We've seen two powerfully good people pass on recently. Nelson Mandela and Pete Seeger both died as we move into 2014 and we reasonably ask, "What can ever replace them?" The answer of course is "all of us." Through persistent effort, these two men became icons for the spirit of good in us. They will be missed. But that spirit lives on, demonstrated every day by people choosing to do the right thing in thousands of ways. And they do choose it. Without choice virtue is really only compliance.
These choices to do good or not so good come directly out of our interpretation of life. And since life is a broad mystery, every new day presents a new chance to interpret it. This opportunity to interpret life by our own lights is our opportunity to place a good bet. By "good bet" I'm talking about choosing a course of action that provides the possibility for great reward while requiring no real penalty if it does not succeed. Stewert Guthrie talks about this in "Faces in the Clouds" and refers to Pascal's Wager (where belief in God is likewise seen as a good bet with little downside) by saying, "Thus Pascal applies game theory to theism."
Guthrie believes one of those good bets is interpreting life anthropomorphically. As he says "it is better for a hiker to mistake a boulder for a bear that to mistake a bear for a boulder." He is making an important argument here that anthropomorphic interpretations are actually sophisticated tools and more useful for understanding reality than many of us give them credit. As I thought about how important the wider application of constructive interpretation is to living well the notion of "a game well played" came to mind. It dawned on me that the process by which we invest life with meaning is very similar to the process that occurs when we invest athletic competition with meaning.
All the values that we associate with athletic competition (practice, teamwork, hope, diligence, civility, etc) only kick in after we accept a set of arbitrary rules and then proceed to play the game as if it matters. It's because of those arbitrary rules that the game suddenly comes alive. Now the game has meaning. We either engage with the game by accepting this arbitrary construction or we don't.
The rules of a game are arbitrary but coherent. They are fabricated to link together in such a way as to lend the proceedings a sense of fairness. Rules are vital because they optimize choice and streamline decision making. After all, who wants to get up every morning and decide which side of the road to drive on.
In the world of human ethics, things get more complicated. Certainly rules like "Do not kill", and "Love your neighbor as yourself" are maintained by cultural convention. But that doesn't make them arbitrary and meaningless. In my mind, it's a post-modern philosophical disaster to turn such fixed and universal truths into cultural trinkets.
That's not to say that the ethical process will always be simple. It's this process of internalizing a variety of apparently derived ethical principles that characterizes our individual growth as fully functioning ethical agents. And we have the example of two giants who have now passed on to show us how this is done.