On Moral People

It is a common belief that human beings are by nature equipped with a moral compass. Whether given by God, a product of evolution, or a socially useful, human-created convention, it is almost impossible to deny that a sense of right and wrong is closely connected to the human experience. All throughout the world, people adhere to moral rules or at least acknowledge that there is such a thing as good and bad, though specific opinions differ. As a result, it would not be absurd to say that moral people are abundant.

Having said that, a distinction needs to be made between two different kinds of moral people: the decent, and the extraordinary. The former are those who behave morally because they have been instilled with the habit of behaving morally. These people do not really understand why certain actions are just and others unjust, but because they have had good upbringings, they have a disposition to act well. Moreover, since they do not question the fundamentals of their moral beliefs, they are not particularly apt at adapting them when circumstances require it. Most good people fall into this category.

In contrast to the many decent people, there are a select few who use their minds to go beyond what they have been taught in order to explore the moral frontier. These extraordinary individuals do not let popular opinion dictate their sense of goodness nor do they see much value in tradition. Another trait that distinguishes them from decent people is their strong sense of duty to do the right thing. While the majority act morally due to habit, the few act morally because they truly feel that it is required. I have been lucky enough to have met a couple of these people in my life and the experience can only be described as awe-inspiring and humbling. If anyone has not yet met such a person, they should keep their eyes open, for the extraordinarily moral are more valuable and precious than any jewel or metal.

Kant once said that there is nothing good in the universe without qualification other than a good will. I do not know whether or not his claim is ultimately true, but I can understand why he was tempted to make it. There is something admirable and noble about someone acting according to an acute sense of morality that distinguishes it from other human traits that we may find good. Honesty, friendliness, and intelligence, for example, can all be used for bad, but not a good will. Perhaps it, and it alone, shines brighter than any star that we can observe, or even imagine.

The Humboldts

Wilhelm von Humboldt (philosopher) writes the following passage about his brother, Alexander (geographer):

I consider him to be, without exception, one of the greatest minds that I have ever encountered. He has connected ideas and seen the chains between things, that without him would have remained undiscovered for generations. His tremendous depth of thought, unattainable insight, and the rarest combination of quickness, combined with his iron diligence, widespread scholarship, and infinite research spirit will produce things that others would not have even attempted. Of all the people that I have met in my life, only my brother seemed to be capable of establishing the link between the study of the physical and the moral world, of bringing forth the true harmony of the universe as we know it, and of easing the next step to take, if the task of preparing the study of the physical world for such an endeavor exceeds the capabilities of one people.

Ich halte ihn unbedingt und ohne alle Ausnahme für den größesten Kopf, der mir je aufgestoßen ist. Er ist gemacht Ideen zu verbinden, Ketten von Dingen zu erblikken, die Menschenalter hindurch, ohne ihn, unentdekt geblieben wären. Ungeheure Tiefe des Denkens, unerreichbarer Scharfblick, und die seltenste Schnelligkeit der Kombination, welches alles sich in ihm mit eisernem Fleiß, ausgebreiteter Gelehrsamkeit, und unbegränztem Forschungsgeist verbindet, müssen Dinge hervorbringen, die jeder andre Sterbliche sonst unversucht lassen müßte. […] Das Studium der physischen Natur nun mit dem der moralischen zu verknüpfen, und in das Universum, wie wir es erkennen, eigentlich erst die wahre Harmonie zu bringen, oder wenn dieß die Kräfte Eines Menschen übersteigen sollte, das Studium der phyischen Natur so vorzubereiten, daß dieser zweite Schritt leicht werde, dazu, sage ich, hat mir unter allen Köpfen, die ich historisch und aus eigener Erfahrung in allen Zeiten kenne, nur mein Bruder fähig geschienen.