Constructing the Soul of Our Moral Personage


No one said it would be easy, and it won’t. A well-designed, meaningful and rewarding life takes work. Careful thought. A big picture. Goals and objectives. Resolutions and resolve. Passion and restraint. A moral compass and a voice uniting conscience and deed.

Success in the new year is also going to take a willingness to return to the drawing board as we face inertia, criticism, moral dilemmas, cheap-shots, complexity, disappointment, breakdowns, rivals or the Scoreboard’s almighty force that authoritatively and convincingly defines, manages and ranks our individuality by assessing the stuff we’ve acquired.

So, we have hopes, goals, objectives and dreams. And then what happens? Life. Messy, complex, contingent, imperfect life. We must also deal with the sometimes absurd, sometimes agonizing stuff of life that foils the best-laid plans of every one of us.

Think about it. Obviously right or ambivalence-free decisions and choices are rare and easily upset by adversity or everyday bad news. And then later, self-doubt and second thoughts may sideline them anyway. The signposts are few and vague. In fact, a complicated, emotionally complex, entangled mix of 1) the immediate, 2) the conventionally allowable and 3) the attainable influences much of the action we take. Even some of the well-informed choices we make in good conscience subject us to pangs of regret and to consequences such as loss, failure and disappointment.

There’s more:

  • There are limits to what relationships can provide — whether we choose to marry, commit, parent.
  • If we don’t choose to practice religion, we’ll experience moments of meaninglessness. If we do practice religion, we’ll still have to face down existential anxiety.
  • If we choose to indulge our passions, we might hurt those who would have us choose otherwise.
  • If we forego our passions, we might grow old feeling we have lived a terrible and little life.

Plus, regardless of the excellence of our judgments, decisions and choices, we can expect feelings of blame, shame, anger, loneliness and indifference.

Then there’s the rock-and-a-hard-place, even-Solomon-wouldn’t-get-it-right stuff that can leave us feeling pummeled, bruised, dazed.

In fact, what do “the rules” demand? Is the amount of time we spend with children, aging parents, partner, or on community projects, a matter of inclination, or of choice, or of obligation? And what about the crucial stuff of our biographical entrepreneurship? Think about it. Don’t most of us wish to be known as individuals free to steward our independent agency (to think for ourselves) and our moral personage? And then of course, there is a difference between knowing what is right and doing the right thing.

The need for a strong moral personage has never been clearer. Yet, the soul of our moral personage, of our private and personal life, is neither easily come by nor maintained. Granted, we want very much to get it right. We want to be true to the truth. But in pursuing truth, what are we being true to? What authority are we deferring to, or simply making?


A moral personage is constructed piece by piece. It involves a combination of personal discipline, inquiry, reflection and nerve. A meaningful moral personage also requires an extensive remodeling of the conflicting, perhaps waffling, beliefs, vanities, assumptions and prejudices we have (by gene) or were given (by convention) before we are actually able to design a life for ourselves.

For example, we know we value self-control, self-determination, self-initiative and self-possession, but of what active practices and restraints are these values made? How do we gain creative control of them, especially when our circumstances are far from optimal?

We know that we value kindness, contribution and empathy, but of what activism are these values made? How do we gain creative control of them, and stand for them, especially when hate mongering has become such a popular means of exerting control?

We know that we value moderation, integrity and fair play, but of what conduct are these values constituted?

And frankly, how ready are we for hardship? Some people are far luckier (or more corrupt) than others. But no one escapes the disappointment and shock that accompany being betrayed or seriously scammed; nor the anger stimulated by antagonism, unfairness and indifference; nor the melancholy attending fatigue, demoralization and loss; nor the repercussions of impulsiveness and excessiveness; nor the heartache and embarrassment that accompany a loss of dignity or damage to reputation; nor defeats recorded on the Scoreboard.

Yes, in some situations, we can call upon public, institutionalized means (such as the legal system) to demand a certain material compensation for losses suffered, but still, recovering from emotional pain is generally a private (and moral) obligation. Do we have the moral resources to return to stability, to improve our ability to emotionally register and metabolize the facts and then to get on with our lives?

As I said upfront, no one said it would be easy, and it won’t. Happily, the civilized and civilizing spirit is powerful — a shock of recognition about who we are, about who we might yet be and about what we can give back to the world.

Yet, just as we struggle with the relentless systemic and social demands that shape our lives, we affirm our solidarity with the civilized spirit. Born of our capacity to not only cope, but also to care and share, love and laugh, create and inspire, this enlightened enterprise for improving human life began at the dawn of history.

In this spirit, there’s work to do. Lots of it; in the struggle for the soul of humanity, we should expect to do no less. Our possibility to reach out, to live mindfully and generously gives outward presence to inner grace, inspires wonder, hope and energy, and sweetens our own lives as well as the lives of those near and dear.

Indeed, in this light, struggling to make sense of the realities of our shared experience and to bring into existence and sustain an honest and decent moral personage, we have our New Year’s Resolution.

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Arnold Siegel

Arnold Siegel

Philosopher, Contemporary American thinker, Founder of Autonomy and Life