Imagine—let us give him a name—Joshua. We say he is a good man. To say so in general is to say that he supports and preserves life wherever it is found. This is the essence of good action, but action springs first and foremost from feelings and motives, and therefore let us begin there. We may well imagine that Joshua’s actions toward others flow from a sense of benevolence, even love. His actions generally exhibit kindness, or helping because of fellow feeling, particularly helping those who are in need and in danger. That makes some sense, I hope. After all, those who who have plenty and are safe do not need his help.
There is something, we might say, natural or earthy about him; he is the human embodiment of the same kindness found at least occasionally throughout the animal world. Decency to others just seems to come naturally to him. You have no doubt been delighted to meet kindness in people like Joshua; it is not altogether uncommon. When circumstances permit, he uses his time, his abilities, and his wealth to help others, especially those who cannot help themselves so well—particularly, of course, his immediate dependents. He does this without calculation: it is simply obvious to him that it is the right thing to do.
As a supporter of life itself, we might well imagine Joshua to be a man married with a wife and children, all of whom he loves deeply and supports. He knows from common experience that he cannot stray outside of marriage without ultimately destroying the chances of making a happy marriage, to say nothing of contracting diseases. Moreover, he keeps himself fit, not only because he has a healthy love of his own life, but also so he can live long and provide well for his wife and children. He also avoids excessive drinking and drugs, again because he knows that this can ruin his health and his ability to live well. There are various words for this latter cluster of virtues: temperance, moderation, self-control, even purity.
Now, we must not imagine Joshua to be living in an idealized utopia. He lives amidst the same viciousness that can be found throughout animal- and humankind alike. He is beset by all the selfish, hostile, and strange psychology of people, in a particular culture with particular beliefs, practices, and government—some good, some bad, some downright evil. Many of his virtues are a response to less-than-perfect situations he finds himself in.
For example, Joshua lives among predators of various kinds. As a champion of life, as it were, he is gentle and caring, not unnecessarily violent. A habit of violence would make him a danger to others and himself, after all. But he is also strong and adept at fighting when necessary, meaning he is an excellent protector; although he avoids fighting whenever he can, he refuses to let violent, unjust bullies take advantage of the weak. For this, he needs courage above all, as well as the discernment to judge those who deserve his protection and those who have earned his enmity. In choosing who, how, and when to fight, he needs wisdom, or good practical judgment. He is no fool.
Let us suppose that, fortunately, he lives in a time and place of relative peace, so he need not fight constantly. Still, of course, life for Joshua is not all roses. He also has personal conflicts, not just in protecting other individuals but on his own behalf. These might be conflicts over money or property or a woman or any of a number of other things. Now, if there is one thing that repeated human experience teaches us about conflict, particularly when it is between powerful people and especially heads of state, it is that conflict can become extremely destructive, not just of relationships, but of lives—even entire states—even civilizations. Again, mere observation of daily life as well as history teaches that skill in avoiding conflict, when unnecessary or unproductive, is one of the best ways to preserve life.
Practical wisdom (or to put it negatively, not being a fool), already mentioned, is one key element in such conflict avoidance. A second is justice: a devotion to treating others fairly, without giving anyone any undue advantage or disadvantage, reward or punishment. Justice is crucial because the animal kingdom (not just human beings) have an in-built notions of fairness. Joshua is deeply sensitive to that.
A third is humility. Humility is closely allied with justice and bears special mention. This implies, ultimately, that Joshua does not particularly weigh his own life and its advantages over those of others; rather, he takes the real value of others seriously, and he weighs the value of his own life appropriately, fairly, justly, as one among many. Such humility follows, with justice, from his being, at root, a preserver and defender of life, and of all human life particularly.
Consider a person who lacks humility but instead acts out of pride. To say so is just to say that such a person consistently places his own life and happiness above all others; he will find himself acting in ways that most of us will recognize as selfish, mean, calculating, vicious, and cruel. Such people are almost universally hated, at least eventually. They rarely become heroes, who sacrifice themselves in war or emergency, who rescue those in peril, who go out of their way to help the needy. Typically, it is only those who acknowledge the essential dignity and equal value of all human beings that are capable of the conflict-avoiding virtues of justice and humility, which are so universally applauded.
And that, of course, is how our Joshua is. All acknowledge him to be a humble man. This does not mean he is pliant and docile—he is no “pushover.” But, as I said, he avoids needless, foolish conflict, and he genuinely loves and helps others, precisely because he sees his life as one among many, each of which has intrinsic, precious value. And this humble self-evaluation manifests itself in an attitude of ease with and support of children, women, the poor, the elderly, the foreigner, and the bereaved. He has no reason to elevate himself above others, so naturally he does not.
Now, Joshua is not perfect. He makes mistakes. He can even act viciously, cowardly, foolishly, proudly, and selfishly at times; he is human. But he knows that others are, if anything, even less perfect than he is. It is natural, to some extent, for us to harbor resentment for past wrongs. Joshua avoids doing so, because he knows it will lead only to worse and worse conflict. He practices forgiveness, because that truly is essential to being able to interact with others in a way that really supports them. He also begs forgiveness when he knows he is wrong; he is quick to apologize and to express remorse, seeing this as again essential to smooth interaction with fallible human beings.
I could, but will not, go on at much greater length about how various essential virtues, such as I have listed, ramify into greater and greater details as special cases arise. But I do want to add one virtue which might be described as a “covering” virtue, which goes under various names: integrity, honor, decency, and righteousness. As I said before, Joshua is no fool. He reflects on his actions, is reasonably well educated, and he is familiar with the wisdom of his place and time. He reflects, to some extent at least, on the very fact that he is a being subject to moral constraints. So he does not merely happen to practice good habits or virtues as I have stated; this is no accident. Rather, he quite deliberately chooses and cultivates principles. That he lives up to a moral code is a matter of righteous pride for him—this “pride,” of course, is decidedly not opposed to the humility he also practices. The opposite of this better sort of pride is not humility but a sense of his own abject worthlessness: simply, he could not live with himself if he were to do certain horrible things, and he knows this about himself. The word dignity, in one sense, conveys the same thing.
I invite you to consider all of these life-supporting virtues together. I say that nothing could be more natural than these virtues that characterize Joshua’s life. If you confess that you are somehow unfamiliar with them, then you thereby also confess that you are immature, or perhaps incredibly idiotic, or else monstrous, inhuman, and lacking a soul.
Now, without exactly constructing a moral theory, I want you to notice that these various virtues do as it were militate in favor of life. They create and preserve life. They also enhance life; they make it better. Moreover, practiced in concert with others, these principles have the power to create splendid civilizations—which bring even higher degrees of flourishing life. Some such cluster of life-affirming virtues has been essential to the development of civilization on all the habitable continents of the Earth, wherever civilizations have taken root, some wealthier and powerful and some less. But in all of them, by whatever degree mixed with other, vicious tendencies, decent behavior has been regarded by the wise as a key element of a flourishing civilization. This is famously true of Israel, Greece, and Rome, but also of various Chinese dynasties, India, Muslim societies, and African tribes. All can be interrogated as to their moral ideals, and similar notes can be found in all of them.
I say “similar note” advisedly, and grasping this is important if you are to avoid misunderstanding me. I am certainly not saying that there have been identical moral principles throughout the world and throughout history. Clearly there have not; there have been great differences, especially on the details. For example, the precise Judeo-Christian principle of humility is hard to find among the ancient Greeks; but the Greeks did speak of a vice of hubris, overweening pride, which would inevitably be punished, and they did sometimes celebrate a virtue of modesty, or avoiding shameful behavior, and generosity or beneficence was regarded as a key virtue. But again, the Judeo-Christian notion of self-effacing humility and putting others first was foreign in ancient Greece. Still, the Greeks did have some notion of humility, and like everyone, they would have admired Joshua.
Is Joshua unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition? Or to the West? Surely not. Surely you know this sort of person. And he is admired wherever he is from, and held up as a paragon of virtue in all cultures. He is the sort of man that good people everywhere celebrate.
Am I wrong?