Politics With Principle: A famous country song from the 1990s summarizes this concept in the lyrics “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.” A strong society depends upon the alignment of our bedrock principles with our collective will. Without principles anchoring our decisions and actions, chaos results as seen in the current dysfunctional state of American politics. In our democracy every American is involved in politics either as an active voter or passive non-participant. Both groups are equally responsible for who is elected yet maintaining our principles can only be done through action. Eliminating the dysfunction that is now the hallmark of our government requires us all to participate in a way that strengthens accountability and adherence to our common values.
Rights With Responsibilities: The Declaration of Independence makes clear that our country was born from the then radical idea that each individual has inherent rights. What we fail to acknowledge today is that every right imposes a corresponding duty upon others. Although the Bill of Rights catalogs individual entitlements, it is more accurately considered a list of government responsibilities in its interactions with Americans. To our great detriment, a singular focus on the individual has transformed Americans from a duty-centered into a rights-centered society. If we actually concentrated upon our own duties and responsibilities as Americans, the liberty and rights of others would be better served and protected.
Wealth With Work: Work produces wealth and the American economy is the greatest engine of wealth creation in human history. Even without personal wealth, Americans hold those who work in high regard because of the inherent dignity it provides compared to someone who lives off another’s work. This esteem is reflected in the widespread perception of wealthy people as morally good because they must have worked hard while poor people are morally bad because they are lazy. Yet the practical difference between becoming wealthy from investing in successful companies, winning the lottery, inheriting a great fortune, or simply surviving from government support is not much. All are entitled to what they receive, but it is impossible to know who deserves wealth or poverty without assuming that each began with equal opportunity to succeed. While equal opportunity may be true in theory, it has never been true in reality. In the end, a society that favors work over wealth is better served because the increased social and economic value created by work always exceeds the value of past work hoarded as wealth.
Commerce With Morality: Most Americans consider the accumulation of ever larger sums of money (wealth) as the measure of a successful life. The stock market serves as a commonly accepted gauge for the well-being of the country because money is apparently why we exist. This “greed is good” single-mindedness drives a conviction among business leaders that nothing should impede maximum profit. Moral obligations such as respect, fairness, integrity, compassion, honor, or patriotism are of little consequence unless imposed by law. Morality, however, must be the foundation of a political and economic system for a society to remain healthy. Ignoring morality in the pursuit of profit simply shifts the intangible costs of wealth creation to society as a whole in the form of harmful impacts upon the environment, human health, and the economy.
Pleasure With Conscience: American society has always been built around individuality to some extent. The “pursuit of happiness” is even mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. At the same time, thinking only of yourself is harmful to your character, your relationships, and society. Young children embody thoughtless pleasure because they are inherently self-centered with a sense of entitlement. Parents instill a conscience in children by teaching kindness, responsibility, selflessness, empathy, and gratitude. “Spoiled” children are those used to getting whatever they want so they remain self-centered. In contrast, adopting a sense of social responsibility, a commitment to act in conjunction with others for the best interests of society, is how adults and organizations act with a conscience.
Knowledge With Character: Character is the sum of attributes that define the core essence of each person. It may be good or bad, strong or weak, honorable or dishonorable as reflected in the morality of personal habits, motivations, beliefs, and actions. Knowledge amplifies the impact of character by empowering a person to act in more consequential ways. By providing fast and easy access to all aspects of the collective knowledge of humanity and the ability to communicate about it with an unlimited number of people, the internet has democratized knowledge. Whether such knowledge has a positive or negative impact on others depends upon the character of each user. Every day we witness the harmful impact of knowledge used by individuals with poor character to cause harm both online and in our society.
Science With Humanity: Science and technology are essential to our way of life. Science made daily life today quite different and better than it was in 1900. Indeed, earth itself is different because of our scientific progress. While science solves many problems, it also creates new ones. Most scientific discoveries have no inherent moral value as they are neither good nor bad. Even the science of nuclear fission only took on a moral aspect when it was weaponized. As science and technology continue to advance, however, creating simulated human attributes is the goal in many fields including artificial intelligence, genetics, and robotics. Science is good, but overconfidence and distraction about where it leads our society only increases the risk of people suffering harmful consequences. We must remain ever mindful of the risks of science gone awry.
Religion With Sacrifice: Religion is based upon sacrifice because it is the path to spirituality. Sacrifice is either a negative obligation prohibiting certain actions or a positive obligation requiring other actions. Religion is simultaneously deeply personal and intensely social. This duality allows believers to choose which aspect to focus upon. The social side is easiest because it can be met by simply “talking the talk” while refraining from prohibited activities in public. Publicly working to ensure others are forced to refrain for their own good is another feature. In contrast, the personal side requires “walking the walk” through adherence to the demands of positive sacrifice that typically requires a great deal of time, energy, money and personal growth because it is focused upon others. True piety requires a deep personal commitment to both forms of sacrifice in order to achieve a more profound spiritual connection to the sacred.