I do most of my writing in coffee shops. Last Sunday, I went to a new one.
Usually, I try to find the most discrete table in the coffee shop, preferably one that provides me with a vista of the entire room, and preferably with a wall against my back. In this particular venue, that table was located right beside the coffee shop's burnished front door, which swung both ways, inside and out. Like some such doors, there was a mechanism to hold the door in place, wide open, if it was pushed open to a certain degree.
It was a cold winter day, and whenever a customer opened the front door to the coffee shop, it released a frigorific draft that blanketed those tables clustered nearest to the door, including my own. The draft was far from insufferable, but it did create an astute drop in temperature, such that after an hour or so of my tenure there, I found myself wearing my jacket. By this time the shop was teeming with garrulous patrons, the remaining tables now fully occupied. Often, the door was swung out so far that the door mechanism kept it permanently open. Roughly one-third of the time, the person who had opened the door would look back, notice the door was open, and return to shut it. Yet two-thirds of the time, the door was left wide open, necessitating that I or one of the dozen or so other customers sitting nearby get up to close it, which despite the repetitious monotony of this action, was preferable to the alternative of subsisting in a perpetual, uninterrupted chill with the potential to envelop half the people in the room.
As I sat there, my interest was gradually drawn away from my writing pursuits at the time, and I decided to focus my attention entirely on the door, the draft, and the patrons. I observed the interaction for some time, and considered that for each person passing through the door, one of four scenarios applied:
(1) Some patrons, particularly children, either noticed they left the door open but chose to leave it open anyhow, or they did not notice they left it open. I suspect most of these young patrons lacked a personal experience of being caught in a cold draft in a crowded place, hence they could not consider the effects of their actions on others. For those who did not notice the open door, perhaps they either lacked sufficient knowledge of door mechanisms to realize that certain doors remained open if opened far enough, or they simply did not pay enough attention to the situation by checking to see if the door had remained open.
(2) Most adult patrons did not notice they left the door open. They were all clearly old enough to have acquired a personal experience of being caught in a cold draft in a crowded place, so I doubt they would have knowingly left the door open out of inconsideration for others. However, perhaps some of them lacked sufficient knowledge of door mechanisms to realize that certain doors remained open if opened far enough, and the rest of them simply did not pay enough attention to the situation by checking to see if the door had remained open.
(3) A minority of adult patrons, particularly teenagers and younger adults, clearly noticed they left the door open but chose to leave it open anyhow. These people must have possessed a sufficient knowledge of door mechanisms to realize the door might remain open, and looked back to check, but I wondered how many lacked a personal experience of being caught in a cold draft in a crowded place, an experience that may have prompted them to shut the door out of consideration for others.
(4) Roughly one-third of all patrons noticed the door would stay open, and returned to shut it. I postulated that each of these patrons knew what it was like to be caught in a cold draft in a crowded place, possessed a sufficient knowledge of door mechanisms to know that certain doors remained open if opened far enough, and were paying sufficient attention to the situation to look back and check to see if they had left the door open.
In my estimation, the actions of the people in group (4) were the most moral; allow me to explain.
Morality can be difficult to pin down.
In essence, morality is a measure of the "goodness" inherent in a single act or person. Thus, we could define a moral act by how much it confers "goodness" in the world. Likewise, we could define a moral person by how much their cumulative thoughts, decisions, and actions confer "goodness" in the world. To the purist, this loose definition is unsatisfactory, for it merely kicks the can down the road, forcing us to subsequently define what is meant by "goodness."
I should respond by stating that I agree, hence let us say that "goodness" is the degree to which an act or person benefits the balance of life. Yet once again the purist assails me, for I have kicked the can down the road again, and I am asked to define the words used in this new definition. Yet even the purist must realize that the failure lies not in what constitutes morality or "goodness" or any of these other words, but in the meanings and expectations we pin on the words themselves; so long as we remember that words are mere tags for the intentions, decisions, and actions they attempt to convey, we may proceed.
Many civilizations have sought a universal moral code that relays how a "good" person ought to think, decide, and act in any given situation. The ancient Greeks created virtues (paths to moral excellence), the four classic ones being sophyrosyne (temperance), phronesis (prudence), andreia (courage), and dikaiosyne (justice). Christianity embraced the virtues of faith, hope, and love. To the east, Buddhism describes the four brahmavihara (divine states), consisting of metta (benevolence), karuna (compassion), mudita (empathic joy), and upekkha (equanimity).
The Buddhist cousins of western virtues are encapsulated by the brahmahvihara.
Yet problematically, while each of these constructs attempts to apply a universal set of morals, at the end of the day they are all subjective, with "goodness" conferred only in certain given situations. The classical Greek's temperance, or self-restraint, can be "bad" if it prevents someone from following through on a much-needed experience for future personal growth (even though the decision may seem risky, even reckless, at the time). The Christian's faith, defined as the expression of trust in a person or system without evidence, can be "bad" if exploited by that person or system for their own power-ridden agenda. Buddhism's benevolence, or loving-kindness towards all, can be "bad" if it prevents a person from fighting to protect something of great value to themselves and possibly the world, whether that be their own life, the lives of their family, or their life's work.
However, there is one proposed moral that comes very, very close to being universally applicable to any given situation, and that is The Golden Rule. If we combine the empathic and direct forms of the rule, it says this:
"Wish upon others as you would like to be wished upon. Act upon others as you would like to be acted upon."
So appealing in its simplicity! Yet as much as I love the Golden Rule, it is not a universal moral, for there are rare situations where even it fails, particularly when a person lacks an understanding of how the people around him prefer to be wished or acted upon, which may not always be the same as the way he prefers to be wished or acted upon. Such a situation is best exemplified by a traveller in a foreign land, in a foreign culture.
For example, the Australian traveller in Canada may not realize that Canadian waiters and waitresses rely on tips for a large portion of their earnings. Thus, the Australian may wish generous thoughts and confer generous discussion, which would be enough for him to confer "goodness" in an Australian restaurant where tipping is not practiced, but if he does not also confer a tip at the end of the meal in a Canadian restaurant, the overall interaction will probably be considered "not good" from a Canadian point of view, and the Australian perceived as a cheapskate.
Another example, consider the Canadian traveller in Vietnam who does not realize that some clothing items, such as shorts, are not acceptable in certain buildings, particularly temples. Thus, the Canadian may wish polite thoughts and confer polite actions, which would be good enough for him to confer "goodness" at a Canadian heritage site where wearing shorts is common (at least in summer), but if he attempts to enter the Vietnamese temple wearing shorts, the overall interaction will probably be "not good" from a Vietnamese point of view, and the Canadian perceived as rude.
Thus, even The Golden Rule is not a universal moral code, for it does not confer "goodness" in all situations; it has a flaw, and the flaw is that when a person lacks an understanding of what does and does not confer "goodness" on another person in a given situation, the rule fails.
It fails due to a lack of awareness.
Back in 2005, during my final year in medical school, I spent more time wrestling with questions of universal morality and other philosophical matters than I did concentrating on my medical studies such that by mid-year, while trekking in the mountains of Patagonia, a revelation of sorts hit me, one that remains with me to this day.
The only truly universal moral is awareness, defined as how accurately one perceives their self (the collective instincts, emotions, and concepts that form one's experiences), the world (directly sensed and indirectly inferred aspects of reality), and the moment (everything occurring in one's immediate sensory environment, right now). Crucially, awareness is never-ending, and can never be perfected; no matter how aware a person becomes, they can always become even more aware.