What is permissible is not always honorable. – Cicero
What does that mean?
As many large societies are based on laws, we tend to focus on what is permissible and what is proscribed, without much thought in regards to why.
Yet all groups within any society have things they adhere to because of their beliefs and values regarding what is proper and what is honorable.
This can lead to a conflict between what is or is not permitted, and what is considered proper or improper, honorable or less than honorable.
This quote is a reminder to ourselves that just because we are allowed to do something does not make that thing right or honorable.
Why is doing the honorable thing important?
Let’s start with the obvious contrary position: If you do the dishonorable thing, what happens? Even if it is legal or permissible under law or stricture, what happens to us if we do what is less than honorable? How does that impact our view, or even our value of ourselves?
Does it lift us up in the eyes of our friends and family, or does it separate us from them? Does doing the dishonorable thing bring honor to us, our family, our group or country? Or will it lead to being excluded, shunned or completely shut out? I think the answer is self evident.
So we have considered what comes from doing what is permitted, even if it is not honorable. But we have a choice. We can choose to not do it, even though it is permitted. Why? Because of our beliefs are regarding what is proper and improper, what is honorable, and what is not.
No, the decision may not always be easy, and temptation is always there. But the choice is much easier when you frame the decision not by what is permissible, but by what is honorable. You might not get the chance to do all that others might, but you’ll probably sleep a little better at night.
Where can I apply this in my life?
To me, this is the decision often called the Moral Dilemma. This typically happens, as the saying states, when our moral values say a choice is not honorable, but logic says it is permitted. A simple example would be found money. Do you look for the person who lost it, or try to pocket it without being noticed?
Understand that doing such a thing infrequently, while not the best possible path, isn’t the end of the world. But it does taint your future decisions, and perhaps even taint your character. Your reputation, of course, would depend on who saw you, and how often they talked about it to others. The best course would be to do it as little as possible, right?
That leads us to the next question: What is honorable? That very much depends on how and where you were raised. Different cultures value some traits more than others. What is honorable to one society may be considered silly, or even worse, in another. In this hodgepodge of values, there can be misunderstanding and even conflict.
This means that communication can be critical in explaining your point of view and listening to the viewpoints of others. Ultimately, you have to live with your decision, but knowing how your choice could impact your relationships with other people or groups is important.
If any of you have seen the movie Lawrence of Arabia, you probably remember the scene when, to keep the tribes united, Lawrence has to do the unthinkable. But he had to abide by the values of the tribesmen and do what they considered honorable, despite his personal dislike of the action.
Realize that most of us will never find ourselves in such a desperate situation, but the lesson is clear. Sometimes there will be conflict between what different groups of people feel is the proper, permitted, and honorable things to do. What we do at that point is up to us, our values and what we think is honorable.
Whether it’s driving faster than the posted speed limit or the taking of a life, honorable and permissible choices come in all sizes. Some, of course, come more frequently and some have more serious consequences. But if we practice on the little things, when the big ones come to us, we are better prepared to choose wisely.
What will you do differently today to hold yourself more closely to your values and what you believe to be morally correct and honorable?