Tuesday, August 14, 2001
: . Jim Holt, from his review of Nick Hornby’s latest novel ‘How to be Good’ and Simon Blackburn’s introduction to ethics ‘Being Good’:
Suppose you wish to achieve excellence in life, but have no real talent for anything in particular. You are not smart enough to be a great scientist or creative enough to be a great artist; you do not possess the native shrewdness to be a distinguished statesman or the exquisite taste (and inherited wealth) to be a legendary hedonist. Are you then doomed to mediocrity? There is a school of thought that says no. The idea is that even if you are not clever or beautiful or talented, you can still, through sheer force of will, be very, very good. You can go beyond the norms of everyday morality—being kind to people, not telling lies, giving the odd dollar to Oxfam—and devote all your energies to feeding the hungry and succoring the afflicted. In other words, you can become a moral saint.
But is extraordinary goodness truly within the reach of ordinary mortals? Is moral sainthood worthy of our aspirations? Does moral saintliness even guarantee a better world? And whether or not good deeds guarantee good results, are we duty bound to be as good as possible?
Holt, of course, has the leisure to ponder these matters and he does so without the moral gravity general readers often find distasteful. His columns and articles, though concerned with philosophical quandaries are often leavened with a humor and a hint of irony. (Oops time for work. More later.)