How Many Virtues?


cardinal virtuesThe Greeks had but four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage (or fortitude). To this, many centuries later, the Catholic church (notably Aquinas) added three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (or love). These are the seven basic virtues of Western culture. But they’re not the only ones.

In 410 CE, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius listed seven ‘heavenly’ virtues in his religious poem, Psychomachia: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Writing in the New York Times recently, David Brooks said.

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

Brooks adds: “Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

In that sense we have two ‘resume’ virtue lists: the one we present to others, make an ostensible show of and tell people these are the virtues we pursue, even when we do not – and hope these become our eulogy list. And we have a private list of virtues we know we actually believe in, we actually practice in daily life.

But what are those virtues? Are they the four, the seven, or are there more?

Buddhists have two, intertwined lists of virtues. The first is the eightfold path:

  • Right view
  • Right intention
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right concentration

The second list of ten virtues comes from the Natha Sutta:

  1. Sila: good conduct; keeping moral habits;
  2. Bahusutta: great learning;
  3. Kalyana mitta: good company; association with good people;
  4. Sovacassata: amenability to correction; meekness; easy admonishability;
  5. Kingkaraniyesu Dakkhata; willingness to give a helping hand; diligence and skill in managing all the affairs of one’s fellows in the community;
  6. Dhammakamata; love of truth;
  7. Viriyarambha; energy; effort; energetic exertion; making effort; being industrious in avoiding  and abandoning evil actions, and cultivating the good;
  8. Santutthi; contentment;
  9. Sati; mindfulness; the ability to remember what one has done and spoken;
  10. Panna; wisdom; insight.

There are other sutras that list Buddhist virtues (also called perfections, or paramitas) like the Ten Perfections of the Buddhavamsa and the Six Perfections  of the Lotus Sutra, but they are essentially the same list as above.

On the virtuescience page, 119 virtues are listed, including wonder, thrift, thankfulness, respect, responsibility, sobriety, loyalty, honesty, generosity and discretion.  A similar, list can be found on virtuesforlife and similar sites (such as the wikiversity site). In the one-upmanship often found online, there are even longer lists (up to around 160) with terms like prayerfulness, resilience, health, beauty and assertiveness.

Are all of these really virtues? Or merely attributes or qualities: behavioral traits? That depends on how you define virtue.

Loyalty, for example, is relative: like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. Loyalty is only a virtue in someone else if they are on the same side or in the same party as you are. It’s a vice in others of different political, religious or cultural beliefs. History is replete with cases of blind loyalty where it was a character flaw, not a virtue. Think of the SS or the Soviet commissars in WWII, the Red Guard in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. None of the victims would consider their loyalty a virtue. Loyalty to a small cause can equally be disloyalty to the greater good.

If one assumes a virtue is a good trait in all humans, then can it be relative or dependent on the perception of the outcome? Is there an absolute good against which morality can be measured (which therefore must have its Janus face: an absolute evil.) Absolutes, when not considering divinity, are difficult to accept because humans are not themselves absolute beings and tend to apply terms like good or bad as judgments based on a very subjective perspective. As Bertrand Russell wrote:

…the things people judge good are the same as those towards which they have an emotion of approval, while the things they judge bad are those towards which they have an emotion of disapproval.

But whether there is or can be any absolute virtue, we want there to be. Simone Weil wrote:

…at the centre of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world.
Draft for a Statement of Human Obligation (1943)

But how do any of us know whether what we perceive as a a virtue, as a good or a moral action really is absolute and not comparative?

When considering the question, “What should I do?” there are two branches: a deontological view of ethics: “…the basic standards for an action’s being morally right are independent of the good or evil generated.’ In other words, pay attention to the rules: if we do our duty, we are behaving morally.

The relativist (or consequentialist) view forms teleological ethics: duty or moral obligation comes “…from what is good or desirable as an end to be achieved.” We make moral choices based on what the outcome will be. Machiavelli would have understood this branch.

The third branch of ethical examination is virtue ethics which focuses not on actions but to answer the question: “What sort of person should I be?” It tries to develop good character traits so that the person will make the morally right decisions.

With this we have a virtue-based ethical theory – it doesn’t judge actions as right or wrong but rather the character of the person doing the actions. The person, in turn, makes moral decisions based upon which actions would make one a good person.

In a more fulsome explanation, blogger Joell Watts writes:

Deontological ethics are those ethics based upon rules which have various sources such as Divine Command, Natural Law, Covenant and Rules, and Covenants and Contracts. The name of these ethics is derived from the Greek word deon which simply means something necessary. Thus, we should understand that deontological ethics are those rules which are seen as necessary for one reason or another…
teleological ethics regards the “good” as an object of the goal… Simply put, it was the ethics of what causes the most happiness to those interested…
Virtue ethics are based on the individual and their agency. Unlike the previous two, it is more individualistic and seems to be more situational… The focus then is not on rules or goals, but on the person themselves, so that once the person is a well-defined virtuous being, they would be expected to take part fully in either a deontological or teleological society.

He goes on to add:

Deontological ethics doesn’t allow to the result to be factors into the decision making process. It begins with the morality of the action, taken in the abstract, and forces one to align their actions in the concrete with the rule.
In teleological ethics, while a good result is the desired goal, it refuses to allow the goal to be easily defined. Happiness for the community may be seen differently by the individuals. Further, with no concrete goal, the need to constantly expand the concept of happiness appears, giving a consumerism view to the community.
In virtue ethics, the individual is in view, with the determined goal to make him or her a moral creature; however, the weakness here is that virtue is defined by the time and place of the individual… the morality of the individual is cultivated to produce a rational and reasonable creature who fits into the teleos of the society at large. It gives individuality to the society, in that the individual is the building block of a society.

(Aside: the trolley problem I suppose is a teleological question because it focuses on the goal or result, and does not assume any absolute morality in the choices presented.)

Aristotle believed similarly (and in a very Buddhist way): that virtue was a skill that could be learned and improved by practice. In Nicomachean Ethics, he wrote:

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature… Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.

French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville addresses the slippery definition of virtue in his book, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, :

Virtue, it has been said since Aristotle, is an acquired disposition to do what is good. But that is saying too little: virtue is good itself, both in spirit and in actuality. But there is no Absolute Good or good-in-itself that can simply be known and then applied. Good is not something to contemplate; it is something to be done. And so with virtue, too: it is the effort to act well, and in that very effort itself virtue defines the good.

He goes on to say that the virtues he describes are “practical morals… our moral values, but not in any abstract sense. They are values we embody, live and enact…” This strikes me as very Aristotelian. And Buddhist.

Comte-Sponville offers his own list of such virtues, its completeness somewhere between the brevity of the Greeks and the loquaciousness of the internet, with 18 virtues to ponder, reduced from his original working list of 30:

  • politeness,
  • fidelity,
  • prudence,
  • temperance,
  • courage,
  • justice,
  • generosity,
  • compassion,
  • mercy,
  • gratitude,
  • humility,
  • simplicity,
  • tolerance,
  • purity,
  • gentleness,
  • good faith,
  • humour,
  • love.

The original four Greek cardinal virtues are among the top six he lists. After 2,500 years the basics of good or virtuous human character remain unchanged. It is, however, harder to find Aquinas’s additions in the list. That might be because Comte-Sponville is (more or less) an atheist.

I have to admit, some of his choices surprised me; not because I don’t believe they are good character traits, but that he would consider them all virtues of equal status worthy of an essay. Even Aristotle wrote about minor virtues, but can politeness, for example, truly measure up to compassion? As Comte-Sponville says of politeness as a virtue:

Taken on its own, it is secondary, negligible, nearly insignificant; next to virtue or intelligence it is nothing, and that is what politeness, with its exquisite reticence, must know how to express as well. It is quite clear, however, that intelligent, virtuous persons are not exempt from its obligations…

Politeness is the form only; civility is the real virtue. Politeness is the artifice by which we reach civility; it’s about the appearance, not necessarily the substance. And politeness can mask insincerity, sarcasm and subterfuge. Comte-Sponville, however, says this: “Good manners prepare us for good deeds.” But the preparation is not the deed itself. As the Wikiversity defines them:

The purpose of politeness is to show respect for the people you are now interacting with by acting pleasantly.
The purpose of civility is to create the conditions that allow civilization to advance and prosper. While inoffensive behavior toward other citizens often helps, it is not enough. Civility requires engaging in civic dialogue, and fulfilling your role as a citizen. Because a strong democracy requires an informed citizenry, civility—at least for citizens participating in a representative government—requires being informed.

Still, I’ve always believed manners were the mark of the superior person. Politeness is the gatekeeper between barbarism and civilization; between philistinism and culture. And civility requires politeness as a precursor.

And humour? He calls it,

…a funny virtue, in a funny way, since it is irreverently indifferent to morality and satisfied simply with being funny. Even so, it is a great and precious quality: a decent man can lack it certainly but not without losing something of our esteem, even our moral esteem. A humorless saint is a sad saint. A humorless sage is something other than wise.

I’ve always been impressed that Chinese Buddhism had Budai – the laughing Buddha, AKA Hotei – the 10th century monk who is always shown smiling or laughing. He is known for teaching contentment, generosity, wisdom and open kindheartedness. Few other religions have laughing prophets or leaders: most are stern and scowling. So perhaps humour is more of a virtue than I initially realized.

That’s one of the delights in reading Comte-Sponville’s books: he always opens the floor for discussion and much cogitation.

In the end, it’s not the number of virtues we practice that matters, but rather that we practice them at all. It’s important that we make the effort to be good, to do good things for others, not just for ourselves, and behave in a way we believe is truly moral. And if along the way we can laugh at ourselves a bit, and be polite to one another, so much the better.

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