How would you react if a friend urged you to live a more morally virtuous life?
Like many, you might fear that if you took this advice, life would become harder and less filled with joy. A morally virtuous life, you might think, is about constraining your ambitions in life, giving up pleasures and spending time working at soup kitchens. You might think that people who are fussy about morality aren’t very practical.
You might say no to such an impractical way of living. But if you’re like many, even if you choose the practical over your idea of the moral, you’ll feel a twinge of guilt, thinking that what you’re foregoing is still somehow admirable.
There is a way out of this dilemma, if you rethink what it means to be moral. And you can observe, in the lives of actual people, that moral virtue is an indispensable tool for living a successful, practical life.
No one could be more practical than an inventor who created revolutionary technology and made a fortune in the process. Consider how a man like Thomas Edison accomplished this through an inveterate concern for right and wrong.
At first his concern might not seem like the stuff of morality. What I have in mind is how Edison used his knowledge of physics and mathematics to determine the exactly right level of vacuum and filament material that would allow an inexpensive incandescent light to burn for over a thousand hours. He famously tested thousands of different materials before he found one with the most luminescent electrical resistance that would still not burn too rapidly (it was bamboo).
Yet we should not brush off concern for the right and wrong outcome of his experiments as mere assessment of the correct means to an end. His ambition was to create something of great value by drawing on the best within him. He created a life-giving and profitable technology by having the courage to envision this never-before dreamed of goal, and the integrity to finish his quest to find out how to make it. His work expressed a dedication to the true and the good, and it earned him a fortune."In the lives of actual people, moral virtue is an indispensable tool for living a successful, practical life" Click To Tweet
Of course, a new technology wouldn’t be practical if no one knew of its benefits. George Westinghouse was another productive achiever who made it his ambition to bring alternating current to market in the United States. Westinghouse did not invent AC but was one of the few to recognize its advantages over direct current in transmitting electricity economically over long distances. He worked to raise the necessary funds and to fend off both a propaganda campaign alleging the danger of AC and the skepticism of his board of directors. Later during the global financial panic of 1907, he ushered the company through bankruptcy so it could survive through the rest of the twentieth century.
Westinghouse’s business decisions, like Edison’s engineering decisions, exhibited integrity and courage. He confidently drew on his valuable knowledge of both engineering and economics in the face of popular opposition to bring the right product to market. His decisions brought energy to millions of people and rightly made him rich.
Because their society also saw morality and practicality as opposed, Edison and Westinghouse themselves might have felt guilty about their success rather than appreciating the moral virtue by which they achieved it. But we can imagine what it might take for an individual in such a position to challenge his society and see things anew.
There is a fictional rendition of such a transformation in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Hank Rearden, a man much like Edison and Westinghouse, is an engineer who creates a new metal that’s tougher and cheaper than steel. But when a friend tells him that he is “one of the last moral men left in the world,” he’s taken aback. His friend explains:
If you want to see an abstract principle, such as moral action, in material form — there it is. . . . Every girder of it, every pipe, wire and valve was put there by a choice in answer to the question: right or wrong? You had to choose right and you had to choose the best within your knowledge — the best for your purpose, which was to make steel – and then move on and extend the knowledge, and do better, and still better, with your purpose as your standard of value. You had to act on your own judgment, you had to have the capacity to judge, the courage to stand on the verdict of your mind, and the purest, the most ruthless consecration to the rule of doing right, of doing the best, the utmost best possible to you.
Rearden has more to learn about how to evaluate himself morally. He’s allowed both his ungrateful family to mooch and government officials to loot the products of his mind. They’ve succeeded to the extent that Rearden feels that he deserves no moral credit for his productiveness. But Rearden’s friend reminds him, “You have judged every brick within this place by its value to the goal of making steel. Have you been as strict about the goal which your work and your steel are serving? . . . By what standard of value do you judge your days?”
In the novel and in her nonfiction philosophic work, Rand went on to define a new standard of morality that made explicit what it means to act on “the most ruthless consecration to the rule of doing right.” To see how Rearden takes up his friend’s challenge and comes to see the moral virtue behind his own practicality, I urge you to read the story of Atlas Shrugged.