Most people try to be good; most people try to avoid wrongdoing. But to define what is good and proper can be a challenge. There are many words that describe proper and ethical behavior, i.e. what society calls “good.” In this article, I will seek to define some of those words.

Morals are the principles of right and wrong for an individual and society.

Ethics are the system of moral principles that establish the rules of conduct that are recognized as conforming to the standards of a group.

Value refers to moral excellence, the idea or theory about what is important and desirable.

Virtue is an individual’s conformity to a life of moral and ethical principles.

Moral principles are about those aspects that are defined almost universally as good. Most societies promote life rather than killing for the sake of killing. Protecting life would be considered moral and taking life unnecessarily would be considered immoral. Ethical standards are about a group’s determining what is right and proper. A group might determine that its members must maintain confidentiality, so protecting confidential information would be deemed ethical, and breaching that confidentiality would be considered unethical. Value refers to a belief one has that motivates specific behaviors. If an individual values trustworthiness, he is more likely to act honestly. Virtue is a word referring to one’s consistent practice of a valued behavior. If an individual values charity, altruistic practices would be considered virtuous acts. Charity is a value, and its virtue is altruistic generosity.

In a previous article, I addressed the importance of clarifying our values in education and personal growth. Cultivating our values and applying them in real life leads to virtuous behavior. What are some of the virtues embraced in Torah thought? Traditionally, the Torah identifies humility as a virtue, a mode of interpersonal conduct, subjective self-image, and theological posture. Generosity, sharing, honesty, fairness, and integrity are other virtues that are emphasized in Torah thought. People generally consider those principles to be ideal values for collaborative life in society, but as virtues, they then must be put into practice with consistency. They are well codified in Jewish law, with significant sections of Shulchan Aruch quantifying the practice of those virtues.

I noted in a prior article that we ideally need to know what we believe and what we value. The next step is to determine what we practice, and live by those values, which is the path to becoming a virtuous human being. When a person values a concept but does not practice or live by it, that is not virtuous. In fact, the very idea of accepting a value—and demanding it of others—but not practicing it oneself is called hypocrisy. When our Sages abjure one who is not “tocho k’barro”—whose values are not in sync with their virtues, or when one is “echad b’peh v’echad b’lev”—their apparent values are not paralleled by their actual beliefs—we can infer that our goal is to implement and adhere in reality to that which is good and proper in theory.

Scholars and philosophers have come and gone, many of them proffering systems that promote freestanding moral principles not based in Torah thought. Looking at world events and seeing the precariousness of morality, how certain groups justify acts once seen as patently immoral and evil, and calling them righteous and virtuous, a thinking person quickly recognizes that without the immutable imprint of Hashem in determining what is moral, virtuous, and proper for humanity, the entire world regresses and civilization dismantles.

A committed Jew looks beyond the definition of virtue to its corollary in spiritual thought. Our Sages have revealed to us the kochos ha’nefesh, or the energies of the spirit, which are transcendent aspects of living virtuously. There are different systems with which to approach the study of the kochos ha’nefesh. What they share in common is a sacred cosmology for appreciating the Divine and for internalizing and emulating the virtues which He demands of us. In essence, there can be no consistent moral conduct or steadfast value if we leave it to people to define what is good. The Jewish people, because of their teachers, sages, and parents, integrate Torah and sanctity into their lessons and the standards which they live by. Our only hope for remaining a virtuous society lies in placing the Divine in that process, and by concluding that there is no good other than the Torah. n

 

Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is a forensic and clinical psychologist, and director of Chai Lifeline Crisis Services. To contact Chai Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis helpline, call 855-3-CRISIS or email crisis@chailifeline.org. Learn more at www.chailifeline.org/crisis.

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