Ethical Religion/Moral Action?

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Ethical Religion by Mohandas K. Gandhi
~ Moral Action?

When can it be said that a particular action is moral? In asking this question, the intention is not to contrast moral with immoral actions, but to consider many of our everyday actions against which nothing can be said from the conventional standpoint and which some regard as moral. Most of our action are probably non-moral; they do not necessarily involve morality. For the most part we act according to the prevailing on conventions. Such conventional behaviour is often necessary. If no such rules are observed, anarchy would be the result, and society-social intercourse would come to an end. Still the mere observance of custom and usage cannot properly be called morality.

A moral act must be our own act; it must spring from our own will. If we act mechanically, there is no moral content in our act. Such action would be moral, if we think it proper to act like a machine and do so. For in doing so, we use our discrimination. We should bear in mind the distinction between acting mechanically and acting intentionally. It may be a moral of a king to pardon a culprit. But the messenger bearing the order of pardon plays only a mechanical part in the king's moral act. But if the messenger were to bear the king's order, considering it to be his duty, his action would be a moral one. How can a man understand morality who does not use his own intelligence and power of thought, but let himself be swept along like a log of wood by a current? Sometimes a man defies convention and acts on his own with a view to [doing] absolute good. Such a great hero was Wendell Phillips1. Addressing an assembly of people, he once said," Till you learn to form your own opinions and express them, I do not care much what you think of me." Thus when we all care only for what our conscience says, then alone can we be regarded to have stepped on to the moral road. We shall not reach this stage, as long as we do not believe-and experience the belief-that God within us, the God of all, is the ever present witness to all our acts.

It is not enough that an act done by us is in itself good; it should have been done with the moral or otherwise depends upon the intention of the doer. Two men may have done exactly the same thing; but the act of one may be moral, and that of the other contrary. Take, for instance, a man who out of great pity feeds the poor and another who does the same, but with the motive of winning prestige or with some such selfish end. Though the action is the same, the act of the one is moral and that of the other non-moral. The reader here ought to remember the distinction between the two words, non-moral and immoral. It may be that we do not always see good results flowing from a moral act.

1 (1811-84); American orator, social reformer and abolitionist.

While thinking of morality, all that we need to see is that the act is good and is done with a good intention. The result of an action is not within our control. God alone is the giver of fruit. Historians have called Emperor Alexander "great". Wherever he went [in the course of his conquests,] he took the Greek language and Greek culture, arts and manners, and today we enjoy the benefits of Greek civilization. But the intention of Alexander behind all this was only conquest and renown. Who can therefore say that his actions were moral? It was all right that he was termed "great", but moral he cannot be called.

These reflection prove that it is not enough for a moral act to have been done with a good intention. The result of an action is not within our compulsion. There is no morality whatever in my act, if I rise early out of the fear that, if I am late for my office, I may lose my situation. Similarly there is no morality in my living a simple and unpretentious life if I have not the means to live otherwise. But plain, simple living would be moral if, though wealthy, I think of all the want and misery in the world about me -and feel that I ought to live a plain, simple life and not one of ease and luxury. Likewise it is only selfish, and not moral, of an employer to sympathize with his employees or to pay them higher wages lest they leave him. It would be moral if the employer wished well of them and treated them kindly realizing how we owed his prosperity to them. This means that for an act to be moral it has to be free from fear and compulsion. When the peasants rose in revolt and with bloodshot eyes went to King Richard II of England demanding their rights, he granted them the rights under his own seal and signature. But when the danger was over, he forced them to surrender the letters. It would be a mistake for anyone to say that King Richard's first act was moral and the second immoral. For his first act was done only out of fear and had not an iota of morality about it.

Just as a moral action should be free from fear or compulsion so should there be no self-interest behind it. This is not to say that actions prompted by self-interest are all worthless, but only that to call them moral would detract from the [dignity of the] moral idea. That honesty cannot long endure which is practiced in the belief that it is the best policy. As Shakespeare says, love born out of the profit motive is no love.1

1 "Love is not love,

When it is mingled with respects that stand

Aloof from the entire point."

2 "Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,

Shall I not love thee well?

Not for the sake of winning heaven,

Or of escaping hell;

Not with the hope of gaining aught,

Not seeking a reward-

But as thyself hast loved me,

O everlasting Lord!"

Just as an action prompted by the motive of material gain here on earth is non-moral. That action is moral which is done only for the sake of doing good. A great Christian, St. Franscis Xavier, passionately prayed that his mind might always remain pure.[1] For him devotion to God was not for enjoying a higher seat after death. He prayed because it was man's duty to pray. The great saint Theresa wished to have a torch in her right hand and a vessel of water in her left, so that with the one she might burn the glories of heaven and with the other extinguish the fires of hell, and men might learn to serve God from love alone-without fear from hell and without temptation of heavenly bliss. To preserve morality thus demands a brave man prepared to face even death. It is cowardice to be true to friends and to break faith with enemies. Those who do good out of fear and haltingly have no moral virtue. Henry Clay, known for his kindliness, sacrifice his convictions to his ambition. Daniel Webster[2], for all his great intellect and his sense of the heroic and the sublime, once sold his intellectual integrity for a price. By a single mean act he wiped out all his good deeds. This shows how difficult it is to judge the morality of a man's action because we cannot penetrate the depths of his mind. We have also the answer to the question raised at the outset in this chapter: what is a moral action? Incidentally, we also saw which kind of men could live up that morality.


  1. (1782-1852); American statesman and lawyer; his "biographers insist that he was never personally dishonest"- Encyclopedia Britannica.
  2. Here follows a poem from Kavyadohan, an anthology of Gujarati verse, but it is not reproduced in this book.