I was listening to an informational program one morning in which an audience member asked a question: “What makes a person moral?” In background, the questioner mentioned the generation that saw the end of World War II and commented that they had possessed the moral fiber to complete the war and to do what had to be done. He saw that as a “moral generation.”

Now I have some considerable admiration for the World War II generation, for the decisions they made and what they accomplished. But I question that the one characteristic, a willingness to do what has to be done, is sufficient to make a person moral.

Truman could have made a decision not to use the atomic bomb. Whatever decision he made would have required courage. It would have created opposition, and it would have been reviewed over and over again by historians. Either one would have required the stamina to “get the job done.”

The issue is illustrated for me by two relatives. One uncle of mine served with the Royal Canadian Engineers and was involved in the landing in Normandy on D-Day. That uncle is, I believe, a moral man who served with distinction. My father, on the other hand, refused to serve except in a medical capacity. He believed then as he does today that it is wrong to take life. He would have gone to help save lives, but not to kill. As a result of his decision, he spent much of the war in a camp planting trees, which was the alternative the Canadian government offered to those who were conscientious objectors. It was not extreme hardship, but it was far from his first choice. He also seems to me to have exercised courage and to be a moral man.

This all got me to thinking about what makes a person or a nation “moral.” I hardly think I’m going to resolve this issue in a short opinion essay, but I want to propose some basic ideas. Perhaps I will expand on them in later essays, and perhaps this will draw some discussion.

I’d suggest the following three elements:

  • Formulating a clear set of values
  • Acting in accordance with those values, involving two elements
    • Defending those values without violating them
    • Policing one’s own actions and dealing appropriately with failure
  • Accepting the consequences of one’s choices

Let me expand just a bit.

I don’t believe a person can be a moral person when that person’s values are a jumble of ideas and prejudices that tend to step on one another. An example might be a person who believes fervently in peace, and at the same time wants to drop bombs on everyone who disagrees. More commonly, however, we have people who believe in sexual morality, except when they want to get involved in an affair. I know of a pastor who is very generally opposed to divorce, but who found an exception that would allow him to divorce his wife and marry his mistress. He enunciates this exception as a moral principle. I doubt any of us are perfect, but the goal would be to believe and act in a consistent fashion.

While some people justify their actions by formulating principles that allow those actions, however weak the logic might be, others simply do not live up to the principles they express. In fact, I would suggest most people, and I certainly fall into this category, would like to do better in living up to our principles. But I believe that a person cannot be moral when intentionally and regularly acting contrary to those principles. Living up to the principles involves action, sometimes speaking, sometimes even forceful action (provided such is allowed by one’s moral principles) in defense of those principles. If one fails, one acknowledge and deal with that failure. In Christianity, this would be through confession (acknowledging), repentance (change of course), and if necessary restitution (restoring value misappropriated). (I think in Christian circles we very often fail on the third of these, restitution, but that is another essay.)

Accepting the consequences of one’s choices means keeping a steady course even when your morals may lead you into trouble. In the examples of my relatives, both my father and my uncle had to face the consequences of their choices. One had to face enemy guns and the strong risk of death; the other had to face confinement and ridicule in a time when military service was regarded as practically the only option for a healthy person.

Now let me apply some of these issues to a nation. As an American, I’ll use my own country as an example. We have unprecedented power in the world. We have the force to impose our will on many other nations. If we are to be a moral nation, I think we need to behave in a principled way. A superpower that can be trusted needs:

  • A clearly stated set of objectives and principles
  • Willingness to exercise its judgment according to those principles
  • Willingness to police itself according to those principles (nobody else can!)
  • Willingness (and the will) to accept the consequences of those principles

What precisely those principles should be is beyond the scope of a short opinion essay, but I don’t think it would be fair not to paint a bit of a target on myself by indicating what they might be.

As a Christian, I consider the golden rule–do to others as you would have them do to you–is not only a command of Jesus, but it is a principle of the kingdom of God. When we take action, we need to ask whether we would find that same action acceptable if it were done by another nation. We have enunciated certain intentions with respect to chasing terrorists. Is it right for us to do so, and at the same time condemn the Russian government for actions in Chechnya? I understand that there are claims of atrocities by the Russians against Chechnya, but there are also many incidents of extreme actions by the Chechen rebels. Could we, or should we, give the Russians the same freedom to act that we expect for ourselves?

Just what justifies the invasion of a foreign country? Are our principles in this area something we would want to see become international law, and even be used against us under other circumstances? I think we need to be very careful of the precedents we are setting by our actions.

Yes, we must defend ourselves. Yes, we must pursue terrorists. But let’s be very sure that we can live with our own principles.