The Noble Conspectus: Virtue
Chapter 4 of 5
Virtue and Ethics
A virtue refers to a general ethical principle embodied within the habits and inclinations of a person. To say someone has the "virtue of kindness", for example, is to say that this person's inner nature is one of kindness.
Ethics and moral thinking lead to general principles, which become a virtue when they are a habitual part of our psyche. But people can build habits that are virtuous, non-virtuous, or anti-virtuous. So, first, there must be a discussion of the ethical principles on which virtues are based. To discuss principles, one must discuss ethics.
The Source and Purpose of Ethics
What is ethical and what is not? These are some of the most difficult questions to answer. But first, we must look at the question of what ethics is.
Ethics are rules of behavior. They are carried throughout a culture by general consensus - sometimes as part of a religion, civic ethics, or tradition. They are enforced in several ways. For the more important and extreme cases, they may be encoded into law, but in other cases they are enforced through less direct means. Often this will include social pressures such as shunning, ridicule, avoidance, and so on.
Where do these ethical rules come from and why do they exist? Everyone has different ideas of the ultimate source of ethics, but few would argue that we ourselves must generally agree on an ethic if it is to be practiced or enforced (legally or socially). So, while the source of ethics may be many and varied, people are (at least) the most immediate source.
As far as the purpose of ethics, this is easier to answer when looking at specific ethics than ethics in general. People may have many different beliefs about the ultimate purpose of ethical rules. As far as many civic ethics go, the purpose would surely seem to include that which makes us healthy and happy as a people and as individuals.
So, regardless of other religious or traditional aspects, it is clear that the source of ethics would in part include ourselves, and the purpose of ethics would include that which is helpful to our collective and individual well being. These two realizations allow us a common ground on which to cooperate on many ethical matters, regardless of our diverse religions, cultures, beliefs, and traditions.
The Objectivity of Ethics
With the source and purpose of ethics in mind, we can begin to ask the question, "What is ethical?" Something can be measured by the degree to which it fulfills its purpose. Different ethical beliefs and practices will have an objective effect on our collective and individual well being, for better or worse.
While ethics may have additional aspects which our individual religions and philosophies touch upon, it seems inevitable that we look at the effects of our actions and ethical principles on ourselves and our society in the attempt to reach an answer as to what is ethical. Where the past is concerned, we can look back at the consequences of our individual and collective actions. When it comes to the future, we can at least try to make our best estimate of the consequences to come.
We cannot know the exact effects of past actions or the future with complete certainty, but in both of these cases, evidence may be gathered and then processed rationally. An argument can be formed in support or opposition to various behaviors and ethics, based on a rational assessment of their objective effects on our mutual well being. This means that ethics are objective, even if our knowledge of them is subjective or imperfect.
The Motivation for Virtue
Individuals may have many different religious, spiritual, cultural, and traditional foundations supporting virtues. In additional to those foundations, we also share many motivations for virtue, simply out of the nature of the universe we all inhabit.
The world of human beings happens to be such that there are several philosophic reasons to live a virtuous life. Some may believe this is due to the fact that an all-good creator crafted the world in just such a way. Others may believe in forms of Karma. Still others may see this as simply the result of evolution and social instinct. But regardless of the reason, the wisdom of virtue and its basis in the material world is apparent, right along side any immaterial basis we may individually believe.
There appear to be at least five general justifications for virtuous living: Authoritarian, Self Interest, Empathy, Well-being, and Greater Purpose. None of these, taken alone, is sufficient to fully support the argument for a virtuous life to the exclusion of all other motivations. But, taken together, they form an overall picture that provides a strong case for the wisdom of living the good life.
Each of these lines of thought are presented in the order for which most human beings will usually develop understanding. They progress from most primitive to most morally mature or enlightened. However, not everyone realizes them in the same order and there may be additional justifications beyond these, especially regarding a person's individual faith or belief system...
The most primitive impetus for virtuous living is selfish and short sighted, although it can provide ample incentive for the most severe sort of misbehavior, or at least reduce evil behavior out of a fear of punishment. The thief who thinks he will never get caught is delusional, for eventually he or she will almost certainly make a mistake. The chances of getting away with severe offenses are so slim that this alone should be reason enough for any thinking person to conclude that serious offenses are foolish.
Authoritarian approaches to ethics can be effective for immature or psychologically damaged individuals, and are often fitting as the first form of ethical instruction for the very young. But ultimately, such an approach can only form the most simplistic of foundations for virtue. This type of motivation is essential, but not enough for true understanding.
• Self Interest:
The next justification for virtuous living is self interest. Only slightly more enlightened than authoritarianism, self interest means that, in general, people like being treated well and dislike being treated badly. Since we live in a world of people, one will get along better by earning a positive and trustworthy reputation. If one lies constantly, he or she will soon gain the reputation of a liar and will not be trusted or really liked by anyone. Others will be less likely to help him or her in the future. Meanwhile, good people will more often help one another. Simple logic suggests that your chances are better being a good person while living among people. This line of thinking, however, is still not quite enough to justify a fully robust sense of virtue.
The human being is a social animal. Like the wolf or the dolphin, humans have an emotional makeup specially tuned to these social structures. In other words, our emotions are conducive to social interaction. This means that a healthy human will normally have a sense of empathy for other life, especially that of other humans.
A human's empathic emotions can be under developed or even absent in the most extreme cases. Nevertheless, most people, even those commonly thought of as evil, have at least some residual empathy, which begins building guilt in a person's mind when they harm others.
Often, unethical people can be observed leading very self destructive lives, having problems with relationships, dependency, jobs, and of course the law. This is because people, deep down, dislike evil, and evil people therefore hate even themselves subconsciously. A good person lives more closely in tune with his/her nature as social being while a person who lives unethically, ultimately harms himself or herself.
Aside from the peace of mind one gets from lack of guilt and fulfilled empathy, there are also other side effects of living virtuously, such as a feeling of a healthy pride and self respect, more fulfilling relationships, and general happiness and well-being. Well-being is perhaps a cumulative effect of self interest and empathy as described above, but its effect is greater than the sum of its parts.
The sense of contentment one gets from helping others and the peace that comes from doing what is right can supersede all other hardships. Nothing in the unethical, uncaring, or cruel person's life can ever equate to this. This is because our material circumstances are ultimately not within our control. But what is within our control is our ability to make virtuous decisions. Therefore, whatever happens, a virtuous person may rest easy in the comfort that good has been chosen.
• Greater Purpose:
For those who have reached a certain level of moral maturity, one inevitably begins looking beyond one's self, toward genuine concern for others and humanity as a whole. Regardless of any additional greater purposes we may derive from individual beliefs, the lasting effect we have on the lives of others is an additional source of meaning in life. The chance to contribute to something larger than ourselves gives us added direction and purpose.
None of the above motivations alone is enough to fully justify all aspects of living virtuously. But together they give an abundance of reason why all people should find it rational to be a good person. Furthermore, some people will not be able to fully comprehend or appreciate some of these motivations until a certain level of life experience and moral maturity has been reached.
The Primary Virtues
There are many ways to organize lists of virtues, as have been provided by different traditions throughout history and throughout the world. There is no objectively "best" way to organize them, and to some extent, the ideal manner of grouping and organization will vary depending on what aspect of virtue ethics one is attempting to understand.
What is provided here is one organization designed to help remember the virtues and see them in their relationship to one another. This organization is called The Primary Virtues, named such for its analogy to the color wheel.
Where many sources provide lists of virtues, the Primary Virtues are designed to be more than an unrelated list. Instead, they are organized in a certain way for at least two reasons: one, to show the composition of the virtues, and two, to show how different virtues relate to form a system of thought and action.
Often, when one faces a moral dilemma, one will find that the source of the conflict lies in the contradiction of two or more ethical principles. Finding the solution to the dilemma will usually lie in understanding which ethics or virtues are involved, how they conflict with one another, and which should supersede which in a given situation.
In studying the ethics and virtue lists of different cultural, philosophic, and religious traditions, it becomes clear that some virtues are subsets of others. Meanwhile, some virtues are really the result of one or more other virtues mixing together. If one continues to break these categories down, it becomes apparent that there are certain primal principles upon which these virtues lie.
This is similar to the color wheel, with its primary colors which mix and blend to form secondary colors and all others. Because of this similarity, the Primary Virtues use the analogy of the color wheel. It identifies three primal virtues on which other virtues appear to be based in some degree.
More importantly, these primaries form a system of action, beginning with priority, continuing to plan, and then on to execution. The system could be thought of as an embodiment of the heart, mind, and hand.
Furthermore, the Primary Virtues are designed to be compatible with nearly any belief system, world-view, or religion. Using the Primary Virtues in one's life does not preclude or effect one's personal beliefs about the supernatural, the afterlife, or God. The Primary Virtues also do not require one to "add to" or alter their current religious beliefs. No doubt, the religious will find many references in their own belief systems as they are, which already support and promote these very virtues. Whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, Sanatana Dharma, Humanist, atheist, or any other belief, one will find that the Primary Virtues are a helpful tool for remembering virtues and approaching them in this life.
These three virtues form the complete system of action for the virtuous person - from priority, to plan, to execution. Like the primary colors, these virtues are the basis of all other virtues and are not themselves made up of any others. Secondary virtues are derived from combinations of the primaries. Shades of the primaries form sub-categories. Because virtue is synonymous with wisdom, the three primary virtues together form Wisdom.
In the virtuous person, Compassion forms the basis of all moral action and there can be no higher priority. Compassion establishes ethical priorities, it is the ultimate motivation for the virtuous person, and creates the impetus for thought and action. Its shades include, but are not limited to:
• Love for self (self respect)• Reason:
• Love of life (sense of wonder, adventure, and learning)
• Love for life (valuing all life in the universe)
• Love for fellow human beings (from those close, to whole human family)
• Empathy (ability to feel other's pains and joys).
Reason provides the basis for facts and the plan of action. It sets the procedures for realizing Compassion's priorities. While the virtuous person may frolic, he or she is not a slave to his/her passions. While it may seem strange to consider Reason a virtue, much evil is done by people with good intentions, but who act out of ignorance such that those intentions do not translate to effects which actually lead to good. Because of its importance in connecting intention to effect, the lack of Reason is considered an ethical failing. Shades if Reason include:
• Truth/Honesty• Discipline:
• Critical Thinking
• Healthy Skepticism.
Discipline is putting Reason's plan to action and seeing it through. It forms the execution of the course that Compassion commands and Reason plots. It provides the control to keep the virtuous person on course, despite a wave of distracting influences and temptations. Without Discipline, a person may have a good heart and have good talk, but be helpless to actually achieve good in the world as a moral agent. Shades of Discipline include:
• Fortitude (stick-to-it-tiveness)• Secondary Virtues:
• Temperance (moderation)
Not named as such in order to suggest lesser importance, the Secondary Virtues are merely those which are made up mainly of combinations of the primary virtues. So, the term refers not to priority but to composition. The secondary virtues by far outnumber the primary virtues - there are as many as there are colors. They would include such virtues as the following, for example:
• Tolerance (Compassion + Reason)
• Humility (Compassion + Discipline)
• Justice (Reason + Discipline)
Many may question why so many extremely important values are relegated to secondary status. In simplifying the virtues, it was important that the primaries be so universal as to not have exceptions. Truth, for example, is crucial to moral character. Nevertheless, it has exceptions. There are times when it is necessary to forego truth (lie) in order to protect an innocent, for example. This indicates that there is a higher, overriding (and perhaps more "pure") ethic upon which this moral decision is made. Compassion has no exception, although there may be times when a greater cause of Compassion overrides another. Reason also has no exception. While it is fine to be foolish for fun, this must always be within Reason. Frolic and emotion form the spice of life but may never exceed reasonable boundaries (endangering people or causing harm or irresponsibility). Discipline also has no exception. While some instances do not call for a great degree of Discipline, there is never a case where lack of Discipline is required or considered a virtue.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the Primary Virtues are not a psychological model of human behavior. They do not attempt to outline the system of action by which human beings function. In that regard they would be incomplete. Instead, the system outlined by the Primary Virtues is a system of action we might follow if we are attempting to live and act virtuously. We can ask ourselves, "Is my motivation compassionate? Is it reasonable?" Many times we have our hearts in the right place, and our Reason is sound, but we lack the discipline to do what we know needs to be done. This is the sort of model we can refer to as a guide in such matters. There are more details that might be explored about the Primary Virtue system as well.