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Director of Education

Portrait of Bill AchbachA triangle overlayed by a lamp with the latin words scientia es potentia Is Merely "Doing the Right Thing" Enough?

In the 31st Degree we're confronted with the very complex and even controversial issue of "judgment." As portrayed in the work as you'll recall, the issue arises in the context of eternal judgment. The ancient Egyptian gods, sitting in judgment of the soul of a man named Cheris, present the fundamental questions for us to consider; among>
  • On what basis should a person be judged for "deeds done in the flesh?"
  • Should judgment consider an absolute standard only?
  • Does human imperfection legitimately play a role in what constitutes a reasonable standard for judgment?
  • Do motives matter, or are only actions or outcomes a proper subject for judgment?
  • Can a "wrong action" be done for the "right (and therefore acceptable) reason," and, if so, might a correct action also become unacceptable because of a wrong motive?

Beyond the context of the degree, of course, we turn our minds to the issue of the commonplace demand that we judge the actions of our fellow humans, and, as a result, we're faced with a terrible dilemma. Our interactions with others are filled with the necessity that we make certain judgments as to their motives, sincerity, intentions, etc. But how may we appropriately judge?

We know, on the one hand, that we cannot see what motivates our Brothers (or anyone else) to do the things that they do: it is impossible to understand another's motives with any degree of certainty. However, one of the Craft's most fundamental tenets is that "It is the internal and not the external qualifications of a man that Masonry regards!"

So, what are we to do? On the one hand, we know that we can never be certain of what drives another person to act, but, on the other hand, we are taught that it is only what motivates that action (the "internal") that should be important to us as Masons!

For myself, I have tentatively reached the conclusion that the solution to the dilemma is not in "how" to judge motives, or "why," or even what action to take as a result. Perhaps, instead, the essential thing is to realize "for whom" the effort to judge is important.

All human actions have motives. There is no apparently virtuous act ("charity," for example) which may not be committed for a malicious reason (personal gain or control over another, for instance). Likewise, a seemingly malicious act (consider "theft") may be rooted in a virtuous purpose ("feeding one's family.")

To whom does the motive for either a virtuous or a malicious action truly matter? If you are harmed by the actions of another, is it fundamentally important to you why they acted as they did? Perhaps, at some point in dealing with the occurrence, it will carry some importance to you, but is the reason basic to how your life was impacted by the action? Likewise, if you are helped by the actions of another, do you care deeply what their reason was for assisting you? Again, perhaps at some point, but not much at all initially.

To whom does motive truly matter? Moral philosophy as well as most systems of religious faith offer a clear (and similar) answer. In the Christian tradition, for example, one finds an answer in Matthew 6: 3-4: Matthew 6: 3-4: "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (NIV) The Great Teacher gives similar advice on how to pray (and for the same reason) in verses 5-8.

Ultimately, it matters to the Supreme Architect "why" I act as I do, and, because it matters to Him, it should be of critical importance to me: so much so that motive may become a matter for the closest examination on my part, in any decision to act. In the end, it is my duty to deal with the motives for my behavior, rather than becoming obsessed with those of others. My reason for acting may matter a great deal more than even the direct effect of my actions, since the latter's impact is temporal, while the latter's may be eternal.

Such is the lesson finally taught in the 31st Degree. The soul of Cheris is judged worthy of eternal life, but only when the gods sitting in judgment allow for human frailty and, thereby, consent to consider motives rather than merely outcomes: "the internal and not the "external."

So, consider: Is not the right thing, with the wrong motive, in a significant sense the wrong thing?

William B. Achbach, 32° KCCH
Director of Education and Minister of State, Denver Consistory

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