Ethical Living and Desirable Ends

Arthur E. Morgan - Yellow Springs, Ohio
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, January 8, 2010
Arthur E. Morgan

From the 1950s series, engineer, educator and writer Arthur E. Morgan believes that a purposeful life is best supported by the free inquiry of thought. The Antioch College president cautions that loose living warps thinking to justify itself.

Age Group: 65+
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The greatest inner struggle of my life was in my teens over whether to hold without question the faiths of the fathers or to freely inquire. Years of deep concern convinced me that free inquiry is more than a right, it is a duty. Truly free inquiry is possible only with right living. Loose or self-centered living warps thinking to justify itself.

Since where one does not doubt, he does not really inquire, unquestioning belief may miss the larger truth. I will not believe just because it gives me comfort. Where honest inquiry does not lead to assurance, I admit, I do not know. I respect the convictions of others, asking only that they claim no monopoly of truth. Here are some slowly won conclusions.

Every living thing has an inner urge to perfection, according to its type. Faith, hope, aspiration—inherent in life itself—are older, stronger, deeper than any creed. Man is part of nature. In him, this aspiration becomes conscious search for value. Life has traveled a long hard road. Unnumbered species have lost the way and become extinct. Can man squander his inheritance, yet survive? Unsparing inquiry leaves me faith that if he would do his reasonable best, he probably will succeed in his great quest.

Were success foreordained, how I live would not change the prospect. If, as seems to me, human life is a real adventure with possibility of failure as well as of success, then sincere purposeful living may affect the outcome. The margin of probability of full success in the human adventure may not be great. Take a semi-fanciful case: Suppose atomic war, should it occur, might destroy humanity. Whether mutual confidence grows fast enough to prevent such war may depend partly on how I help build mutual trust, how fully and wisely I share with those less fortunate, how completely I pursue the good life as a whole, not just my own.

There probably are less obvious but greater dangers than atomic war. Biological evolution works very slowly. For instance, the impulse to revenge—widespread in men and animals—is baneful to civilized life. Many thousand years probably would pass before that impulse would be weeded out by biological selection. Insight and intelligence counsel: Forgive your enemies. Thus ethical living moves directly toward desirable ends while biological evolution blindly fumbles. Ethics grows with experience, insight, and critical appraisal.

Of numberless possible and desirable goals, I am not sure which are best. But there are ways of living which I am sure will lead toward the best. These include goodwill and sincerity, doing as I would be done by, being honest with myself. My opportunity—my duty—is loyalty to the quest of life for values. To live as a dilettante, or for personal ends, is betrayal. Where one’s treasure is, there will his heart be also. As I train my desires so that my treasure is the good of life as a whole, I become immune to the despair which may follow failure of lesser hopes.

Arthur E. Morgan was a self-taught civil engineer, as well as an educator, a writer of more than 20 books, and a labor arbiter. He served as the first chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and as president of Antioch College in Ohio.