Description: Moral argument - selfishness, conscience and intuition
WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?
Morality and our Conscience
by Ernest O’Neill
What is the meaning of life? We’ve been looking into the world itself to try to see if there is meaning in it.
One of the things we have discovered is that there is meaning everywhere one looks, whether it’s the
circulation of the blood, or whether it’s the muscle system, or whether it’s the operation of the heart, or
whether it’s in the planets and their regular orbits that surround other planets, or whether it is the rising
and the setting of the sun, or whether it’s the rotation of the earth so that we get night and day and we set
our appointments and our watches by the regularity of the light and the day, and the darkness. Wherever we
look we see order and we see design and evidence that there is meaning and there was originally meaning in the
reasoning mind that must have been behind the universe.
What we have been saying is that not only Einstein, but Darwin himself realized that there has to be a
reasoning mind or intellect behind the universe. What we have been saying, of course, is that since it’s
unreasonable to believe that a dog can make a man, or that a lower form of life can make a higher form of
life, the most reasonable belief is that this Mind or this Intellect is at least as personable as you and I
There is another important clue in our own lives and our behavior with one another that gives reason for
believing that there is purpose and point to the universe and that there is some purpose or meaning in the
power or the force or the being that originally created it. It’s really found in our quarreling with one
Everyone has heard people quarreling. Sometimes it sounds funny. Sometimes it just sounds unpleasant. But
however it sounds, there are clues in it that will help us to see some meaning in life and some meaning behind
the universe. You know the way a quarrel goes. “How would you like it if anyone did the same to you?” (That
is, when somebody sits in your seat, how would you like it if somebody did the same to you?) “That’s my seat.
I was there first.” “Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm.” “Why should you shove him first?” “Give me
a bit of your orange. I gave you a bit of mine.” Those are the kinds of comments. “Come on, you promised!”
People say things like that every day — educated as well as uneducated people. Children as well as grownups.
What’s interesting about these remarks is that people are not really saying that that other man’s behavior
doesn’t happen to please him; he is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other
man to know about.
The other man very seldom replies, “Forget your standard. I don’t care about it.” Nearly always, he tries to
make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does, there is
some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took
the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or
that something has turned up which let him off keeping his promise.
In other words, we all apply or appeal to some law or rule of fair play or decent behavior, or morality or
something, as if we’ve all agreed to it. Quarreling, in fact, means trying to show that the other man is in
the wrong. There would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to
what is right and wrong.
It’s interesting that this law of right and wrong used to be called the law of nature, and we would all appeal
to it. Somehow, all of us still have that feeling. We feel that there is some law of right or wrong, that
certain things are right to do and certain things are wrong to do. Some of us, of course, say, “Oh well, it’s
just a result of our education, the way we were brought up.”
But it’s interesting, if you’ll take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians,
or the Babylonians, or the Hindus, or the Chinese, or the Greeks, or the Romans, what really strikes you is
that they are all very like each other. In other words, even though they’ve all had a different type of
education, and different educational experiences, most of them will agree about what is right and wrong.
It’s hard, for instance, to think of any country where people are admired for running away in battle. NO! In
most countries, if not in all countries, a coward is a coward. Or, it’s hard to think of a country where a man
felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. No, it doesn’t matter what education
you have, or whatever background you have had, you still feel that it’s wrong to double-cross your friends.
Men might have differed often as regards to what people you ought to be unselfish to, whether it was only your
own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put
yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife,
or four, but they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you like. It seems that built
into us is a feeling that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. We may differ in the details,
but there is a surprising agreement on the big issues, of cowardliness and courage, of selfishness and
So, one of the things that we need to look at in our world when we are trying to discover meaning is to see
that there is this amazing desire to either live up to a certain standard of right and avoid a certain
standard of wrong, or at least to appeal to that when we are trying to prove that the other person is right or
wrong. It seems that all of us, however amoral we appear to be, have certain things that we feel are right and
certain things that we think are wrong.
Some of us, of course, like to say, “Oh, well, it’s just our herd instinct; it’s just our instinct. That’s
what you are talking about.” But it is something beyond the instincts, isn’t it? Supposing you hear a cry for
help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires: one, a desire to give help, due to your herd
instinct; the other, a desire to keep out of danger, due to the instinct for self-preservation.
But you will find inside you, in addition to these two desires, a third thing which tells you that you ought
to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. In other words, there’s something inside
you that judges between the two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged. That thing cannot be one
instinct or the other. It seems to be something above the instincts. So, obviously, there are many times when
instincts are in conflict and yet this moral law, this law of nature seems to operate inside us and seems to
determine which one we will follow. So, it’s dangerous to say, “It’s just our instincts.”
Some of us, of course, say, “Oh, it’s just social convention. It’s just the cultural background that we have.
It’s just the things that we learned to do.” But it is amazing that different ones of us, brought up in the
same culture will actually respond differently. We will not all abide by the same programmed brainwashing. We
will, in fact, seem to respond to this urge inside us to do certain things that are right, and avoid certain
things that are wrong, despite the social convention that we may have.
So, some of us have been brought up in places where actually the social convention allowed certain activities.
Yet, this law of nature within us seems to make us rise above that thing. So, one of the facts one has to look
at in our world when you begin to ask, “What is the meaning of the world?” is that there seems to be a sense
of “I ought”, some sense of “I should do this” or “I shouldn’t do that” that is built into us and seems to be
deeper than our instincts, deeper than our education, deeper than our cultural background.
It seems to be there and the question is, where has that sense of “I ought” come from? Let’s talk about that a
little more next day.