Tag Archives: Virtue

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.

Virtue, Gemstones and Art

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.


The Hebrew Letter Shin

The Hebrew Letter Shin

So many things don’t bother me anymore — things that I used to consider grave sins — that someone recently asked me, “Don’t you care about anything?”

I considered my response for a full week, and decided that what I care about most is a specific virtue that does not seem to have an English name. I wrote about it a year ago in the post Can You Name This Virtue? and my most faithful commenter, ~Joshua, won the contest. Here is what he said (emphases mine).

… [To] ‘judge’ almost exactly describes your [mystery virtue]. 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.

The Hebrew word for judge is shaphat (שפט). Hebrew is an action based pictographic language upon which all other thoughts and concepts are built. Pictographically, 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 think shaphat — to diligently gather facts and consider them honestly before speaking a conclusion even to oneself — is the highest virtue. Unless one does this, whatever other good one does is almost by accident.

Some might nominate love as the highest virtue. I disagree. It is possible to love too much, but it is not possible to be too honest. Suppose a boy misbehaves in class. If his mother loves him excessively, she may disbelieve the teacher’s report and the boy may not get the benefit of being corrected. We say the mother is “blinded by love” and the boy ultimately suffers for it. The only cure is honesty or, more poetically, the process ~Joshua described in the letter-story of shaphat.

In contrast, nobody was ever “blinded by honesty.” In fact, the more honest we are, the more we are able to love. Speaking for myself, when I lived in a world of dogma (the opposite of living shaphat), too much of my so-called love for other people consisted of wishing that they believed the things I did. As I wrote in Love the Sinner; Hate the Sin, real love includes questioning one’s own convictions about what is really sin. Now that I’m more focused on what makes people flourish in this life, instead of their acceptance of dogma as qualification for the next, I’m more able to love them as they are.

Without shaphat, it is even possible to love the wrong things. For me, that has especially meant wrong ideas. ~Joshua said, “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…” After we have gathered putative facts, are we willing to divide them into those that should should be consumed (internalized) and those that should be destroyed (rejected as non-facts)? Virtue is rarely easy, and it is certainly difficult to let go of cherished beliefs which, upon further shaphat, turn out to be untrue.

When the gathering phase has not yielded enough facts to warrant a conclusion, shaphat includes the ability to say, “I don’t know.” For most of my life, those were very hard words to speak. Now they’re the easiest in the world! They diffuse any argument, and saying “I don’t know” is much more comfortable than attempting to defend a position that does not have adequate support.

So that’s what I care about most. I wish you every blessing of shaphat.

Appropriate to Evidence and Cost

You may have seen this video of chimpanzees who were raised in a research lab, and released to the outdoors for the first time in their lives.

Sometimes I feel like those chimpanzees. I blink and wonder at new virtues I see in the landscape of freethought. What I see is sometimes so unfamiliar that I cannot name it.

So it is with the virtue I propose for your consideration in this post.

It’s the virtue of urging change on others only

  • in proportion to the solid evidence for your idea, and
  • in inverse proportion to the cost that your change will exact.

Jesus had the right idea when he encouraged people to “count the cost” before signing up as his disciple. Even if a person really needed what Jesus had to offer, and was eager to have it, Jesus preferred to send him away with nothing if he was not willing to give up everything.

Too many people, myself included, have breezed past the ethical imperative of letting people know what they’re getting themselves into.

I would add that those who proselytize for high-cost spiritual programs (cost in terms of money or cost in terms of lifestyle change) ought to have plenty of evidence that their ideas are true. Not just that they “work” or “change lives” but are factually true.

How do you know they’re true? Do your ideas allow you to make predictions that can be fulfilled in front of people today? Have you proposed ways that your ideas could be proven false, and encouraged others to try those experiments? Do your ideas fit comfortably with what you see in the world, or do they force you into ad hoc appeals to the mysterious plans of invisible beings? Have you listened carefully to the best arguments from those who disagree with you? Have you actually read their books, or have you allowed your own side to summarize them for you? Have you given your opponents credit for being intelligent, sincere human beings, or have you demonized them as unenlightened and morally compromised because they disagree with you?

I once attended a group of spiritual seekers and one of the women there opined that it didn’t matter whether the system on offer was technically true; what mattered was whether it made you feel better. So astonished that I lost my manners, I blurted out, “Then just take drugs!”

I say from experience that the sweet feelings, warm social atmosphere and exalted morality of a spiritual system will turn bitter, uncomfortable and dark if the foundation on which they were based proves false.

So let’s rotate our own volume knobs counterclockwise if we don’t really have evidence for what we’re saying. Let’s be especially cautious if we’re asking a lot of those we are trying to convince.

P.S. – There’s one more aspect of this virtue that I will save for its own post. We should make special accommodations for people who are not equipped to evaluate the evidence. They may include children, the philosophically unsophisticated and people who have suffered deep psychological wounds.

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?