presented by Bro. Frank O’Brien to the Brethren of Victoria Columbia Lodge No 1. GL of BC & Yukon Canada in March 2014.
During our Initiation into Freemasonry, we are brought in front of the Junior Warden for an explanation of the working tools of an entered apprentice. The Junior Warden explains to the newly apprenticed Freemason:
“I now present you with the Working Tools of an entered apprentice Freemason. They are the 24 inch Gauge, the common Gavel, and the chisel. The 24 inch gauge is to measure our work, the common gavel to knock off all superfluous knobs and excrescences, and the Chisel to smooth and prepare the stone and render it fit for the hands of the more expert workman. But as we are not all operative Masons, but rather free and accepted speculative we apply these tools to our MORALS”.
When proving up before being passed to the Fellow Craft degree, we are asked what Free Masonry is.
“A peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols”
Morality. What is it brethren?
The Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy tells us the term morality can be used in two ways:-
1. descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,
a. some other group, such as a religion, or
b. accepted by an individual for her own behaviour or
2. Normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.
A way to behave as governed by a group or a way to behave in certain situations, as accepted by all rational people. How is this different from ethics? What is the difference between moral behaviour and ethical behaviour?
Ethics are broadly defined as the way to behave when belonging to a specific group, existing for a specific purpose. An example of this might be the ethical behaviour of a lawyer or a police officer.
It might describe one’s attitude towards their occupation or associations.
For example, one might have a “strong work ethic”. While the definitions of both clearly overlap, it is morality that defines our internal classification of right and wrong.
The term “moral” fist made its appearance in the late fourteenth century, from the old French word “moralite”, which literally translated to “moral of the story, or moral instruction”. This came term was borrowed from the Latin “moralis” or “moralitas”, or “moralitatas”, meaning “of, or, pertaining to appropriate manners and behaviour”, it came to be related to the broad concept of “goodness” over the middle ages. Similarly, “ethics” is derived from the Greek “ethos” which means moral character, this later changed to mean one’s code of conduct or one’s customs.
When morality is used to describe a code of behaviour, by a group or society, whether or not it is distinguished as etiquette, law, or religion, it is being used in a descriptive sense.
It is being used in a descriptive sense also when it is referring to the attitudes of individuals. In this regard, one can refer to the morality of an individual, just as one can refer to the morality of a group.
The definition of what morality becomes more nebulous as one tries to pin point its exact meaning in a descriptive sense.
While we can look to a group or society their morality is codes of conduct put forth by that society for everyone to follow, there are obviously many circumstances where those codes of conduct are not accepted by the individual, or by groups within the larger group.
We can look to a church organization and outline its moral code, which would be defining morality, in this case, within a particular group in a particularly descriptive sense.
When an individual looks at that same organization however, and claims that its actions are wrong, or “immoral”, the concept of morality is being used in a normative sense.
Rather that an observation of a code of conduct or behaviour, an evaluative account of the greater right or wrong is being made.
Many philosophers claim there is an inherent morality within all of us, a universal code of conduct that enables us all to make judgements of what is right or wrong, and this code transcends the cultural divisions in the world, even when there is no code of conduct in place.
Thomas Hobbes believed that natural reason, inherent in all rational persons, is enough to know what morality requires of us all.
Thomas Aquinas believed in the theological version of this same universal morality; that God placed this knowledge in the reason of all persons.
Both explanations of a universal morality put forth that it is present in situations where there is even a defective code of conduct present.
Both religious philosophers and secular philosophers, who hold to the tradition of a natural law, tend to agree on the content of morality, but differ on the foundation of it.
All philosophies tend to focus on promoting the peaceful living with one another, and prohibit activity and behaviour which prohibit causing harm to others. In some cases, these prohibitions are not absolute, and as long as there is enough reasoning behind an action, a violation of a prohibition can be justified.
We see, from a cultural stand point, that this is not always the case.
Morality, in many cases, suggests a set of duties or attitudes that require us to suppress, or overcome, some of our natural desires, or as some might call our base desires.
This is most always to promote harmony in a situation, and protect the honour of another person. It is deemed immoral for a spouse to have relations with another outside of the union as doing so would break up the family unit, and invariably hurt another individual.
At one time, this was a strict moral code, and we can watch its evolution as attitudes slowly change in some circles and some parts of society. This change has also given rise to strong condemnation of those who practice “moral relativism”; the changing of one’s moral and the changing of the descriptive meaning of morals based on the cultural, and ethnicity, or socio-economic situation.
This is the objective idea that no one person can be inherently right or wrong; we ought to tolerate the ideas and behaviour of others even if it morally wrong to ourselves. Moral relativism has been debated for thousands of years bringing into the discussion science and religion, and the struggle between both.
Frederic Nietzsche, the outspoken philosopher, often more evocative because of his harsh criticism of the church of his day, said of morality:
“Morality is neither rational nor absolute nor natural. The World has known many moral systems, each of which advances claims of universality; all moral systems are therefore particular, serving a specific purpose for their propagators or creators, and enforcing a certain regime that disciplines human beings for social life by narrowing our perspectives and limiting our horizons.”
Morality, for most of us here tonight, generally means the differentiation between what is permissible behaviour, and what is not permissible. We, as a group have made an obligation to learn from, and protect this peculiar system of morality.
In my fist few months after my own initiation into Freemasonry, this question resonated with me to a great degree. We are asked during our prove up:
“Who are fit and proper persons to be made masons?”
Our answer is specific:
“Just, upright, and free men, of mature age, sound judgement and strict morals”.
Strict morals. An ambiguous term when applied to a group such as ourselves. We believe in a supreme being, yet we do not define it here. We do not discuss religion, so our framework for building a peculiar system of morality is limited to symbols and vague descriptions of their use.
Yet, we are given the tool upon our initiation to perfect our own individual morality. The Volume of Sacred Law, we are told during the Charge after initiation, is there for our contemplation.
Which ever book one chooses to stand in as this volume, all clearly represent moral instruction with differing foundations, but the goal is the same. Self perfection, for masons, is then the ultimate goal. Building our own temple, and thereby improving the lives of everyone around us the method to this perfection.
The subjugation of our passions is a common theme throughout Masonry. During our raising to the sublime degree of a master mason, our worshipful master levees a charge to us. During this charge, we are told:
“Your admission among masons, in a state of helpless indigence was an emblematical representation of the entrance of all men on this, their mortal existence. It inculcated the useful lessons of natural equality and mutual dependence; it instructed you in the active principles of universal beneficence and charity, to seek solace of your own distress by extending relief and consolation to your fellow creatures in the hour of their affliction. Above all, it taught you to bend to the will of the Great architect of the universe, to dedicate your heart, thus purified from every baneful and malignant passion, fitted only for the reception of truth and wisdom…”
Our lodge room, and ritual, is filled with the precise tools to attain this suppression of passion, and to aid us in our moral instruction. The Emulation lectures contain many references to this, and further instruction on morality. In the fifth section of the first lecture, the respondent is asked to “moralise” the ornaments, furniture and jewels of a lodge; thereby explaining with detail a set of instructions to strengthen our resolve to subdue passions, and thereby lead a moral life, which in turn, theoretically leads to a better society.
The 6th section of that same first lecture gives the master mason the four cardinal virtues-Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice-which aid him in upholding a moral existence. Prudence, we are told, teaches us to regulate our lives and actions according to the dictates of reason. Reason, being the foundation of moral systems, both theological and sectarian.
WL Wilmshurst, writing in “The Meaning Of Masonry” which was published in England in 1922, gives an excellent explanation of what this “system of morality” is.
“A system of morality”, therefore means a systemized and dramatized method of moral discipline and philosophic instruction, based on ancient usage and long established practice” “masonry, then-as a system of morality, as thus defined, is neither a religion or a philosophy, but at once a science and an art, a theory and a practice”.
Brethren, morality defined descriptively is an observation. Normatively, we, as Freemasons, use this craft of ours to perfect ourselves, through the tools handed to us through our travels in the degrees.
We have a detailed set of instructions that fit both the secular philosophy of natural law and the theological counterpart to that, sometimes called divine law. We are given a framework, based on us being of sound mind and free men. We are told in the lectures our system is based on reason, and being that most of our tools come from a geometrical origin, it stands that there is a science behind this practice.
I leave you the words of our brother Sir Winston Churchill:
“A man does what he must-in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers, and pressures, and that is the basis of all human morality”
Beautifully written and presented.
This paper presents some very serious thoughts to us all & when added to Integrity makes
the teachings of Freemasonry a Beacon for all the World to observe & respect.
Have a wonderful day & God Bless Norm