Ethical Decision-Making

Rough Mason, Mason, Freemason, Accepted Mason - Oscar Patterson III 2017

Ethical Decision-Making

Freemason[1] , Soldier, Physician

The real Freemason is distinguished from the rest of Mankind by the uniform unrestrained rectitude of his conduct. Other men are honest in fear of punishment which the law might inflict; they are religious in expectation of being rewarded, or in dread of the devil, in the next world. A Freemason would be just if there were no laws, human or divine except those written in his heart by the finger of his Creator. In every climate, under every system of religion, he is the same. He kneels before the Universal Throne of God in gratitude for the blessings he has received and humble solicitation for his future protection. He venerates the good men of all religions. He disturbs not the religion of others. He restrains his passions, because they cannot be indulged without injuring his neighbor or himself. He gives no offense, because he does not choose to be offended. He contracts no debts which he is certain he cannot discharge, because he is honest upon principal.

—A Farmer’s Almanac, 1823

Freemasonry has always existed . . . They allow good men and youths whom they consider worthy of their company to divine and guess at their deeds, to see them, in so far as they can be seen. These others find them to their liking, and perform similar deeds. . . And what exactly do they boast about? Only such things as one expects of every good person and every good citizen . . . and deeds speak for themselves. . . Their true deeds are their secrets. The true deeds of Freemasons are aimed at making all that are commonly described as good deeds for the most part superfluous.

—Gotthold Lessing in Ernst and Faulk: Dialogues of Freemasons.

Freemasonry is best described as a system of moral instruction taught by types, symbols, and allegorical figures. Consistent throughout its degrees is the reminder that a Freemason should always remember the rectitude of conduct essential to his and his Brothers’ wellbeing and that this wellbeing, this rectitude of conduct, this morality is based on subduing one’s urges and passions.

A real Freemason “restrains his passions because they cannot be indulged without injuring his neighbor or himself.”[2] Every significant moral philosopher from Plato to Aquinas, from Voltaire to Durkheim, and from Gertrude Elizabeth Anscombe to even more recent thinkers share a focus on temperance and ask the same two questions: How ought we to live? And what is good?

Plato (abt. 427-347 B.C.E.) was much influenced by Socrates. Socrates (abt. 469-399 B.C.E.) was by trade and profession a stonemason as had been his father who used his analytical skills as a tool to ferret out the meaning of truth and to understand the world. The only reliable way to deal with an ever-changing world in constant flux is through reason and argument (rhetoric), he argued. The basis for this reason, Socrates (through Plato) suggests, is within the self. Both Socrates and Plato placed much emphasis on knowledge of what is good with Socrates expressing the belief that virtue is achieved only through knowledge. Socrates did not leave a written record of his philosophy but is reported to have suggested that a person should devote or appropriate his thoughts on philosophical matters to himself (contemplation) since writing was only an aid to memory.

Plato, a soldier and wrestler, emphasized two principle questions: how ought we to live and how can we know how we should live? Plato answered these by delineating, as did Socrates, the four cardinal virtues so familiar to all Entered Apprentices: fortitude (bravery or courage and forbearance including the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation); prudence or wisdom (the ability to judge between actions and to determine appropriate actions at a given time; temperance or restraint (the practice of self-control, abstention, and moderation); and justice or fairness, the most extensive and most important virtue. A fifth virtue, alluded to by Plato and others is piety which includes religious devotion, spirituality, or a mixture of both, but the most common element of piety is humility. Plato further suggested that what is good is that which is most useful to man noting that we should refrain from wrongdoing; be watchful of the views of society; made good decisions based on virtues; and act upon those wise decisions so that others will imitate our actions and thus we are fulfilled. He further suggests in the Republic that those who make unethical decisions—who are unjust—are harmed by their injustice. He argues that even though they tell themselves that all is well, they are inwardly miserable, fearful, insecure, anxious, and suspicious. The bad guys, says Plato, may get away with it, may even have fun doing so, but they never regret the harm they have caused and ultimately pay the price for their actions.

As Socrates was mentor and teacher to Plato, so was Plato to Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.). These three philosophers form the cornerstone of Western philosophy. Aristotle, the son of a physician and himself trained in medicine (the physicians’ art was generally passed from father to son), was tutor to Alexander the Great. After Alexander’s death, Aristotle, like Socrates, was charged with impiety, but unlike Socrates, Aristotle fled the country rather than stand trial. From these three ancient philosophers, we received the basic paradigms of ethics: deontological, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. Deontological ethics is the ethics of duty; consequentialism notes that an action is to be judged by its outcome; and virtue ethics makes moral excellence the proper topic for reflection. This theory suggests that ethical rules result in actions that are the derivative of virtues. The perfect example of virtue ethics is the letters WWJD—what would Jesus do. Follow the model of the virtuous person is the dictate. The problem, though, is how to identify the truly virtuous individual outside the divine.

Aristotle noted that good is the object of all human striving suggesting that a prime object for man should be to know thyself but to do so without excess. He also noted that what is good is that which is both useful to man and, more importantly, enables him to live at peace within society. Aristotle taught the Golden Mean--man should do nothing in excess and should use reason as the best way to direct his activities. He further offered the principle that tells us to follow appearances suggesting that appearances often match reality until we have excellent reasons to believe otherwise. It is not so much what people say, this principle notes, but how they act that counts. A person may profess to care about others, but unless he or she demonstrates this in daily life, their words are, at best, misleading and self-serving.

Aristotelian philosophy will dominate Western thought and practice for more than one thousand years though heavily influenced by Christian tradition and morality. But the universe of Aristotle and his successors was a closed system of crystal spheres developed first by Plato and refined by Aristotle and Ptolemy. It was fixed and unchanging with the stars and planets imbedded in several concentric spheres composed of a transparent fifth element. These fixed stars did not change their positions relative to each other because they were imbedded in the permanent surface of one of the spheres. The world of mankind, to include his actions and his intentions, was considered parallel to this crystalline universe, fixed and unchanged from the beginning.

By the eleventh century the notion of intent was incorporated into moral philosophy through the writings of Peter Abelard (1079-1142). Abelard suggested that man was neither good nor bad and that God considered our intentions as well as our actions. He further suggested that the determination of good and evil is dependent upon intent. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) expanded on Abelard and suggested that ethics is that which directs a person to appropriate behavior with happiness being the ultimate reward for virtue. He noted that man is naturally inclined to good and that doing what does right and ethical behavior follow each other. Once you do the right thing, you are more inclined to do the right thing in the future and this leads to others also doing the right thing.”

Three hundred years later man found himself at the cusps of the age of reason and Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who may or may not have been a Freemason, the evidence is far from conclusive, recommended that in order to achieve moral and ethical fulfillment, man should apply the powers of reason to his decisions; exercise self-control over his appetites and passions; and find truth through the scientific method. This required, according to Bacon, a search for new knowledge and wisdom. Although Bacon did not always follow his own teaching, his influence on future generations is unmistakable.

One hundred years before Bacon (and in Italy not England), Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote The Prince in which he expounded a very complicated philosophy based on the ability to understand and adapt to change. He was the ultimate pragmatists. He noted the necessity of keeping up appearances while keeping others in awe. And while his name is synonymous with political machinations, his work focuses on the techniques necessary for success in politics and, in turn, in other endeavors. The Prince is a challenging treatise which has a high degree of intellectual integrity and stability, but its resolute teachings must be read alongside Machiavelli’s more profound work Discourses. He had no time for tyrants, tyrannies, or their governments because of their instability, cruelty, and unpredictability. He strove for a government—a rule—that was esteemed by the population governed and relatively responsive to its needs. Much like Theodore Roosevelt, Machiavelli saw the need to be both feared and respected.

The period from the 1650s through the 1780s is referred to as the Age of Enlightenment or Reason and was highlighted by cultural and intellectual forces in Western Europe which emphasized reason, analysis, and individualism rather than traditional lines of authority. The most notable philosophers of the age were Voltaire, Rousseau, Spinoza, and Kant. François-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume Voltaire (1694-1778), was a French philosopher who emphasized the use of reason to balance passion noting that man should act for the greater good of society. A Freemason and member as well as Master of the Lodge of the Nine Muses in Paris, he was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin. Though an aggressive critic of religious traditions, he was not opposed to the idea of a supreme being. As a deist, he held that God was a question of reason and wrote that “it is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason.”[3]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was of Swiss origin and believed that conscience, compassion, and reason combined to enable man to make sound ethical decisions. He contended that once people achieve consciousness of themselves as social beings, morality also becomes possible, but, he warns, humans can deceive themselves about their own moral qualities. Rousseau had profound impact on philosophers who followed him because of the ambiguities in his work that led to often incompatible interpretations of his writings. His greatest influence, however, is probably on the writings of Immanuel Kant (1724-1781) and Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative. Rousseau also had a direct impact on the contemporary philosophy of John Rawls and his A Theory of Justice.

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) is considered one of the most radical and important early modern philosophers. Born in Amsterdam of Portuguese-Jewish origin, Spinoza in his book Ethics argued that happiness is not found in dependence upon our passions and the temporary pleasure we may receive from that, but rather in reason. Use reason, he admonished man, to determine the proper course of action. What is good? He asks. His answer: that which we know to be useful having set aside our emotions and rationally justifying what we did and why we did it. It is difficult, most philosophers suggest, to conceive a more reasoned and zealous defense of reason and toleration that that offered by Spinoza. For Freemasons, Spinoza’s friendship with and influence on Gotthold Lessing, a German Freemason and philosopher, is of great interest.

Rousseau’s greatest influence appears, however, to have been on the writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant’s basic standard was that it was necessary for man to act on the principle that what you do should be generalized to all others. He argued that science, morality, and religious belief are mutually consistent because they rest on the same foundation—human autonomy. He is most associated with the categorical imperative which postulates that man occupies a special place in the world and that morality is an imperative or the ultimate commandment for reason. Duty, Kant suggested, requires man to act within the constraints of moral law. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”[4] The ability to reason and to act upon that thinking is what sets man apart and makes him a moral, ethical creature.

In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), a British philosopher, wrote that man should act by the rule that whatever he does should be that which will bring the greatest good noting that moral behavior comes from within, not without. During the same century, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), writing in Germany, told his readers to think carefully about any action, to act with compassion, to respect themselves and others, and to use experience to achieve balance in thinking. All of the philosophers noted above are addressing the same issue: how to make ethical decisions.

Morals and ethics are not easily differentiated. Some philosophers and ethicists argue that morality is the common, everyday evaluation of acceptable behavior while ethics is the reflection of personal and social consciousness. Everyone, it is suggested (except some psychopaths), has a moral sense, but not everyone has the capability of thinking critically about his decisions, actions, and emotions.

The word ethics is derived from the Greek word ethos meaning character or personal disposition while the word moral is derived from the Latin word more or mos meaning custom. In this this chapter, ethics will be considered as the individual’s ability to determine right and wrong and to act accordingly. Ethics will be accepted as being directly influenced by societal values which point to standards or codes of conduct or behavior expected by the group. It is assumed in these definitions that a person must learn how to follow ethical standards and that, as suggested by Socrates, Plato, Nietzsche, and more recent philosophers, “the righteous individual who is wrongly declared unjust and severely punished is happier than the scoundrel who bamboozles people and receives the honor of the local chamber of commerce.”[5]

The basis for ethical or moral decision-making is more than societal mores; and they differ significantly from legal strictures. The law does not care about the basis of your actions as much as it does with its outcomes. Whether you paid your taxes with alacrity or bitterness is legally irrelevant. Ethics, however, considers the foundation of your actions or the spring of your wisdom to account for the worth of those actions. Strong ethics provide the standard for law, but the law does not measure that standard. Ethics is the consideration of oughts: how ought we behave; how ought we relate to our fellow man; how ought we understand human nature. “Our present study, unlike the other branches of philosophy, has a practical aim for we are not investigating the nature of virtue for the sake of knowing what is, but in order that we may become good without which result our investigation would be of no use.”[6]

There is no agreed upon, universal definition of morality or ethics, but at the current time it is standard practice to differentiate four primary areas of moral philosophy: value ethics, normative ethics, natural ethics, and utilitarian ethics. Value ethics proponents strive to determine what is of value, what is worth pursuing? The Greek philosopher Epicurus and the English philosopher John Stuart Mills asked the same question. What is the ultimate good? Is it happiness or something else? Normative ethicists seek that supreme principle, that norm which defines right action. This is a philosophical and theoretical approach, similar to unified field theory in physics, which seeks a single principle to bind together the field of ethics and which will, in turn, explain fully why keeping your word, telling the truth, not committing murder, and not stealing are morally right. The problem with this theory, as Plato suggested in Euthyphro, is determining the authority. The Divine Command Theory advocated by Socrates more than 2,500 years ago attempted to address this issue. What if God is not the ultimate source of morality? Who are what is the ultimate authority? Thomas Aquinas, considered the greatest of natural legal minds, advocates this position and argues that natural law, our respective natures, should be the determining factor in ethical decision-making.

Utilitarianism, propounded most fully by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and earlier by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and argued by modern philosophers such as J.J.C. Smart, asked the question: did the action yield the greatest happiness of all available actions? Right actions are to be judged by their consequences with the focus on action. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) suggested that results are morally irrelevant and that acts are right because we are consistent in our behavior without involving ourselves in contradictions. Kant’s categorical imperative held that humans occupy a special place in creation and that morality can be summed up as an imperative, an ultimate commandment of reason, from which man can discern his duties and obligations. To Kant, an imperative was a proposition that declared an action or inaction to be necessary. He solved the problem of man’s acquisition of knowledge through experience by contending that the mind imposes principles upon experience to generate knowledge. This theory was of Greek origin and was discussed in the sixteenth century but not fully developed until Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan published in 1651. Kant’s imperative was simple though difficult to follow: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law . . . as if the maxim of our action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.”[7] Essentially, Kant’s imperative, along with social contract theory and natural ethics, sought to answer the same question: what if everyone did that?

In contrast to Kant, Hobbes, and Bentham, British philosopher W.D. Ross (1877-1971) argued in his theory of prima facie duties that we have a standing duty to keep our word, do justice, not kill, and the like. The problem lies in that there is no fixed ranking for these duties. What happens when they are in conflict? Sometimes, Ross suggested, it may be less important to keep our word than to prevent harm. It may be necessary to kill to prevent the taking of an innocent life. It becomes even more complicated when it comes to final, conclusive knowledge that our actions, our duty, are not always situationally specific. Some duties, he noted, rest on our previous actions; some on the previous actions of other men; some, like justice, may not be in accordance with personal desires; some on the knowledge that others are benefited by our actions; some because they improve ourselves; and some simply because, they do no harm to others. Ross suggested that we can determine our prima facie duties through reflection and reason. “The existing body of moral convictions of the best people is the cumulative products of the moral reflection of many generations . . . The verdicts of the moral consciousness of the best people are the foundation on which he must build; though he must first compare them with one another and eliminate any contradictions they may contain.”[8]

At this point, some 2,400 years after his death, Aristotle, considered by many as the greatest philosopher who ever lived, again came into play with virtue ethics. Virtue ethics, while not a single theory, can be traced from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. We understand what is right by reference to what the virtuous person would do (WWJD). An act is morally and ethically correct because it is what the morally correct person acting in his normal character would do. And while we have a large set of moral duties—be honest, act loyal, be courageous, be just, show wisdom, compassion and temperance, free yourself from prejudice—when these rules conflict, what do we do? Virtue ethics does not accept a simple formula for determining the rightness of an action. Ethics is complex and often disorderly because it is based in decision- making and requires emotional maturity, sound judgment, and the capability of evaluating the outcome of an action as well as its motivation. Yet, as with all learning, we begin with the simple and proceed to the complex. The child learns the golden rule. It is rote learning to be acted upon accordingly and directly. A child, as Aristotle noted, does not possess full moral wisdom. Morality and ethics are like the laws and theorems and formulae of trigonometry or geometry or engineering. Rules of thumb may lead us into as well as out of error because rules often conflict and rules, like the laws that govern the rotation of the planets, are not influenced by human emotions. It is our emotional side which tempers our decision-making process.

Consider the parable of the Spartan boy. He was taught bravery, tenacity, and loyalty. He was taught how to behave based upon the example of his elders and to trust and respect them at all costs. He learned to strengthen his body and his memory, and make decisions quickly, even without thinking. But he was not taught to reflect upon his actions, to consider their outcomes, or to evaluate them in terms other than those of strict obedience. One day he stole a live fox in keeping with the Spartan tradition of stealing (for which young boys were praised). The fox, attempting to escape, gnawed a hole in the boy’s chest killing him. The young boy abided by the societal rule—he stole. He further abided by its rules to keep it a secret and to deny the theft. He further abided by the rules by ignoring the pain. This is not the path to proper ethical decision-making. Blind obedience to the entire package does not work. No package created by man comes without the necessity for evaluation. Water is essential to human life, but too much or too little or water in the wrong place can be deadly. Man has the ability to discern when and how much to drink. So, too, with ethical decision-making, he has the ability to evaluate and discern.

The role of emotions (passions) in ethical decision-making must not be underestimated. With proper training and education, they can be controlled and subdued. Emotions aid us in determining what is ethically relevant by giving us internal hints about what matters in a given situation. Fear, guilt, and compassion are all emotional responses to a situation. A person who is compassionate, who is sympathetic, who is kind, will see things in ways that others who do not possess these qualities will not. But just like our minds, our emotions must be well and properly trained if they are to alert us to impending danger.

If we are soundly and virtuously educated and enlightened, we become anxious when certain actions are taken. We know which paths to follow and which to avoid. A good man takes pride in his actions; he has done well. Anger is a reliable indicator that something is wrong—I have not done something well. Our emotions aid us in determining the right thing to do, but knowing what is right is one thing, doing it is another. A person possessing sound virtuous education will have an easier time determining what is right in any situation. The morally virtuous person knows and does what is right. They are free of inner conflict and take internal pleasure in taking the virtuous action.

Sound ethical decision-making comes from not just from practical wisdom; it is both learned and experienced. Practical wisdom can help us fix our car because it requires knowledge of a set of facts and procedures, but ethical decision-making requires more than that. We need emotional maturity, worldly experience, and, most importantly, we must utilize a great deal of introspection, reflection, and thought to attain moral wisdom. We need to know not only how to read people but how to read ourselves. Ethical decisions come through moral wisdom which is an extremely complicated skill. Virtue—moral wisdom--is not genetic, we do not come preprogramed to be what we become. It takes wise teachers, the right environment, good role models, and, to a degree, luck.

We are to be praised or blamed, suggested Kant, only for that which we can control. Moral luck involves those actions or decisions that depend upon factors we do not control. We are, Kant noted, blamed rightly for what we can control, what we become, not what we were, yet circumstances and factors outside our control may impact directly on outcomes. Where we were born; to whom we were born; who influenced our early and middle years; our economic background; the circumstances of community and their beliefs; and even the history of our times, are not within our direct control. We may go through life on autopilot deviating little from our past—that is luck; but we are humans and possess reason and with it the ability to reflect, adapt, and change. That is the tension in moral reasoning. To reflect, adapt, and change, one must have clear guidance and sound principles upon which to proceed. Freemasonry offers its members and the greater society guidelines for good ethical decision-making.

The reason for moral education is simple—to help people acquire virtue and to enable them to make sound ethical decisions. The path to this development is straightforward. Children or apprentices are taught the complex skill—how to make sound ethical decisions using moral wisdom. We begin as apprentices. We follow the rules exactly. The rules are set down by our parents, teachers, and other role models. We learn and apply them by rote. These rules are often rather crude, however, and do not allow for much interpretation or wavering. When you see a snake, do not pick it up is the rule; it protects us from harm. As we mature, however, these rules are modified, expanded, and, even, changed through experience and education. Not all snakes are dangerous, but it takes education to tell the difference. We are loyal to our friends, but we do not cover for them when they commit a crime. Through virtuous education and wise experience, we learn the proper course of action.

The definitive outcome of moral education is to make a better person. Virtue is a character trait, not a habit. It becomes both an issue of motives as well as outcomes. Virtuous people are as they are not so because of their actions but because of their inner life. They are internally and externally different from unvirtuous people. Their understanding of themselves, others, and society is will integrated with their emotions. They are not ruled by their passions but rather use them to guide themselves to proper action. “Virtuous conduct gives pleasure to the lover of virtue.”[9] As Lessing noted in 1778, “Their true deeds are their secrets. . . the true deeds of Freemasons are so great, and so far-reaching, that whole centuries may elapse before one can say ’This was their doing!’. . . the true deeds of Freemasons are aimed at making all that are commonly described as good deeds for the most part superfluous.”[10]

The overview of various theories addressing ethical decision-making given above suggests that it is a diverse topic and that no one theory alone addresses all of man’s concerns. When taken in combination, however, and with consideration of the various epochs involved, some combination of theories might best provide a sound guide to Masonic life. Immanuel Kant argued for the categorical imperative noting that an action’s moral worth should be based on expected effects. “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will” that all others act the same. Social contract theory is based in the assumption that cooperation is a state of nature and essential to the success and survival of any society. This theory of ethical decision-making justifies obedience to law as a moral duty. It also explains why we are bound to keep our promises and the implications of breaking the same. Virtue ethics, on the other hand, looks to the virtuous example to assist us in understanding how to make sound ethical decisions. It addresses the issues of emotional maturity, honorable education, reflection, and training. Add these together, and we find a solid monitor which parallels a Freemasons’ obligations and provides a sound guide to decision-making.

Ethical decision-making, then, is accepted as that process through which good men stabilize society and function successfully within a social setting. Their true good deeds render all other good deeds superfluous, noted Lessing. Sound ethical decisions are also those which serve the common good as they reduce fear within the individual and the group. Those decisions, based on wisdom, experience, and education are not ruled by passion or emotion and result in the proper action for the situation. Those actions do not divide, they join. They link mankind together by uniting persons of every country, religion, race, creed, or nationality by removing fear and encouraging equality. They are on the level and upon the square.


A great deal of western tradition is based on the Decalogue or Ten Commandments as found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. This set of biblical admonitions relates to both worship and ethics. They include specific regulations for the worship of God, the sanctity of the Sabbath, and a strong prohibition against idolatry and blasphemy. They also speak directly to societal issues such as murder, theft, dishonesty and adultery. The Decalogue is fundamental to both Christianity and Judaism, and the Quran speaks of Ten Commandments.

The first four Commandments specifically address religious practice: you shall have no other gods before me; you shall have no false idols; you will not take the Lord’s name in vain; and, remember the Sabbath Day. The other six deal with practical, societal issues: honor father and mother; do not commit murder; do not steal; do not commit adultery; do not lie (bear false witness); and do not covet what your neighbor has. These last six are those most directly related to the above definition of ethical decision-making: those things necessary to the stability of society and the reduction or elimination of fear in others.

Let us consider, as an example, the prohibition against murder. The Hebrew words lo tirzah are commonly translated as thou shalt not kill, but textual analysis suggests that a more accurate translation would be thou shalt not murder or do not kill unlawfully and with intent. Both the Old and New Testaments concur that murder is a grave evil and link murder to the question of blood guilt which often leads to revenge. When a person is in fear of being murdered-killed unlawfully-he will act in a manner consistent with that fear. Those actions may result in unintended consequences. Fear increases stress, both physical and psychological, taking a marked toll on the human psyche. Reduce the fear by a strong admonishment against the action and man is able to function successfully within a societal setting. Consider the soldier on patrol in a combat zone. His anxiety is enhanced and his stress level significantly increased because of the fear that he might be killed or injured at the next step. When we transfer that level of hyper alertness-- fear—to the civilian setting, the results are well documented in studies dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Reduce the fear and you reduce the internal cues that lead to psychological problem.


Ethical decision-making leads to ethical behavior. It requires that standards be set high and thusly maintained; that those standards be made known to all members of the group; that those standards be enforced in some manner; and that we understand that we are human and make mistakes. Ethical decision-making requires the individual to place upon himself a moral obligation to adhere to the standards of the group and to act as a guardian for those standards by keeping his moral code above reproach. Not only should one not do wrong, one should not give the appearance of doing wrong. Perception--what one thinks about you--carries as much or more weight than your behavior!

A person who makes good ethical decisions is one who possesses excellent character. Thomas Paine (who may or may not have been a Freemason, solid evidence either way is lacking) stated that “reputation is what men and women think of us . . . character is what God and the Angles know of us.”[11] A man of principle is not a man who understands a principle, but one who understands, accepts, and lives by that principle. Thus, proper decision-making is based on having good judgment not influenced by passion and using common sense. The outcome of ethical decision-making is expressed through courtesy, compassion, and an appreciation of human dignity. Wisdom is knowing; virtue is doing.

Ethical decision-making is in the best self-interest of the individual since it impacts directly upon his interaction within society. Doing the right thing will, ultimately, serve us as well as it will serve our neighbor. To do the right thing, though, one must be honest with himself. Unreality is unreality and has no value in the decision-making process. Nothing, be it love, fame, or riches, is of value if obtained by fraud and deceit, internal or external. At the same time, one must respect himself, but pride is not to be confused with arrogance. Rational pride is the understanding that who you are and what you are is based upon your values and serves society by enabling you to treat all people in accordance with their actions and societal standards not your preconceived notions or opinions.

The public has high expectations of Freemasons who espouse a strong system of ethical decision-making and moral behavior. It expects good judgment, common sense, honesty, fairness, and equality. As Freemasons, we have become lightning rods for the indignation of those who do not understand our ancient and honorable Fraternity. If we, as Freemasons, make sound, ethical decisions and maintain clear moral standards, publicly and privately, defamation and character assassination from external as well as internal sources is rendered moot. Your actions and decisions reflect not only on you but also on your family, friends, co-workers, and Freemasonry.


Sound ethical decision-making is based on the development of good character traits as well as on knowing the right way to behave and doing it, but such traits are not genetic; they are learned through sound, virtuous education, and exemplary role models. These character traits include courage, justice, compassion, and temperance (see the Entered Apprentice lecture). As a Freemason, our fundamental duty is to serve our brothers and mankind. We should keep our private lives unsullied and keep ever secret that which is confided to us unless that revelation is necessary to the proper administration of justice. We should be courteous to our brothers and act without favor, malice, prejudice, or ill-will. When making an ethical decision, one must avoid the obvious traps: everyone else does it; nobody will care; no one will know; that’s close enough; and some rules are made to be broken. Ethical decision-making is the realization that knowing what is right is doing what is right. Acting ethically and making ethical decisions are not things that you turn on or off at will. It is part of your internal makeup. Sound ethical decisions mark the very character of a man. They can be summed up in five words: duty, honor, integrity, loyalty, and empathy.

General Douglas MacArthur, a Freemason, admonished the cadets at West Point in his farewell address to the corps to “never forget these requirements, these ethics. Rather, cherish them; keep them close to your heart. And hold them in reverence . . . for as long as you live. They will never fail you.”[12] We would do very well to follow our distinguished Brother’s advice.

Freemasonry offers its members and the world sound guidance on the proper way to make ethical decisions. If a Freemason follows the lessons taught in the various lectures, obligations, and rituals, he will find himself well prepared to serve as a role model. Freemasons, for example, are taught to keep their promises, no matter how small. Consider the public attention given to Masonic secrets and the Craft’s demand that a Brother keep such secrets. In fact, Masonic secrets are few—recognition and some ritual—and even they are not that secret in the Internet age. At issue in the obligation to keep secrets is the ability to keep one’s word. If you cannot be trusted with the small things, how can you be trusted with big things? “’Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.”[13]

Freemasonry also provides clear guidance on charity and conscience (taking care of others); doing what you say you will do when you say you will do it; abiding by agreed upon rules; maintaining a Brother’s trust by not gossiping or revealing that which was revealed in confidence; not cheating, stealing, or defrauding; not engaging in illicit activities with a Brother’s significant other or family; offering support to a Brother who is in danger but not violating the law in the process; and taking care of others by warning them of the incorrectness of their actions.

Above all, Freemasonry teaches loyalty, but loyalty is not blind. There are, as any infantry officer or enlisted person can tell you, orders that are not lawful and that should not be obeyed. Freemasonry teaches us to use our intellect and our reason to determine what is lawful as well as what is best for us, for our society, and for our Craft. Freemasonry gives us the tools to discern right from wrong and guidance on how to follow the proper path. Freemasonry is, as Wilmshurst writes, a philosophy. Freemasonry leads to a higher consciousness. The Masonic system is more than an elementary moral code. It is one that that leads to reflection and contemplation, and is a system which is useful to Mason and profane alike. While Freemasons are fully expected to improve in their external deportment, they are also expected to find within the Craft a deeper significance, an awakening. Freemasonry emphasizes truth, but the virtue of the truth comes not only in its possession but in the manner in which it is obtained. Understanding comes through knowledge of both perfection and imperfection—and the ability to discern the difference. Freemasonry provides those who seek, those who inquire, an answer about the purpose and destiny of human life. That path is not totally external, however, and requires a great deal of introspection—under the hoodwink—into the hidden recesses of the human heart and soul.

Freemasonry is transformational: that is inherent in the mysteries of the Craft. Freemasonry is universal. The end of one individual or period or epoch does not end Freemasonry. No edifice remains unfinished because of the demise of a single individual. The genuine mysteries of the Craft are perpetual; they are well known, and they manifest themselves in all societies. Freemasons are not seeking to restore some ancient, lost knowledge. That may be the allegory, but the import of Freemasonry lies in its search, not for what has been lost but for what we each of ourselves must learn as we travel through the vail of tears.



A Freemason was originally an individual who worked in free stone or was a stone carver which may include the skills of a layer or mason. Modern Freemasonry assigns a more symbolic meaning to the word.


“Character of a Freemason.” A Farmer’s Almanac. Andover, Mass., 1823.


“Voltaire” at, retrieved, June 5, 2015.


Immanuel Kant (1785); translated by James W. Ellington. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 3rd. Ed. (New York: Hackett, 1993), p. 30.


Gordon Marino (ed.). Ethics: The Essential Writings. (New York: The Modern Library, 2010), p. xii.


Reginald E. Allen (ed.) Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle, 3rd Edition, Revised and Expanded. (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 10.


Immanuel Kant (1797). “The Good Will and the Categorical Imperative,” in Mary Gregor Groundwork Of the Metaphysics of Morals. (London: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 32.


W.D. Ross. “What Makes Right Acts Right?” in Russ Shafer-Landau (2015) The Ethical Life: Fundamental Readings in Ethics and Moral Problems. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1930), p. 121.


Rosalind Hursthouse. On Virtue Ethics. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 186.


Gotthold Lessing (1778). Ernst and Faulk: dialogues for Freemasons to His Grace Duke Ferdinand, in, H.B. Nisbet (ed.) Lessing: Philosophical and Theological Writings. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 189.


Thomas Paine in “Common Sense,” 1776.


Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Address to the Corps of Cadets, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, May 12, 1962.


Matthew 25:23.