What are virtues?

It hasn't always occurred to me that virtues are linked to having a bright outlook. But I am learning that this is true with increasing frequency. What are virtues? Are there a few key virtues that embody everything that is virtuous? Do virtues pose any hidden dangers? In addition, what key questions will enable us to understand virtue? The purpose of this post is to explore these questions.

This week I'm starting a new approach to writing blog posts. Over a year ago I wrote about my goal of learning in public, but I still have much room for improvement in that regard. From now on I will write about my thoughts both before and after my weekly research process.

My first step is always to consult my "second brain" on my computer, where I keep all my research notes. After that, I decide which topic to explore in more depth. My preliminary step beginning this week is to write what I already know about the subject from my "first brain," the one on my shoulders.

Here are the prompts I will write about each week:

  1. Why is this an important topic?
  2. What do I already know about this topic?
  3. What concepts are connected?
  4. What questions do I want to answer?

Let's get started.

What I know

These sections incorporate things I wrote in an essay before doing research for this post, edited for brevity.

What are virtues?

Here's my current definition of virtues without consulting a dictionary: values that motivate people to make a contribution to society.

Why is this an important topic?

Virtues mediate and reduce conflict, which is one reason why we should care about them. Considering how much damage wars and other conflicts cause in the world, it is obvious that this is important.

We must also focus on long-term benefits, not just short-term ones. The way we live now is unsustainable, and everyone should recognize that. Exploiting other planets and asteroids would be one solution. If this world's resources aren't enough for us, it's hard to imagine what will happen if we tap into more. I think inequality will increase, not decrease. Consciously or not, everyone seems to expect that the next generation will be more virtuous. The alternative is unthinkable.

What do I already know about this topic?

I believe that adequate short-term benefits also come from pursuing virtues to make them worth pursuing right now. I think a lot of people associate virtues with stoicism, but I think they can lead to a happier life for anyone.

I also wrote about basic activities all people engage in. The words survival, gratification, doing what's right, and helping society sum up what I wrote. They are basically the factors that drive our daily activities. Certainly, some of these activities are considered to be virtuous by most people. My question is whether we can consider them all to be virtuous activities.I've considered a lot of Nathaniel Branden's ideas about the need for responsibility and integrity, which arguably are both virtues, in order to have a high level of true self-esteem. If that is true, then logically, the other pillars of self-esteem, living consciously, self-acceptance, assertiveness, and living purposefully could also be considered virtues since they also contribute to SE. I intend to explore this further in the future.

What concepts are connected?

Virtues and values are both important. I think they also are related to beliefs. We value something if we believe it's valuable. The more benefit we get from a virtue, the more we cherish and pursue it. 

Pushing our needs and wants on to someone else is certainly not virtue. This reminds me of what I've been reading in the Six Pillars book about the practice of living responsibly.

What questions do I want to answer?

  • What are the similarities and differences between virtues and values? 
  • Is it possible to be virtuous without effort?
  • What virtues have the greatest impact on global well-being?Science may have just started to get a handle on this one. "There is ... emerging evidence that character strengths can contribute to sustainability and pro-environmental behavior." Stahlmann, A. G., & Ruch, W. (2020). Scrutinizing the Criteria for Character Strengths: Laypersons Assert That Every Strength Is Positively Morally Valued, Even in the Absence of Tangible Outcomes. In Frontiers in Psychology (Vol. 11). Frontiers Media SA. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.591028
  • Is it reasonable to expect that the next generation will be more virtuous than this one without effort?
  • Is it fair to place that burden on future generations who may not be in the same position as we are to develop virtues?
  • As social relationships are one of the most important factors in happiness, well-being, and even wealth, shouldn't we strive for virtues that make us more attractive socially?
  • Can virtues be linked to happiness or life satisfaction?

The results of my research

Back when I was doing research for my posts on values, I came across some interesting references to the "Values in Action" work by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, which I saved in my notes.Most of the research I did for today's article is based on references I found in Ruch, W., & Proyer, R. T. (2015). Mapping strengths into virtues: the relation of the 24 VIA-strengths to six ubiquitous virtues. In Frontiers in Psychology (Vol. 6). Frontiers Media SA. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00460 The material I found there can serve as a springboard for exploring a number of aspects of this issue.This is a timely subject, as indicated on the Wikipedia page for Values in Action Inventory of Strengths there's currently a note, "It has been suggested that Character Strengths and Virtues be merged into this article - Proposed since December 2021."

One of the papers that caught my interest was authored by Tim Lomas, who surveys world languages to find hidden insights about wellbeing from "untranslatable words."Lomas, T. (2018). The Roots of Virtue: A Cross-Cultural Lexical Analysis. In Journal of Happiness Studies (Vol. 20, Issue 4, pp. 1259–1279). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-018-9997-8  In fact, I came across his work last year when I was looking for a good way to answer the question, What is love?If you are fluent in another language you might be interested in helping him with his interactive lexicography project.

What I've learned

I learned a lot about the definition of virtue. Virtue has a strong moral component, indicating "conformity to a standard of right". A virtue can be a quality, an action, a strength, a habit, or a pattern of behavior. It is generally held that virtues are not only good in and of themselves, but also contribute to the happiness and satisfaction of others. Robin Campbell, editor of the 2004 volume Letters From a Stoic by Seneca, had this to say:

In this way we shall arrive at the true end of man, happiness, through having attained the one and only good thing in life, the ideal or goal called arete in Greek and in Latin virtus – for which the English word ‘virtue’ is so unsatisfactory a translation. This, the summum bonum or ‘supreme ideal’, is usually summarized in ancient philosophy as a combination of four qualities: wisdom (or moral insight), courage, self-control and justice (or upright dealing).

So, naturally I needed to find out what arete and virtus meant.

Arete (Greek: ἀρετή) in its most basic sense, refers to "excellence" of any kind. The term may also mean “intrinsic eminence, moral goodness, virtue, . . . any particular moral excellence.” Arete describes an individual who uses all their faculties to achieve real results, namely, strength, courage, and wit.Here's a three-factor description for comparison with the factor analyses mentioned below.

Virtus comes from vir, the Latin word for man. The suffix -tus creates an adjective with the quality of the noun, thus making virtus the equivalent of the English word manly.The English word “virility” comes from the same Latin root. Originally, it referred to a brave warrior, having a meaning similar to that of the modern English word valor. Eventually, it could also mean he was a good person who did the right thing, and this is the part that survives in the English word virtue.

In the paper I read (cited above), Lomas summarizes the most recent research on virtues, notably that of Seligman and Peterson. He explains how they selected 24 strengths and grouped them under six virtues based on 12 carefully chosen criteria. Since then, other scholars have used tools such as factor analysis to determine whether their choices make logical sense. In so doing, researchers have also found solutions involving five-, four-, three-, and two-factor models.

Gems about virtues I discovered in my notes

Campbell refers to four qualities of ancient philosophy in the quote above. Could modern statistical methods confirm them? Is it possible that scientists will one day find that some other collection of qualities serves as a better representation of virtues in general?

Here are a couple of examples so far: 

Based on an analysis of 390 participants' responses, four factors were identified: empathy, order, resourcefulness, and serenity. Furthermore, the authors concluded that virtue has more to do with personality than with moral reasoning and cognitive development.Cawley, M. J., III, Martin, J. E., & Johnson, J. A. (2000). A virtues approach to personality. In Personality and Individual Differences (Vol. 28, Issue 5, pp. 997–1013). Elsevier BV. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0191-8869(99)00207-x 

According to at least two other papers, dominant virtues can be categorized as caring, inquisitiveness, or self-control.McGrath, R. E. (2014). Integrating psychological and cultural perspectives on virtue: The hierarchical structure of character strengths. In The Journal of Positive Psychology (Vol. 10, Issue 5, pp. 407–424). Informa UK Limited. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2014.994222 and McGrath, R. E., Greenberg, M. J., & Hall-Simmonds, A. (2017). Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Cowardly Lion: The three-factor model of virtue. In The Journal of Positive Psychology (Vol. 13, Issue 4, pp. 373–392). Informa UK Limited. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2017.1326518 

A more recent study determined that more than half of the strengths identified by Peterson and Seligman can be captured by the terms positivity, dependability, and mastery.Partsch, M. V., Bluemke, M., & Lechner, C. M. (2021). Revisiting the hierarchical structure of the 24 VIA character strengths: Three global dimensions may suffice to capture their essence. In European Journal of Personality (p. 089020702110177). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1177/08902070211017760 

The 2000 study suggests that virtues are closely linked to personality, so it appears that the answer to my question of whether a person may display some virtues without exerting much effort, is yes. However, it stands to reason that no one is 100% virtuous. 

Moreover, I learned that virtue and challenges go hand in hand. Challenges can produce virtue when they are faced appropriately. In turn, developing virtues helps us overcome challenges in the future.

According to Gregory David Roberts, author of Shantaram:

It's a characteristic of human nature that the best qualities, called up quickly in a crisis, are very often the hardest to find in prosperous calm. The contours of all our virtues are shaped by adversity.

The authors of a 2016 study agree: 

A primary justification for the study of coping is the notion that, when people are faced with adversity, the ways they react to and deal with its challenges can make a material difference to their subsequent development. If they are overwhelmed, they can become more vulnerable to subsequent psychological problems and disorder; if they rise to the challenge, they can become toughened, strengthened, and more resilient to future threats and difficulties.Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., & Skinner, E. A. (2016). The Development of Coping: Implications for Psychopathology and Resilience. In Developmental Psychopathology (pp. 1–61). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119125556.devpsy410 

Finally, I like the way a reference work summarized this:

Virtue might, therefore, be likened to a strong metal such as iron, which by repeated heatings and coolings can be tempered so as to become steel, making it not only stronger but also tougher, far less likely to crack under strain.

In addition, I learned that false virtues need to be avoided. One mistake is to confuse virtues with good intentions.

We will be more inclined to act on our impulses if we feel good about our virtue. For example, when people plan to exercise the next day, they tend to eat more at dinner.From The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal

It is also a mistake to show off our virtue. In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson wrote,

Telling people you’re virtuous isn’t a virtue, it’s self-promotion.... Virtue signaling is, quite possibly, our commonest vice.

Joseph Grenny highlighted the need to recognize the tendency to tell ourselves "victim stories" that magnify our virtues while relinquishing all responsibility for the situation. The result is overreacting to the problem instead of finding a solution.

For future exploration

For future consideration, I'm adding the following to the questions I raised above. The studies referenced in the footnotes may help answer each of these questions.

  • Would three dimensions of character strengths be sufficient to capture their essence?Partsch, Bluemke & Lechner (2021).
  • Which influences virtue measurements more, social-cultural factors or biological factors?Duan, W., & Ho, S. M. Y. (2016). Three-Dimensional Model of Strengths: Examination of Invariance Across Gender, Age, Education Levels, and Marriage Status. In Community Mental Health Journal (Vol. 53, Issue 2, pp. 233–240). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10597-016-0038-y 
  • Is it possible to increase happiness by working on character strengths?Proyer, R. T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S., & Ruch, W. (2015). Strengths-based positive psychology interventions: a randomized placebo-controlled online trial on long-term effects for a signature strengths- vs. a lesser strengths-intervention. In Frontiers in Psychology (Vol. 06). Frontiers Media SA. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00456 
  • What is the relationship between an individual's character strengths and being considered a person of "good character"?Ruch, W., Heintz, S., & Wagner, L. (2020). Co-occurrence Patterns of Character Strengths and Measured Core Virtues in German-Speaking Adults. In Frontiers in Psychology (Vol. 11). Frontiers Media SA. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.599094 
  • How do virtues relate to personality traits?Morales-Vives, F., De Raad, B., & Vigil-Colet, A. (2014). Psycho-Lexically Based Virtue Factors in Spain and Their Relation With Personality Traits. In The Journal of General Psychology (Vol. 141, Issue 4, pp. 297–325). Informa UK Limited. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221309.2014.938719 
  • Can Twitter be used to predict and characterize character strengths?Pang, D., Eichstaedt, J. C., Buffone, A., Slaff, B., Ruch, W., & Ungar, L. H. (2019). The language of character strengths: Predicting morally valued traits on social media. In Journal of Personality (Vol. 88, Issue 2, pp. 287–306). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12491 
  • What strengths should be targeted in strengths-based interventions?Proyer, R. T., Ruch, W., & Buschor, C. (2012). Testing Strengths-Based Interventions: A Preliminary Study on the Effectiveness of a Program Targeting Curiosity, Gratitude, Hope, Humor, and Zest for Enhancing Life Satisfaction. In Journal of Happiness Studies (Vol. 14, Issue 1, pp. 275–292). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-012-9331-9 

In conclusion

We live in an age of moral relativism, so it's often difficult to remember that seeking virtues leads to a better life. Cutting-edge research provides evidence that virtues are just as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. When we know how virtues are formed, we can boldly face adversity rather than run away from it. Having a deeper understanding of the dangers of false virtues helps us identify maladaptive tendencies within ourselves.

As time goes on, I'm looking forward to learning more about virtues and sharing what I'm learning with you. These efforts will lead to a brighter outlook, and they are well worth the effort.