We live in an age of too much information, not enough attention. Key to achieving the good life is a capacity to discern what is important from what appears to be so: decoding the moral signal from the increasing noise of life.
In recent years, morality has appeared in public discussion under the guise of heroic choices. We are asked to save the earth, or to end war or hunger. Yet I know perfectly well I can’t accomplish such lofty goals. I may wish, out of a sense of humanity, to prevent genocide in Darfur or liberate Tibet, but I can do nothing about it beyond talk.
The same can be said about abortion, gay rights, all the so-called “moral issues” which torment our public debates. I can vote for candidates who are for or against, but I personally lack the power to do more than persuade.
These are political questions. They pertain to government rather than behavior. In a democracy, they are fair game, but they also present a distraction from the struggle for a moral life. “Telescopic philanthropy” flatters our vanity with its call for heroic poses. Small gestures grow large in self-importance. I can, in my own eyes, become savior of the earth by driving a hybrid. I can make poverty history by attending a rock concert.
It’s morally hollow. It’s noise: information from faraway places confusing me about what is important in my life.
Morality is personal, and it’s all about action, not talk. I live in a small world of family, friends, work, and community: that is my moral sphere, where my personal behavior has consequences for good or evil. Every day I add to one or the other. Every person I encounter I leave better or worse. My character becomes the sum of those days, those encounters: I can’t evade responsibility by attending a rock concert.
The moral life is a burden and a struggle, in which vanity plays the devil’s advocate. I may wish to appear wise to my children, important to my fellow workers, handsome and charming to the women around me, a dominant force in the world, the ultimate winner. That way lies perdition. The moral life feels like a burden because it reorients the world away from self: what matters is what others wish, what their vanities tell them.
Humility is the starting position in the moral sphere. Humility is reality – vanity is a lie. My wife and children are more important than I am. Those are the facts. Everything I do to ease their everyday lives therefore redounds to my credit, while any attempt to bend them to my needs leaves me a meaner, smaller, more debased person.
If I abandon my family to join a campaign to save the earth, I have failed the test of my moral sphere. Gautama Buddha, who left his family for spiritual enlightenment, transgressed against morality for doing so, whatever his ultimate worth.
In the workplace, morality requires a difficult balance: humility toward those who rank behind me, but unvarnished honesty when dealing with the boss. Arrogance and servility are equally disgusting – two sides of the same human frailty.
I’ve never burned with career ambition, but I believe the desire to get ahead is healthy and natural. The cost matters, however. A promotion and bigger salary aren’t worth the sacrifice of my good character. Success and status don’t compensate for the neglect of my family.
The workplace has a ruling virtue: integrity. In this corner of my moral sphere, I must rise above fraud, deceit, and exploitation. It is at the workplace that we are often led to temptation: money changes hands, men and women meet away from their spouses, power and status are fought over and parceled out.
Integrity means I remain whole. I won’t crack like a mirror, and shatter into contradictory behaviors. I can’t be a good employee and a sexual predator, or a family man who cheats customers or steals from the company.
Community translates, in my mind, to my neighborhood, home to one of the great American virtues: neighborliness. If I see smoke coming from a neighbor’s window, or a stranger prowling around a neighbor’s yard, I’ll feel the same urgency as if it was my home in peril. This may sound obvious, but I have stayed in countries where neighbors, perceiving trouble, looked the other way.
Let my magnificent neighbor with the snowblower, already recorded on this blog, stand as an ideal for me to aspire.
My moral sphere is a small world, a limited space. The necessary virtues aren’t complex: humility with my family, integrity at work, neighborliness in my community – add loyalty to friends, and one has the basic package.
If all this sounds puritanical, then I’ve failed to convey what is at stake. The small world is what matters: the only place where you and I can matter. It’s all potentiality: all signal. The great joys and fun of life can only be had by success in this place.
The pursuit of happiness, Jefferson maintained, was identical to the practice of virtue. The practice of virtue in turn is possible only within my moral sphere. The rest is politics and posturing: noise from the great world.
With a clear conscience, I can ignore vast streams of information – endless dramas of death and destruction in places far beyond my reach – and fix my attention on the effect of my actions, for good or evil, closer to home.