Quotations about   ethics

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‘Tis a hard task not to surrender morality for riches.

[Ardua res haec est opibus non tradere mores.]

Martial (AD c.39-c.103) Spanish Roman poet, satirist, epigrammatist [Marcus Valerius Martialis]
Epigrams [Epigrammata], Book 11, epigram 5 [tr. in Harbottle (1897)]
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Alt. trans.:
  • It is an arduous task to preserve morality from the corruption of riches. [tr. Bohn (1871)]
  • 'Tis rare, when riches cannot taint the mind. [tr. Anon. (1695)]
  • 'Tis a hard task this, not to sacrifice manners to wealth. [tr. Ker (1919)]
  • It is a hard business, not to compromise morals for riches. [tr. Nisbet (2015)]
Added on 14-Nov-18 | Last updated 14-Nov-18
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The trail of the serpent reaches into all the lucrative professions and practices of man, Each has its own wrongs. Each finds a tender and very intelligent conscience a disqualification for success. Each requires of the practitioner a certain shutting of the eyes, a certain dapperness and compliance, an acceptance of customs, a sequestration from the sentiments of generosity and love, a compromise of private opinion and lofty integrity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“Man the Reformer,” lecture, Boston (25 Jan 1841)
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Added on 7-Nov-17 | Last updated 7-Nov-17
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A man’s action is only a picture-book of his creed.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Letters and Social Aims, “Poetry and Imagination” (1876)
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Added on 11-Sep-17 | Last updated 11-Sep-17
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For action is indeed the sole medium of expression for ethics. We continually forget that the sphere of morals is the sphere of action, that speculation in regard to morality is but observation and must remain in the sphere of intellectual comment, that a situation does not really become moral until we are confronted with the question of what shall be done in a concrete case, and are obliged to act upon our theory.

Jane Addams (1860-1935) American reformer, suffragist, philosopher, author
Democracy and Social Ethics, ch. 7 “Political Reform” (1902)
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Added on 7-Aug-17 | Last updated 7-Aug-17
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All ambitions are lawful except those which climb upward on the miseries or credulities of mankind.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) Polish-English novelist [b. Teodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski]
A Personal Record (1912)
Added on 21-Jun-17 | Last updated 21-Jun-17
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Blessed is he who has never been tempted; for he knows not the frailty of his rectitude.

Christopher Morley (1890-1957) American journalist, novelist, essayist, poet
Inward Ho!, ch. 1 (1923)
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Added on 12-Jun-17 | Last updated 12-Jun-17
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We will more easily accomplish what is proper if, like archers, we have a target in sight.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) Greek philosopher
Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1 (350 BC)
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Alt. trans.:
  • “It concerns us to know the purposes we seek in life, for then, like archers aiming at a definite mark, we shall be more likely to attain what we want.”
  • Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right?" [tr. Ross]
Added on 2-Jun-17 | Last updated 2-Jun-17
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Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Peter F. Drucker (1909-2005) Austrian-American business consultant
(Attributed)

Frequently attributed to Drucker, but not found in his writings. See here for more discussion.
Added on 8-May-17 | Last updated 23-May-17
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No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) American philosopher and writer
Walden, “Economy” (1854)
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Added on 3-May-17 | Last updated 17-May-17
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Certainly, otherworldly concerns have a deep and significant place in all religions worthy of the name. Any religion that is completely earthbound sells its birthright for a mess of naturalistic pottage. Religion at its best, deals not only with man’s preliminary concerns but with his inescapable ultimate concern. When religion overlooks this basic fact it is reduced to a mere ethical system in which eternity is absorbed into time and God is relegated to a sort of meaningless figment of the human imagination.

But a religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions. Religion deals with both earth and heaven, both time and eternity. Religion operates not only on the vertical plane but also on the horizontal. It seeks not only to integrate men with God but to integrate men with men and each man with himself.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
Stride Toward Freedom (1958)
Added on 17-Mar-17 | Last updated 17-Mar-17
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Anybody who teaches a skill, which coaches do, is admirable. But sport doesn’t build character. Character is built pretty much by the time you’re six or seven. Sports reveals character. Sports heightens your perceptions. Let that be enough.

Heywood Hale Broun (1918-2001) American author, sportswriter, actor
In Ames Daily Tribune (16 Jan 1974)

Broun used a number of variations of this idea. It was more famously paraphrased in James Michener, Sports in America (1976), as "Sports do not build character. They reveal it." More discussion on this quote here.
Added on 18-Oct-16 | Last updated 18-Oct-16
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Popular reason does not always know how to act right, nor does it always act right when it knows.

Fisher Ames (1758-1808) American politician, orator
“No Revolutionist,” The Palladium (Nov 1801)
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Added on 5-May-16 | Last updated 5-May-16
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Under the guidance of reason, we should pursue the greater of two goods, and the lesser of two evils.

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) Dutch philosopher
Ethics, “Reason and Desire” (1677) [tr. Runes (1957)]
Added on 5-Apr-16 | Last updated 5-Apr-16
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The first thing to learn in intercourse with others is non-interference with their own peculiar ways of being happy, provided those ways do not assume to interfere by violence with ours.

James - non-interference - wist_info quote

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“What Makes a Life Significant,” Lecture, Harvard (1899)

Reprinted in Talks to Teachers on Psychology, Part 2, Lecture 3.
Added on 7-Jan-16 | Last updated 19-Apr-18
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The good person loves people and uses things, while the bad person loves things and uses people.

Sydney J. Harris (1917-1986) Anglo-American columnist, journalist, author
Pieces of Eight, ch. 4 (1982)
Added on 5-Jan-16 | Last updated 5-Jan-16
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Never for the sake of peace and quiet deny your convictions.

Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961) Swedish diplomat, author, UN Secretary-General (1953-61)
Markings (1963)
Added on 22-Dec-15 | Last updated 22-Dec-15
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Love and business and family and religion and art and patriotism are nothing but shadows of words when a man’s starving.

Henry - starving - wist_info

O. Henry (1862-1910) American short story writer [pseud. for William Sydney Porter]
“Cupid à la Carte,” Heart of the West (1907)
Added on 5-Nov-15 | Last updated 13-Nov-15
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Fear for one’s daily bread destroys one’s character.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) Czech-Austrian Jewish writer
In G. Janouch, “Conversations with Kafka” [tr. Rees] Encounter (Aug 1971)
Added on 29-Oct-15 | Last updated 29-Oct-15
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Might was the measure of right.

[Mensuraque juris / Vis erat.]

Lucan (AD 39-65) Roman poet [Marcus Annaeus Lucanus]
Pharsalia, 1.175
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Referring to earlier eras of anarchy.
Added on 27-Oct-15 | Last updated 27-Oct-15
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Every time I’ve done something that doesn’t feel right, it’s ended up not being right.

Mario Cuomo (1932-2015) American politician
(Attributed)
Added on 8-Jun-15 | Last updated 8-Jun-15
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Our public morality, then — the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives — depends on a consensus view of right and wrong. The values derived from religious belief will not — and should not — be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus. That values happen to be religious values does not deny them acceptability as a part of this consensus. But it does not require their acceptability, either.

Mario Cuomo (1932-2015) American politician
“Religious Belief and Public Morality,” John A. O’Brien Lecture, U. of Notre Dame (13 Sep 1984)
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Added on 4-May-15 | Last updated 4-May-15
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I don’t trust a man who talks about ethics when he’s picking my pockets.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) American writer
Time Enough For Love (1973)
Added on 21-Apr-15 | Last updated 21-Apr-15
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JAYNE: I just don’t get it. How’s a man get so wrong? Cuttin’ on his own face, rapin’ and murdering. Hell, I’ll kill a man in a fair fight. Or if I think he’s gonna start a fair fight. Or if he bothers me. Or if there’s a woman. Or if I’m gettin’ paid. Mostly only when I’m gettin’ paid. But these Reavers — last ten years they show up like the bogeyman from stories. Eating people alive? Where’s that get fun?

Joss Whedon (b. 1964) American screenwriter, author, producer [Joseph Hill Whedon]
Serenity (2005)
Added on 16-Apr-15 | Last updated 16-Apr-15
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Perhaps we need, for worldly success, virtues which make us loved and vices which make us feared.

Joseph Joubert (1754-1824) French moralist
Pensées (1838) [tr. Collins (1928)]
Added on 6-Mar-15 | Last updated 6-Mar-15
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Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause;
He noblest lives and noblest dies who makes and keeps his self-made laws.

Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) British explorer and orientalist
“The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi,” or “Lay of the Higher Law” (1880)
Added on 28-Jul-14 | Last updated 28-Jul-14
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Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics — a non-ideological ethics — would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”

Francis I (b. 1936) Argentinian Catholic Pope (2013- ) [b. Jorge Mario Bergoglio]
Evangelii Gaudium, sec. 57 (24 Nov 2013)
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Quoting St. John Chrysostom, De Lazaro Concio, II, 6
Added on 16-Jul-14 | Last updated 16-Jul-14
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It is an advantage to all narrow wisdom and narrow morals that their maxims have a plausible air; and, on a cursory view, appear equal to first principles. They are light and portable. They are as current as copper coin; and about as valuable. They serve equally the first capacities and the lowest; and they are, at least, as useful to the worst men as to the best. Of this stamp is the cant of not man, but measures; a sort of charm by which many people get loose from every honourable engagement.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) Anglo-Irish statesman, orator, philosopher
“Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents” (1770)
Added on 16-Apr-14 | Last updated 16-Apr-14
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Don’t complicate matters by assuming for me a cupidity and corruption beyond the limits I have set for myself. You’re suffering from an occupational disease. When an international financier is confronted by a holdup man with a gun, he automatically hands over not only his money and jewelry but also his shirt and pants, because it doesn’t occur to him that a robber might draw the line somewhere.

Rex Stout (1886-1975) American writer
Over My Dead Body, ch. 10 [Wolfe] (1940)
Added on 27-Mar-14 | Last updated 27-Mar-14
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This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) American poet
Leaves of Grass, Preface (1855-1892)
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Added on 5-Mar-14 | Last updated 5-Mar-14
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When believers and unbelievers live in the same manner — I distrust the religion.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Journal (1864)
Added on 3-Jan-14 | Last updated 3-Jan-14
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The virtues of society are the vices of the saint. The terror of reform is the discovery that we must cast away our virtues, or what we have always esteemed such, into the same pit that has consumed our grosser vices.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“Circles,” Essays: First Series (1841)
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Added on 6-Sep-13 | Last updated 27-Feb-17
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Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak. And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of pulpit, press, government, or the empty catch-phrases of politicians. Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn’t. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may. If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country — hold up your head! You have nothing to be ashamed of.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Papers of the Adams Family, Part 6 “Two Fragments from a Suppressed Book Called ‘Glances at History’ or ‘Outlines of History'” (1939)
Added on 14-Dec-12 | Last updated 26-Jan-19
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Ben, the ethics of sex is a thorny problem. Each of us is forced to grope for a solution he can live with — in the face of a preposterous, unworkable, and evil code of so-called ‘morals.’ Most of us know the code is wrong; almost everybody breaks it. But we pay Danegeld by feeling guilty and giving lip service. Willy-nilly, the code rides us, dead and stinking, an albatross around the neck.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) American writer
Stranger in a Strange Land [Jubal] (1961)
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In the 1960 "uncut" edition, the passage reads as: "Ben, the ethics of sex is a thorny problem because each of us has to find a solution pragmatically compatible with a preposterous, utterly unworkable, and evil public code of so-called "morals." Most of us know, or suspect, that the public code is wrong, and we break it. Nevertheless we pay Danegeld by giving it lip service in public and feeling guilty about breaking it in private. Willy-nilly, that code rides us, dead and stinking, an albatross around the neck."
Added on 24-Mar-09 | Last updated 11-Aug-17
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MACHEATH: You may proclaim, good sirs, your fine philosophy
But till you feed us, right and wrong can wait!

[Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.] 

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) German poet, playwright, director, dramaturgist
Die Dreigroschenoper [The Three-Penny Opera], Act 2, sc. 3 (1928)

Alt. trans.:
  • However much you twist, whatever lies you tell / Food is the first thing, morals follow on." [used by the Pet Shop Boys, "What Keeps Mankind Alive?", Can You Forgive Her (1993)
  • Food first, then morality.
  • Food comes first, then morals.
  • First comes a full stomach, then comes ethics.
Added on 23-Oct-08 | Last updated 5-Aug-14
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“Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) Russian novelist
The Brothers Karamazov, Part 2, book 5, ch. 4 [Ivan] (1880) [tr. Garnett (1912)]
Added on 20-Aug-07 | Last updated 24-Jul-15
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He has honor if he holds himself to an ideal of conduct though it is inconvenient, unprofitable, or dangerous to do so.

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) American journalist and author
A Preface to Morals, 11.3 (1929)
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 25-Apr-17
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I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) English novelist, essayist, critic, librettist [Edward Morgan Forster]
“What I Believe,” The Nation (16 Jul 1938)
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Sometimes misquoted as: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the decency to betray my country."
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 21-Nov-18
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