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.