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The Moral Chorale

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The other day, Ali Ersen Erol, posted a comment to my earlier post, “Thoughts on Truth and Justice” which lead me to recall a bit of an old quote about legislating morality. At the time, I could not recall the full quotation and so tonight I got around to looking it up. Turns out it was from a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. in which he stated:

“Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m wondering: If playing too many violent video games can desensitize kids to violence, if viewing fast food commercials late at night can make you hungry, if regularly going to porn sites can blur the lines between passion and debasement, and if frequent exposure to shopping malls and e-bay can lure even the most frugal to be more willing to spend, then why are we human beings not as easily swayed by positive messages and role models?

Why is it so much harder to convince people to strive to be kind, loving, forgiving, and honest than it is to entice them to be greedy, gluttonous, shallow, callow, vengeful and selfish? It seems that either you’re born with an understanding of honor and morality or you’re not. Not to say it’s not important to teach our children right from wrong but I do wonder whether such education and role-modeling has any positive effect at all unless an individual has the ability in the brain to receive those messages, which are apparently far more subtle and esoteric than their negative counterparts. Am I wrong about this? Or are we forever doomed only to be able to preach to the choir?

A few more words on the subject of morality from men and women far wiser than I…

“It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do, but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.” Edmund Burke (Irish statesman and orator, 1729-1797)

“There is no readier way for a man to bring his own worth into question than by endeavoring to detract from the worth of other men.” – John Tillotson (English prelate, 1630-1694)

“You can’t escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” – Abraham Lincoln (16th U.S. president, 1809-1865)

“Tell the truth, and so puzzle and confound your adversaries.” – Henry Wotton, Sr. (English author and diplomat, 1568-1639)

“The man who fears no truth has nothing to fear from lies.” – Thomas Jefferson (3rd U.S. president, 1762-1826)

“Though force can protect in emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration and cooperation can finally lead men to the dawn of eternal peace.” – Dwight David Eisenhower (34th U.S. president, 1890-1969)

“In a controversy, the instant we feel anger, we have already ceased striving for truth and have begun striving for ourselves.” – Abraham J. Heschel (Jewish theologian and philosopher, 1907-1972)

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