What Are People Good For ?
The cornerstone of my own value system was laid in childhood with parents who believed that personal integrity came first. They never asked, ”What will people think?” The question was,“What will you think of yourself, if you do this or fail to do that?” Thus, living up to one’s own conception of one’s self became a basic value, and the question, “What will people think,” took a subordinate place.
A second basic value, in some ways an extension of the first, I owe to an old college professor, who had suffered more than his share of grief and trouble. Over and over he said to us, “The one thing that really matters is to be bigger than the things that can happen to you. Nothing that can happen to you is half so important that the way in which you end it.”
Gradually I realized that here was the basis of the only really security and peace of mind that a human being can have. Nobody can be sure when disaster, disappointment, injustice, or humiliation, may come to him through no fault of his own. Nor can one be guaranteed against one’s own mistakes and failures. But the way we meet life is ours to choose. And when integrity, fortitude, dignity, and compassion are our choice, the things that can happen to us lose their power over us.
The acceptance of these two basic values led to a third. If what one is and how one meets life are of first importance, one is not impressed by another’s money, status, or power, nor does one judge people by their race, color, or social position. This opens up a whole new world of relationships, for when friendships are based on qualities of mind and character, one can have friends among old and young, rich and poor, famous and unknown, educated and unlettered, and among people of all races and all nations.
Given these three basic values, a fourth became inevitable. It is one’s duty and obligation to help create a social order in which persons are more important than things, ideas more precious than gadgets, and in which individuals are judged on the basis of personal worth. Moreover, for this judgment to be fair, human beings must have an opportunity for the fullest development of which they are capable. One is thus led to work for a world of freedom and justice through those social agencies and institutions which make it possible for people everywhere to realize their highest potentialities.
Perhaps all this adds up to a belief in what has been called the human use of human beings. We are set off from the rest of the animal world by our capacity consciously to transcend our physical needs and desires. Men must concern themselves with food and with other physical needs, and they must protect themselves and their own from bodily harm, but these activities are not exclusively human. Many animals concern themselves with these things. When we worship, pray, or feel compassion, when we enjoy a painting, a sunset or a sonata, when we think and reason, pursue ideas, seek truth, or read a book, when we protect the weak and helpless, when we honor the noble and cherish the good, when we cooperate with our fellow men to build a better world, our behavior is worthy of our status as human beings.