Moral laws are regulations which guide how we ought to act. They are not propositions which are true or false. They are like the rules of any game, such as tennis, croquet or cricket, which we are bound to abide by, or there would be no living in society. But they have no existence or validity outside it. The rules of the game are not the purpose of the game. And though all good players must obey them, the best are not the ones who stick to them most conscientiously.

Nothing is less innate than our innate sense of right and wrong. Nothing is more conventional and unnatural than our conception of natural law. ‘Man corrupts all that he touches,’ as Montaigne wrote, yet he loves to hold forth on what is clean and natural as he does so.

The one realm in which natural law has no place is nature. The notion of natural law and natural rights turns the order of nature on its head.

There are as many justices as there are tastes, though we pretend that we have but one, so that we can live in peace. And there is only one taste as there is only one justice, but we posit that there must be a gamut of them, so that we can live in peace.

Few eternal laws last as long as written ones.

Not only are all the virtues not one, as the stoics claimed, no single virtue is simple and undivided. Like all the rest of our qualities, they are discrete and disconnected, not integrated or unified. ‘No specific virtue or vice in a man,’ wrote Shaw, ‘implies the existence of any other specific virtue or vice in him.’ Each of them is made up of a congeries of skills, predispositions and aptitudes, some of which you may be proficient in, while the one next door you may have no acquaintance with.

The golden rule, to do to others as you would have them do unto you, holds in the negative at most, as Confucius framed it. We would no doubt like others to bow down to us and do all our bidding, which none of us has the right to receive or the duty to render. The most you can expect or are obliged to do is to cause them as little harm as practicable and to tender some minimal help.

The shortest way to stay in touch with popular prejudice is by listening to your conscience. ‘The whole morality of the world,’ Multatuli wrote, ‘could perhaps be summed up in the words, Do as others do.’ The herd shields itself from the individual by its codes of right and wrong. The individual defies the omnivorous claims of the collective by insurrection or by indifference. Where you need merely collude to prove your loyalty, you may turn renegade to hold fast to your truth.

We mimic bad people’s motives and good people’s stratagems for disguising them. The fine deeds that we do may be the one thing that can make amends for the reprehensible motives for which we did them. It’s just as well that the improvement of the world doesn’t hinge on the intentions of its improvers.

1 The moralist

A moralist blasts your innocence by opening your eyes to it. Once you’ve been told that it is more blessed to give than to receive, the fine freshness of your generosity withers. And when you’ve been commanded to do good in secret so that God will reward you openly, your spontaneous acts lose all their unselfconsciousness. And how could the meek retain their meekness, when they have been promised that they will one day be masters of the earth?

How could anyone who set up as a great moral preceptor, like Seneca, Rousseau or Tolstoy, be more than a great moral hypocrite, a grotesque centaur of self-abasement and mad pride?

Solemn moralists, such as Marcus Aurelius, seem to set out to bore us into goodness. They might succeed in turning us off vice, if they could make it as tedious as they make virtue.

2 Moral style

In this judgmental but superficial world, you will find that you are praised or blamed more for the way in which you do a deed than because the deed on its own is kind or cruel. What others want from you is not your best but what will gain them most and ask least of them. Do a small favour charmingly, and you will win more applause than those who do more good with a bad grace. We like or loathe people more for their habits and manners than for their morals.

How little others want from you, and how hot they are to get it. They will tear you to shreds for the least scrap of advantage. What they ask of you is the flannel forbearance that won’t thwart their own self-interest or ulcerate their own self-love. They wish you to be flexible and complaisant but not sternly just. They will love you more for your indulgent bad taste than for your severe good deeds. ‘In the intercourse of life,’ La Rochefoucauld says, ‘we please more by our faults than by our fine qualities.’

Most of our good intentions are mean thriftiness or gaudy showmanship. We practise a routine moral economy. But we revel intermittently in a pantomime of moral extravagance, thick with splendid attitudinizing, high words, eye-catching stage-effects, bottomless sympathy, tough dilemmas and fine sentiments, in the lofty and vaporous vein of Sand or Rilke. Morality, finding that indifference or self-interest has long occupied most of our acts and emotions, migrates to our words and gestures. But our life is not a charged melodrama of moral choice. And yet we still love to declaim like moral posers, whose brains have been addled by good deeds and ideals, or by the fine shows of them, or by the desire to seem to dote on them.

There will be no end to our moral mummery and posturing, at least not till it has put an end to us. Our deeds are so morally bland, that we have to pepper them with benevolent self-flattery to give them some smack of seductiveness. Few of us act for the reason that we want to do good, and yet most of us can’t act without assuming that we are doing good. There was no need for Jesus to warn us not to hide our lights under a bushel.

Anyone who seeks to appeal to the better angels of our nature finds that they are too deafened by their own pious squawking to heed the call to do good.

3 The virtue of hypocrisy

Don’t we feel some of our most exalted moral moods when we strain to live up to the pose that mere circumstance and propriety have forced us to put on? Wilde speaks of ‘that passion to act a part that sometimes makes us do finer things than we are ourselves.’

Our decent impostures make up more than half of our integrity. Virtue is the tribute that vice pays to hypocrisy. How could our misshapen natures straighten out but by dissembling? As Goldsmith phrased it, ‘Till, seeming blessed, they grow to what they seem.’ We have to be shamed into virtue, and corrupted into rectitude. ‘So unaccountable is our predicament,’ Montaigne says, ‘that we are led by vice itself to do good.’ The self-righteousness that tells us that we are better than we seem spurs us to become so for real, though we end up as fake and hollow as the virtues that we impersonate. We are dazzled by the images of greed and grow genuinely greedy, we fall in love with the images of goodness and behave like mere actors.

4 Virtuous prejudices

Moralists do their best to pull down the rest of our prejudices and set up in their niche the one good-natured prejudice that all prejudices err. But a virtuous prejudice is as much a prejudice as a vicious one, though it may pass for a high precept, and good prejudice is the one thing strong enough to thrust out bad. Our moral medicines work by homeopathy.

We prefer people to principles, not out of benignity but out of egoism, to which principles would give no purchase.

Our moral scruples are adjustable, but our moral prejudices don’t budge. The first are at the beck of our self-interest, but the second are held fast by our self-regard.

Those who are striving to live up to their principles commonly have to give ground to those who shove their way to feed their preferences.

5 Selfish virtue

We daub our self-interest in the livid tints of vice or virtue. And we curse those who scrape these back to lay bare the dun stuff that underlies it. We gild our interests with a thin flake of goodness, to distract the eye and to extract a dearer price for them. Careerism robes itself in the decorous outfit of integrity to walk up and down in the world.

We are disciplined more by the things that we want for ourselves than by the truths that we know of ourselves. We are kept on the straight road more by our self-seeking than by our self-awareness. What small joys won’t we set aside to make way for our heftier selfishness?

What unites us most deeply is our shallow selfishness. What we share with others is a mere brittle compromise with their wants and fears.

We may be as offended by self-interest as a platonist or gnostic is by the flesh, but what else could we live by? When we are not acting for our own ends, it’s from some worse motive that we act.

Righteous people resent their own good deeds almost as much as others’ bad ones. ‘Virtue,’ as Walpole wrote, ‘knows to a farthing how much it has lost by not being vice.’ It keeps a thrifty store, and insists that all its services be paid for in full, be it in this world or the next. I do good to my neighbours, in the prudent hope that they will do the same to me. My conscience, like an attentive accountant, tots up the debts that they owe me to the last cent. A well groomed sense of right and wrong is more respectable and profitable than none at all.

A clear conscience costs so little, who would be without one?

My faults scald me, but I refuse to part with them. My virtues cost me a pittance, but I’m glad to get rid of them. ‘Vice,’ as Colton wrote, ‘has more martyrs than virtue.’ Right is so easy, but wrong is still so seductive.

Egoism knows how to put everything to use for its own ends, even kindliness. ‘Self-interest,’ as La Rochefoucauld says, ‘speaks all sorts of tongues, and plays all sorts of roles, even that of disinterestedness.’

6 Adversity improves us

Setbacks don’t make us better, but train us to push our schemes with more guile or more force. Some trials seem to improve us because they damp down the high spirits which would flash out in random delinquency, and some cow us into good works and blanch us to a whitened righteousness.

The victims of one genocide volunteer as the expert perpetrators of the next. The bullied don’t dream of a paradise in which no one is bullied but of the day when they will get the chance to bully their persecutors in revenge. ‘Those to whom evil is done,’ wrote Auden, ‘do evil in return.’

The powerless are pitiless once they get their hands on power. Now it’s their turn to do to others as they’ve been done to.

Pity is one luxury that the rich are happy to deny themselves.

The heartsore have no compassion, since they are too caught up in their own woes. And the victorious have no compassion, since they have to press on to one more victory. Prosperity makes me indifferent to the troubles of others, and adversity enwraps me in my own. ‘Misfortune,’ Flaubert says, ‘renders us selfish and vicious and sottish.’ Pain does not purify us. It pollutes us. The blaze and hail of purgatory would fit us for the underworld, not for the upper one. Yet a few years of bliss would steel the saints to the pleas of the damned.

You need more fortitude to deal with clear fortune and wealth than with cloudy fortune and want, say the fortunate and wealthy. Sweet are the uses of other people’s adversity. It may take more virtue to bear prosperity than tribulation, but only when the prosperity is the property of someone else.

7 Self-control

I lack the sage self-mastery which would warn me to duck the punches of misfortune. So I need to strive for the grudging self-government which helps me to bear them. We have to learn to bear up under brute pains, since we can’t hold out against the lure of our brute desires. We grow hardened to everything save our own cravings, which we are too soft to resist.

We can change the world more easily than our own will. Some people do all they can to control the world outside them, since they are too weak to defeat their own urge to dominate it.

We let ourselves be bullied by our own ambitions as much as we use them to try to bully others. We are strong enough to hack our way to what we want, but we are so weak that we need to. We will stop at nothing to feed fat our overweening desires, because we’re loath to do the least thing to bridle them. We owe our sterile enterprises to our lack of self-restraint, and so we have to slave to pay off the arrears by decades of strict self-discipline.

We are puppets, and our cravings are the wires that yank us from one zany contortion to the next.

Many temperate people don’t learn to restrain themselves, but merely to dodge the provocations which would rob them of their self-restraint.

Some people try to control themselves by concealing themselves. They manage to seem mature by learning to hide how childish they are. They have rigged out their own immaturity with the gear that’s tailored to master the world’s immaturity.

8 How strong the weak must be

We have to be strong enough to hold on, since we are too weak just to let go.

Man of bronze. He was so weak and liable to wounds, that he had no choice but to encase his heart in brass, and then dig out from that carapace all that was soft and human. Why wonder that what he made of himself should ring so hollow? Since he shuddered at the least touch, he had to muffle himself so that mere life wouldn’t deafen him. Some people have to hollow out their hearts to gain the nerve to commit a titanic crime, and some just to keep up a lean subsistence.

How could the strong, who are so proud of how much their strength is able to shoulder, guess how much weaklings have to brave in order to bear the weight of their own weakness? The poor frail people, who have souls of porcelain, but long to be admired like marble. They must be tenacious of life, who find the flask dry but go on pouring from it from day to dismal day.

The true test of courage comes when your luck runs out, when there is nothing left to fight for but you still have to see it through to the end, and you’re left alone in the night with your despair, like Antony abandoned by his god.

Frailty may make people firm and timidity may make them bold.

9 Courage

Courage may be the basis of all the virtues. But it is the basis of all the vices too. And we might be far more vicious, if our cowardice didn’t keep the rest of our iniquities in check.

It takes as much courage to fight for a bad cause as for a good one. And it takes far more daring to become a criminal than to remain a law-abiding citizen.

Courage is not so much a virtue as a core competence.

What extraordinary tenacity you need just to get through a single hour on this ordinary earth, where, as Woolf says, it is ‘very, very dangerous to live even one day.’ All that you own is at stake each instant, regardless of how little you have to play for.

Who needs more fortitude, the few who die glorious but alone in the van, or the mass who fall unsung in the ranks?

The wise know why they ought to give up hope, the undaunted carry on as if they did not. It may take as much firmness not to scare yourself with phantom frights as it does not to flinch from real ones.

When we meet with disaster, we may slip the fetter of our fears, once we’ve learnt that if we can bear this then there’s nothing that we can’t bear. Or else we may come to see that anything might scar us, and so we fall back to a trench of timorous desolation, from which we may never climb out. In middle age we see that we can ride out any infamy or calamity, and then we know that we should despair for real.

Some cowards are shocked into daring by a sudden upset. The crisis strikes with such rapidity, that they don’t have time to put on their wonted irresolution. They drop their habit of anxiety, and forget to be craven. Their impulsiveness lands them in enemy territory, before their cowardice can catch up and bundle them back to safety. Once they have struck out on a foray, they need the headstrong mettle to encounter any menace, since they lack the audacity to retreat.

Heartlessness makes up half of our courage, as squeamishness makes up half of our compassion. Those who are merely insensitive boast that they are unsentimental. They scorn the teary sensitivity of others, till they find that they have need of it in their own ordeals.

We have the worst kind of endurance, the hardihood to persist in our mean schemes for as long as they cost others more than us. We ought to have had the constancy to say no to them from the first.

All of us are sustained by the false faith that we must be too important to come to rack. But this same conviction prods the dauntless to rush on, and the spineless to hang back. The latter think that they are too precious to be put in harm’s way, the former that they are so invulnerable that nothing could harm them.

Brave soldiers are primed if need be to die for their country, but their real business is to kill for it.

10 Generosity

Our impulses are generous, but our hands are stinting. Our second thoughts keep back what our first would give. Twain prescribes that when fired by an urge to contribute to a charity, all we need do is count to sixty-five. We find that it costs much less to promise than to pay. A lot of our intentions start better and end worse than our acts. A large brood of them are stillborn. We are liberal on a whim, but miserly by habit. ‘Don’t trust first impulses,’ enjoined Talleyrand, ‘they are all munificent.’

We are reluctant to give more of ourselves to others for fear that they will take too much or that they will spurn what we offer.

We give gifts to show off our own taste and to mould the taste of those we give them to.

We are mean but wasteful. We are not thrifty or generous. I scatter thoughtlessly, but don’t give liberally. We are scrimping, yet squandering.

Spendthrifts may seem generous, since they lightheartedly waste their spare cash on all sorts of things, even other people.

11 Gratitude

Some people try to dispense with their debts by displaying their gratitude, and some by pretending that they have no need to. The former pay them off, and the latter act as if they did not exist. Those who resent the burden of a boon purport to be thankful, in order to shuck off the weight of their dependence. They feign gratefulness so that they won’t be obliged to feel it. It is the virtue of those who can’t bear to be beholden. The proud alone feel uncomfortably indebted. They are too haughty to submit to benefactions. So they try to avenge the good that others do them by displaying how appreciative they are. ‘There are minds so impatient of inferiority,’ Johnson wrote, ‘that their gratitude is a species of revenge.’ They are both ways of settling scores and reinstating our place in people’s estimation.

I expect others’ thanks when I do them good as much as I resent them expecting mine when they do me good. I find gratitude to them as irksome as I find theirs to me natural.

Those who feel that they owe no debt to their own parents are shocked by the ingratitude that their children show to them.

I take offence at the churlishness of those who decline to accept from me the scant courtesies that cost me nothing.

I unhesitatingly acknowledge small favours, as I do my small faults, so that I won’t have to acknowledge big ones at all. And I show least gratitude for benefits that I least deserve.

Gratitude is said to cost us dear, but is there anyone who has been bankrupted by it? Scott notes that it is not prone to ‘distress itself by frequent payments.’ And though praise doesn’t cost us a cent, we still don’t like to give it away.

We are disappointed with everything that we are given, and it may be with gratitude most of all.

‘It is the nature of men,’ Machiavelli said, ‘to be bound by the patronage that they confer as much as by that which they receive.’ Doing good obliges us to repeat it more than receiving good obliges us to repay it. People’s avid expectations touch us nearer than their gratitude. It is our pride more than our kind heart that piques our generosity. Their very unthankfulness goads us to give more, if only to show them that we weren’t angling for their thanks.

We grow more attached to people when we give them gifts than when we receive gifts from them.

We are so ungrateful, because we undervalue what is given to us and overvalue what we get for ourselves. What we value highly we come to believe we have earned by our own unaided efforts. The self-regard of the receiver devalues what the self-regard of the giver puts such a high price on.

Few of us feel very remorseful or beholden. We set our own worth too high to reckon that we owe much to those that we have harmed or to those who have helped us.

Our ingratitude is as sincere as our self-belief, and our gratitude is as feigned and grudging as our modesty. We really do feel unappreciative, since we can’t see that we have a thing to thank our benefactors for.

Be generous to a person, and from then on they will assume that you must owe them something. The more you give to them, the more they feel that you are in their debt.

Need can drive people to love their helpers or to resent them. Some try to hide their own thanklessness by abusing them. They behave despicably, to show that they are not mean. So it’s just as well that few of us feel so beholden to our patrons that we need to disguise our debts by detesting them. Dependent people don’t doubt that they are of more use to their benefactor than their benefactor is to them, and it’s hard to tell which of them is the more smirched by their interaction.

The wine of gratitude soon sours to a vinegar spleen. Our sense of indebtedness soon curdles once it’s been through a brief churning in our mind.

Giving and gratitude make such a soup of pride, spite, recriminations, expected dividends and bad faith, that cold monetary exchange smells pure and clean when set beside them.

12 Justice

As Pushkin said, other people are mere zeroes and placeholders. They derive their value from their affiliation with us, who are the countable units. In the deathly arithmetic of self one is greater than infinity. So it is the task of justice to lop each of us to an equal integer, and tell us that we count for no more than one of these.

The individual ego is the source of all injustice. And yet justice exists to serve our collective egoism.

We fail to see the most flagrant injustices, until they have ceased to profit us.

Most people’s sense of justice exhausts itself in their eagerness to press their own claims.

Justice cuts the world in two. It segregates it into sheep and goats, clean and unclean. And the sheep forthwith bleat that their wool is as white and downy as cherubs’ wings, and that they have the right to browse in a fat paddock. They wait meekly for the coming of their good shepherd to butcher the goats and shove them in the everlasting oven. God shows leniency to his lambs, but not so much as justice to the kids. And this is what the lambs call grace. They hate and fear the goats, not the slaughterer. When the sheep make the laws, then look out, goats. As one of the goats, one of the impure, the unclean, the spotted, the cursed, the filthy, I don’t much look forward to the reign of the immaculate lamb.

Justice draws categorical distinctions where there are none, and fabricates unqualified similarities where there are none. And then it asserts that we have disparate duties to these disparate tiers of beings that it sets up.

Justice entrenches our egoism by extending it. We have obligations to those breeds of life that are of the same grade as our own. But we have none to all the rest. What we term justice is a mere bias in favour of what resembles us at the expense of what is unrelated to us. The moral law is an offence against nature. It commands us to behave impeccably to all living things that are like us who are trampling on all living things that are not like us.

How would we stand condemned, if the animals were to demand of us a tenth of the justice that we demand of a god.

Justice is composed of noisy interests, but in such sweet consort that they make an even music.

What sore grievances I would scarcely feel, if there weren’t someone that I could blame for them. And what grave self-inflicted harms I would scarcely regret, if I can hold someone else accountable for them.

Indignation is colic and conceit secreted as a moraline acid.

There are few injustices that would much concern us, if there weren’t some enemy whom we could excoriate for them.

We would rather reprove a few people a lot than a lot of people a little. We want to believe that people are luridly though sporadically cruel, but not routinely cold-hearted. Our indignation shines more bright and gives out more warmth, if it flames narrow and fervent.

The unjust, if they don’t see their assailants justly castigated by the world, at least have the satisfaction of knowing that the world is unjust and the right to persist in their own wrongdoing.

How stridently people now clamour for their rights, which they lived without contentedly for thousands of cruel years.

Criminals merely break the law. Judges corrupt it.

Lawbreakers ought to be punished with stern finality for their crimes, for the very reason that their nature left them no choice but to commit them. ‘Lack of free will,’ as Proust wrote, ‘makes faults and crimes more reprehensible.’

We presume that right is what we are used to doing, and that justice is what we are used to obtaining. We deem our innate rights to be whatever we are in the habit of receiving plus the bit extra that we assume we deserve.

If we meet with good luck, we gather that what is rightfully due to us is what we are accustomed to get. And if we don’t, we gather that it is what others get. If we fail repeatedly, we feel that we have a right to fare well for a change. And if we fare well, we infer that we ought not have to fail when we’ve grown so used to victory. But we guess that others, if they have met with ill luck all the time, must be inured to it. But if they have fared well, they are now due their quota of reverses.

None of us complains of injustice when we get more than we have earned the right to. And which of us nowadays has not done that? Nothing is good enough for some people, though they themselves are not good for much. We who make the worst use of everything still feel sure that we deserve to have the best of everything.

The rich have so much money, say the poor, that it’s all one whether they gain or lose. And the poor have so little, think the rich, that it’s all one if they gain or lose. The poor are playing for such small stakes, and the rich have no need to win. Yet both will stop at nothing to boost their odds in the game.

Love and justice are both blind. But justice refuses to see persons, while love fails to see everything else.

If we don’t judge, in most cases it’s because we don’t care.

13 Duty

I have to make too much of the urgency of some of my obligations so as to bestir myself to carry them out. At times I can do my duty only by inflating its importance and my own.

I am galled by a light imposition more than I would be by a large one, since a light one comes so close to being nothing that I could envision being rid of it.

We are preyed on by our own infirmities, whether these are our faults or our virtues. Which of us is not branded by Blake’s ‘marks of weakness, marks of woe’?

The work-ethic is an excuse to justify our greed and self-importance.

14 Self-sacrifice

To forward our schemes, we are ready to damage our own happiness. And how much more ready we are to damage the happiness of others. Those who sacrifice a little of their own good for the sake of some cause won’t balk at sacrificing a lot more of others’ good. And those who have the charge of the welfare of many feel sure that they have the right to wreck scores of lives to safeguard it. ‘Self-sacrifice,’ says Shaw, ‘enables us to sacrifice other people without blushing.’

Some people have such unique gifts, that it would be as unjust for them to act selflessly as it is for the rest of us to act selfishly.

Those who impair their interest to keep up their conceit are sure that they are actuated by a high principle. And when they restrain their conceit to push their own claims they judge that they must be actuated by self-surrendering duty. Those who are victims of their own overweening egoism are sure that they are martyrs to benevolence. They have reaped no gain from their selfishness, and so they conclude that they must be behaving unselfishly. Those who are not doing just what they wish would have us believe that they are magnanimously discharging their duty. And those who deem that they are discharging their duty feel sure that they have a mandate to use whatever means they need in order to gain their ends.

Ruthless people pity themselves for the expedient wrongs that they have had to do in the service of others. The most cold-blooded potentates are also the most maudlin and self-pitying. And when they rise to a post far above their deserving, they resent the world for placing such blocks in their way.

The great ones of the earth, when they’re not exulting in their triumphs, are wallowing in self-pity.

Some people forget themselves in a cause that gains them nothing, but are no less selfish for that, since it has come to make up such a large part of their self.

We may stand in awe of those who have the sagacity and self-sufficiency not to care for the world. But there is more than a drop of scorn mixed in with our awe. I too might pay it no mind, and might cast it aside, if it didn’t need me so much. Don’t we all assume that we could get on quite well without the world, if only it could get on without us? Johnson remarked how ‘all this notion about benevolence arises from a man’s imagining himself of more importance to others than he really is.’ My self-importance tells me that I have duties to others, since they can’t do without me.

I trust that few achievements would lie beyond my reach, if I could be spared from the far more valuable work that it’s incumbent on me to do now. I could easily run the country, but who is there that could run my stall? Each of us is like a mouse trapped on its treadmill, and we know that it’s our own speed that keeps the whole world spinning.