In a 2019 Gallup poll, forty-seven percent of Americans rated U.S. moral values as “poor” and 36 percent of Americans rated them as “only fair.” In the last three years, 77 percent of those polled believe our moral and ethical values are getting worse.
These beliefs extend across political and religious beliefs, and across economic and educational levels. As a country, we believe we are becoming less moral and less ethical. Even as we lost faith in ourselves, the world’s view and trust in the United States has also gone down by as much as fifty percent in some reports.
Morals and ethics are the core of any society. They constitute a nation’s culture. They affect how we behave as neighbors or as allies, in grammar school or law school, on Wall Street or Main Street, in peace or in war. Instant connectivity and complexity arguably make moral beliefs and ethical practices more relevant than they were in the pre-Internet era. They are our bulwarks against chaos, and perhaps even social dissolution. Honesty, integrity, empathy, selflessness, moral courage, and ethical practice hold us together as a nation. They are worth sustaining and defending.
American political leaders must help influence altruistic morality. They must both drive and demonstrate the highest ethical standards. They must do so not because they are better than that rest of us, but because for better or worse they are the official face of our country. They are empowered by the American people to make decisions on our behalf, not for their own benefit. Our leaders must set a positive example, but far too many do not. We need to teach our children, some of who will be the next generation of political leadership, based on examples of those individuals who held the highest standards of morals and ethics.
From Socrates to Buddha, Gandhi to Mandela, from Malala to Mother Teresa, Christina Noble to Nadia Murad, people on every continent and in every culture have set examples of altruistic moral belief and ethical behavior that we all should seek to emulate and who we should teach our children about.
My father was someone that I always looked to for guidance. I sought to emulate his beliefs and his actions. He was a former Jesuit Catholic priest turned professor and scientist. My father led by word and by deed. He taught me ethics and morality through the study of philosophy, especially that of Socrates.
In early human cultures, supernational beliefs dominated. Two and half thousand years ago—and then within the matter of a few decades—three individuals changed that and made us responsible for our own destiny. They were Siddhatta Gotama (or the Buddha) in India, Kǒng Qiū (or Confucius) in China, and Socrates of Athens. Their ideas still shape our moral beliefs and our collective understanding of ethics. They encourage us to consider the best ways to build a just society, to live a good life, to pursue empathy and altruism.
Socrates is best known as being one of the founders of Western philosophy. He was also a soldier that fought in the Peloponnesian War. Socrates’ bravery in battle was matched only by the courage of his ideas. He encouraged people to rationally question every part of their lives. His philosophy was considered subversive to those who had the power. To these fearful critics, Socrates was a one-man philosophical insurgency. They put him on trial and sentenced him to death in 399 BCE. He famously continued to teach his students as he sipped the poison that killed him.
Plato was one of his students. He was from the wealthy aristocracy, perhaps even descended from a King. Yet he followed the often disheveled and lowly Socrates, a man who placed almost no value in the material wealth that Plato’s family held dear. Plato refused familial pressure to take a position of power, eschewing personal benefit. He went on to create some of the most impactful philosophical works of mankind. One of those works was The Republic, the book my father used most when teaching me.
In The Republic, Plato uses allegories to describe ethical constructs. The Allegory of the Cave and (as I took from it) the requirement that those who are educated should teach others. The allegory of the Ring of Gyges and (as I took from it) the idea that even when no one can see you, you still have an obligation to do the right thing. He also describes the ideal society, Kallipolis, and the concept of the just and ethical leader or what he calls the “Philosopher-King“.
Plato’s ideal ruler would be a person who would be not just intelligent but an intellectual; a person who serves others and who lives a life of modesty, no matter how wealthy they might be. Historians have debated who if anyone has ever met the standard set by Plato. One person often referenced as a true philosopher-king is Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius was the last of the Pax Romana or good emperors of Rome. These were emperors chosen by merit for their intellect and integrity. Aurelius was born into an aristocratic family in the Roman Empire in 121 CE. He could have had all the luxuries of the aristocracy. Instead, he chose the life of an ascetic, even sleeping on a straw mat instead of the ostentatious trappings of royalty. He could have followed any philosophy but he chose Stoicism, a philosophy that focused on being just to one another, and chose to focus on the teachings of Epictetus, a former slave.
Stoicism emerged in approximately 300 BCE when a ship sank off the port city of Piraeus in Greece. A man named Zeno was on that ship, along with all of his possessions. He swam ashore and walked into a bookstore where the bookseller was reading out loud from the dialogues of Socrates.
Zeno was fascinated and asked the bookseller where he could find a man like Socrates to learn from. The bookseller said nothing and simply pointed to a man walking by named Crates, a philosopher from the nearby city of Athens. Zeno followed him and eventually became his student. He studied under Crates and started the Stoic School in Athens.
Aurelius became the leader of the Roman Empire in 161 CE and served until 180 CE. He ruled perhaps as much as 20 percent of the world’s population, from England to Egypt and from the straits of Gibraltar to the Bosporus. This was an enormous area with a vast diversity of people and interests. During this time, Rome faced many challenges to include a pandemic, massive inequality in wealth, unending wars, and major internal civil unrest leading to sometimes violent uprisings.
Adjusting for the era, Aurelius had more wealth than perhaps anyone ever has had or will have. He had access to all the prurient pleasures that anyone could ever want. He had nearly absolute power over his empire and the people that lived in it. He owned Rome. He could have had anything he wanted without question. Instead, he chose to live a life of modesty. Instead of pursuing personal benefit, Aurelius chose to become the best person he could be. He did so without the expectation that he would ever achieve his objective.
He wrote of his struggles in his personal journal, his Meditations. These were private thoughts about the Stoic philosophy, focusing on self-criticism for the purpose of self-improvement. Many of these books were written while Aurelius was on military campaigns preparing for battle.
Many people, me included, learned about Aurelius while serving in the military. The former Secretary of Defense and four-star Marine General James Mattis, known for having a personal collection of over 7,000 books, famously carried a copy of Meditations throughout his deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Meditations has likely been on every military reading list since being published, making the U.S. Department of Defense’s “Book of the Year” in 2017.
Aurelius epitomized the virtues of a soldier. He expected and demonstrated mental and physical toughness, integrity, and the courage needed to be a warrior and to lead warriors. When Rome was threatened by the tribes of the north, he led from the front to defend the empire. He became one of the best military leaders of any generation. He endured all the same hardships of his soldiers. Aurelius refused to take leave and return to the comfortable trappings of Rome. In doing so, he saved Rome.
But Aurelius was more than just a philosopher for the warrior class. He was a leader for everyone to emulate. He also firmly believed that educated people had a duty to educate others:
Humans have come into being for the sake of each other, so either teach them or learn to bear them.Meditations 8:59
Americans should not ‘bear’ to have our next generation not educated on those who we believe are examples for others to emulate, be it Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John McCain, or John Lewis, be it Harriet Tubman, Mary Walker, Rosa Parks or Jane Addams, or many more.
When our schools eventually return to normal we need to fully integrate moral debate and courses on ethical practice into our curricula. And we need to do more than just teach subjects needed for a vocation. We need to teach from the ready and numerous examples of people who served altruistic purposes.
America needs to directly address its crisis of morality and ethics. After all, we are not Rome being ruled by an all-powerful Emperor, even if benevolent; we are a democracy led by leaders that we elected. Perhaps we will never have a true philosopher-king (or queen), but that doesn’t mean we should not try to make them.
We also need to address the issues of those that are in government that do not have the ethics necessary to serve. We need to pass sweeping and strong laws and regulations on government ethics to enforce the checks and balances of our democracy, to ensure there is no undue enrichment of leadership, and to ensure that those in power are held accountable for their actions or lack thereof. This will be the first step to turning our perception of ourselves around and for our children to have faith in the government they will inherit and trust in their fellow citizens.
If we fail to shore up the moral and ethical bulwarks of our society we will have to live with the consequences. We will almost certainly watch our international reputation continue to wane. We will continue to lose our way and fracture at our many seams. A philosopher-king like Aurelius—American democratic leaders like Aurelius—can help us change course and save us from ourselves.
Dedicated to my father Michael Joseph Mulroy
Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is the co-founder of Lobo Institute, a private firm consulting, advising, and teaching on current and future conflicts. Mulroy is a former United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East. He is a retired Central Intelligence Agency Paramilitary Operations Officer and United States Marine. In addition, he is a Senior Fellow for National Security and Defense Policy at the Middle East Institute, a member of the Board of Directors for Grassroots Reconciliation Group, and an ABC News National Security Analyst.
 Fiasco, Thomas E. Ricks, discussed in the Armed Forces Journal, August 1, 2006.