How to Achieve Moral Perfection: The Ben Franklin Formula

“What is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” – Ernest Hemingway (Death in the Afternoon, 1932)

Ben Franklin, one of the world’s wisest writers and the thinker upon whose advice ETR is based, began his adult life with a very ambitious goal. He wanted to achieve moral perfection.

Moral perfection. Today, even the idea of it sounds pompous and proud.

Most of the people I know don’t even think in these terms. On a conscious level, they think about their family, their friends, their work. When it comes to achievement, they talk about money or fame or even happiness.

But the idea of devoting your life to an abstraction — and one so hard to define and difficult to reach — well, what’s the point?

To understand Ben Franklin’s ambition, you need to consider that for him morality meant something that may be different than what it means to you. For Franklin, morality was a way of behaving that resulted in a balanced life that contained the best of all possible human experiences.

The kind of morality that might result in self-mutilation, ethnic or religious warfare, or suicide bombing is not the kind of morality Ben Franklin was thinking of.

Morality, for Franklin, was the right way to act in any given situation. That included what you did to earn a living and how you treated your kids. It encompassed your behavior as a friend and neighbor as well as your intellectual pursuits. It was about your personal hygiene and your manner of speaking. It was about all of you — private and public, personal and social, physical and spiritual.

Here are Franklin’s prescriptions for moral perfection:

1. “Temperence: Eat not to dullness. Drink not to elevation.”

2. “Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.”

3. “Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.”

4. “Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.”

5. “Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”

6. “Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.”

7. “Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and if you speak, speak accordingly.”

8. “Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”

9. “Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”

10. “Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes, or habitation.”

11. “Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents common or unavoidable.”

12. “Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring — never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”

13. “Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

As Randy Cohen points out in his column “The Ethicist” in The New York Times Magazine, the particular virtues that Franklin selected “are, above all, practical. They promote diligence and accomplishment.”

That’s what we are doing here, isn’t it? Trying to accomplish the practical goals in our lives?

When you first signed up for ETR, I asked you to identify your four utmost life goals. I suggested that one of them be health-related, one wealth-related, one about the social you, and the fourth about the personal you.

The method we’ve been using to achieve our goals is both practical and empirical. We imitate the successful behavior that has worked for others with the reasonable expectation that it will work for us.

That’s what Ben Franklin did. And even though he never achieved moral perfection, he believed that his radical idea of attempting the effort was a good one. “Tho’ I never arrived at the perfection … I was (by trying) a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been.”

In future messages — as in past ones — I’ll treat each of these practical virtues in more detail.

Take a few minutes today to review Ben’s list and compare it to your own life goals and to the work you’ve been doing to achieve them. Ask yourself if you are doing enough or too much. Consider the more “radical” virtues by today’s standards: chastity, humility, and temperance.