Virtue and Character

A world with eroding standards of conduct

Are virtue and character antidotes to the chaos and discord we see every day?

Events in the newspapers, social media, and on television leave me feeling the world simply doesn’t make sense. Highly polarized groups can’t have rational discussions. Actions such as the Brexit vote are at odds with people’s best interests. Middle class “normal” kids join terrorist groups, cut off heads, and believe they are making the world a better place. Smart college women become porn stars and sugar babies and call themselves liberated third wave feminists. Factions within political parties dislike each other as much as they dislike the other party. Everyone’s angry and expresses it. Resolving differences by building on shared values, facts, and reason seems naive. Confidence in our institutions and leaders is almost nonexistent.

I struggle figuring out how to behave in a world with fewer standards of conduct. Perhaps you do as well. Right and wrong seem fluid to the point of personal preference. One person’s good is another’s evil. Morality, once a foundation for civilized behavior, seems to have become a slur. Virtue and good character seem irrelevant in the world of Tinder and current politics.

On what basis should people decide what is good or bad and act? Do we ignore the chaos, keep our heads down, try surviving in our own bubble, adopt a “whatever” attitude? Or do we jump in and take sides? It is tempting to pick a group–Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, Never Trump, Tea Party, Green–make it our cause and follow their lead in what is right and what is not. Or would that just add to the discord? Is there a better way to guide our moral decision-making than following the prescriptions of one tribe or another?

Virtues and Character - Part of the Solution

I believe there are principles for engaging positively with the world and avoiding the emotion-driven behavior we see on the TV.  I suggest giving more attention to the ideas of virtues and character. Virtue ethics, that ancient branch of moral philosophy, is an antidote to moral decision-making dysfunction. Let’s live by, and advocate for, common principles for moral reasoning. Give all of us–confused, susceptible teens to older adults set in their ways–a better way to make decisions about right and wrong than the emotional, tribal orthodoxy we see so much of.  See how differently we might behave if guided by shared ideas about virtue, character, and good habits. There are ways to channel our decisions and actions to encourage the flourishing of civilization, not its decline.

Before exploring the solution we need to understand why people to act as they do. What we see isn’t irrational.  It can be explained and predicted by understanding our nature. That understanding will help us create and implement solutions.

Sentiments motivate moral actions

People make decisions about right and wrong based on feelings. This is the root cause of many problems. Setting aside for a moment what we may wish would be the best basis for making decisions, let’s look at what actually happens. People have long debated what part of human nature explains judgement about right or wrong. What is the practical, personal, and day-to-day basis for moral judgments?  I believe there is compelling logic and strong scientific evidence that, in most situations, people make judgments and take actions largely as a consequence of their emotions (feelings, sentiments, instincts, etc.). Every day a front page story describes people making decisions about right and wrong which run counter to what is best for all. Sentiments motivate our behavior and judgments far more than rational, fact based decision-making. If we are honest we can see this in our own behavior. How often have we made decisions, especially ones with moral implications, based on our “gut” instinct rather than careful analysis and fact gathering? We do it every day.

Our Troublesome Genes

It is in our nature for feelings to motivate our decisions about right and wrong. We have evolved to base many judgements on emotion over careful reasoning. This adaption has served us well in the journey from the African savannah to our modern civilization. One doesn’t have the time to ponder about right and wrong when danger lurks behind the next rock.  There were the quick and there were the dead. Evolution has given us excellent tools to thrive in a precarious world. Our emotions to protect those close to us, fear outsiders, conform to the mores of our tribe, and respect authority helped us survive. These evolved when we lived primarily in small tribes of people who knew each other intimately and when existence was constantly threatened.

There is a big problem emotional wiring. Our environment changed faster than our basic human sentiments evolved. Man has lived in larger, settled, cooperative communities for just several thousand years. Our basic natures evolved over millions. Evolution is not forward looking. It does not anticipate an environment different from the past. Consequently we find our sentiment driven moral reasoning is often mismatched with the demands of the modern world. Too often feelings motivate destructive, rather than constructive, judgements and behavior.

Civilization Needs Constraints on Emotions

The negative impact of our moral sentiments has long been recognized. An essential part of civilization has been the development of constraints on our emotions and basic instincts. The adoption of practices encouraging the positive aspects of our nature while controlling the bad has furthered the rise of civilization. For example, our innate desire for fairness promotes a just society but without control it can result in people taking justice into their own hands. Adopting the rule of law was one way to control behavior no longer desired.

Over time many institutions have taken on the role of constraining our natural tendencies.  Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian writes “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak.”  Governments, churches, fraternal organizations, and other have all played a part in creating that moral law. We can see today places where civilizing institutions have broken down and the powerful, following some natural desires, prey on the weak.

Part of what we see is the diminished ability of our institutions to constrain the dysfunctional parts of our nature. Much has been written on this topic and it won’t be repeated here. There is ample evidence in the opinion polls on public confidence in leaders, schools, courts, police, churches, government, intellectuals, the press, and businesses. We don’t trust anyone.

Insights on Moral Sentiments

Several people have made important contributions to the understanding of moral sentiments, how they came about, and how they influence our decisions on right and wrong. Here are a few of the more prominent.

David Hume

An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals,” published in 1751, is David Hume’s primary work on this topic.  He makes the case that our moral distinctions come from sentiment rather than reason. He rejects the argument that we arrive at moral judgments through reason. He states that reason is the “slave of the passions.” He says our moral actions “depend on some internal sense of feeling which nature has made universal to the whole species.” We determine right from wrong, virtue from vice, based on our feelings of approval or disapproval. Hume’s discussion of this topic is detailed and complex. But the primary theme is that we make judgements based on our feelings. Reason may inform us about a situation but feelings motivate us to decide and act.

Adam Smith

The author of “The Wealth of Nations” also wrote another book titled “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” published in 1759. Smith was a contemporary of Hume and wrote his book on this topic after Hume. Adam Smith develops many of the same ideas about moral sentiments. He makes much of our ability for sympathy with others (empathy) as a key factor in making moral judgements. We judge whether someone’s actions are just or unjust, good or bad, based on whether we can empathize with them. He notes that our empathy is much stronger for those close to us than for people far away whom we don’t know. Here, as with David Hume, his arguments are complex but the conclusion is that feelings provide the basis for deciding right from wrong.

Paul Bloom

A psychologist at Yale, Paul Bloom in 2013 wrote the book “Just Babies – The Origins of Good and Evil.” His thesis is that we are born with certain moral principles such as fairness, cooperation, and reward/punishment. He believes these innate moral principles are the result of evolution and have historically been beneficial to our success as humans. He tested his theory with research on babies.  He found one-year-old babies favored “nice” puppets and rejected “naughty” puppets. They also can take the next step and decide to reward nice puppets and punish naughty ones. He cites other, similar research supporting his theory.  

Jonathon Haidt

Jonathan Haidt is a well-known social psychologist teaching at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is an expert in the psychology of morality and moral emotions. He co-developed the moral foundation theory. This theory proposes that there are innate moral foundations found in nearly all cultures.  These are: care/harm; fairness (equality)/cheating; liberty/oppression; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity/degradation. Research by Haidt and others provides cross cultural evidence for these foundations and for these foundations being part of our basic nature. They argue that these foundations are a result of evolution and have, over the course of human evolution, encouraged successful adaptive behavior to the environment of the times.

David Hume - virtue and character
David Hume
Adam Smith - virtue and character
Adam Smith
Paul Bloom
Jonathan Haidt

Science Supports Theory

The science seems to support the moral sentiment theories of Hume and Smith. Contemporary research provides evidence that our morality has emotional roots that those root have a genetic basis. Virtue and vice follows from the moral foundations theory. Haidt and his collaborators map various virtues and vices (e.g. compassion, anger, gratitude, respect) to these foundations.

I initially disliked this view of our moral decision making. I favor a careful gathering of facts and application of reason to make moral decisions. Reason is how we should do things. Upon reflection, I realized my view was not realistic and was at odds with the real world. I confused the way I wanted the world to be with the way it is. Feeling-driven moral decisions make practical sense. When confronted with a situation requiring action, one rarely has the time or inclination to gather facts and use reason to decide what to do. I see how this approach to making decisions works far better from an evolutionary standpoint that rational deliberation. We “know” instinctively what is right and wrong and we know it almost instantly. More often than not we construct our rational arguments and select the appropriate facts, to support what we have already “decided” with our feelings. Hume, Smith and the others have helped us understand how this works and why.

Virtue Ethics

Society’s challenge is developing practical means for controlling the negative aspects of our moral sentiments. Laws address a only small part of the problem. We need ways to constrain aspects of our nature that don’t warrant the application of state power. It is what should govern behavior when the law doesn’t apply and no one is watching. I encourage using virtue ethics to guide moral decisions and behavior. Virtue ethics is one of the three major philosophical approaches to moral action. Deontology and consequentialism are the others. In virtue ethics our flourishing as human beings, within a society of other human beings, depends on developing an excellent moral character exhibiting virtues developed through practice and refined through practical wisdom.

This approach to living is ancient and has worked. Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle, is a cornerstone. Virtues and character are fundamental teachings for many religions. These virtues have much in common with those described by Aristotle. Most would agree that being virtuous, developing strong character, and avoiding vices has done much over time to promote the flourishing of individuals and society.

An essential guide for understanding virtues and living a virtuous life is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle explores virtues in depth.  One insight he offers is that virtue is often the middle ground in the expression of an emotion. Most people see courage as a virtue. Aristotle points out that too little courage is cowardice and too much courage is foolhardiness. Both extremes have bad consequences. Aristotle points to the importance of acquiring wisdom to know how to act in accordance with a virtue. Wisdom allows us to exhibit the right amount of courage (or any other virtue) in a given situation. He also explains that practice is necessary to gain wisdom and to develop and refine our virtues. Habits help us decide quickly what is right and wrong and can counter to our immediate emotional reaction.

The Stoics provide another guide for the practice of virtue. These Greek and Roman philosophers stressed four cardinal virtues: wisdom courage, justice, and temperance. They believed a happy life depended on controlling our negative emotions. Stoic philosophy is not merely theoretical but rather a prescription for living life. They advocate constant attention and development of habits to live a virtuous life.

In more modern times we can look to Benjamin Franklin. He explained his approach to virtues in his Autobiography of Ben Franklin.  At a young age he chose thirteen virtues he believed essential to good character. He then proceeded to try living those virtues focusing on one each week. He famously used a checklist to track his progress. Late in life he concluded he had not achieved the level of virtue he sought as a young man but he was certain he was a better person for pursuing a virtuous life.

It may seem strange to be advocating something as common sense as virtues and good character. Is there really any disagreement here? I believe there is. Talk to people, especially younger generations, about morality, virtues, vices, and character. You will get more frowns that you would expect. We have placed so much emphasis on the individual that our obligation to others is getting lost. People don’t want to be judged. They don’t want other’s values imposed on them. Morality is for the religious extremists. I recall clearly a recent conversation with a millennial. When the concept of morality was raised, the response was, with a condescending sneer, “What are you, religious or something?” Virtue and character seem low on the list of characteristics of our elected leaders.

The Strength of Virtue Ethics

I am drawn to virtue ethics for several reasons.

  • It works. Humans have used the concepts of virtue and character for thousands of years to put constraints on negative aspects of following our sentiments. Our civilized world is in good part the result of people trying to be virtuous. We have all known and looked up to virtuous people.
  • It is simple to start and practical. Everyone understands the concepts of virtues, vices, and character. There is already basic agreement on some core virtues and vices. You don’t need a book to start the conversation. You don’t need to puzzle through Kant’s categorical imperative to figure out how to act.
  • Virtues have depth and complexity. Virtue ethics starts simply. Honesty, humility, charity, etc. are easily grasped at the highest level. But there is complexity and nuance in the application of these concepts. Practical wisdom is learning how to apply them in more complex situations. It would be nice if rules of behavior were black and white. We know that is not the case. We can become better at living a virtuous life as we learn and become wise.
  • Practice is essential. Virtue ethics is a practical approach that is meant to be used every day. Practice makes virtues habits. Practice also builds practical wisdom.
  • Belief in god is not required. Talk about morals and you quickly get to religion and God. Virtues and moral character are basic teachings for most religions. That is a good thing. However, one can agree on virtues and vices without having to agree on whether they are divinely dictated or not. This can lead to more widespread adoption of common virtues.
  • There is lots to build on. There has been so much written since the time of Aristotle about virtue, vice and character. One can learn about virtue ethics from a wealth of writings and teaching. Everything from sayings we heard from our parents (e.g. honesty is the best policy) to religious texts to the writings of contemporary authors.
  • It can be accomplished one person at a time. It is personal in that each of us can pursue virtue as an individual. It does not require a political movement or organized cause. It can be done one person at a time and one day at a time.

The steps to implement this antidote to eroding standards of behavior are simple. Each of us should consider which virtues are important to the flourishing of individuals and society and commit to living by those virtues. We should to examine those virtues in depth to understand the nuances and how to be virtuous in different circumstances. Then we make our virtues habits through practice. Finally, we should be open about the importance of virtue and character. Talk about virtues and character with friends. Being open brings others along.

There seems to be some growing interest in the importance of virtues to living life well. A book by author Ryan Holiday on Stoic philosophy, The Obstacle is the Way, Practical Philosophy You Can Actually Use, is a bestseller. Character, or the lack of it, has been mentioned more frequently in our current presidential election than at any time I can remember. Could cultivating virtues and good character make the world a more predictable and pleasant place to live? Might virtues and character restore confidence where we need it most? Let’s hope this idea starts trending.

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Greg Krohm
Greg Krohm
5 years ago

Very good post. One of the principles you cite at the end: virtue-ethics works seems to have mixed empirical results. Seems to me that there have been great conflicts in history in which the two sides had some very different applications of ethics, e.g., whether it is ethical or not to kill prisoners of war. I wonder what the ethical justification was for the Huns to pillage and rape as they forayed into Europe. As you note, religions share a lot of the same ethical principles (eg there is a universal prohibition on lying). However, despite a widely shared ethical… Read more »