Why We Love Virtue
(Even If We Don’t Know We Do)
Posted Feb 23, 2016
I’ll bet you love virtue. You may or may not know you do, but it’s a good bet that you do.
Think of a person who is really good to have in your life. The person could be a friend, a lover, a parent, another family member, or a teacher. Now think about what makes it good to have them in your life. Let’s call this person your friend and say she’s a woman to keep it simple. The chances are that it is good to have this friend in your life because she is good for you in some important way. Your friend might make you laugh, support you in hard times, or inspire you. To keep it light and fun, let’s say your friend is good for you because she makes you laugh.
Now let’s take a look at how it is that your friend’s wit is good for you. Let’s say that your friend’s wit helps you because you have a tendency to be too serious about life and its inevitable difficulties. Your friend makes jokes about things that you are taking too seriously and helps you to lighten up about them. To be helpful, she has to be able to do this consistently because you take things too seriously in a consistent way. In other words, her wit has to be habitual.
To be good for you, your friend’s wit has to be motivated in the right way. It would not be good for you if your friend’s wit were aimed at humiliating or discouraging you. You would also not like it if she were acting witty out of obligation or as a duty. Her wit would only really be welcome if you think your friend is spontaneously motivated to be helpful to you.
For wit to be a good thing, the comic has to understand what is funny and what is not. Real wit can’t just be accidental. Of course, people sometimes make us laugh unintentionally, and that can be fun or lighten our mood. But you would want your witty friend to know what she is doing, to be able to point out the humor in situations because she understands what is funny.
The last feature of her wit has to be that she can make light of things in an appropriate way. You would not want your friend to make light of something truly serious, like the loss of a loved one. Nor would it be good for your friend to just be a clown or buffoon or just plain mean in her joking. Her wit is valuable because she helps you to laugh at the right things in the right way.
We have just identified four core features of a virtue. (There are other features, but we’ll save them for another blog post.) Virtues are habits that are properly motivated, engaged in for good reasons, and are appropriate to the situation. Now I’m sure you have some questions.
Do I really mean to say that wit is a virtue? You bet I do. Aristotle taught us that wit is a very important virtue. It’s part of what makes it enjoyable to spend time with someone. Laughter is an important social lubricant, and relationships are better with the right kind of humor.
Are these four characteristics of virtue part of all virtues? Yes, they are. We could discuss virtues such as courage, generosity, and fairness in the same terms. For example, good people are habitually generous, spontaneously motivated to give, understand how to give, and give the right amount at the right time.
Do I mean to say that virtues are part of everyday life? Absolutely. Virtues are known as excellences. I like to quote Sarah Broadie on this point. She said that “a virtue…is nothing but a characteristic that makes the difference between functioning and functioning well.” Virtuous action is better than ordinary behavior. It is the difference between finding humor in a situation adequately and showing an excellent wit, between giving an acceptable gift and giving an excellent gift. This means that virtues show up in everything we do.
So why did I bet that you love virtues? I think that is a safe bet because we want our friends, lovers, family members, co-workers, and bosses to be virtuous. We fare better when other people treat us generously and fairly. We admire people who do that and are inspired to be better ourselves. We like ourselves better when we are generous and fair. It is really, really good to have good people in our lives. Aristotle said that we cannot really live the best kind of life without morally good friends. That sounds completely right to me because no one flourishes all by themselves.
My research team and I have found Aristotle’s ethics to be such an incredibly insightful guide to living well that our primary focus is in applying his insights to psychological and social problems. I wrote this blog post as part of an ongoing effort to study and promote virtues in everyday life. I am a psychologist who is part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers. We have begun a two-year project entitled “Virtues as Properly Motivated, Self-Integrated Traits.” This research has been funded by the Self, Motivation, and Virtue Project, which, in turn, was funded by the Templeton Religion Trust. Our research team will continue to share our reflections on virtue and human flourishing with you in this blog. We hope you will find these reflections valuable and follow us here.
I hope you love virtue just a little bit more after reading this, or at least that you recognize a little bit better how much you do love virtue. This is important because loving what is good makes it easier to bring goodness into the world.