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 #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?