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Op-Ed Columnist: What Moral Heroes Are Made Of

Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to be around a lot of people who I would regard as moral heroes. They spend their lives fighting poverty, caring for the young or the sick, or single-mindedly dedicated to some cause. I’ve been wondering what traits such people tend to have in common.

The first is that they didn’t overthink their decision before choosing to live this way. They didn’t weigh the costs and benefits or wage any internal battle with themselves. As Anne Colby and William Damon write in “Some Do Care,” a book that has organized my thinking on this subject: “We saw an unhesitating will to act, a disavowal of fear and doubt, and a simplicity of moral response. Risks were ignored and consequences went unweighed.”

At some point in their lives, somebody planted an ideal. Somebody set a high example of what a good life looks like, and the person who went on to become a moral hero just assumed that, of course, that’s what one should do.

They tend to have a “This is what I do” mentality. They don’t have a lofty sense of themselves. They don’t have a sense that they are doing anything extraordinary. “What I do is as simple and common as the laughter of a child,” Mother Teresa once said.

They have a weird obliviousness to inferior pleasures. They are not tempted by worldly success because they are not interested in worldly success. They don’t talk much about personal happiness, because they’re not particularly interested in themselves, period.

That’s because, as Colby and Damon argue, their self-identity is fused with a moral ideal. Their identity is not based on being a lawyer or a pianist. Their identity is defined by a certain moral action. They feel at home in the world when they are performing that moral action and feel out of sorts when they are not.

We see them tirelessly serving the poor or risking their lives for democracy and think they are performing great acts of self-sacrifice, but it doesn’t feel that way to them. It feels like the activation of their own nature. Doing that work seems to them as ordinary as doing the dishes. Something needed to be done, so they did it.

Another quality you see is constant goal expansion. Some believe that a person’s character is set in childhood — that after age 18, people don’t change all that much. That’s not how it


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