How we understand virtue determines how we see and treat each other. Goodness and purity are distinct but related ways to understand virtue. Which one we emphasize deeply affects our view of others and of moral behavior.
When we talk about a good person, we are usually referring to someone who demonstrates properties such as kindness, fairness, love, honesty, and so on. When we talk about someone being pure, we usually mean freedom from vice, sexual immorality, and the like. A view of someone as good typically depends on how they treat others, while a view of someone as pure depends on how they maintain their own emotional, psychological, and physical state. There is a deep connection between the two, and when it is lost, the meaning of virtue is distorted.
I believe that our society currently places a disproportionate emphasis on purity as the basis for a virtuous life. When this happens, the results are always tragic. The quest to remain pure causes us to move away from one another, shunning those on the margins and most in need. Having some success in our quest to remain pure leads to a toxic cycle. Feeling more pure feeds our ego, and simultaneously leads to seeing an increasing swath of our sisters and brothers as impure. The result is disconnection, desolation, and despair.
Understanding virtue from the perspective of goodness works the other way. Those on the margins and most in need are not impediments to virtue, but vital to its practice. The way we treat them is part of what makes us good. Again, some success in our quest leads to a cycle, but this one is positive and contagious. When we treat others well, they begin to feel loved, and to love. The result is connection, community, and courage.
Yet ultimately, goodness and purity are neither separate nor strangers. The connection between purity and goodness is found in the heart. A pure heart is free of delusion, aggression, and greed. The pure heart sees situations with clarity, and responds with openness and generosity.
Understanding this connection, we can see that moral virtue consists of two things: (1) cultivating purity of heart (which I will discuss in a future post) and (2) taking action in the world from a connection with our pure heart. These two practices are the basis for the radical change we require, and they lead to naturally taking deep care of ourselves and providing care and comfort to a world in need.
Photo by Wade M. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License