What does it mean to be a good person?
Years ago, I read one of John Steinbeck’s lesser-known books, a thin novel called The Short Reign of Pippin IV. I stumbled across this passage, which struck me so keenly that I copied it down right then, and have never forgotten it:
“It is a trap,” said Sister Hyacinthe, “like all other virtue – it is a trap. Where virtue is involved it is very difficult to tell oneself the truth, M’sieur. There are two kinds of virtue. One is passionate ambition and the other simply a desire for the peace which comes from not giving anyone any trouble.”
There are, indeed, two kinds of virtue: passive and active.
Passive virtue is what Steinbeck calls not giving anyone any trouble. More recently, Wil Wheaton formulated this as Wheaton’s Law: “Don’t be a dick.” Passive virtue says you can be good merely by not being bad.
Active virtue, however – Steinbeck’s passionate ambition – is very different. For active virtue, it isn’t enough to sit back, smile, and say “I’m not hurting anyone.” Active virtue demands that we go into the world and make it better.
Our society and our laws say that passive virtue is good enough. Active virtue is optional. This makes sense – for law and society. You can’t require passionate ambition, after all.
But suppose we care about more than just following the law and doing what society expects. Suppose we hope to be something like that most mythical of creatures: the Good Person. Is passive virtue really enough?
Imagine you’re leading a caravan through the Sahara Desert. You find some poor man dying of thirst, begging you for water. You have plenty to spare. But you say “I believe in Passive Virtue. I’m not required to help. I merely avoid starting any trouble.” You move on.
Is that okay?
Of course not. In Wil Wheaton’s terms, you are Being A Dick, even though you’ve technically satisfied passive virtue. That much seems obvious.
But be careful. Because once you admit to yourself that you have a requirement – a moral obligation – to help others, the world becomes a very different place.
Before, as a follower of Passive Virtue, you could spend twenty dollars on a couple of movie tickets and popcorn. You’re not hurting anyone, so it’s okay. But Active Virtue imposes a much heavier burden. Active Virtue insists the world is full of people dying of thirst, metaphorically and literally. It says that spending twenty dollars on entertainment is like pouring out water on the sand of the Sahara.
If giving twenty dollars to Doctors Without Borders, or the aid workers in Syrian refugee camps, or [insert your charity here], could save someone’s life, and I spend it on movies anyway, what does that mean? It sounds absurd to say that buying entertainment is ethically wrong, but what other conclusion can we draw?
How can we escape the obligation to spend all our money, all our time, all our resources, on helping others? And why should we want to?
We want our lives to be easy. That’s human nature. But being a good person means active virtue; and active virtue is very, very hard.
I’m as guilty as anyone. I won’t pretend otherwise. I buy all sorts of things I don’t need.
But in quieter moments, I can hear what virtue sounds like – and it sounds awfully distant to me.
What do you think?