I used to read to my children from William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. The chapters are sequenced like gemstones on a bracelet: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith.
That’s a pretty good list. I especially like the way he leads off. Without self-discipline, compassion and responsibility you won’t get very far with the others.
As inspirational as William Bennett’s collected tales are (and my kids did love them), our understanding of virtue can grow deeper than mere lists of what it means to be good. I love this passage from Ethical Empowerment, by Arthur Schwartz.
Lists of the virtues are not difficult to find. … Courage, Honesty, Trustworthiness, Resilience, Loyalty, Independence, Selflessness, Perseverance, Wisdom, Compassion. However, is courage or loyalty in support of a brutal, despotic regime a virtue? … Is honesty a virtue when, in order to be honest, a promise must be broken? Is selflessness a virtue when the devotion to others is so strong that self-sacrifice leads to illness or personal ruination? … And compassion is surely a core principle of morality, but even compassion can turn sour if it is blind to issues of justice or other moral imperatives.
Specific virtues are not autonomous gems but, rather, are expressions of a deeper morality to which they owe their truth. (Kindle location 328, emphasis mine.)
Many of us wish virtues were like gems. Making a difficult moral decision would then be as easy as choosing the shiny pebble from among the dull. Alas; it’s not that simple.
Or maybe it is, but we need more sophistication. While a child may think that the biggest diamond is always the best, a professional diamond cutter balances carat, color, cut, and clarity to produce the most valuable finished product(s) from whatever hunk of compressed carbon was found in the mine.
We all know it’s the same with moral decisions. There are always competing considerations and we must make our best judgment.
As Schwartz says,
Conformity to virtue is by no means a black and white affair and it is, perhaps, more like an aesthetic judgment than it is a calculation, or perhaps it is a bit of both. (Kindle location 326, emphasis mine.)
An aesthetic judgment: life as art.
Art is even more difficult to judge than gemstones. What makes good art? In any medium, there are certain rules: symmetry, variety, novelty, and so on. Yet, art that is perfectly symmetrical is generally bad, unless other virtues such as novelty carry the day. Too much variety can be bewildering. Art that is so utterly novel that it does not connect with anything is not usually successful.
To enjoy art, it helps to be trained to recognize specific virtues in it, but that can’t be the end of the story.
Perhaps it’s the same with moral virtues. If we’re honest or compassionate, chances are good that we’re on the right track, but if we fixate on just a few virtues, we’ll probably miss others.
Virtuous living takes skill, balance and alertness to all the artistic possibilities. It’s hard. Here’s hoping that you become a virtuoso.