Sin is bullshit. As one who believes that there is no god, to me, the notion of sin in the religious sense and in the context of some mythical afterlife is laughable. In a socio-political context the study of sins and virtues makes sense provided we accept that “sin” is just Christian code for behaving badly in a civilized society. Prohibitions and prescriptions pertaining to social conduct are as old as the first human tribal/familial groups trying to eke out an existence in our primordial past, they had to get along to get along and to prevent other tribes from taking what they got.
Social Contract theorists, such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, believe in varying degrees and with varying details that humans originally lived in a “state of nature” where life was a free for all with each individual taking whatever they wanted from another with no restraint. The only repercussions for our actions are when someone exacts vengeance for our perfidious actions. At some point people came to own property by whatever means possible and the game began to change, because each person, of course, wants to protect what they have from ravaging herds of people who want their stuff. According to social contract theorists, we now create laws that protect our property by punishing those who try to take it away without our approval and enough people want to protect what little that they have, and hope to have more of in the future, that they agree to lives by basic social rules of conduct. They believe that this “contract” allows individuals to preserve what they have and prosper and that this must be good for society and therefore virtuous.
Utilitarians such as Bentham and John Stuart Mill felt that in order for something to have value, it must provide the greatest benefit to the most people. For utilitarians, an act or law which provides the greatest benefit for a society must by its nature be virtuous. Utilitarian thinkers have argued over how to define the greatest utility of an action by how they define value, whether something is of value to an individual or to society as a whole. This is obviously a very simplified explanation of this school of thought but for now let’s say that we are concerned with the greatest good for the greatest number, society at large.
Secular Humanists will tell us that values are universal and will deny that ethics, values and the meaning of life come from a deity. Integrity, fairness, trustworthiness and benevolence are human values that are necessary to live with one another in communities and thrive and thus most major world religions espouse very similar social virtues.
Despite my aforementioned antipathy for religion I thought I might look at some of the virtues that have been championed through time and in different cultural contexts around the globe in hopes that I might find a common thread of human virtue, which may guide us in our own lives moving forward. I would much rather that we try to figure out what is the right way to live than to be constantly told what is the wrong way to live.
The Seven Virtues of Bushido (the warrior code of Japan)
1. Rectitude (right action and thoughts)
Others that are sometimes added include:
8. Filial Piety (respecting one’s parents/elders)
The Seven Virtues of Catholicism
Cardinal Virtues (in relationship to society)
Religious Virtues (in relationship to God)
The Eightfold Path of Buddhism
1. Right understanding
2. Right thought
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration
Four Classical Greek/Western Virtues
Hopefully by now, you can see the relationship that I was earlier referring to in that most of the virtues are the same or incredibly similar, especially when we consider the geographical and temporal distance between their unique establishments within their respective societies. Virtues like temperance, loyalty, honor and benevolence transcend, time, place and culture and are among the core human values to which we should all aspire. Ancient Roman culture had a list of both personal and societal virtues that were acknowledged as being the core of the society and the glue that held Rome together for thousands of years. Perhaps it is time for a national debate on what constitutes virtue and justice and an enumeration of what we hold to be our cultural virtues; or, perhaps not. Either way we can each choose to live virtuous lives no matter what our religious or ethnic backgrounds because we all want the same things: to live in peace and prosper, for ourselves and our families.
Personally, I feel connected to the virtues of bushido due to years of martial arts study. Still, I feel that one virtue best describes how we should behave–Right Action. We should always be asking ourselves: Is this the right action or course for this situation? Is this the virtuous path? Just by asking, we are heading in the right direction.