We moderns are always grasping for a hero’s morality, but our vision of what heros look like is often distorted. As the Vulgar Moralist once wrote:
In recent years, morality has appeared in public discussion under the guise of heroic choices. We are asked to save the earth, or to end war or hunger. Yet I know perfectly well I can’t accomplish such lofty goals. I may wish, out of a sense of humanity, to prevent genocide in Darfur or liberate Tibet, but I can do nothing about it beyond talk.
The people who devote themselves to these causes are not heroes. I’m sorry, but they are not. The crusader on behalf of the greater good who fights their hardest on behalf of policies whose outcomes they cannot hope to actually measure is nothing compared to the everyday citizen who does not hesitate to help pick up the pieces after a disaster. Hell, the activist-crusader is nothing compared to the neighbor who helps clear up the snow after a blizzard.
The modern moralist wants to look down upon mankind from above to determine what moral codes are valid for shaping our choices. Yet the true moralist is not above their community, but of it. As Sam has eloquently put it:
Contrast the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti in 2010 with the magnitude 9.0 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami the following year. It’s been 3 years since Port au Prince was devastated and it’s still not rebuilt. Still. The Japanese earthquake was 100 times as powerful and though the Haitian casualty estimates are sketchy, probably somewhere around four times as many Haitians died as a result of the earthquake. The Japanese web is stronger. And it isn’t just from a narrow self-interest that cleanup and rebuilding proceeded so adroitly. The eusocial urge to tidy up after a blustery day cannot be anything but part of eudaimonia. Living a good life means living in harmony with your surroundings. Building good surroundings happens quite naturally as a result of vigorous, widespread euvoluntary production and exchange.
And returning again to the Vulgar Moralist:
My moral sphere is a small world, a limited space. The necessary virtues aren’t complex: humility with my family, integrity at work, neighborliness in my community – add loyalty to friends, and one has the basic package.
If all this sounds puritanical, then I’ve failed to convey what is at stake. The small world is what matters: the only place where you and I can matter. It’s all potentiality: all signal. The great joys and fun of life can only be had by success in this place.
The good life, and flourishing, are small, and limited. But no more so than any human life. The satisfaction of participating in something larger than yourself, of honing a craft, of play, and of taking responsibility and being relied upon—these are all near, small world values. And we owe it to ourselves not to neglect them.