Nurturing Virtue

Earlier this year, I wrote a post series titled “The Virtues“, which proposed a secular reinvention of the seven cardinal virtues of theology. But I now realize that with this series, I was making an additional, implicit point: that it is possible for human beings to be consistently virtuous.

This was made clear to me in a recent e-mail correspondence with a Christian visitor:

One of the things that convinces me of my need for a savior is a long hard look at myself. In particular my absolute inability to hold to what I want to do and not do certain things that I have designated as bad… I think anyone who honestly tries will also discover their eventual inability.

This person was convinced by his religious beliefs that all humans are sinners, that consistently ethical behavior is impossible, and that there’s no point in even trying to be good because failure is the inevitable result. This is an extremely pessimistic view of human nature, to say the least. Many other religious traditions hold similar beliefs, asserting that the possibility of sin lurks behind all human behavior, and the only way to be safe is through a complex and tightly prescribed set of daily rituals and rules for virtually every activity a person might engage in. (The arbitrary identification of so many ordinary actions as sinful is probably part of the reason why many religions say that human beings are inherent evildoers.)

But humanist morality is different. In place of arcane rituals and gloomy creeds, humanist morality offers a simple, rational set of moral guidelines, derived from reason and based on evidence. These guidelines are flexible enough to handle the vast number of different situations a person may encounter, while avoiding moral relativism by maintaining a steadfast hold on a few foundational principles of universal applicability. Rather than appeasing the gods or following arbitrary commands, the basis of a humanist’s morality lies in our interactions with our fellow people, whom we can help or harm by our actions.

This is not to say that being moral is always easy or that it takes no effort. Ethical behavior is a skill, and like any other skill, it needs to be learned and practiced. (I sparred with the Tempter over this point last autumn.) Becoming an ethical person is like gardening – like, perhaps, planting a tree. The endeavor starts out slowly, and requires patience and care to achieve good results. But in the end, with diligence, the effort bears fruit, and one can obtain a result as strong and steadfast as the mountains.

The point of moral training is not to become perfect or to never again make mistakes. Obviously, that is impossible. We are human beings, and we do make mistakes. Any moral system that expects anything different is an irrational and unrealistic system crafted without regard to human nature or the limits of human perception. Instead, moral perfection – insofar as it can be attained – lies in our ability to recognize our mistakes, to atone for them, and to alter our behavior in whatever way is needful so that they do not happen again. If a person displays a persistent unwillingness to learn from their mistakes and correct their behavior, then that person could be rightfully described as immoral. A true humanist, by contrast, makes self-improvement one of the guiding principles of their life, and knows that when we stumble, the right response is to right ourselves and continue along wiser. We may never attain some hypothetical ideal of moral perfection, but it is more than possible for a compassionate, dedicated person to lead a life of consistent virtue.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://6thfloorblog.blogspot.com 6th Floor Blogger

    I think the important part of the quote is

    “not do certain things that I have designated as bad”

    This probably should’ve been

    “That my religion has designated as bad”.

    There’s a difference between mistakes and perceived sin. There are plenty of things that this person may be designating as bad, that aren’t harmful to anyone, except himself for how he’s decided to feel about something that would be otherwise harmless.

    Moral people make mistakes, and work to atone or learn from them. Immoral people don’t make mistakes, that action was more likely intentional.

  • http://6thfloorblog.blogspot.com 6th Floor Blogger

    I think the important part of the quote is

    “not do certain things that I have designated as bad”

    This probably should’ve been

    “That my religion has designated as bad”.

    There’s a difference between mistakes and perceived sin. There are plenty of things that this person may be designating as bad, that aren’t harmful to anyone, except himself for how he’s decided to feel about something that would be otherwise harmless.

    Moral people make mistakes, and work to atone or learn from them. Immoral people don’t make mistakes, that action was more likely intentional.

  • http://imjustanoutsider.blogspot.com/ JustAnOutsider

    My personal belief is that the Golden Rule is innate within human nature; the search for loopholes seems to be equally innate. Unfortunately, religion (at least the Abrahamic religions) provides one heck of a loophole. Far from offering the only way to be a moral person; religion defines whole classes of people you don’t have to treat as equals. Look at the Old Testament history of how the Jewish people treated non-Jews or look at the current Christian treatment of homosexuals.

    I don’t completely buy into your theory of universal morality. It’s possible to take into consideration environmental realities without slipping all the way into moral relativism. In pre-industrial times things like slavery and strict gender roles were arguably necessary. While not making them strictly moral, at worst they would qualify as morally grey.

    Which brings up the other big problem with the Abrahamic religions. The morals they advocate are seriously out of date. Even if someone takes a liberal view, the fact remains that an accurate reading of the source material for their religion leads to numerous views that are repugnant to anyone with a modern sense of morality.

    And last, those claiming religion is necessary for morality are ignoring that religious beliefs don’t actually cause someone to behave morally. As someone who has spent considerable time as a born-again Christian and also as an agnostic, I can say my morality wasn’t affected in the least by the status of my religious beliefs. Current news reports back up my contention. (see Vitter, David and Allen, Bob)

  • http://imjustanoutsider.blogspot.com/ JustAnOutsider

    My personal belief is that the Golden Rule is innate within human nature; the search for loopholes seems to be equally innate. Unfortunately, religion (at least the Abrahamic religions) provides one heck of a loophole. Far from offering the only way to be a moral person; religion defines whole classes of people you don’t have to treat as equals. Look at the Old Testament history of how the Jewish people treated non-Jews or look at the current Christian treatment of homosexuals.

    I don’t completely buy into your theory of universal morality. It’s possible to take into consideration environmental realities without slipping all the way into moral relativism. In pre-industrial times things like slavery and strict gender roles were arguably necessary. While not making them strictly moral, at worst they would qualify as morally grey.

    Which brings up the other big problem with the Abrahamic religions. The morals they advocate are seriously out of date. Even if someone takes a liberal view, the fact remains that an accurate reading of the source material for their religion leads to numerous views that are repugnant to anyone with a modern sense of morality.

    And last, those claiming religion is necessary for morality are ignoring that religious beliefs don’t actually cause someone to behave morally. As someone who has spent considerable time as a born-again Christian and also as an agnostic, I can say my morality wasn’t affected in the least by the status of my religious beliefs. Current news reports back up my contention. (see Vitter, David and Allen, Bob)

  • James Bradbury

    In pre-industrial times things like slavery and strict gender roles were arguably necessary.

    Necessary for whom?

  • James Bradbury

    In pre-industrial times things like slavery and strict gender roles were arguably necessary.

    Necessary for whom?

  • Herb

    and that there’s no point in even trying to be good because failure is the inevitable result

    This does not follow from the text you quoted, and it seems like a strawman to me. Did your visitor actually express this idea? I disagree that we “need a savior” because we are imperfect, and of course, those who believe that they are saved by faith alone may have less motivation to be moral. But in general, having a savior is not equivalent to giving up on morality.

  • Herb

    In fact, I suggest that (in theory) having a savior gives a Christian more atheistic values. On acknowledging that you will be forgiven of all your sins, Christian morality loses its system of divine rewards/punishment, and you can only be moral for its own sake. Whether theists actually behave morally in practice is another question.

  • Herb

    In fact, I suggest that (in theory) having a savior gives a Christian more atheistic values. On acknowledging that you will be forgiven of all your sins, Christian morality loses its system of divine rewards/punishment, and you can only be moral for its own sake. Whether theists actually behave morally in practice is another question.

  • http://shared-difference.blogspot.com/ James Buckley

    An excellent post. I’d encourage others to read some existentialist philosophy, perhaps beginning with Satre’s Existentialism and Humanism. Here we learn that in the real world there is no one ultimate VIRTUE, applicable to all people in all situations. It would be much easier if all our moral needs were laid out on one stone tablet brought down from Mount Sinai. But stone tablets or other commands from above are just attractive distractions, enabling us to evade the pressures surrounding the choice we must make.True virtue comes when we (knowing that there is no one clear right answer) realise that we, ourselves, must make difficult choices. Whatever may be in our pasts, now, here and now, we must take responsibility for who we are and what we do.

    True virtue comes together with courage, as in each new moment we face the challenge of deciding what good we can do.

    James
    http://shared-difference.blogspot.com/

  • http://shared-difference.blogspot.com/ James Buckley

    An excellent post. I’d encourage others to read some existentialist philosophy, perhaps beginning with Satre’s Existentialism and Humanism. Here we learn that in the real world there is no one ultimate VIRTUE, applicable to all people in all situations. It would be much easier if all our moral needs were laid out on one stone tablet brought down from Mount Sinai. But stone tablets or other commands from above are just attractive distractions, enabling us to evade the pressures surrounding the choice we must make.True virtue comes when we (knowing that there is no one clear right answer) realise that we, ourselves, must make difficult choices. Whatever may be in our pasts, now, here and now, we must take responsibility for who we are and what we do.

    True virtue comes together with courage, as in each new moment we face the challenge of deciding what good we can do.

    James
    http://shared-difference.blogspot.com/

  • http://imjustanoutsider.blogspot.com/ JustAnOutsider

    “Necessary for whom?”

    For the good of society as a whole. In sufficiently primitive times, producing children would have been the number one priority for an adult. Strict gender roles helped ensure that enough children were born for a society to grow and flourish.

    Societies like ancient Egypt and Rome wouldn’t have been possible without slavery. Medieval society wouldn’t have been possible without the serfs who weren’t significantly better than slaves. Slavery enabled a leisure class. Without a leisure class, the scientific progress that enables today’s society wouldn’t have been possible.

    My theory is that a democratic society that embraces individual liberty isn’t practical without a certain degree of technological sophistication. Essentially, if the needs of a society are great enough, those needs outweigh the needs of the individual. The realities of life in the past were sufficiently different that those of life today that I don’t believe that we can conclude that what would be immoral today was immoral then.

  • OMGF

    This does not follow from the text you quoted, and it seems like a strawman to me.

    Perhaps you have not heard of the doctrine of moral depravity? This is no strawman, it’s an actual position. Whatever we do, including rushing into burning buildings to save small children is seen as sinful to god unless and until we are saved. After you are saved, it’s a done deal, but god compells you to want to do good deeds/works.

    I disagree that we “need a savior” because we are imperfect, and of course, those who believe that they are saved by faith alone may have less motivation to be moral. But in general, having a savior is not equivalent to giving up on morality.

    It is not giving up on morality, but being incapable of being moral without a savior.

    In fact, I suggest that (in theory) having a savior gives a Christian more atheistic values.

    One could only hope.

  • Alex Weaver

    JustAnOutsider:

    This strikes me as an argument from lack of imagination. That a social organization based on slave labor cannot survive without it is trivially true, but your argument seems to implicitly presume that any “intermediate” civilization must be based on slave labor–alternate approaches are surely logically possible. Ditto for the gender roles thing; it does not logically follow that a civilization requires enforced gender roles and/or the oppression of one gender in order to keep reproductive rates up, nor is this always desirable, as continuous population growth in any society inevitably results in the population outstripping the available resources, which tends to be destructive in varying degrees to that society, depending on how it is handled.

    Adam:

    I agree. However, I’m curious: how would you be inclined to regard a person who insists, seemingly sincerely, that they are trying hard to improve themselves, yet over a significant timescale there is no discernible improvement in their harmful behaviors?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Herb:

    This does not follow from the text you quoted, and it seems like a strawman to me. Did your visitor actually express this idea?

    Yes, he did. As you can see in the quoted excerpt, he bemoaned his “absolute inability to… not do certain things that I have designated as bad”, and says that anyone who tries will find the same outcome.

    This is not a rare or unusual idea. It’s an explicit tenet of evangelical Christian faith, which holds that humans are universally and utterly depraved, that we are incapable of being righteous, and that only through God’s undeserved mercy is there any hope of salvation.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Ethical behavior is a skill

    Precisely. And how I love to grow it!

    I suspect that both slavery and the subjugation of women arose mostly out of power structures: people did it because they could. It’s one thing to say that having women looking after the children was an important structure, necessary for survival, and quite another thing to say that the near-universal valuing of men over women was also necessary. I don’t think the latter was necessary for survival or society at all, I think it arose because women were (a) physically weaker and (b) vulnerable during pregnancy and after childbirth.

    Did we need slavery to get to where we are now? I don’t know. But regarding serfdom, consider as an example the Stedingers. They were doing just fine running themselves until they were excommunicated for being too independent of any nobility and subjected to a politically-motivated crusade. It wasn’t that the peasants couldn’t run themselves. In this case they even did a fairly good job of defending themselves, too. They just couldn’t hold out against a united nobility and church that wasn’t willing to see relatively free peasants anywhere.

  • Herb

    OMGF and Ebonmuse, I see what you’re saying, but I’m not interested in what is sinful to God or to Christians – I’m interested in whether a Christian who believes that humans are inherently depraved can/will be moral by atheistic standards.

    Ebonmuse, to me your visitor’s words only convey a frustration with his/her limitations and a desire for something better. The “absolute inability” talk seems to me like hyperbole. If he/she actually concludes that there is no point in trying to be good, well that is very unfortunate, but I don’t think that the pessimistic viewpoint follows directly from the religious premise. E.g. if I were Christian, I imagine that knowing that I was saved despite my imperfection would take some of the pressure off, and that might make it easier for me to live a more moral life. So rather than the pessimism following from the beliefs, I wonder if instead, your visitor’s beliefs simply serve to justify his/her lack of willpower.

  • Alex Weaver

    So rather than the pessimism following from the beliefs, I wonder if instead, your visitor’s beliefs simply serve to justify his/her lack of willpower.

    And you don’t see how justifying a lack of willpower by appealing to the belief that that lack of willpower is the most that any human can aspire to might discourage personal moral development?

  • Herb

    Alex, of course I see – sure there is some cyclical aspect to it. All I’m saying is that it’s possible that this person’s religious beliefs did not initially cause his/her giving up on acting morally (because as far as I see, there is no contradiction between the beliefs and at least trying to act morally). Instead, maybe the beliefs justify and then reinforce an already existing unwillingness, which is also bad, but it’s an important distinction I think. I’ll typically blame a person before I blame an idea.

  • Jim Baerg

    “Societies like ancient Egypt and Rome wouldn’t have been possible without slavery. Medieval society wouldn’t have been possible without the serfs who weren’t significantly better than slaves. Slavery enabled a leisure class. Without a leisure class, the scientific progress that enables today’s society wouldn’t have been possible.”

    However, I have seen the argument that slavery impeded the development of technology & science because those who had the power to make decisions saw no point in labor saving technology since “there are plenty of peasants”. Also slavery made any sort of manual labor not respectable so scientific experimentation wasn’t done.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    JAO, no offense buddy but that has got to be one of the dumbest things I ever heard.

    The problem with societies like Egypt and Rome is that the labor and talents of society were used by the ruling class to carry out their own vanity projects. Yes, the pyramids of Egypt are awesome structures, but did the Egyptian people themselves over the millenia derive any benefit from them?

    I echo what Jim Baerg wrote above. Slavery impeded technological advancement.

    For all of Rome’s vaunted engineering achievements, it was also backwards in many ways. Some people make a big deal out of the roads the Romans built to traverse the empire, but they were so narrow that two way wagon traffic was impossible, so the roads did nothing to develop overland commercial trade.


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