Since time immemorial, values, virtues, and societal norms (and mores, folkways, etc.) have been part and parcel of the fabric of every civilization. Not only is it interesting to think of the ways in which different cultures differ from each other and how societies can spin out of control, it is exciting to think of the ways in which certain virtues hold up beautifully over time. For example, every society has more or less valued the virtue truth: honesty, fair dealing, justified belief, etc. A society which prized chicanery, deceit, and unscrupulous behavior would not long last. Trust and law are the glue that hold a people together, and thus, the virtue of truth is written into the sacred texts, myths, laws, and norms of a society.
“A virtue is an admirable character trait or disposition to habitually act in a manner that benefits ourselves and others. The actions of virtuous people stem from a respect and concern for the well-being of themselves and others.”
“The traits of the soul by which a human being does good things and noble actions are virtues.”
“…the question naturally arises as to what we mean by virtue. Virtue includes the intellectual abilities that are central to our human life — greatness in art, learning, leadership. These virtues are partly innate but largely learned from masters.”
The purpose and function of elevating certain virtues are because either a) they are truly reliable and great, or b) a society will benefit if all (or most) people can agree on recognizing them. Societies that value justice have law, and they make a good trading partner. Businesses will be able to take root; individuals will be less likely to take matters into their own hands. I admit the concept of lex talionis (e.g., “an eye for an eye”) is a fly in the ointment of my contention. I think that the Bible went too far in codifying vengeful behavior, thus transmuting justice into a very strict and potentially-unending string of honor-based retributive acts. But in general, I think the concept holds. Even in the case of a subculture or very small society, it will function better if justice is present and transparent and predictable and consistent – as opposed to a “strong man” who is able to bend the principle to suit his whims. To some degree since the ancient world, but definitely since 1215 A.D., leaders have been expected to accede to the demands of written law; no one is above it. Societies, such as colonial America, have gone to war for fairness.
The Greeks might have banished an individual who was a significant cheat, or who was tearing at the social fabric with his or her self-centeredness (i.e., “moral flexibility”). Obviously, societies in decay might elevate a wanton pretender to high office (modern America being no exception, unfortunately), but by and large, a well-functioning society will not prize some value such as money or greed over justice. You can see there were examples in American history when certain virtues were indeed extolled at the expense of some competing interest, such as when one would purposefully sit at a lunch counter that was segregated and face a torrent of abuse, humiliation, and arrest (or worse). One could point to Theodore Roosevelt and his “trust-busting” crusade as an example of a person in power saying, essentially, We don’t want the kind of society that makes small businesses unable to compete; it’s not fair; it’s not right; it will be corrosive to society. Those with the money will have to relent and allow a fairer, more horizontal playing field. That is the nature of free-market capitalism.
Nowadays, unfortunately, the stark wealth inequality and power of corporations herald a nadir in American justice and progressivism. Indeed, when virtue is outcompeted by lobbying, the power of money in politics, and ultra-wealth, bad things happen. Now that we have reached the level of planet-wide threat (human-caused climate change), there is a fever pitch. A society that prized wisdom would take rapid action. Heck, it took a cataclysm as significant as Pearl Harbor for the U.S. “sleeping giant” to awaken and fight. Gulp…
It seems to me that cardinal virtues in a society include not only the truth, justice, and wisdom that have been mentioned, but also respect for authority, originality/creativity/innovation, love, peace, success, dedication/perseverance, hard work, love (e.g., parenting), cooperativeness, freedom, conservatism and progressivism – to name a few. Some would certainly argue that serving God is a virtue. I will probably not discuss that specifically, but I could see why someone would say that faith, obedience, and service to God are indeed virtuous. Indeed, few societies (if any) have not prized a relationship with one or more deities.
You will see that I have chosen at least two competing sets of virtues: respect for authority vis a vis originality and creativity. As well, both conservatism and progressivism. Complicated though it may be, progressivism is a virtue for a society, and yet, conservatism has its place, too. I tend to think that society ought to progress when something is wrong/faulty/imperfect/corrupt, and ought to conserve what is good/right/well-functioning. For example, when America was overtly racist and Africans were held as slaves, clearly progress was in great need. However, in regard to the idea that a person is free to speak as they wish, that ought to be conserved come hell or high water (and with recent Nazi marches and other white supremacist movements vying for oxygen, the concept of free speech is deeply challenged).
In such a case, though it offends me personally to think of the “alt-right” and its anti-progressive goals, I think conserving the right to speak and believe and demonstrate is superior to the countervailing force of the value of stopping idiots from saying stupid and inflammatory things in public. But it’s not an easy dilemma. Competing values never is simple. I suppose the conclusion would be that in the dialectic between this and that, X and Y, one finds the truth. We do need our best and brightest at the fore to help us disentangle such matters, though.
Note that I didn’t highlight certain values that are probably not virtues: the love of money, or selfishness, or glamor. Many people work very hard at these things, but it gets society nowhere. Some would argue that a free market and capitalism and democracy do foment success on a society-wide scale, and that is a point well-taken. There are a few borderline virtues, such as individuality, or skepticism, or humor. These have both positive and negative characteristics. One can see how humor/satire functions well for a society, but it isn’t a cardinal virtue. With individuality, it’s obvious that in the case of someone such as Steve Jobs, it can be very helpful in allowing creative thinking and innovation to flourish. However, one can also think of Ted Kacyzinski, the “Unabomber” – he was no doubt an individualist.
Indeed, Ayn Rand has become a bit of a touchstone in regard to individuality. A case can certainly be made that she was right – individuals need unfettered access to growth potential if they are to excel (and benefit society along with it). Indeed, Adam Smith felt that the baker doesn’t bake because of benevolence – they want to participate in the capitalist system. Only if bakers (or, in Rand’s story, architects) are able to bake and create and really be the ubermench that they are capable of becoming, will society get the sustenance and culinary delights (and incredible buildings and the like) that propel it forward. However, take note: “Although many of his latter-day prophets ignore this, Adam Smith taught that the social benefit of the free market would be realized only in the wider public sphere, with the populace actively debating matters of common concern and expressing its will through the state.”
Here is a full-throated support of the Rand/capitalistic/democratic/individualistic approach. Charles Krauthammer lambastes the love of the other – directly challenging the Judeo-Christian ethic that has often been the heart of the American culture: “Our betters, religious and secular, like to instruct us on the virtues of universal brotherhood. But it is hard enough to overcome selfishness; harder still to overcome the ties of family and tribe and nation. How are we to feel for all humanity?” It is easy to lampoon the idea that democracy means we all matter; that we all decide – because it is obvious that some of us are more capable than others. I mean, there are literally Darwin Awards for those whose stupidity ends up killing them. Consider this: “It’s going to be fun to watch and see how long the meek can keep the earth after they’ve inherited it”
One can definitely see an issue if one meditates long on the aforementioned individualism vs. communitarianism dialectic. One could also characterize it as individualism vs. egalitarianism. Society is comprised of individuals. There is no doubt. And individuals value freedom and prosperity and happiness and limited government. The issue becomes, however, whether it is wise, or functional, to have a society of three hundred million individuals (in mindset). I think that bread will be baked without any leavening. The yeast in the recipe is the idea that communities (up to and including society as a whole) are in this together. We have made a monster out of individuality in America, and the chickens are coming home to roost. Solidarity is a concept utilized with great potency by Jared Bernstein in his book All Together Now: United for a Fair Economy. Conservative ideology heralds personal responsibility as the cause of (I mean, the lack of personal responsibility) as well as the best solution to social problems, but the idea of justice and the virtue magnanimity are challenges to that position.
It is also reminiscent of Kevin Danaher‘s dichotomy of money values vs. life values. What these capable men remind me is that individuality has its place, but it can easily careen off into rampant self-centeredness. The cities, for all their merits, have wrought a sense of separateness, selfishness, and even anomie. It has reached the point in America where profits are stored off-shore to avoid taxation, foreign workers are prized over American ones, and there is a whole separate life that one can lead if they have enough money. It’s not just flying first class: how many wealthy people die in hurricanes and floods? Approximately 0-1 per incident. Yet, those with less work competence or luck or judgment (or whatever it is that accounts for one being rich and one being poor) will at times be a death sentence in a natural disaster. My point is simply that the libertarian ideal of keeping government’s hands off one’s wallet is not a virtue past the first or second level. When we are talking about a community or a society, everyone must be held accountable to try their hardest to benefit the whole while simultaneously looking out for #1. This is where moral concern, empathy, and humility come in. It is in the dialectic between freedom and communality that society can both progress and conserve its best characteristics.
When faced with a decision that is simply between money values and life values, a society would do well to choose life values. You can’t take it with you when you go. “Recommend to your children virtue; that alone can make them happy, not gold”A just society can’t be achieved simply by maximizing utility or by securing freedom of choice. To achieve a just society, we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably arise” Let us put our minds together and see what life we will make for our children”
I will leave you with a couple dozen or so quotations about virtues.
We speak much of tolerance as if it were the great virtue, but it does not go far enough. Who wants to be tolerated, just to be put up with? Jesus did not say, “Tolerate your neighbor,” but instead he said, “Love your neighbor.”
That happiness is to be attained through limitless material acquisition is negated by every religion and philosophy known to humankind, but it is preached incessantly by every American television set.
Successful people are those who are clear about their values and who make choices and commitments consistent with them.
If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
True courage is not the brutal force of vulgar heroes, but the firm resolve of virtue and reason.
There is no poverty where there is virtue and no wealth or honor where virtue is not.
In times of trouble, a good society pulls together. Rather than press for maximum advantage, people look out for one another. A society in which people exploit their neighbors for financial gain in times of crisis is not a good society. Excessive greed is therefore a vice that a good society should discourage if it can.
Every nation-state tends towards the imperial – that is the point. Through banks, armies, secret police, propaganda, courts and jails, treaties, taxes, laws and orders, myths of civil obedience, assumptions of civic virtue at the top. Still it should be said of the political left, we expect something better. And correctly. We put more trust in those who show a measure of compassion, who denounce the hideous social arrangements that make war inevitable and human desire omnipresent, which fosters corporate selfishness, panders to appetites and disorder, wastes the Earth.
It’s a matter of taking the side of the weak against the strong, something the best people have always done.
The glue that holds all relationships together, including the relationship between the leader and the led, is trust – and trust is based on integrity.
Encrease to a sufficient degree the benevolence of men, or the bounty of nature, and you render justice useless, by supplying its place with much nobler virtues, and more favourable blessings.
When we dream alone it is just a dream, but when we dream together it is the beginning of reality.
We must learn to love each other as brothers or perish together as fools.
Great necessities call out great virtues.
It is a feature of human sociability that we are by ourselves but parts of what we might be. We must look to others to attain the excellences that we must leave aside, or lack altogether….Yet the good attained from the common culture far exceeds our work in the sense that we cease to be mere fragments: that part of ourselves that we directly realize is joined to a wider and just arrangement the aims of which we affirm.
As long as our government is administered for the good of the people, and is regulated by their will; as long as it secures to us the rights of persons and of property, liberty of conscience and of the press, it will be worth defending.
…what makes life valuable is morality; is virtue; is ethics. So, why is a person’s life valuable? Because of the amount of virtue manifested in that life. …So, the better the man is in terms of his virtue, the more valuable his life is; the more meaningful his life is. This is an idea which also goes back to Plato.
Hope is the least understood of virtues. It’s not the same as faith, which is the belief in things unseen. And it certainly isn’t the same thing as wishing. Hope is action-packed, a kind of confidence that if you do the right thing, a good outcome will follow.
Thus to be reasonably well-off in the United States with job stability and economic security in old age, is to have a life of great personal freedom and affluence. But to be poor, or even economically marginal, is to be a second-class citizen in a way that is not found to be acceptable by the English or Swedish societies.
Human society is a distributive community. That’s not all it is, but it’s importantly that: we come together to share, divide, and exchange. We also come together to make the things that are shared, divided, and exchanged; but that very making – work itself – is distributed among us in a division of labor.
In this life of illusion and quasi-illusion, the person with solid virtues who can be admired for something more substantial than his well-knownness often proves to be the unsung hero: the teacher, the nurse, the mother, the honest cop, the hard worker at lonely, under-paid, unglamorous, unpublicized jobs.