On Being Good: the Secular Virtues

Once we’re over about 12 years old, we’re seldom encouraged to be nice. We’re expected to make efforts in all kinds of areas (chiefly around work), but the idea of expending energy thinking about, and then practicing the art of kindness sounds bizarre, even eerie. The notion of trying to be a ‘good person’ conjures up all sorts of negative associations: of piety, solemnity, bloodlessness and sexual renunciation. Announce that you are working on your body and you will attract envy and respect. Declare that you are working on your character, and you will be thought insane. It’s an indication of just how out of favour the project of being good has become that ‘wicked’ has morphed into a term of praise.

The main exception to this lack of interest in applied ethics comes in religion. Whatever disagreements one might have with their definitions of goodness or the practical implementations of their own creeds, religions do not stop trying to encourage their followers to be good. They give them commandments and rituals, they deliver them sermons and ask them to rehearse lessons in prayers and in songs.

Even for a life-long atheist, there is something interesting about these efforts. Might we learn something from them? The standard answer is that we can’t, because religious morality comes from God, which by definition atheists have no time for. Yet the origins of religious ethics couldn’t of course (for an atheist) have come from God, they lay in the pragmatic need of our earliest communities to control their members’ tendencies towards violence, and to foster in them contrary habits of harmony and forgiveness. Religious codes began as cautionary precepts, which were projected into the sky and reflected back to earth in disembodied and majestic forms. Injunctions to be sympathetic or patient stemmed from an awareness that these were the qualities which could draw societies back from fragmentation and self-destruction. So vital were these rules to our survival that for thousands of years we did not dare to admit that we ourselves had formulated them, lest this expose them to critical scrutiny and irreverent handling. We had to pretend that morality came from the heavens in order to insulate it from our own laziness and disregard.

Even if we now realise we made up our own moral exhortations, we have no cause to do away with them all. We continue to need reminders to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so. We no longer have to be brought into line by the threat of Hell or the promise of Paradise; we merely have to be reminded that it is we ourselves – that is, the most mature and reasonable parts of us (seldom present in the midst of our crises and obsessions) – who want to lead the sort of lives which we once imagined supernatural beings demanded of us.

It’s often said that we now can’t agree as a society on a code of good behaviour – and that this is why people are now especially tolerant of, and afraid to complain about, misbehaviour. Christianity used to have list of 7 key virtues that it believed all its followers should heed. There’s nowadays no scientific answer to exactly how many virtues a non-believer might choose to be guided by; yet what seems key is to recognise that we probably need some kind of list to correct our worst tendencies.

If I had to design a list of 10 virtues that could apply today, I might go for the following (they speak most clearly to me, precisely because I find them hardest to apply):

Resilience
The art of keeping going even when things are looking dark; of accepting reversals as normal, of refusing to frighten others with one’s own fears and of remembering that human nature is in the end reassuringly tough.

Empathy
The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person. The courage to become someone else and look back at oneself with honesty.

Patience
We lose our temper because we believe that things should be perfect. We’ve grown so good in some areas (putting men on the moon etc.), we’re ever less able to deal with things that still insist on going wrong; like traffic, government, other people… We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.

Sacrifice
We’re hardwired to seek our own advantage but also have a miraculous ability, very occasionally, to forego our own satisfactions in the name of someone or something else. We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.

Politeness
Politeness has a bad name. We often assume it’s about being ‘fake’ (which is meant to be bad) as opposed to ‘really ourselves’ (which is meant to be good). However, given what we’re really like deep down, we should spare others too much exposure to our deeper selves. We need to learn ‘manners’, which aren’t evil – they are the necessary internal rules of civilisation. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.

Humour
Seeing the funny sides of situations and of oneself doesn’t sound very serious, but it is integral to wisdom, because it’s a sign that one is able to put a benevolent finger on the gap between what we want to happen and what life can actually provide; what we dream of being and what we actually are, what we hope other people will be like and what they are actually like. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled. It’s one of the best things we can do with our sadness.

Self-Awareness
To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.

Forgiveness
Forgiveness means a long memory of all the times when we wouldn’t have got through life without someone cutting us some slack. It’s recognising that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.

Hope
The way the world is now is only a pale shadow of what it could one day be. We’re still only at the beginning of history. As you get older, despair becomes far easier, almost reflex (whereas in adolescence, it was still cool and adventurous). Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.

Confidence
The greatest projects and schemes die for no grander reasons than that we don’t dare. Confidence isn’t arrogance, it’s based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.

The exhortations we need about being kinder are typically not terribly complex. These are all things we know we ought to do but which we manage to forget at key moments. We are holding to an unhelpfully sophisticated view of ourselves if we think we are above hearing well-placed, blunt and simply structured reminders about goodness. There is greater wisdom in accepting that we are in most situations clunking and rather simple machines, with only a few moving parts and in want of much the same firm, basic guidance as is naturally offered to children and domestic animals.

A lack of absolute agreement on how to be good should not in itself be enough to disqualify us from investigating and promoting the notion of such a project. Ultimately, each one of us needs to formulate his or her own list of important virtues. Although the priority of moral instruction should be general, the list of virtues to guide us should be specific, given that we all incline in astonishingly personal ways to idiocy and craziness.

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