A Rich Ecosystem of Virtues

The Big PictureSean Carroll’s phrase, “a rich ecosystem of virtues and lives well lived,” which I mentioned two posts ago, has been in my head lately and I’d like to share more of what he had to say on the subject.

He starts with the maxim from Bill &Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Be excellent to each other. That’s one kind of virtue–how we treat each other. As Carroll says, you could do worse as a starting point for moral philosophy.

But the similar-sounding maxim, Make the world a more excellent place, also sounds good.

What’s the difference? Making the world more excellent is more of a big-picture view, less focused on individual relationships. You may have to be less than excellent to a few people along the way to creating a better world. For example, conservatives take this view when they say that in order to encourage individual responsibility (surely something we want in the world), the government may have to stop providing free health insurance. Liberals emphasize being excellent to each other by providing the insurance.

A third take is in the maxim, Be excellent. This is more about your motives: did you act “on the basis of virtues such as courage, responsibility, and wisdom”? Most of us believe that good intentions are not enough, but we also admire people who show great courage, even if it is in the service of the wrong cause.

Each maxim sounds good, but they can lead in very different directions. Sean Carroll says that we need people who emphasize all three types of excellence, and probably other types, too. When they are in conflict, the tug-and-pull of debate makes us stronger and better.

Just as a biological ecosystem is healthy when diverse species inhabit it and will die out if reduced to just one species, our ecosystem of virtues is healthiest when we have people who advocate a variety of perspectives.

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