An article in the paper this weekend quoted a religious leader from New Jersey describing the basic message of his faith. "People should have high morals and be kind to each other," he said.
That seems hard to argue with.
So let's argue with it. Because actually this religious leader's formulation bothers me. What troubles me is the way he presents what seem to be two separate, distinct ideas: "high morals" and "kindness."
This doesn't seem to be a matter of repetition for emphasis. The religious leader isn't saying, "People should have high morals by being kind to each other," or "People should have high morals by which we mean be kind to each other." He is suggesting, instead, that there is something called "high morals" that exists and matters beyond the separate something of being kind to each other.
I'll somewhat grudgingly concede that this might be true in some technical sense, but I still don't like the distinction.
Before we get into that, I should note that kindness is a bit of an awkward term here. It tends to convey more an idea of niceness than of goodness — and as Little Red Riding Hood sings in Into the Woods, "nice is different than good."
Kindness seems less robust than, say, a word like justice. But while it may seem to mean less, it can also mean more. It's possible to treat someone justly without also treating them kindly, but if one is to be kind, one must also be just. There's no such thing, after all, as a kindly injustice. Nor is it possible to accept or allow injustice while still being, in any meaningful way, kind. (Stonewall Jackson, the eighth-grader's history book says, was "kind" to his slaves. No. No he wasn't. If he had been kind to them, then they would not have remained his slaves.)
So while kindness may be less comprehensive than love, which is the word I would have preferred to use here, it still seems adequate for the question I'm trying to get at, which is whether it is helpful to speak of a duty to "have high morals" as something that is or can be distinct from the duty to be kind to each other.
To justify the religious leader's formula above, all we really have to do is to find some examples of morality that aren't directly related to the obligation to "be kind to each other."
The most obvious examples of that sort of thing are the sorts of religious duties that I tend to think of as matters of piety rather than of morality (which is not to say that such matters are necessarily lesser just that they are something else). Sabbath-keeping, for example, is regarded as a moral matter for Jews and Christians, but it doesn't seem to be obviously related to or derived from the obligation to be kind to one another.
We can also find plenty of non-sectarian examples of what seem to be moral obligations that have little to do with being kind. Imagine, for example, a lone individual stranded on the proverbial jungle island, living on a diet of fruit, nuts and vegetables and thus, seemingly, freed from any relationship that might require this island dweller to exercise kindness. It still seems possible for such an isolated individual to behave morally or immorally. This hypothetical island-dweller will need to do work — to build a shelter, for example — and that work can be done with care or it can be done carelessly. That care or lack thereof involves a moral component. Care and craft would seem to be another realm of morality that can be considered distinct from being kind to each other.
So technically at least, it would seem that the religious leader's formula is valid. And yet I'm still not happy with it.
Here's why: It is true, as this formula suggests, that "be kind to each other" is not wholly sufficient as an expression of all that morality entails. But while kindness may not be sufficient, it is necessary. If kindness is not quite the whole of "high morals," such high morals cannot exist without it. Kindness — well, here let's use that better word — love may not quite be the only moral duty, but it trumps all others.
Talk of "high morals" as distinct from "be kind to each other" may be technically true, but it opens the door to the danger of allowing those other matters to override that essential duty of kindness.
And we do this all the time. We latch onto the pietistic duties of religion or the secular pieties of craft as thought they somehow exempted us from the obligation of kindness. We use them as excuses for our failure to be kind to each other. Given the choice, or when the need to choose inevitably arises, we opt for "high morals" rather than kindness. That's backwards.
"The sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath." Apart from "be kind to each other," high morals really aren't.