From Bernard Mayo’s perspective, the best place to look for moral guidance is a moral exemplar. Who are some moral exemplars in popular society and what makes them that?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The late Bernard Mayo's view on ethics and morality was summed up by him as follows:

"...Aristotle's moral theory is primarily focused not on what it is right to do but on what it is good to be; that is, on what character traits the good person possessess (e.g., courage, truthfulness, self-control).  Such an ethics of character possesses a practical simplicity that offsets the greater logical simplicity of an ethics of principles.  We find moral guidance by looking to a person who embodies, or a unified character type that exemplifies, some human ideal.  We become better, more virtuous, by imitating this ideal as much as it is possible for us to do." [Emphasis added]

In his oft-cited book Ethics and the Moral Life, Mayo emphasizes the importance of character over the exposition of a set of moral principles.  How people act on a regular basis, the kind of person they choose to be, is the moral examplar, or, as the old saying [attributed to C.S. Lewis] goes, "Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching." 

Taken to its extreme, as some have done, Mayo's ideal would be embodied in Jesus, and probably no one else.  Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Theresa are also frequently cited as examplars of a moral life.  The one thing pretty much all potential candidates would appear to have in common is that they are all deceased.  Whether even these paragons of virtue could survive with their reputations intact in today's world of ubiquitous surveillance by paparazzi, governments, disloyal friends and associates, etc., is fair to ask.

Today, many people look to prominent members of the clergy, and even to celebrities from the world of entertainment, for moral guidance.  George Clooney carries as much moral weight as the president of the United States, but that admittedly sets the bar exceedingly low.  Prominent liberal activists and conservative religious figures provide role models for some, but few could withstand the level of scrutiny expected of public figures.  The ideal moral example probably does not exist today.  As with discussions of what constitutes fine art, the matter is entirely subjective.