Writer’s Life #4 – Hecht and the presumption of values

It would seem rational that any creature capable of feeling, contemplating, and praising kindness would in fact be extraordinarily kind, but we are not. We may strive for true altruism, pure love, and total clarity, yet we can not possess these ultimate virtues; for some this suggests that the ultimate virtues exist elsewhere. –from Doubt, by Jennifer Michael Hecht.

typewriter-md As well written and educated as she is, you would think a scholar such as Jennifer Michael Hecht would refrain from making blanket statements she attributes to the whole of humanity.

At the end of her first statement here (above): “It would seem rational that any creature capable of feeling, contemplating, and praising kindness would in fact be extraordinarily kind, but we are not…”

Obviously she is not speaking for herself. She includes all of us when she says, “…we are not.”

Many people are not kind. But many are. Some of us attempt to cultivate kindness, though many times there are days we fall short. It’s like the idea of happiness. You see people taking happiness tests to determine how happy they are. Then come the suggestions: get a dog, a boyfriend, join a church. Then you’ll be more happy.

Unfortunately, life is not so simple. Happiness is not a constant, like hair, or eye color. Yes, we can have days in which we feel happier than others, but it is fleeting, like any mood. We can have a generally happy outlook on life, but we cannot maintain “happy” all the time. Though kindness is more trait than mood, it’s difficult to maintain constantly. Then again, I’m speaking for myself. In general, I like to think most people have some value of kindness they cultivate toward their human family.

She is right in that we strive for virtues [Def.: virtues: ideals of goodness]. We don’t always achieve them, because they are ideals. Ideals, we may never be able to live up to fully, but mentally present for us to cling to. They do not exist upon a higher plane for many of us. They are modes of conduct–perhaps codes–which we build our lives around. When making the statement that we can not possess (meaning to own?) the virtues, I cannot fully agree, depending on how the term ‘possess’ is being used.

We may not own those virtues individually, but as one of the higher forms of intellect on this planet, we have the power of choice and reason. Humans have the ability to choose how they behave toward one another, other beings and the environment.

Do we wake thinking, “how can I be kind or fair toward my fellow beings today?”

Probably not. But in our interactions with one another, we can note how we’re feeling and thinking and moderate our behaviors with those things in mind. We all have that potential. I think part of exploring the human condition is developing the potential we have within ourselves. But like everything we do in our lives, these are individual choices.

If we want a fairer world, I believe we have to make our own little corner of the universe fairer in the way we deal with others. Just because life is not fair, does not mean it’s okay to behave unfairly toward others. Or, a better example: because a thief steals your car, does not make it okay for you to steal your neighbor’s.

As far as those virtues existing “elsewhere”, as Hecht writes, I believe she is speaking for herself. I don’t have an Elsewhere. I do have a mind that holds those values clearly, though I don’t always behave in a fashion that upholds those values. And when I don’t, I have a loud guilty conscious (in the voice of my father, grandmother or HH the Dali Lama) that lets me know immediately what I could have done better.

But of course, all of the above is my own interpretation of life and the mind. I just don’t want anyone (presumably) speaking for me.