Due to the reasons laid out in my earlier post, the meaning of life, living ethically is something that’s tremendously important to me. My life, as I see it, is something to be used for improving the lives of others. That is my number one goal – everything else is (or should be) a means to that end.
Exactly how to go about doing that, though, is a very difficult question. One of the ways I decided to try was to draw up a list of life rules that set a minimum standard of what I felt was acceptable. I came up with these rules over two years ago now, but in my implementation of them I never felt the need to change them. I have, however, discovered many behaviours which I now consider to be in breach of the rules that I didn’t believe were at the beginning (and these behaviours I’ve since had to expunge). In general, the adoption of life rules has helped to make me more disciplined, and though I still struggle with some of the rules quite often, the regular consideration of them I feel has helped me to become more ethical and with more consistency.
In forming the rules I was inspired by Benjamin Franklin, who had a similar life rules list.1 The style and some of the language for the rules has been taken directly from him, and he’s primarily responsible for me having the rules I have today. After forming them, I made a wallpaper for my desktop with them on there so that I’d be constantly reminded of them, and later I sought to memorise them completely.
The life rules I live by are as follows:
- INDUSTRY. Move towards my life goals with each passing day.
- PERSEVERANCE. Never disengage from a resolution or goal for the lack of self-discipline.
- INTEGRITY. Show no incongruity between action and mind; act independently of who may bear witness.
- JUSTICE. Harm none by doing or supporting injuries, or by omitting the benefits that are my duty.
- RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what I ought; perform without fail what I resolve.
- BRAVERY. Do not shy from doing what is right when I recognise it to be so, no matter the adversity.
- COMPASSION. Lend my hand and ear to friends and family whenever they are in need; be receptive of all, especially those in need of help or assistance.
- SINCERITY. Hurtfully deceive none through purposeful action or omission.
- SELF-CONTROL. Do not be tempted by the unjust procurement of sex, money or drugs.
- HUMILITY. Praise others often and genuinely; do not boast or seek to feed my own ego.
- TRANQUILITY. Do not be moved by trivialities or the negativity of others.
- CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness of body, clothing or home.
- FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to myself or others, i.e., do not be wasteful.
Having implemented these rules for the last two years, I’ve come to a few realisations about them. The first is that some are, understandably, much more difficult than others. JUSTICE and COMPASSION, for example, are considerably easier for me than INTEGRITY and CLEANLINESS. I think the reasons for that are that some just happen to be aligned with my natural disposition, whereas others rely primarily on my will-power at the present moment, and thus are inherently weak. I’m not sure how to improve on this fault, except to require myself to develop enough discipline so that it fails being a problem in a pragmatic sense. This, however, I’ve yet to accomplish.
Another observation I’ve made is that not all of them are able to be achieved through conscious means. It’s not enough to have a rule that says “do not be tempted”, because you’re not in control of your temptations – only your actions in the face of them. However, through continually denying yourself of your temptations, you can become distinctly less tempted by them. In this way, although the rule itself doesn’t concern itself with behaviour, one’s character becomes tempered so that the rule is eventually met anyway.
Some of the most difficult rules for me have been INTEGRITY, BRAVERY, HUMILITY and CLEANLINESS. INTEGRITY has been the most difficult of all of them because my instincts always seem contrary to it – I’m naturally uncomfortable with conflict, and my mind is not as transparent as it could be. I have difficulty opening up to people and I can see this continuing to be a challenge for me for a long time. Adopting a behaviour of never lying has helped this somewhat, but I have a lot still to learn about ‘being myself’.
BRAVERY is difficult because I’m undisciplined in owning up to myself when I feel I know that I ought to do something. It’s much easier to question whether ‘I recognise xyz to be so’ during the critical moment when I should have actively engaged the situation, and before I know it it’s too late. In order to get a better handle on this rule, I need to cultivate a greater indifference to breaking social conventions and having attention thrust on me, replacing those dislikes with a simple concern for doing what I feel is right in a given moment. This is easier said than done, but something that can be worked towards.
HUMILITY is a very tricky one. I have an exceptional amount of trouble with determining whether I want to say something because it naturally contributes to the discussion or whether I want to say it because it portrays me in a positive light. Praise is something I find very addictive, and regularly I find myself wording things in ways that manipulate the conversation in order to allow me to talk in a self-gratifying way, or to make the other person more likely to make complimentary remarks towards me. I also have trouble praising other people, for the same reason that I struggle with INTEGRITY.
CLEANLINESS is simply a matter of proactivity. I’m a procrastinator by nature – if I don’t feel that I have to do something, I generally won’t do it when there’s something else I’d rather be doing. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s unhelpful with this particular rule.2 To combat this, I’ve experimented with various systems to regulate or systematise my day-to-day activities. It still requires constant attention.
Things I’ve learnt
From putting these life rules into practice, I’ve identified two keys that underpin success. The first key is self-discipline. Self-discipline is a fundamental requirement to stick to the rules. It can be very hard to source at times, but there are some things that can be noted about its acquisition.
By the very nature of adopting a system of life rules, one’s self-discipline is constantly relied upon. Will power is like a muscle – if you use it, it grows. If you are constantly requiring a certain amount of it, it will serve you more than it does a person who only requires it occasionally. Self-discipline is also affected by one’s present circumstances: tiredness, stress, ill-nourishment and social pressures all feed on it. Therefore, if you’re planning to rely on it, it’s best to avoid or ameliorate the influence of these things.
The second key is the ability to recognise whether a given situation is or isn’t in breach of one of your rules. This comes only through practice and consistent meditation on the meaning and spirit of your commitments. You will likely find that, after adopting this kind of system, your understanding of each rule will change over time. My understanding of what it means to ‘hurtfully deceive’ is much different (and stricter) than what it was when I first formed the rules. Likewise, I didn’t realise that vegetarianism was in fact an implication of JUSTICE. The meaning of each rule becomes richer as you become continually exposed to grey-areas and borderline cases.
This second key is really the true fundament of the ability to adhere to a set of life rules like these. The self-discipline can be acquired as a matter of course, but understanding the conditions themselves requires constant reflection on whether decisions you’ve made have been the right ones, and you must confront yourself honestly. In my case it’s led to drastic lifestyle changes in the cases of vegetarianism and never lying, so there’s always a strong incentive to lull yourself into believing you have acted properly, whilst simply avoiding questioning yourself too severely. It’s probably useful to keep in mind that there’s no point to any of this unless you’re truly committed to improving yourself.
I don’t remember whether I expected I’d stick at these rules for the long term or not at the beginning, but I’m pleased that I have done. They’ve given me a platform for critiquing my behaviour against a set standard and they’ve made behavioural improvements much clearer to me than they likely would have been without any benchmarks or means of judgement. There’s a serious amount I can still improve on, but having the points I need to work on clear to me is invaluable in being able to focus on them.
I suppose that I’ve written this post primarily for myself, but I’d be glad if any of the information contained here encouraged anyone else to attempt a similar kind of system. The importance of self-improvement, in my opinion, cannot be overstated, so it would be nice to see more people actively engaging themselves in it (and, in my case, communicating my beliefs about it to others).