fairness, therefore, demand that violators of societal norms be judged on their acts in a court of law, and not classed by philosophers as undesirables based on judgments of their character. Socially enforced morality must be based on law, not on critical evaluation, if any kind of justice is to be maintained. Otherwise, we are all at the mercy of whatever self-appointed moralistic pharisees happen to hold the reins of power at any given time.

    For these reasons, I believe it is both bad politics and bad philosophy to confuse civil rights with morality. But having said that, I would acknowledge that there is a moral principle underlying the proposition that "All men are created equal," and that it functions independently of its political implications. To treat all persons as fundamentally equal, regardless of their acts and the consequences resulting to them because of those acts, is the beginning of a mature understanding of our place in the Universe. If a person's status as a human being depends on our judgment of their character, then they become subject to all our whims, biases and prejudices. Equity and fairness demand that our love and tolerance of persons not be conditioned on our private judgments.

    Therefore, even though the analysis of human character and its distribution along a curve from the heinous to the saintly may be interesting for certain purposes, I do not feel it has value for moral considerations.

    In all candor, I am somewhat taken aback at just how strongly Eyler takes exception to Mr. Sharp's observations; yet the contextual argument concerning Jefferson's assertion of equality of all men (all humanity) as referring to rights rather than varied qualities seems quite strong. Since Jefferson uses the word "that" to introduce both the sentiment "all men are created equal" and the sentiment "they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights", and does so within the same sentence, it appears fairly clear that, for Jefferson, the two concepts went together.

    Nevertheless, might it be possible to develop some of Mr. Sharp's sincere warnings regarding the occasional ethical contrasts among us without invoking uncertain meanings in Jefferson's Declaration? After all, Jefferson is duly concerned elsewhere with precisely those social dilemmas posed by the occasional psychopaths among us that Mr. Sharp has already brought to our attention. So we need not invoke a possibly esoteric reading of Jefferson's Declaration in order to highlight such concerns. For instance, in the course of an 1814 correspondence with Thomas Law, Jefferson himself states

      "It is true [social dispositions] are not planted in every man, because there is no rule without exceptions; but it is false reasoning which converts exceptions into the general rule."

    Granted, as was ever his wont, Jefferson puts a positive spin here on the occasional lack of social dispositions (i.e., this is not the "general rule"), but I sincerely doubt he was being deliberately evasive in so doing. It was simply a part of his nature. As he also said in the same correspondence:

      "The want or imperfection of the moral sense in some men, like the want or imperfection of the senses of sight and hearing in others, is no proof that it is a general characteristic of the species."

    With all this, the bottom line is that Jefferson does acknowledge certain warped tendencies as being part and parcel of all humanity:

      "When [the moral sense] is wanting, we endeavor to supply the defect by education, by appeals to reason and calculation, by presenting to the being so unhappily conformed, other motives to do good and to eschew evil, such as the love, or the hatred, or the rejection of those among whom he lives, and whose society is necessary to his happiness and even existence; demonstrations by sound calculation that honesty promotes interest in the long run; the rewards and penalties established by the laws; and ultimately the prospects of a future state of retribution for the evil as well as the good done while here. These are the correctives which are supplied by education, and which exercise the functions of the moralist, the preacher, and legislator; and they lead into a course of correct action all those whose depravity is not too profound to be eradicated."

    Ever sunny, Jefferson, of course, does not bother to tackle the dismal problem of what to do when confronted with depravity that is indeed too profound to be eradicated after all. But he does not deny the existence of such depravity. So this passage still remains as an acknowledgment of the variance of moral dispositions, an acknowledgment that both Jefferson and Mr. Sharp share.

    In fact, with due respect, such innate variances among us are even acknowledged by Eyler as well. In chapter 3 of this site, he states

      "I would suggest that someone could, for example, be born into a family of right-wing bigots who would deny members of another race their inalienable rights, and yet that person could turn out on the other side of the tracks. Or, presumably, just the opposite could happen. What causes this? Surely, in all our lives, we come up against a variety of influences. Some of them we go along with, some of them we reject. Why? No doubt, natural predispositions have something to do with our choice. No two children in the same family have the same personality."

    So I would agree with Eyler that "natural predispositions" are key. Again, as Eyler has put it here, "just the opposite could happen." In other words, one could also be born into a family of truly enlightened citizens and yet turn into a bigot.

    For myself, in evaluating the dynamics of "natural predispositions," I feel relatively comfortable with the presumption that all human beings from the time they are born have certain basic tendencies that could, in the end, have never been predicted on the basis of either heredity or environment. But, and I stress this, tendency is not destiny. One might be born with a tendency to saintliness, yet circumstances could rear one up as an inoffensively klutzy police officer. One is still trying to help one's community, but alas.... Likewise, one might be born with a tendency to be psychopathic, but channeled circumstances could rear one up as nothing more dangerous than an uncomfortably eager mortician, and so on. All these factors come into play for a proper understanding of how values are "caught," to use Mr. Sharp's term.

    I suppose, in the final analysis, I must confess to some discomfort with any undue emphasis on "genetic inheritance," since the application of such a concept has led to unfortunate abuses in the past. Please, would it be possible to refine the application of such a concept and clarify its usefulness in context? Thank you.

Clifford Sharp
    Jefferson is a theist and creates a myth in accordance with his view of the Universe which fails to be convincing once the theist basis is questioned.

Eyler Coates
    If "All men are created equal" is a myth, then all principles are myths, and we have nothing to guide us but bias and prejudice. Jefferson, perhaps, is a theist. But his principles, while couched in theistic terms, are just as valid, and every bit as convincing, when Nature is substituted for the Creator.

    Having done a brief perusal of Mr. Sharp's book site, it appears to me that he is not necessarily denigrating Jefferson here by terming the equality principle a myth. As Sharp states in his preface:

      "On this planet, minuscule and insignificant as it is in terms of the Universe, conscious life has evolved. Why? We do not know although each culture, each religion, has developed its own myths to provide some kind of answer, some mental framework for the ordinary individual to use without too much effort on their part to enable them to evolve a mental framework within which they must live."

    The exclusively pejorative baggage of myths connotated as lies does not appear to be intended here. In fact, if I understand him correctly, Mr. Sharp is conceiving "myths" here as being mechanisms within which an evolved civilization can function in a decent and practical way. In his section on humanity's early days, Sharp writes:

      "From the earliest times of which we have knowledge, humans have been puzzled over the meaning and purpose of life in particular, and of the Universe in general. Each culture, and each religion, has produced certain myths which sought to provide answer to these fundamental questions, myths which then led to some Absolute rules of conduct on which to base human 'values' thus facilitating an effective interaction of 'values.'"

    And here we have myth's other function enunciated in black and white: "Absolute rules of conduct." This is the context in which, I take it, Sharp is defining Jefferson's principles. One cannot deny that Jefferson's principles have indeed provided a lasting framework for much of civilization today. Where Sharp is questioning Jefferson's validity--in this context at any rate--is in the theistic basis on which Jefferson enunciated his equality principle, not in the equality principle itself.

    Here I would actually agree with Eyler after all, since it has always seemed evident to me that Jefferson's enunciation of "inalienable rights" works equally well as either a statement of absolute earthly reality in temporal terms or a statement of divine dispensation.

Clifford Sharp
    ‘Myth’ was used in the sense of ‘a belief held by faith not reason.’ That "all men are CREATED equal" is therefore, in my view, correctly described as a myth. This was the assumption by earlier theologians which led, in the Middle Ages, to the development of the concept ’natural justice.’ This aimed at establishing the superiority of ecclesiastic law over civil law, a presumption which had to be abandoned in the face of reality.

Eyler Coates
    I believe we are beginning to define a fundamental difference in our conceptual frameworks, and it behooves us to recognize this difference, to explore it, and to learn from it what we may. Indeed, I think we may have struck upon a difference in the British and the American (or at least the Jeffersonian) views on all these matters.

    As Mr. Sharp defines myth, "All men are created equal" is NOT a myth (!). I have expounded on this theme at length elsewhere, and will not burden readers with the argument now; but it is sufficient for our purposes here to say that the principles of equality and of "inherent and inalienable rights" is based on a *reasoned* process that takes as its starting point the nature of man. And just as flight is a part of eagle nature and necessary for an eagle to fully realize its being, so also these "inherent and inalienable rights" are a part of human nature, and necessary for humans to fully realize their being. Disagree if you choose; but that is the Jeffersonian premise.

    What makes characterizing this fundamental principle as a myth so repugnant to a Jeffersonian is the associated idea that if it is "a belief held by faith," then its origin is purely arbitrary, and any other "belief," such as fascism, has equal validity.

Clifford Sharp
    Moving on to the ‘best’ assumptions on which to create and to run a system of government - Western type democracy - as Churchill said in effect is a system full of faults, but he could not think of a better. While this may be as far as one can go at the moment it seems sensible in any discussion on morality which we hope will prove profitable, if we hold fast to facts and recognize that our assumptions, our preferences, are not the reality, making due allowance therefore for the differences between our assumptions and reality.

Eyler Coates
    This then is where we fundamentally disagree, because this principle of equality is the reality. Just governments are founded on this principle, but they may or may not fully provide for its proper implementation. Democracy is a term that is too general to praise or condemn. It merely means a government that derives its powers from the people themselves. How well it performs its task is the basis for judging it, all of which is really beyond the scope of the discussion here.

Clifford Sharp
    I hope it will be accepted that Western type democracy ‘works’ for only a small proportion of the human race with a particular culture and with broadly accepted common ‘values’ derived from that culture. This is true now and has always been true in the past. Even in those countries which nominally subscribe to the presumption that BEFORE THE LAW all men, women and children should be treated as having equal rights the reality is that this is, in fact, simply not the way the system actually works. If one starts with a false premise the resulting conclusions are likely to prove to be unsound so that if any system of analysis conflicts with reality, biological or other, it is likely to lead us astray.

Eyler Coates
    From the Jeffersonian perspective, democratic government is that form of government under which all people ultimately should be entitled to live. The only problem here is that many of the peoples of this world are not prepared to assume this responsibility, either by their education or their cultural values. I could imagine this proposition as being shocking to those who assume that principles of government have no fundamental origin. Americans - or at least Jeffersonians - might appear to them as "True Believers," ready to inflict their beliefs on the rest of mankind. And, in fact, there has been some of that. Woodrow Wilson thought it his mission to "make the world safe for democracy." But true Jeffersonians let other peoples work out their own destiny; it is, after all, a part of the concept of equal rights.

Clifford Sharp
    Even in those cultural communities most dedicated to the principle of ‘equality before the law’ there are inevitably wide differences in the treatment of individuals which we must surely all recognize. Perhaps the most blatant to surface recently is the bizarre story of the group of Negroes denied treatment for the syphilis they had in order to test whether there was a rate of natural recovery. And there are comparable cases elsewhere.

Eyler Coates
    Of course there have been violations of principle! But such violations only confirm that there are principles, and their validity exists for all peoples, whether realized and practiced or not. If those principles are arbitrarily selected myths, then what is the source of the objection to the way those Negroes were treated? We could say that it was just a manifestation of our national myth at that particular time.

A. C.
    I'm wondering if Clifford has ever even met a "Negro" in person or talked to one. I don't know how you grew up, but it is pretty clear how you were educated. And why can't you talk like a [bleep] normal person. You act like you know ten times more as the next guy, but it's really sad that through all your ethical [bleep] you've lost a ton of insight. Okay, first of all, you base everything you say on the Idea that there is no truth or god or reason or whatever you want to call it. You are as dogmatic as the people I assume you hate most. You are on opposite sides of the pole but I will say that you are both wrong. Don't tell people how to think or what to believe. Jefferson would kick your [bleep] if he was alive.
Clifford Sharp
    May I ask what is the purpose of this discussion? I believe that for it to have any real effect the pragmatic purpose must be to change human behaviour. This must involve introducing, or modifying, human ‘values’ which differ, sometimes widely in the same culture, from one person to another. For ‘values’ to be changed in the way we regard as desirable it is essential we look at the realities and this means we must take account of the almost incredibly wide variations in the concepts in human minds which determine what each individual considers to be ‘fair’ and ‘decent’ behaviour. Am I wrong in my assumption regarding the purpose of this discussion?

Eyler Coates
    Indeed, our hope is to examine and establish a basis for changing human behavior. But it is also essential that we determine on what fundamental basis our moral premises will be built. Even if we choose to call it all myths, what shall determine which myths we shall choose to adhere to? We Jeffersonians believe that we have a fundamental basis for making such choices, derived from a reasoned process, not merely faith in some arbitrarily selected myth. Moreover, since it is a reasoned process, we stand ever ready to cast it all aside if shown something more fundamental, more true to human nature and the happiness of man. We are not dogmatists.
Clifford Sharp
    If I am correct then we should establish an agreed basis which I suggest is that we are seeking to encourage a view of ‘morality’ which will enable humans to live together, reasonably encouraging behaviour likely to lead to the survival and further development of the human race in general and our particular culture in particular, aiming at eliminating ‘Man’s inhumanity to Man.’

    Is this a reasonable statement of our objectives?

Eyler Coates
    If our system of morality is not founded on our best perception of human nature itself, if it is instead founded on what we as thinking beings determine, if it is not based on our best analysis of man, but on what we believe to be most conducive to his living together, his survival and further development, and what would appear to us to eliminate man's inhumanity to man, then we have no solid, or "scientific," basis for determining those moral principles, but only the flawed perception of our best minds, with a hope that they have taken all factors into consideration. That, in truth, would be a system of morality founded only on assumptions and preferences, not on reality.

    The principles set down in the Declaration of Independence have resulted in a government that has more-of-less adhered to those principles, that has taken them as its lodestar and thereby created one of the great nations of all time. But with these kinds of principles, national results are not the only determinant. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for each member of society we view as valid goals, regardless of the outcome for the nation as a whole. They are a part of our fundamental philosophy.


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