Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

What Are Your Most Important Moral Traits?

We need rich moral terms

There are numerous tests or approaches to identify your personality type or strengths. I think we need VirtueSeeker™ to identify the moral virtues that a person possesses and wants to possess. As a moral philosopher, I believe it is absolutely vital that we pay as much if not more attention to our moral development as we do intellectual development. 

Intellectual and moral development really should go hand-in-hand, but moral development is significantly lagging. It seems as if people just take it for granted or expect people to figure it out on their own. It’s not happening and something needs to change because not attending to one’s moral development leads to some serious challenges on personal, interpersonal, and broader social fronts. 

The language of virtue and character has largely disappeared from our common ways of speaking and making moral judgments. This is why I want to bring back Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and David Hume (1711-1776). Both productively explore the moral dimensions of the relationships between individuals and the relationships of individuals to broader communities. 

For Aristotle, moral virtues involve both reason and emotion. Reason has dominion over the emotions and influences the degree to which an emotion is experienced and then acted upon. Hume, on the other hand, boldly claims in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Reason does play a crucial advisory role, according to Hume. Emotions or sentiments as he calls them need the guidance of reason. 

A virtuous act is the mean between the extreme of excess and deficiency. The virtuous act is the one that hits the sweet spot of appropriate emotional response and action in both degree and direction. 

To see the interplay of reason and emotion, imagine you have a friend who has broken a promise to have lunch with you. What should you do? Your reason enables you to weigh various considerations and analyze the circumstances for her missing lunch.  Does she do this rather frequently? If she missed lunch because a child was sick, this may be a mitigating factor. It may be harsh and excessive to cut her out of your life completely. If she missed because a better offer came along and this is not the first time she’s done something like this, the deficient response is to act as if nothing is wrong and that her behavior is acceptable. 

What is the sweet spot or the virtuous mean in a case like this? It may involve a kind of generosity in response. Give her the opportunity to explain. Listen charitably and not assume you know what she is going to say in advance or take everything she says in the worst possible way. State if you feel slighted or taken for granted. Ask her to call if she is going to miss so that you don’t sit there fanning the flames of resentment and get busy on the phone trashing her to another friend.  

Generosity, charity, and honesty are all virtues. But ask most people to make a list of virtues, and most likely you will be greeted with very short lists if not some blank looks. What we need is a robust list of virtues.   

Thankfully, David Hume gives us with plenty of virtues in his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). Hume was a keen observer of human nature and activity. He believed that part of our human nature is to have a spark of fellow feeling toward others and that this sentiment is the basis for morality. According to Hume, all humans share a similar psychological makeup, so it is not surprising that there seems to be some universal sentiments such as sympathy. 

Every virtue, Hume claims, is greeted by our approval because it is pleasant and has a kind of usefulness or what he calls “utility.” The vices are met with disapproval because they cause or elicit a reaction of pain. Based on his observations, Hume creates four categories of moral virtues. They are:

  1. Useful to self:  Discretion, industry, frugality, caution, strength of mind, wisdom, memory, enterprise, assiduity, good sense, discernment, temperance, patience, constancy, perseverance, forethought, judgment, considerateness, peace of mind (section VI)
  2. Useful to others: Benevolence, justice, gratitude, friendliness, truthfulness, fidelity, honor, allegiance, chastity, charity, affability, moderation (section II)
  3. Immediately agreeable to self: Cheerfulness, greatness of mind, courage, humility, dignity, tranquility, poetic talent, serenity, refined taste (section VII)
  4. Immediately agreeable to others: Good manners, wit, ingenuity, eloquence, affability, modesty, decency, politeness, gentility, cleanliness (section VIII)

Two immediate admissions. The first is that some of this language is unfamiliar; some of these words have largely disappeared from our common vocabulary. We’ve let some good concepts wither away from lack of use. 

Second, some of these virtues have gender, class and racial dynamics. Hume is quite clear that chastity and modesty, for example, are more important virtues for women than men. Rather than reject Hume for this, one might instead take this as an opportunity to explore  which virtues seem to have retained these gender, race, and class dimensions and why this is so. 

Armed now with a nifty table of virtues, a person can ask herself a series of questions as part of the process of VirtueSeeking. These include:

  1. What virtues do I have?
  2. Which one are the most important to me?
  3. What are my important goals in life?
  4. Which virtues will help me to realize those goals?
  5. What virtues elude me because I tend either toward their deficiency or excess?
  6. What virtues do I appreciate in family members? Friends? Colleagues? 

It is also interesting and often quite illuminating to ask a friend to identify the virtues she sees most clearly in you. 

A person of good character needs to have a balance of the virtues from the four categories. If a person inclines too much toward virtues that useful and agreeable to herself, then she may not be able to meet some of the needs of others. A person who is too well stocked in virtues that are useful and agreeable to others may not be able to meet some of her own needs and wants. The balance is crucial; it is what provides the stability within ourselves and between us and others. 

What happens when people are unreflective about their moral characters and the virtues they might embody? Cluelessness in this case is not morally neutral. This is the subject of a future post about callousness and indifference.

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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