Maybe a decade ago, an old friend phoned with an unlikely request: John Paul—let’s get hot dogs. The proposal caught me off guard. I like a good hot dog as much as the next guy, unless that next guy is my friend who, for years, had been quite vocal about being a vegetarian.

We met at a luncheonette on the northwest side of Chicago that is renowned for its selection of red hots—overnight, my friend had gone from being a conscientious objector of carnivorous delights to something of a connoisseur—and it didn’t take long for the conversation to come around to the question of his conversion. My friend is the type of person who has a black-and-white view of the world with an iron will to match any conviction he espouses. For years he had asserted his objections to eating meat with all the solemnity of a Puritan divine. Now he was busy wolfing down his second char dog.

What gives? I wanted to know.

His reply was not what I expected, and even then it struck me as an essential lesson in the practice of ethics. When I try to care about everything, I risk caring about nothing. (He more or less said.) I need to choose my battles.

The speckled ax

When you spend your days thinking about ethics, you devote most of your time determining right from wrong. But how you hold the line between them seems a matter of no less significance.

Saying as much, however, leaves some with a feeling of unease, especially if the latter endeavor appears like an exercise in determining what you can live with. Can doing mostly what is right really pay for the occasional wrong? And if we allow ourselves to think in such terms, aren’t we abandoning the highest standards of scrupulous behavior for the primrose path of moral expediency?

Maybe so, but this line of thinking assumes an unreasonable portrait of human nature.

Consider the instance of Benjamin Franklin’s “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection,” an undertaking the newly established shopkeeper embarked on in his early 20s, in part to burnish his reputation as a reliable business partner. Initially, Franklin was confident in his eventual success. “As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong,” he wrote in his unfinished memoir, “I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.”

Rather than trying to act on every inclination of ethics, one must learn to distinguish preference from imperative.

After a little reading and reflection, he settled on 13 virtues (such as Industry, Temperance, and Frugality) that encompassed his vision of “moral perfection” and set to work on living a life unblemished by vice. Almost immediately, however, he discovered that knowing the difference between right and wrong was not enough to hold the line successfully between them. “The contrary habits must be broken,” he confessed, “and good ones acquired and established.”

To that end, Franklin concluded that he needed to “acquire the habitude” of his virtues. Such a conclusion treats leading a moral life as a matter of applied practice, one not dissimilar from the familiar New Year’s resolution to get back into shape. If, after spending the holidays watching college football and snacking on Christmas cookies, you make it your goal to lose a little flab and get ready for beach season, some study may be helpful in determining a plan of action, but we all know that the real work goes on in front of the refrigerator and at the gym. If you simply cannot find a way to hit the StairMaster at 6 a.m. or to prefer steamed broccoli over sliders, no amount of reading and reflection will make up for it. You cannot will yourself into shape; you must “acquire the habitude” of eating well and getting exercise.

Having learned this lesson in respect to virtue, ever the attentive bookkeeper, Franklin soon established an accounting practice to keep track of his behavior. “I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues,” he explained. “I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week.” If he failed to observe one of his 13 virtues, Franklin would add “a little black spot” to the day in the hopes that, eventually, at the end of a week, he “should be happy in viewing a clean book.”

No luck. “I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined,” Franklin admitted. Not that his character didn’t improve—the “constant felicity of his life” he largely attributed to this “little artifice”—but just as much as this steady diet in moral restraint confirmed that one’s character could indeed be improved, it also made plain to him that leading a moral life was more a matter of abiding practice than eventual perfectibility, a conclusion that shaped his approach to ethics by resetting the standards he held himself to.

In his autobiography, Franklin famously analogized his initial goal of “moral perfection” to that of a man who buys a new ax head and desires “to have the whole of its surface as bright as the edge.” The blacksmith agrees “to grind it bright for him if he would turn the wheel,” Franklin explained, and so the project began:

[The man] turn’d while the smith press’d the broad face of the ax hard and heavily on the stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing. The man came every now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on, and at length would take his ax as it was, without farther grinding. “No,” said the smith, “turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by-and-by; as yet, it is only speckled.” “Yes,” said the man, “but I think I like a speckled ax best.”

The point of Franklin’s parable is not to excuse ethical imperfections—if that were so, there would be no reason for turning the proverbial wheel in the first place—but to understand the project of leading a moral life in the face of human fallibility. If you accept that ethics is a never-ending project rather than some final port of call, you will not only preserve yourself from despairing over every failing, you will also conduct yourself with an eye toward behavior that is durable rather than ideal. Such an approach makes one more willing to accept the moral realism of Franklin or my old friend, the erstwhile vegetarian, that rather than trying to act on every inclination of ethics, one must learn to distinguish preference from imperative.

To be sure, such discrimination is also a moral project of sorts, one that can be just as stern as the endeavor of “moral perfection.” It accepts that people will never be saints at the margins while committing them to be free from sin at the center.

Active duties

Like the person on a busy sidewalk who always steps aside for others, it can be easier to respond to every principled insistence than to firmly adhere to a path of moral priority. The first approach requires a spirit more accommodating than consistent, whereas the latter, while it risks being blinkered, holds itself accountable for every misstep.

Determining such a path can be difficult, however, especially when it comes to what we owe others. This is the realm of duties or obligations, a set of concerns consonant with, if not necessarily inclusive of, Franklin’s project of flawless moral character. Even if you have determined how best to refrain from bringing evil into the world, that doesn’t resolve the question of when to intercede on behalf of others, to remedy their misfortune and improve their fate.

Certainly, this is no simple matter. Look around. Everywhere you turn, the world cries out for assistance. If you stopped to help every wounded soul, you’d never get to work in the morning. You’d be lost for where to begin.

And yet, even if we cannot help everyone, it doesn’t follow that we should help no one at all. But when we should step in, for whom, and why so are all questions that can vex, especially if we long for any logical consistency to our interventions.

Adam Smith appreciated this. Not too long before Franklin began writing his memoir, Smith reflected on the obligations we owe one another in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In a reflection on what he called the “Character of Virtue,” Smith contrasted the scope of our “good-will” with the compass of what he called “our effectual good offices.” Our goodwill, he said, “is circumscribed by no boundary.” We “cannot form the idea of any innocent and sensible being, whose happiness we should not desire, or to whose misery, when distinctly brought home to the imagination, we should not have some degree of aversion.”

Another way of putting this is that unless you are a sadist (a possibility more or less uncountenanced by the tender-hearted Smith), you don’t wish harm to come to others, but that doesn’t mean you go out of your way to help them. The distinction for Smith was between a kind of baseline moral temperament and the tendency for principled intervention, a distinction resonant with Franklin’s reflections on what is actually required for the habitude of virtue. It is all well and good, we might say, to want every person to thrive, just as it is all well and good to sincerely wish to be a model of virtue. But sending good vibes into the world will do no more to help the starving orphan than having every intention to be patient will do once you’ve already blown your stack.

Even if we cannot help everyone, it doesn’t follow that we should help no one at all. But when we should step in, for whom, and why so are all questions that can vex.

Having goodwill is one thing; acting on it is another. This is where our “effectual good offices” come in. For Smith, these are the affirmative actions we take to improve the world, and in this particular passage, he gave them a fairly modest appearance, contrasting them with the “care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings.” This, he told his readers, is “the business of God and not of man.” To the fallible human being “is allotted a much humbler department,” he said, “but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension,” that is, “the care of his own happiness, and that of his family, his friends, his country.”

Again, such responsibilities may seem modest, but deceptively so, I would suggest, not because their burden tends to be overwhelming but because we so often fail to prioritize them.

Think of it this way: How many people do you know who are reliably good friends, responsible parents, and caring neighbors? The answer, I suspect, is far fewer than you’d wish. There are many reasons for this, but among those who long for fame and fortune, two stand out. One is when ambition gets the better of ethics. Climbing another rung on the corporate ladder always wins out over attending a child’s soccer game, and being there for a friend never seems nearly as important as appearing at another black-tie event.

Such individuals, if sadly familiar, are largely unsympathetic. They may not affirmatively make the world a more wicked place, but by failing their “effectual good offices,” they prove themselves inattentive parents, careless neighbors, and bad friends.

A second variety of failure is more intriguing, however. It is one that Smith himself identified when he invoked the example of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor whose enduring significance is largely due to a collection of his Stoic reflections, conventionally known as the Meditations. Smith described “the charge” brought against Aurelius, “perhaps unjustly,” that “while he employed himself in philosophical speculations, and contemplated the prosperity of the universe, he neglected that of the Roman empire.” Encapsulating the primary objection to such behavior, Smith said: “The most sublime speculation of the contemplative philosopher can scarce compensate the neglect of the smallest active duty.”

Active duty. The idea is best understood by trying to make sense of an inactive duty or a moral obligation whose claim on us, while present, is simply not as immediate or as pressing as others. In my classes, I will sometimes describe the roommate who makes known to everyone her feelings about the wealth gap or foreign wars but inevitably fails to pay the rent on time and always leaves dirty dishes in the sink. Morally speaking, she prioritizes what she has no control over and overlooks what is totally within her power to remedy.

For a duty to be active, it must have a special claim on you. It must be somehow more your duty than it is the duty of others. Again, as Smith described them, such duties include for an individual “the care of his own happiness, and that of his family, his friends, his country.”

You can think of these duties as a set of concentric rings radiating outward, the strength of whose claim is inversely proportional to their distance. We have the greatest responsibility to look after ourselves—to not be a burden to others—and then to address the pressing needs of our family and friends. These are the closest rings. Those that are farther away—say, of the country or the planet—are not unimportant, but the duties they involve have a weaker claim on us, as their maintenance hardly depends on our actions. We can be forgiven for failing to remedy global climate change but not for failing to recycle our garbage.

A moral art

To be sure, the scope of our active duties can shift over time, not because of any change in the rings nearest us (we should always endeavor to be a good friend and neighbor) but because the success we enjoy allows us to expand the scope of our good works. If Elon Musk and I share the same immediate obligations, the immensity of his fame and fortune means that more may be expected of him. Like Marcus Aurelius, he has an empire of import, whereas I have a garden to attend to—or, apropos of my old friend, maybe a hot dog stand.

In ethics as in life, the battles we choose aren’t altogether obvious. Franklin’s plan for moral perfection is no more a universal blueprint for moral enlightenment than is Smith’s vision of active duties. Both, however, assume that ethics is an activity where every individual is both the potter and the clay. While study and reflection play some part, the art is in the execution. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make for improvement, which is where the art of ethics begins.

John Paul Rollert is adjunct associate professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth.

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