Can You Name This Virtue?

When my children were small, I read them stories from William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. Its folk tales and legends were organized under chapters called Self-Discipline, Compassion, Responsibility, Friendship, Work, Courage, Perseverance, Honesty, Loyalty and Faith.

For an address I gave at my high school graduation, I focused on the virtues listed in Paul’s famous passage in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

This post is about a virtue that is missing from both of those lists. I did not give it due appreciation until recently. I’m convinced that most people neglect it, too. See if a couple of hints can help you guess it.

Hint #1: It is the opposite of one of the virtues that appears on William Bennett’s list — and in some translations of Paul’s list.

Hint #2: Talk show hosts who spout ignorance don’t have it, and neither do their dittoheads. Politicians who believe and repeat the ridiculous lack the virtue, as do the people who give them credence.

Those were big hints but I bet you’re having trouble concisely naming the virtue.

That is not surprising. Even though it is arguably as important a virtue as any on the lists I cited, even though the future harmony of our society depends on it, I cannot find a word for it! I spent about 20 minutes on thesaurus.com and dictionary.reference.com, to no avail.

What is this elusive virtue? It is to diligently gather and impartially consider good information, evidence and arguments — from all quarters — before forming an opinion.

If there is a single word that captures this virtue, I don’t know what it is. Do you? If not, what does that say about our culture!?

If something is important to a culture, people in that culture have (single) words for it. For example, if I were to ask you, “What word would you use to describe someone who always tells the truth?” you would immediately reply, “Honest.”

Another example is the virtue I had in mind in hint #1. If I were to ask, “What does a person have who believes God will always take care of him?” you would say he has faith. The concept has gotten plenty of use, so we have a word to express it succinctly.

Maybe my virtue is unnamed because it is relatively new. Only since the rise of the scientific method have we learned that it is the most reliable way to evaluate the truthfulness of a proposition.

Yet this virtue has a bad reputation. One of the words I thought about was skeptical but many of the synonyms for that word demonstrate its negative connotations: cynical, hesitating, mistrustful, scoffing. I thought about critical, as in critical thinking, but its synonyms are even worse, including carping, cutting, fussy and hairsplitting.

And that’s the way many people regard thorough research and critical thinking. If we insist on those steps before forming an opinion, people become exasperated. They wish their half-informed, half-reasoned arguments would convince us. We are more likely to please them with the other virtues. Nobody complains if we are loving, courageous or faithful.

It’s too bad that this virtue is so under-appreciated. With reference to William Bennett’s list, it promotes compassion, friendship, and honesty. It requires self-discipline, responsibility, and courage. It is truly a cardinal virtue. We ought to be talking it up more. Now can anyone think of a word for it?

10 responses to “Can You Name This Virtue?

  1. Sounds like ‘just’ or ‘justice’.

  2. The problem you’re describing is known as “bullshit”. Bullshit is the pretense of knowledge or understanding. The term you’re looking for is “rational integrity”. Speaking honestly and logically. The problem is that people confuse “impressions” with opinions. The difference boils down to whether one’s position is reasonably informed or not. If it’s not: it’s an impression. If it is, it’s an opinion. When people present their impressions as opinions, they’re compromising their rational integrity by pretending to have firm reasons for their assertions. In fact, they are promoting their impressions as opinions. This is usually done just to appear informed or opinionated. It’s a sign of immaturity and is often practiced by those who should know better.

  3. I should point out that being reasonably informed is often the best we can achieve. The Palestinian problem, abortion, free will, religion, politics and many other topics are simply too complex to know, with certainty, if we really are right in our opinions. Being more informed than somebody else does not necessarily translate to being more “right”.

  4. I did some more thinking about it and ‘judge’ almost exactly describes your definition. Maybe not so much the English concept of it. Because English is a noun based language, we tend to think of some dude in a flowing robe with a wooden mallet and scowl.

    Religion has spiritualized the word the to mean something abstract and portray it in a negative light saying, ‘Judge not . . .’ excluding most everything else the Bible says about judging.

    The Hebrew word for judge is shaphat (שפט). Hebrew is an action based pictrographic language upon which all other thoughts and concepts are built. Pictrographically, shaphat means to ‘gather, divide and speak’. The tet (ט) is a basket which is used for gathering and holding, the shin (ש) is teeth which are used to divide, consume, or destroy, and the pey (פ) is a mouth which is used to speak.

    This can also been seen in the Hebrew alefbet where the ayine (ע) comes before the pey (פ). They agyine (ע) is an eye both the outward ones and the inward or ‘mind’s eye’. With the eye a person see, looks, perceives. It comes before they pey because we should consider or think before we speak.

    • I love your answer, Joshua. “Gather, divide and speak” — in that order — expresses the virtue perfectly. Too bad the answer is in Hebrew!

      Come on, all you English-speakers! There must be an English equivalent of shaphat!

  5. Hmmm…That’s interesting. The closest I can think of is meticulous. Here’s the dictionary.com definition: taking or showing extreme care about minute details; precise; thorough
    It doesn’t encompass everything you want, though, and more describes the person who would possess the virtue you write about.

  6. What about “Discernment”? This is a word used in Quaker circles to describe the process of cutting through the noise to get to a resolution. It can apply in a group decision-making process to mean cutting through personal agendas and biases to get to a “sense of the meeting”, that solution or way forward which honors the “inner light” of everyone in the group. It can also apply to an individual’s decision-making process when dealing with a dilemma or difficult personal choice. The intention is the same, namely to identify the Truth, the Right, etc., around which all the fear, selfishness or other distractions are swirling. In non-Quaker circles, I think discernment means the ability to judge well.

    • Yes, I considered “discernment” myself. I think it’s part of what I have in mind, but to me it does not strongly connote the idea of actively taking time and trouble to seek out contrary opinions and evidence from all quarters. What I’m looking for is a combination of discernment and due diligence.

      The Quaker ideas of cutting through personal agendas and biases, and listening to everyone’s opinions, definitely part of my mystery virtue.

      I’m not so sure about the “inner light.” From the sound of it, the inner light is more intuitive than what I have in mind. It almost sounds mystical. Or am I under a typical non-Quaker’s mis-impression?

  7. I like ‘discerning’ very much, but I agree it connotes coming to conclusions rather than seeking more information. The word that came to my mind is ‘informed’.

  8. Pingback: Shaphat | Path of the Beagle

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