Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Study the Virtues

Study excellence to foster excellence.

Lately I've become interested in particular virtues in my teaching and research. In the book Radical Virtues, philosopher Richard White discusses several reasons that support studying individual virtues, such as courage, compassion, and temperance.

First, doing so can help make one a better person. This seems right to me, as attending to a virtue can help with its formation and the development in one's character. Of course, this assumes many things about one's character, intentions, desires, and so on. Merely studying the virtues is not enough to become virtuous. However, study can help foster moral development. Our minds and lives tend to take the shape of what we think about throughout the day. Given this, studying and reflecting upon self-control can help one become more self-controlled.

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Second, studying the virtues is connected to our common life. Examples of this include the connections between a virtue such as temperance and environmental ethics, and the connections between justice as a personal virtue and issues of social justice. If we lived more temperate lives, were more frugal and less inclined toward consumerism, the natural world would be in better shape.

Third, a virtuous person is a morally sensitive person. She attends to the relevant moral principles, consequences, and the needs of other people as warranted. Such a person is not self-absorbed. Study of the virtues can contribute to a less self-centered approach to life.

Finally, White points out that a study of the virtues can lead to moral progress, in the individual and in society as well.

The above reasons for studying particular virtues overlap. White makes some important points, especially in a culture in which virtue and other moral issues deserve more attention in our everyday lives than we tend to give. In future posts, I'll examine such virtues as courage, compassion, temperance, and justice, and consider both how they relate to our lives as well as their contributions to true human fulfillment.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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