If ethics constitutes the body of norms for achieving excellence in performing the art of living, its most general principles must follow from the nature of life in general and of human existence in particular. In most general terms, the nature of all life is to preserve and affirm its own existence. All organisms have an inherent tendency to preserve their existence: it is from this fact that psychologists have postulated an “instinct” of self-preservation. The first “duty” of an organism is to be alive.
“To be alive” is a dynamic, not a static, concept. Existence and the unfolding of the specific powers of an organism are one and the same. All organisms have an inherent tendency to actualize their specific potentialities. The aim of man’s life, therefore, is to be understood as the unfolding of his powers according to the laws of his nature.
Man, however, does not exist “in general.” While sharing the core of human qualities with all members of his species, he is always an individual, a unique entity, different from everybody else. He differs by his particular blending of character, temperament, talents, dispositions, just as he differs at his fingertips. He can affirm his human potentialities only by realizing his individuality. The duty to be alive is the same as the duty to become oneself, to develop into the individual one potentially is.
To sum up, good in humanistic ethics is the affirmation of life, the unfolding of man’s powers. Virtue is responsibility toward his own existence. Evil constitutes the crippling of man’s powers; vice is irresponsibility toward himself.