Who Needs Virtues Anyway?
Updated: Jul 19
Imagine recognizing the need to perform an action yet lacking something essential to complete it. The problem is not a lack of motivation or good will, just the inability to accomplish what you've decided needs to be done. Something about who you are just does not work in the situation.
You may be lacking the appropriate virtue or virtues.
Perhaps an example may help illustrate?
Remember being present in those meetings where there is a huge elephant in the room about some problem that no one will recognize? It would be nice if someone could be more truthful about the problem. But why does no one come forward?
The lack of the virtues of courage and honesty can be said to have made it very difficult to do what needed to be done.
Although talk about virtues is not very prominent today (unless you are a devout member of a religion or very close to specific indigenous practices), people enlist virtues in different ways in order to achieve certain ends they think worthwhile. When such virtues are lacking, then problems arise. We may do the wrong thing; we may fail to act when action is needed; we may anger, disrespect, or ignore others; and we may feel shame about ourselves.
But thanks to interesting work being done today by philosophers in the area of virtue ethics, we are getting a clearer picture of why virtues matter. Virtues not only play a key role in how we act, but also why we act (or for what ends).
As we will see in this blog series dedicated to understanding virtues, virtues matter a great deal to our ability to act as human beings and what ends or goals count as worthwhile.
What are virtues? Who is virtuous?
A loose analogy to start. Virtues are much like the lenses of our eyes. They do a lot in terms of enabling us to function well, and yet they are transparent. That is to say, we don’t really notice them until we find them wanting, damaged, or impeded.
A person who understands why an action should be done yet cannot perform the action can be said to be functioning less appropriately than we might expect or hope. The virtue of courage, for example, allows one to be emotionally and/or physically vulnerable for the sake of helping another person in danger or need.
The link between our functioning as humans and virtues is important since, as I mentioned above, virtues allow us to disclose who we are as persons. Our character shines through according to the virtues we enact—Becky is courageous, Lee is moderate, Makayla is patient, etc. So in this sense, virtues constitute who we are. We therefore often refer to virtues in terms of traits.
Bearing all this in mind, a decent and provisional definition:
a virtue is a character or intellectual trait that enables one ...
(I will expand on this definition as we go along in the series).
Let me clarify that character traits are those that involve the formation of our habits and dispositions—such as courage, patience, moderation, honesty, etc. Intellectual traits refer to faculties of reasoning. There are different kinds of reasoning, and in this series we will focus on the idea of practical wisdom.
For now, let us consider a key difference in the eye lens analogy. When virtues are lacking, we notice that we can’t quite do the things that we wanted or were expected of us. However, while we might repair a lens or use glasses to correct our vision, virtues are a different matter.
You can’t just purchase virtues or simply declare one possesses a virtue, like courage. Virtues are not things like the objects we possess. Rather as traits, virtues are things only in so far as they are aspects and features of our character and intellectual composition—or, our person.
How are virtues acquired?
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) uses two senses of the term natural to describe virtues and their acquisition. Virtues are natural in the sense that they are capacities latent in each human being. Yet, at the same time virtues are not natural in the sense that they are not fully formed simply by being human.
For Aristotle, virtues are given but need to be cultivated and practiced. So if one lacks courage, one would need to find ways to practice becoming courageous. Luckily, we have others who can help. Courage can be practiced in many ways—e.g. through sports, public speaking, volunteering. Soon one finds there is not just one type of courage but many—militaristic, athletic, emotional, spiritual.
In fact, most of us have been practicing virtues like courage since childhood under the guise of learning how to be truthful, courteous, compassionate, and so on. So the presence of other people and the kinds of social groups and institutions that house a variety of pursuits and activities are essential to the cultivation of virtues.
This pluralistic, practical element suggests that how our person is formed and why we decide to do the things we do have varied and often conflicting sources and reasons.
For instance, courage can mean different things in different cultures. Courage for an ancient Greek citizen would not only involve the importance of speaking truthfully in public but also the readiness to defend one’s city-state in case of invasion. So in ancient Athens, courage is linked more substantially to the public and militaristic spheres.
Today, while notions of courage are shaped by military ideas and actions born by films and narratives, our practice of it tends to be mostly in terms of sports. Recently, of course, courage has manifested with respect to various protest and anti-protest movements.
This last point helps to underscore the role of communities. The courage to protest for one political community can manifest very differently for another political community; and this is because informing how and when to be courageous are different values, ideas, ends, contexts, and indeed other conflicting virtues.
So our shorthand definition of virtue can be expanded:
a virtue is a character or intellectual trait that enables one to achieve ends deemed worthwhile by one’s communities ...
Yet, as you may have wondered: How does one decide whether one’s communities are better or more correct than another?
To get a better grip on this thorny issue, we first have to understand how the ends and goals towards which virtues drive are recognized as such. This is the topic of our second installment in the series on understanding virtues.
Dr Todd Mei is a public philosopher and business consultant who specializes in the areas of meaningful work, the philosophy of work, virtue ethics, and hermeneutics. He was formerly Assistant and Associate Professor at the University of Dundee and the University of Kent, respectively. In addition to being an academic writer, he is also the author of a short sci-fi novella called Pig Terrorism. When not immersed in reading and writing, he can be found rock climbing or windsurfing.