Nearly every semester when I teach English composition and literature, I ask the question “How do you know you’re a good person?”
I’m not interested if my students are or think they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (a point that takes a bit of explaining). What I’m interested in is how they think they know what they are. I believe this is the crux of writing, of thinking critically and expressing that thought to others because this diagnostic question prompts heuristic thought.
Eventually, my lecture and our discussion turns to charity, towards giving to others, and how that does or does not make one ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ We discover much of our default cultural settings are actually significantly lacking in virtue, and we’ve convinced ourselves it’s too difficult or unnatural to be virtuous.
It’s at this point, I enjoy bring up Maimonides.
Maimonides was the author of Guide for the Perplexed and the foremost Jewish scholar of the Middle Ages.
In his legal work, Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes about tzedakah, charity or, rather, the obligation to give. These types of giving are ranked, the first is of the highest virtue and the eighth the least respectable.
Giving a gift, being a partner, or finding a job for someone so they may become self-sufficient.
Giving anonymously to an unknown recipient
Giving anonymously to a known recipient.
Giving publicly to an unknown recipient.
Giving before being asked.
Giving adequately after being asked.
Giving willingly, but inadequately.
Usually, students find this gradient entirely logical yet they seem to scramble to find exceptions to the most virtuous kinds of giving and justification for the least.
In a neutral tone, I ask them why and what’s influencing their desire to make exceptions and justifications. The point is to get them hone in on an assertion that they genuinely believe, not just something they’ve received or something they fall back on out of habit. Invariably, students are uncomfortable expressing it in defeatism, confusion, anger, laughter, or silence. But every student discovers they have a core ethos, one they need to express more clearly to others, and that, I tell them, is why we write.