For as long as I can remember the defining qualities of a good person seemed obvious: competence and integrity. Competence not only contributes and makes possible, but reduces mistakes, inefficiencies, and unfair burdens. Integrity not only underpins ethics and guides competence, but reduces distrust, hostility, and selfishness. Competence and integrity give to the world while their opposites drain from it.
These qualities demand a lot of individuals. They must learn to delay gratification and endure discomfort, inconvenience, and difficulty. They must develop high standards, be self-critical, respect truth, and loathe excuses. They must prioritize performance and potential over perceptions, emotions, and costs.
These qualities bring risks to society. Competence unbalanced by other considerations is, among other things, dangerous.1Psychopaths offer an extreme example of this. Integrity unbalanced by other considerations is, among other things, impotent. And many otherwise reasonable combinations are, among other things, overconfident and judgmental.
It is a challenge to embrace these qualities despite their arduous nature and to intertwine their development with enough wisdom to apply and balance them well. This challenge is at the core of classical philosophy. It is prominent in religion, military, science, and engineering. It animates intensive educational experiments by the likes of James Mill, Bertrand Russell, Leo Wiener, and Laszlo Polgar. It finds expression in the idea of the New Soviet Man. Its essence is to instill maximal striving to develop one’s potential, live honorably, and contribute to a larger purpose – and to organize society to aid in this task.
This goal depends on assumptions. It presumes existence of better and worse, possibility of agency and coherence, inescapability of causation and responsibility. Its implementation ties worth to choices and promises evaluation on the basis of efforts and achievements.
On these foundations it erects the expectation of judgment and the desire to prove oneself. It then provides tools to do one’s best: to strive for perfection and accept responsibility; to focus on understanding how things work; to control impulses that might lead one astray; to think carefully about intentions and take care in action; to find it dishonorable to hide behind excuses and ignorance or to get away with carelessness and incompetence. It fundamentally depends on, and encourages, individual pride based on contribution, integrity, and effort.
There are many disagreements about implementation details, but they mostly share prerequisites. And each of these prerequisites has come under growing scrutiny over time. It increasingly feels like the ethos itself is under an unrelenting attack from all sides. And perception of such attacks seems to underlie many vicious disagreements of our time.
These attacks are rooted in societal and personal risks, justified through postmodernism, and emboldened by prosperity.