Amid Boston Overdose Crisis, a Pair of Harvard Students Are Bringing Narcan to the Red Line


At First Cambridge City Council Election Forum, Candidates Clash Over Building Emissions


Harvard’s Updated Sustainability Plan Garners Optimistic Responses from Student Climate Activists


‘Sunroof’ Singer Nicky Youre Lights Up Harvard Yard at Crimson Jam


‘The Architect of the Whole Plan’: Harvard Law Graduate Ken Chesebro’s Path to Jan. 6

A Noble Question

How to Be Good Or, The Somewhat Tricky Business of Attaining Moral Virtue in a Society That's Not Just Corrupt but Corrupting, Without Being Completely Out-of-It by L. Rust Hills Doubleday, 248 pp., $7.95

By James Gleick

The "CONDUCT OF LIFE" shelf is where the Library of Congress is putting this book, right there next to Aristotle and Emerson, and at first this seems to be somebody's ghastly, naive mistake. L. Rust Hills is a writer of witty essays in Playboy and Esquire magazines on the foibles and disorders of modern life. His publishers try to give the impression on the dust jacket that Hills is having a bit of a joke here with his talk of "Moral Virtue," the kind of joke you tell with plenty of broad winks and an occasional leer. It's just as well for them--who, these days, is going to buy a hortatory treatise on ethics that first appeared in Playboy?

But Virtue is what Hills is pushing, seriously, and the librarian who classified How to Be Good under Conduct of Life was only half wrong. The plentiful winks and leers are only the sugar coating that makes his morality palatable. At least, that's how Hills looks at it. He wants you to have scruples, but he suspects you're going to need to be persuaded and he sympathizes with your reluctance to get bogged down with them, boring and unprofitable as they are. "If you are scrupulous today," he writes, "people don't think of you as a hero or saint but as a crank or a fool." He sees from the start that he has a lot of convincing to do.

This is what Hills means by scruples: Suppose your brand-new electric portable typewriter is stolen from the back seat of your locked car, and the thief was deft enough to get the door open without breaking the window. (He did it with a bent wire coat-hanger--easy as pie). You have plenty of insurance, but the company won't pay without physical proof that you didn't leave the car unlocked. A broken window would do, for example. Now, you've been paying premiums for twenty years, and they owe you the money fair and square. All you have to do to get what's coming to you is put a rock discreetly through your own car window. So how about it--surely you're not going to let a technicality stand in the way of money that's rightfully yours.

Hills suspects your window is as good as broken. If it isn't, you've got scruples, and it's no wonder you're in the minority, considering how expensive life must be for you. Scruples of this sort have little to do with the kind of larger-scale morality that can inspire indignation about big issues. The most moralistic person I know--the person who is most certain and most assertive about how government and the economy and foreign affairs should be conducted--steals books all the time, without a second thought. He just walks into the Harvard Bookstore, say, puts down some change for the New York Review of Books and walks out again with fifty dollars worth of books under his coat. Many of these books he reads, others maybe he gives away Robin Hood-style to his friends. Anyway, moralism being what it is, this guy may have worked out a rational connection between his politics and his book-stealing, but he may just as well not have--who's going to be so dull and bourgeois as to berate him for this petty redistribution of property?

Not to be dull or bourgeois, Hills wants to argue against this kind of behavior, in a useful and up-to-date way. Lying, cheating, stealing--especially when personal gain is involved--these are the vices he has in mind when he talks about immorality. (There is a chapter on adultery, too, but this seems to be mainly a digression for the sake of entertainment.) And he wants to lay down absolute principles of morality, without any of the sponginess of relativism that complicate these things.

How to Be Good aims to be a practical manual as well as an exhortation to better behavior; Hills promises not only to make virtue fashionable but to bring it within the grasp of the most temptation-beset person. When it comes right down to it, though, if you start with Hills's straight-forward view of vice, the actual how of being virtuous isn't that complicated--if you want to be good, why not just do it (leave your car window intact, pay for your books, etc)? Virtue costs money, to be sure; but the part that really bothers Hills--what makes how to be good a question he can sink his teeth into--is that he's convinced virtue is deadly dull.

The whole book is a lively, sometimes frantic dance designed to ward off the devils of boredom and stodginess. The more serious Hills gets about his subjects, the more obsessively breezy his prose becomes, the sentences galloping blindly onward, the italics scattered like birdshot.

This can-do, get-things-done, down-to-earth fellow they get to replace you at Worth--with his square jaw and his glinty eyes behind the steel rims--he may not be as capable of facing the problem as you are (you were really very good at facing the problem), but he'll succeed (he'll so to speak, be able to 'solve' it) where you didn't, because he won't have that problem at all. What the new man will do--what any efficient bureaucrat would do--is shape the problem not so there's no answer, but so there is.

Hill's fear of putting his vice-loving readers to sleep also prompts dozens of digressions, and he turns out to be a master of aphoristic, watered-down-horse-sense pop sociology: "The big bureaucracies have begun to develop a sort of power and direction of their own. Within these corporations and agencies it's getting less and lesu clear to any one person just what's happening." And so on. Individuals have less direct control than they used to over the consequences of what they do, so morality has lost its practical substance and kept only its form. "Modern life is so complex and swift that a person immersed in it seldom sees what he's actually doing."

This last is Hills's problem, too. What keeps him from facing his own noble question isn't his search for the Peter Principle of right and wrong, but his insistence on always being the life of the party. Hills's "Type X Moral Maturity System" isn't so much a way to be good as a way to be good and entertaining. The answer is something like, "to thine own self be true" with firm principles and a dollop of theatricality tossed in for good measure. "Vice can be very interesting. But it is a vice to be dull. Similarly, while it may or may not be interesting to be virtuous, it is indubitably virtuous to be interesting. That's why Virtue isn't dull. That's why the cultivation of the self is the sine qua non, the without-it-you're-not-in-it, of being good." Hills is right, of course, about the unpopularity of small-scale, day-to-day morality, and he devotes plenty of heart and wit trying to devise an attractive picture of a good life. But all he manages, really, is a sad caricature of Virtue with a lampshade over its head.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.