It’s natural to consider morality in terms of those who demonstrate great courage or self-restraint: the heroes and saints among us. They give up their lives for their fellows, like the fighting men in Iraq today; they turn down a kingdom for domesticity, like George Washington at the starting-point of our history. Such individuals are exceptional, yet they are also exemplars of the highest levels of moral achievement. We are not likely to approach their greatness, but we are curiously comforted by them.
There is another level of morality, more basic and I believe more important, because it determines the moral level of a community: what I call, somewhat clumsily and for lack of better phrasing, everyday virtues. Heroes and saints can appear in the most corrupt societies – the very fact of corruption often seems to inspire them. But the everyday virtues set the tone for everyday life, for the way you and I manage to get through our day without inflicting or receiving violence, graft, deceit, or abuse of power.
What are the everyday virtues? At this point it is customary to produce a list, yet I’m hesitant to do so. My doubts about the usefulness listing virtues is more of an intuition than an argument; still, let me offer a couple of reasons.
First, words obscure the depths of a moral condition. Years ago, I wrote the word “sadist” and realized, in a flash, how utterly clinical and even trivial it sounded: a cloaking device rather than a revelation of those who rejoice in human suffering. Since then, I have felt skeptical about the ability of language to capture moral truths.
Secondly, let’s face it: virtues, once listed, grow dull, like butterflies that lose their color in death. I’m not sure why this should be so, since in life, as opposed to language, the everyday virtues serve as the foundation to a good and happy state, to the fulfillment of honest dreams and ambitions. That ought to be an interesting proposition, and I expect it is – in life. As a set of words, it’s as exciting as a shopping list. At the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, one finds crowds gazing on the drama of the Seven Deadly Sins, and nary a tourist bothering with the Seven Virtues.
But, without a list, how to proceed? Maybe, in imitation of the greatest moral teachers, by way of parables.
Consider the following. There were two women, two mothers who had lost their husbands through no fault of their own. One remarried a wealthy man, because she thought she needed support in raising her children. After some time, she ran into the second woman, and chided her for staying single. “You’re nice to look at. It’s a cold world,” she said. The second woman had nothing against marriage. She kept silent out of kindness, but she thought, “Some things can’t be bought.”
The everyday virtues flow out of the government of ourselves over our actions: a kind of self-rule. Every day, we are tempted to give it up, to put someone else in charge and find a way back to childhood. It can’t be done, of course, but that isn’t the point here. The first commandment of morality is “Assist others,” and it becomes an impossibility if we are too weak to govern our own selves.
Now consider this story. Two men were asked by their unsavory boss to produce reports. The first turned in a truthful report and was demoted. The second shaded his report, twisting the words to the edge of falsehood; and he received a raise and a promotion. Because the two had been friends, this second man, concerned, sought out the first. “You knew what our boss wanted, and you’re smart enough to give it to him without lying. Why did you tell the bald truth?” But the first man only smiled and told a joke: “I was afraid,” he said, “to act like a coward.”
In America, we aim at success. That is proper and right. But moral success often comes in conflict with material success, and the wish to please those with the power to assure our success, out of fear or self-interest, can trump the knowledge of what is right and true. Courage has always been viewed as necessary to warrior castes. Moral courage, I hold, is a necessary virtue to everyday life in a prosperous land. Without it, we’ll become slaves to mere stuff, owned by our possessions.
One last parable and I’m done. A man bought the car of his dreams, with a particularly fine leather interior. On the way home, he encountered an accident. An older man lay on the ground, bleeding profusely, on the verge of death. Nobody else was around. No cell phones were available. Without thinking, the man carried the battered oldster into his beautiful new car and drove him to a hospital. Weeks later, after the injured man had recovered, he made it a point to ask his rescuer: “Can I reward you in any way?” To which the latter, thinking of his dream car’s ruined interior, which would always reek of blood and gore, replied quite sincerely, “No, of course not.”