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Introduction edit

The parable of the Good Samaritan describes an act of virtue.

Throughout history great thinkers have identified certain human traits, called virtues, as intrinsically valuable. This course explores these virtues and suggests ways virtue can be integrated into your daily life, guide your decision making, and improve your well-being.

The objectives of this course are to:

  • Explore the characteristics of various virtues,
  • Survey collections of virtues identified by various philosophers.
  • Explore the relationships among those virtues,
  • Apply these virtues to improve practical decision making.
  • Improve your well-being, (eudaimonia).

If you would like to contact the instructor, please click here to send me an email or leave a comment or question on the discussion page.

The course contains many hyperlinks that may be clicked on and followed to obtain further information. Use your judgment and these link following guidelines to decide when to follow a link, and when to skip over it.

This course is part of the Applied Wisdom Curriculum.

This Quick Reference on moral virtues may provide a helpful summary and reference.

The list of wise affirmations on the topic of moral virtues may help you develop habits based on the ideas in this course.

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What is Virtue? edit

Virtue is excellence. The virtue of a knife is apparent in the sharpness of the blade and the fineness of its cut.

Human virtue–the topic of this course—is excellence at being human.

Virtues describe a way of being–they are manifest by your consistent behaviors. They are not just the occasional doing—they require more than the exceptional laudable behavior. Virtue is a matter of persistent intention, and action consistent with that intention.

Author Robert Merrihew Adams captures these ideas in his succinct defining phrase: "Excellence in being for the good".[1]

Values become virtues when they are internalized as enduring character traits. For example, the value of "truth" becomes the virtue of "honesty" when truth becomes a consistent motive for your behavior. [2]

Moral Virtues and Performance Virtues edit

A physically strong person with an excellent memory can use those assets for good or for evil. Certain virtues, such as having a good memory or being physically strong are certainly valuable, but they lack any particular disposition toward the good. These performance virtues are distinct from moral virtues because moral virtues are concerned with the good. David Brooks refers to these as résumé virtues and eulogy virtues, respectively.[3] The book A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good uses the term “Structural Virtues” to describe those that improve performance (for good, evil, or neutral pursuits) and the term “Motivational Virtues” to describe those that direct us toward the good. We may use the terms "performance virtues" (doing things right) and "moral virtues" (doing the right thing) respectively to draw this distinction. This course will focus primarily on moral virtues.

Optional Assignment: edit

Skim this list of trait adjectives. Select several, perhaps 20, that best describe character traits you consider to be moral virtues.

Candidate Virtues edit

Throughout history many thoughtful philosophers have identified and described a variety of attributes as virtues. Here is an inclusive list of such candidate virtues, each linked to a more complete description. This serves as an introduction to the domain and provides a basis for the more structured analysis in later sections of this course. Close synonyms for the virtue are often listed below the main entry. Please follow each link to study that virtue.

  • Politeness – A semblance of virtue
  • Fidelity – Stability, reliability, consistency
    • Piety
    • Unity
    • Integrity
    • Responsibility
  • Wisdom – Choosing humanity
  • Temperance – Savoring pleasure by shunning excess.
    • Moderation
    • Self-control
  • Courage – Value-based action despite temptation
    • Fortitude
    • Bravery
    • Persistence
    • Grit
  • Justice – Symmetry. Equal rights among humans; fair exchange
    • Fairness
  • Generosity – Giving without obligation
    • Altruism
    • Benevolence – Regard to the good of others
  • Compassion – Suffering together
    • Respect for life
  • Mercy – The decision to stop hating
  • Gratitude – Rejoicing in what is
  • Humility – Being equal
  • Simplicity – Revealing the essence
  • Tolerance – Discerning fact from opinion. Respecting differing opinions.
    • Reasonableness – Open to considering others' viewpoints
  • Purity – Without evil
    • Sanctity
  • Gentleness – Doing your good with the least possible harm to others
  • Good Faith – Love of truth
    • Honesty
    • Truthfulness
    • Sincerity
    • Veracity
    • Authenticity
  • Humor – Exposing a simple truth an unexpected way
  • Love – Attraction toward the good
    • Éros – Want
    • Philía – Joy
    • Agápe – Charity
  • Good – What is of most value in human life
    • Humanity
    • Perfection
    • Beauty
  • Moral Integration – Doing good.
    • Wholeness

Assignment: edit

Part 1: Choose some person you admire to focus on for this assignment. This person might be a historical figure, a modern luminary, or someone you know who has positively influenced your life.

Part 2: Think about that person’s character traits and select from the list of virtues above those that best characterize this person. Include, if you are able to, examples of specific actions this person has taken that demonstrate each of the chosen virtues.

Other Systems of Virtues edit

Philosophers have worked to identify particular virtues as most important for some purpose. Follow the links in each of the following paragraphs to study each of those systems.

The cardinal virtues are a set of four virtues recognized in the writings of Classical Antiquity and, along with the theological virtues, also in Christian tradition.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle's best known work on ethics, he presents the idea that we can describe virtues as things which are destroyed by deficiency or excess. His ethics are summarized in this table of Aristotle’s Ethics.

The seven heavenly virtues were derived from the Psychomachia ("Contest of the Soul"), an epic poem written by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (c. AD 410) entailing the battle of good virtues and evil vices.

Young Benjamin Franklin developed a plan to improve his character by cultivating his thirteen virtues.

In studying accounts of peak experiences, Abraham Maslow identified a manner of thought he called "Being-cognition" identified with these Being-values.

The Character Strengths and Virtues handbook of human strengths and virtues, by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, represents the first attempt on the part of the research community to identify and classify the positive psychological traits of human beings.

After interviewing 24 courageous and thoughtful men and women of conscience from around the world, author Rushworth Kidder concluded that eight values are widely, almost universally, accepted.

In his book “The Righteous Mind”, Jonathan Haidt describes six foundations of morality.

Reconciling Lists edit

Many of the strengths and values listed in these various other systems of virtues appear on our list of candidate virtues and their related synonyms, however, many do not. These need to be considered further.

Several terms, including right ambition, greatness of soul, diligence, order, industry, cleanliness, aliveness, self-sufficiency, vitality, active citizenship, and leadership are performance virtues rather than moral virtues. Pursue these to increase your capacity for accomplishing your goals. As you develop these performance virtues, please combine them with the moral virtues and use them for the good.

Kindness appears several times, and it is appealing as a moral virtue. Kindness is a combination of compassion, mercy, tolerance, love, and perhaps other moral virtues we have studied. Do take time to be kind.

Care for others and caring about others is a form of kindness that draws on our virtues of compassion generosity, gentleness, and love. Caring is good. Social intelligence is required for caring and kindness. Patience also helps.

Creativity—the ability to generate new and useful ideas and objects—is clearly a strength, but is it a moral virtue? Cheaters, thieves, and scoundrels of all types can be very creative in their approaches to causing mayhem, so it seems clear that creativity is not only inclined toward the good. However, creativity can be directed toward the good, and it may be essential for conceiving and providing the best. As you develop your creativity, please use it for good.

Uniqueness, richness, and completion are elements of creativity. They are often good.

Chastity is listed, and we will rely on you to integrate the virtues of wisdom, compassion, courage, gentleness, temperance, humility, and of course love to guide your own romantic encounters.

Loyalty, and the related virtue of unity encourage us to stay together in good times and in bad for the benefit of the group. Rely on your virtues of fidelity, wisdom, courage, and tolerance to decide when to join, when to persevere, and when to leave any particular group, team, organization or affiliation. Stay only as long as you can be for the good.

Respect for authority may or may not be good, depending on the virtue of the particular leader. While it is helpful to respect the authority of a virtuous leader, it is wise for you to be courageous in resisting the authority of any leader who is not for the good. There is no virtue in respecting the authority of a scoundrel or a tyrant.

Freedom and liberty are cultural attributes—conditions of the environment, government, or organization we are in—that allow us to exercise our autonomy and avoid oppression. Virtuous people exercise their freedom and liberty for the good. Others need restraints—limits on their freedoms—to prevent them from doing harm.

Curiosity, love of learning, and open-mindedness all help us explore our world and discover what is. These are essential components of wisdom and are certainly good.

Transcendence—a concern for something greater—along with hope and spirituality all represent a desire for a better future.

Effortlessness combines simplicity, courage, and good.

Assignment edit

Read through each of the systems of virtues listed above. Compare the strengths, values, and virtues appearing in those lists to the “candidate virtues” explored in depth in the previous section. Based on all of these lists, what if any virtues would you add to the candidate virtues list? What, if any would you remove from the list?

Virtuous Choices edit

How can our understanding of the virtues help us make better decisions?

There are times when you have to choose one person from a pool of candidates to fill an important position in which character is very important. Examples include deciding what candidate to vote for in an election, who to hire for some job or business partnership, and even who to choose for a romantic commitment, or an important friendship.

Assessing the virtue of each candidate, using this virtues assessment form, can help. Follow the instructions on the form.

In addition to using the form, one question to ask that can be helpful in revealing values, long-term compatibility, and worldview is: “what is your theory of knowledge; how do you decide what to believe?”

Resources edit

  • Comte-Sponville, André (2002). A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life. Picador. pp. 368. ISBN 978-0805045567. 
  • Gunn, Cameron (2010). Ben & Me: From Temperance to Humility--Stumbling Through Ben Franklin's Thirteen Virtues,One Unvirtuous Day at a Time. Perigee Trade. pp. 272. ISBN 978-0399536076. 
  • Adams, Robert Merrihew (2009). A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good. USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 264. ISBN 978-0199552252. 
  • Hursthouse, Rosalind, "Virtue Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.
  • Peterson, Christopher; Seligman, Martin (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 800. ISBN 978-0195167016. 
  • Phillips, Christopher (2005). Six Questions of Socrates: A Modern-Day Journey of Discovery through World Philosoph. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 334. ISBN 978-0393326796. 
  • Greene, Joshua (December 30, 2014). Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Penguin Books. pp. 432. ISBN 978-0143126058. 
  • Kidder, Rushworth (1994). Shared Values for a Troubled World: Conversations With Men and Women of Conscience. Jossey-Bass. pp. 332. ISBN 978-1555426033. 
  • The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent, 1915 by John Erskine
  • Shermer, Michael (2015). The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Henry Holt and Co. pp. 560. ISBN 0805096914. 
  • Reich, Robert B. (February 20, 2018). The Common Good. Knopf. pp. 208. ISBN 978-0525520498. 
  • Brooks, David (April 21, 2015). The Road to Character. Random House. pp. 320. ISBN 978-0-8129-9325-7. 

References edit

  1. Adams, Robert Merrihew (2009). A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good. USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 264. ISBN 978-0199552252. 
  2. Evolving Future Consciousness Through the Pursuit of Virtue, by Tom Lombardo and Jonathon Richter
  3. Brooks, David (September 13, 2016). The Road to Character. Random House. pp. 320. ISBN 978-0812983418.