Site Map The Secular Morality Project - Towards a Shared Morality

More on the Triax

What follows is an edited version of the chapters in the BGTS that are most concerned about the Triax. The most important change is that the word "Integrity" is replaced by the phrase "Self-Honesty". When the book was written, it was believed that the word "integrity" did not have a widely agreed meaning and could be hijacked to avoid using the clumsy phrase "self-honesty". The project's seminar on Honesty and Integrity came to the conclusion that integrity meant "having a moral code, declaring it publicly and keeping to it". Indeed the project's efforts to find a word in, any language, that means precisely self-honesty have so far proved fruitless. This rather supports our view that mankind tries to avoid this issue.

The book The Backslider's Guide to Success attempted to be brief, readable and friendly by design. With that in mind, it was written as a partial autobiography by Philip Veasey. Some of the longer anecdotes have been edited out but, although it is recognised that it is less appropriate here, writing in the first person remains.


Chapter 4 The Triax

We are all faced every day with making dozens of decisions on how to behave. If we had to think carefully about all of them we would get nothing done and we only survive by having internalised a set of behaviour patterns, which we follow almost automatically. Many of us could describe these by declaring a number of rules that, when followed, determine the behaviour we should adopt. For example most people think there should be a rule that says we must not steal. Our morality is this set of rules, whether we can articulate them or not.

For some people, morals are rules handed to them by a higher authority and are accepted whether or not they seem to be sensible. For me, a morality should help people to be happier and more successful. The more widely it is adopted the greater should be these outcomes for all concerned. I feel entitled to examine and test a morality to see whether it can deliver these benefits and am happy to reject it if it fails. I am not one of those who feel happy to follow a moral code just because some authority figure tells me I should.

I believe an effective morality can be based on just three rules. I call it the Triax and its rules are:
  1. Be honest with yourself (Self-Honesty)
  2. Be kind
  3. Be courageous

So few words, on which to base all moral decision making, leaves a lot of room for questioning as to what exactly they mean and, for this reason, each rule is covered by its own chapter. This will still leave some terms undefined or ill-defined but should be sufficient for most people to understand what is intended. However it should help at this point to give the following summary explanation of the way in which the terms are used in the Triax:
  • Self-Honesty means not lying to yourself. Notice that this does not demand that you tell the truth to others. Nor does it, on its own, insist that you act on your acceptance of the truth.
  • Kindness means the need for others to be happy before we can be completely happy
  • Courage means the ability and willingness to combat fear and not let it govern our behaviour.

Many people's immediate response to this will probably be, "Surely these rules are too high level to be useful". It often happens that when we abstract something to the highest possible level we are left with something that is obviously true but offers no new insight. I would claim that this is not the case with the Triax and, in what follows, you will have the opportunity to judge for yourself. In practice I use the Triax to test various options in situations where I am not sure how to behave. The world can look very complicated at times but, generally speaking, looking at a situation from these three viewpoints lays bare the essentials.

A good example of how the three rules work together is lying to other people as distinct from lying to yourself.
  • We might lie out of fear of the punishment we deserve. Lack of courage.
  • We might lie through being too selfish to make amends to those we have injured. Lack of kindness
  • Some might lie courageously in the face of torture to save a loved one from a similar fate. No lack of self-honesty here, just staggering courage and kindness.
  • We might lie to damage someone else's reputation or hurt them in some other way. No loss of self-honesty, but no kindness.
  • We might lie to save someone from a fact or an opinion, which we believe they do not need to know about, and that we believe would hurt them. Probably kindness, but in many situations that look like this, the person being lied to could cope with the truth and would be better off knowing it. In this latter case, the liar is probably showing a lack of kindness and courage and compounding this with lack of self-honesty.

How we feel about people telling lies depends mostly on their true motives for lying. Whenever we contemplate telling a lie, we can use the Triax to judge our own. Indeed it is this process of thinking things through for ourselves which I believe is the key to morality. The world changes constantly and the situations we face are changing with them. When we let others develop a detailed set of rules for us to follow, we abdicate from a responsibility to make sure that the rules are appropriate for the particular situation. We fail to develop "moral judgement" or even common sense.

The name Triax was originally chosen to reflect the sense in which the three rules were not unlike three axioms from which all other useful rules could be deduced. It is better thought of as three axes along which all solutions to moral problems should be measured.

How is it then that the three rules of the Triax can be so effective as a test for our moral decisions? There should be no surprise that one of them is "Be Kind". One of the more famous quotes from Christianity's New Testament is "And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity". From popular culture the Beatles sing, "All You Need is Love". The fact is that most of the morals that people can easily agree upon can be deduced from the Triax requirement for kindness. Murder, stealing, even adultery cannot happen without some unkindness. One reason why self-honesty and courage are also needed is that they give kindness backbone. Without self-honesty, our kindness may not be genuine, as we cannot answer ourselves honestly when we question our motives. Without courage, fear of the consequences for us may sometimes stop us behaving kindly. The three qualities of Kindness, Courage and Self-Honesty are mutually reinforcing and failure in one can compromise the others.

I need to follow all three rules in order to feel good about myself. I believe that the more others follow all three, the happier and safer I will be. Note that I am not saying "Everyone should follow the Triax". To say "should" would be to suggest that there is some authority external to me, and worthy of respect, that is laying down the rules. I can only speak for myself but I suspect I am not alone. The next three chapters develop the understanding of the roles of self-honesty, kindness and courage in the Triax.

Chapter 5 Self-Honesty
What is Self-Honesty?
We lie to ourselves when we want something to be true so much that we convince ourselves it is true. We push aside anything that might lead us to the truth, in pursuit of our own convenience and comfort. A great deal is made in many moral codes of the need to be "honest", in the sense of not lying to others. Self-honesty is more fundamental. If we are prepared to lie to ourselves, then any attempt to tell the truth to others must be severely compromised. We won't even have truth to offer.

Some truths are uncomfortable, but if we don't face up to them we rob ourselves of the meaning of our lives. I have a profound sense that my life is a unique puzzle that I have been given to solve. Like a hand of bridge or poker it may have good or bad cards, but the challenge of life is to play it as well as it can be played. I am hardly likely to achieve this if I persuade myself that a 2 is an ace because it would be convenient, or that an opponent's King is a 10. Lying to myself robs me of the chance of living my unique life and of solving the puzzle.

Threats to Self-Honesty
Why do we lie to ourselves? I suggest that the two main reasons are in order to protect our self-esteem and because we fear the unknown, including what happens after death. Fear of the unknown is the mainspring of religion and, in Chapter 8 under "Why morality must be secular", I discuss the cost of such fears. Even those who do not surrender to the fear of the unknown are unlikely to escape the odd lapse of self-honesty when their self-esteem is threatened; so how does this happen?

People with self-esteem have an image of themselves with which they are comfortable. When life takes a turn that challenges that image they have to respond. Sometimes the image is adjusted, possibly with well-justified decrease or increase of self-esteem. When we turn out to be even more admirable than we thought, we can usually cope quite well with the change. When it is the reverse, we might accept our limitations, work to overcome them and restore our self-esteem. We might even change the values our self-esteem is based on so that it is no longer threatened. Often we refuse to change ourselves or accept even a temporary drop in our self-esteem. This can only be done by changing our perception of the events that brought about the challenge. Our view of the external world has to be altered through rationalisation. Sometimes these reinterpretations are justified, more often they are not.

Has anyone ever done you wrong in a way that you felt no one could possibly see as anything other than disgraceful? Maybe you have had an apology, quite likely not, because that person has created a reality for themselves in which they did the right thing. Never underestimate the extent that people will go to justify themselves. We have all seen so many examples. The thief who is just plain greedy and selfish who convinces himself that he has a justifiable grudge against society. The person cheating on their partner convincing themselves that the partner has been doing the same thing, when there is no evidence. The national leader who tries to convince himself that he is bringing political enlightenment to the countries he invades and that their natural resources are coincidental. These are extreme examples but we are all surrounded by small temptations. Perhaps today I should be going to the gym but I convince myself that I had better not as my back is sore. I carefully suppress my knowledge that bad backs generally benefit from exercise, even when it is a bit painful, and avoid admitting to myself that I am lazy. If we habitually give way to such self-deceptions, we are unlikely to maintain our self-honesty in the face of a major challenge.

How can we know when we are lying to ourselves?
When our self-esteem takes a knock, we have a number of alternatives:
  • We can honestly accept our shortcomings and work hard to do better. Our self-esteem can be restored by succeeding in this or at least by proving ourselves a valiant trier.
  • We can recognise that the values on which we base our self-esteem are inappropriate and change them. When we keep on having problems with self-esteem it is often because we are basing it on the wrong things. Changing values is often a good thing. It is a necessary part of growing up.
  • We might lie to ourselves about our own nature and change the basis for our self-esteem for convenience. We are unlikely to escape the consequences of living such a lie.
  • We might lie to ourselves about our experience of the world, convincing ourselves of more comfortable explanations of what has happened.

Whether our problem is with ourselves or with the external world, we develop beliefs to support our self-esteem. It is these beliefs that we must subject to scrutiny. We need to ask ourselves such questions as:
  • Could this belief be based on a hallucination?
  • Has someone taken advantage of my suggestibility at a moment when I was under great stress?
  • Is this belief just a little too convenient in the way it makes me feel better (an all-powerful god with nothing better to do than love me perfectly)?
  • Are there other possible explanations of the world that make fewer, less powerful assumptions. Have I applied Occam's Razor ?

Answers to these questions seldom come easily and are often hard to accept. It is only by a commitment to search relentlessly for the truth in ourselves that we have any chance of maintaining our Self-Honesty.

In pursuit of the Holy Grail of Self-Honesty, we have to recognise just what slippery characters we are. One of our favourite tricks is to study a subject just enough to uncover those facts that support what we want to believe and to go no further. For virtually every subject that I can think of, I can easily identify people who are much better informed than I am and yet they hold beliefs that are diametrically opposed to each other. What right then have I got to claim to be sure I have got it right? Sometimes we deceive ourselves by restricting the selection of the facts we take the trouble to uncover, but more often it is our interpretation of them.

I realised some time ago that there was not as much difference as our voting habits suggested, between me and those friends of mine who support different political parties. We might all be in possession of the same facts, and want much the same outcomes, but we had different feelings about the nature of human beings, and the differences in the people we trusted showed almost tribal behaviour. This is why throwing facts at each other is usually so pointless. The only thing we can be sure of is that the more we learn, the more we recognise there is still to learn. We need to try and understand what we would like to believe and question hard whether we have any real justification for believing it. We have to consciously open our minds to the other facts and interpretations, or surrender our self-honesty.

Chapter 6 Kindness
What is kindness?
By kindness I mean the need for others to be happy before we can be completely happy. This is one of the components which most people would include in their definition of "love" so some distinctions need to be made.

Around the age of 11, I was deeply impressed by the courtly love of King Arthur's court, or at least by the sanitised Victorian versions of that legend (I only read Sir Thomas Malory's more bawdy 15th century Le Morte D'Arthur much later). In courtly love, women are put on a pedestal and are nearly always pure and honourable. This contributed to my having some rather unreasonable expectations of women and an early recognition that when two conversing strangers used the word "love" there was a high probability of misunderstanding. More worryingly, this also seemed to be true of friends and lovers. This motivated me to read more widely on the meaning of the term in various cultures and situations and I quickly came to the conclusion that the central aspect of love could be rigorously defined. This was that "A loves B if B's happiness is necessary for A's happiness", and it really was that simple.

Of all the thoughts I have had in my life, this has been the most useful and has best stood the test of time. Obviously it refers to only one thing that people might be trying to express when they use the word "love", but it is precisely what is meant by "kindness" in the Triax. It is perhaps not surprising, though not a little depressing, that most people speak very imprecisely about love throughout their lives. Attempts to analyse it will always be resisted by those whose power depends on it being kept as ambiguous as possible. This results in all sorts of nonsense. There are many passionate claims of love, by stalkers and the like, which do not satisfy my definition and this suits me fine. It always puzzles me why anyone should feel under any obligation just because someone tells them they love them, when all they mean is that they desire or need them. I think that no one should be grateful for a "love" that has no kindness.

There is an obvious reason why "kindness" happens - it has benefits for race survival. I used to call it the "love instinct" and found it very helpful to think of it like any other instinct, randomly distributed in a population and manifesting itself at different intensities in different people. I liked the fact that my definition implied that every A loved A. If A and B are the same person, my definition of love becomes "A loves A if A's happiness is necessary for A's happiness". Since "A's happiness is necessary for A's happiness" must be true for any person A, then A loves A is always true. In other words we all have no option but to love ourselves perfectly and seek our own happiness. Even when we seem to be making huge sacrifices for others, we are really acting this way to feel better about ourselves and maybe gain happiness through theirs. I like this because it deflates those that make a great show of how selfless they are, often in order to emotionally blackmail the people they are claiming to help.

The amount of people's kindness is affected by two factors. First by the strength of the kindness instinct with which they were born, secondly by their experience in life. Even a weak instinct can usually be nurtured by good parenting and socialisation to make a person kinder. Even a strong instinct can be stunted by harsh experience to produce someone capable of cruelty. It may be true that there are certain sociopaths who remain entirely selfish no matter how much kindness they are shown because there is effectively nothing to build on.

The distance factor
An important feature of this love instinct is that we love ourselves perfectly and love those around us to a degree which usually decreases with "distance" (although of course there can be some for whom our hatred grows the more we see of them). How quickly the "love instinct" fades with distance is a way in which people can be characterised. Thus even some of the world's most awful people were very kind to their families but were quite comfortable with the extermination of groups of people who were "far away", geographically, culturally or ethnically. I can remember times in my youth when I felt myself just bursting with love for the whole human race, but the target for that love has shrunk progressively over the years. I still suspect that I have a much stronger than average love instinct, but for this I do not expect approval from some higher authority. I hope for a like response from enough other humans to sustain me, but I also expect to be taken advantage of more than the average person.

Having no kindness
If someone has practically no kindness instinct then they can still have self-honesty (and quite possibly courage). In such cases I would still feel respect for them and come to terms with them. They are much like the tiger. Their behaviour is fairly predictable and I can choose to either flee or fight. Just as a tiger has great physical beauty, some of the meanest people I know can at least be entertaining. Just as with a tiger, I may find it fairly easy to organise my life so that I am not in any danger from them. Cats generally kill for food although sometimes they toy with their prey for practice. They don't set out to destroy every living thing around them just because they hate everyone. I have worked quite closely and successfully with "tigers" by understanding what they wanted and making sure that I could safely get what I wanted.

Tiger people could be said to be quite honest in their dealings with me, they don't pretend to be anything other than what they are. There are others, however, whose whole nature appears to be about taking advantage of the kindness instinct in others and cheating their way to a survival advantage. This seems almost inevitable since the evolution of a kindness instinct creates an evolutionary niche for such a person. In monkey social groups it has been observed that while alpha males compete openly for females, there are "sneaky" monkeys that successfully mate with the females when the alpha males are not looking. The females seem to more than welcome this extra attention and excitement. Research into the patterns of this behaviour across the monkey generations indicates that there are sneaky genes, and that it is to the advantage of a female to have offspring with a spread of survival strategies. The parallels to this can easily be observed in human social groups.

As long as they admit it to themselves, I can retain some respect for the self-honesty of anyone who is by nature a tiger or cheat. This does not mean I like them and I may feel it is perfectly natural for me to want society to be organised so that they are reproductively challenged. However what really upsets me is the way unkindness often plays out in people who have no self-honesty. This is when people become wantonly destructive, perhaps because of their inner torment and anger. I was once employed by an alcoholic who was in such turmoil. He could not face what he was and took it out on those around him in sometimes chaotic and sometimes cunning ways. These are the truly dangerous people who take pleasure in hurting others. I cannot relate to them and they frequently catch me out as I cannot predict their behaviour.

Chapter 7 Courage
What is courage?
By courage I do not mean bravado. I mean the ability and willingness to combat fear and not let it govern our behaviour. Fear is, of course, a necessary advisor to our behaviour. As my son was growing up, I was sometimes frustrated by the way he would shy away from some activities that my neighbour's son threw himself into. I consoled myself with the fact that this was because my neighbour's son's bravado was born of his inability to recognise dangerous situations. My son's intelligence and imagination forced him to develop courage. In relation to the Triax we are talking about moral courage - the willingness to follow through on what your morality tells you that you should be doing, even when this is frightening in some way. The fear could be of pain, disapproval or of the many things that might threaten the satisfaction of our needs.

We can reduce our fear of threatening situations by developing our physical strength and our skill in handling danger. The latter usually involves a mixture of learning coping techniques and of a graduated exposure to danger. As such it requires a habit of courage or "willingness to combat fear". I would describe myself as more timid than average by nature, but I suspect that I am also more angry than average at the limitations this might impose on me. I have therefore derived a lot of satisfaction from such activities as rock climbing where, by use of the right techniques, something very threatening can be made as safe as you want it to be.

It is only through becoming courageous that one can be genuinely kind. My favourite quote from the Bible is "Out of the strong came forth sweetness", (Judges 14:14). My familiarity with it owes more to its prominence on the packaging of the Golden Syrup with which I sweetened my porridge as a child than to study of the bible. The meaning I take from it is one that was probably never intended but it serves as a valuable exhortation to make sure that we do all we can to become strong. I mean here the strength of the gentle giant, not that of the power or money mad monsters whose insecurities drive them to ever greater megalomania. Many poor people have great courage and kindness and are much more likely to be generous than those who have enriched themselves through greed.

Why we need courage
Courage is necessary as part of the Triax because without courage we cannot face what we are and maintain our self-honesty. Also it sometimes takes courage to be kind, since we may be making ourselves vulnerable or there could be "less for us". Without courage our kindness cannot be relied upon and we let down ourselves and those we love. On the other hand, a strong feeling of kindness, or love, is one of the few things that can give us courage beyond our expectations.

Courage can also be necessary for bare survival. At about the age of 27, I read the last book that I felt, on its own, had really changed my view of life. It was The Informed Heart by Bruno Bettleheim. This I thought to be a great book as it showed me the importance of courage. It asked how on earth it could be that so many Jews finished up walking meekly into the gas chambers of Germany's Third Reich. As they did it, they were clearly in a very poor position to resist and many probably forced their suspicions of what was about to happen out of their minds, preferring to believe their guard's lies. But why had they not resisted or escaped abroad when they were stronger? Bettleheim described it all as a process by which people are gradually brought to their knees by ever increasing restrictions and humiliations. Some goods confiscated, some exclusions from employment, some restrictions on travel. At each step there is hope that this is as far as it will go, so why throw away what you have left by putting your head above the parapet or making a risky move to a country in which you have no connections or reputation. At each step there are less and less resources of wealth and strength with which to make a stand. The message was very clear - unless you set yourself some standard that you are prepared to defend, well before the bullies take you down through this process, you can be destroyed without a fight.

But how courageous do I have to be and why? When is it noble and when is it foolhardy to overcome our fears and throw ourselves into the path of danger? We can work on our strength and skills to make dangerous situations much less so, but ultimately there may come that time when we should venture far beyond our comfort zones and do something that terrifies us. Some people will instinctively choose the right time to act but most of us could easily get caught by the delay trap. So part of the answer is to know where to draw a line and say "I will be pushed no further than that before risking all". If you are too quick to react, your life may be too turbulent for you ever to make anything of it, but if you wait too long, then you may become too frightened and weak to have much chance of surviving. The key is to set the limit when you can make the best judgement - well before the time you reach it. Only if you have done this will you believe action is vital when the time comes.

The process described in "The Informed Heart", by which people's courage is broken down, is the mirror image of the process by which bullies are developed. Every time someone gives way, the bully is emboldened. Because of this, I believe that the first public duty of everyone is to resist bullies.