The virtues just described can be thought of as abilities for managing and conducting one’s life. There are also other abilities of this type that might be considered to be virtues but would not be called moral virtues. Included are purposefulness, foresightedness, resourcefulness, courtesy, imaginativeness, reflectiveness, and abilities for organizing one’s activities. The essential feature required for any virtue is the ability to exhibit a certain quality consistently over a long period of time.
Again, these abilities may be possessed by groups as well as by individuals.
The phrase, “abilities for conducting one’s life”, is certainly intended to include abilities for formulating and carrying out long-term plans, abilities for meeting adversity with fortitude, and abilities for recognizing when mistakes have been made or when plans need to be changed. All of these abilities can be enhanced by being able to benefit from the observations, experience, and counsel of others as well as to be guided by one’s own understanding. As suggested on page 46, it is certainly desirable that one’s conduct evinces a readiness to give attention to others, to interact with them supportively, and to enter into appropriate relationships with them aimed at doing some definite good.
It is well to recall here the distinction that was made earlier between abilities to make assessments and abilities to perform actions. The abilities that have been called virtues and the abilities for conducting one’s life now being discussed certainly involve abilities of judgment more critically than abilities of performance. Virtuous or “self-controlled” persons and groups are ones that can find a virtuous course of action that stands a very good chance of achieving its objectives and accordingly is worth the cost. Virtues come from having a long history of success, a long history of having virtuous acts rewarded. Virtues come also from a long history of making careful discernments, of learning how to handle difficult situations.
This suggests that virtues can be nurtured by nurturing–and rewarding–good practical judgment generally and good moral judgment specifically. To do this it may be helpful to know more about the judgment of qualities.
The Validity of Assessments of Worth and Value
Many people believe either that all so called “value judgments” are purely subjective or that they can have validity only relative to a given culture. This section will present an argument countering these beliefs. What is claimed instead is that judgments of worth or value can be derived from objective evidence, although collecting the evidence can be quite difficult.
Perhaps we should begin by noting that it certainly cannot be true that no qualitative judgments are valid. The fact that we can recognize and distinguish between the letters A B C D E F G … of the alphabet, and the fact that we can recognize the individual words we are reading, are among the most elementary and most thoroughly verified pieces of knowledge that we possess. We are, then, quite certain that we can do these things reliably, that we have been trained to do so, and that our accuracy in doing these things has been objectively tested many, many times. If we were not able to make any qualitative distinctions, we would not be able to even discuss the matter.
It might be objected that recognizing the letters of the alphabet or recognizing a printed word is not a judgment, that it is instead an elementary act of recognizing. However, when a child is first learning the letters of the alphabet, recognition is not a simple and elementary act. By seeing the letter A many times and being encouraged to pronounce the word “a” each time it is encountered the child normally learns to recognize the letter readily and unerringly.
Human beings possess some quite marvelous and mysterious faculties for learning to recognize, to identify, and to assess. The acquisition of language is the process that has been studied most carefully, and it is taken as a model for understanding the process by which other abilities of judgment and performance are acquired. The other principal model that we have is the model of apprenticeship, which involves learning attentiveness to circumstances and developing powers of observation, good workmanship, good judgment, and competence more or less concurrently through repeated trials and errors.
It is surely true that as qualitative judgments become more abstract and further removed from the concrete and particular they become more difficult to make. There are reasons why assessments of moral goodness are especially difficult. As a result moral choices require special guidelines as to the kinds of evidence to gather and how to correlate that evidence. It is not true that there is no ground for moral choice. The special difficulties are discussed next. They spring from the differences between the physical sciences and the behavioral sciences.
The physical sciences are concerned with constructing mathematical models to represent physical phenomena, allowing verifiable predictions to be made.
Behavioral scientists cannot predict what living creatures will do. They identify different types of behavior and then try to discover the historical and situational factors that tend to produce each type of behavior. Developmental psychology studies how human abilities develop and behavioral patterns change from birth to death. The cognitive sciences study the formation of perceptions and the selection and generation of responses in organisms. As mentioned before, zoologists study the physical characteristics, habitats, and patterns of behavior of various species of animals. They learn how their ways of securing food, protecting themselves, and rearing their young improve their chances of survival. Thus they determine how the abilities of each species contribute to that species’ well-being. Analogously, cultural anthropologists learn how different cultures secure their well-being in different geographical settings. They identify the values of each culture and how those values fit into its way of life.
At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth a number of cultural anthropologists studied some quite isolated and esoteric cultures in remote corners of the globe. They returned with descriptions of bizarre customs and beliefs and several interpreted their findings as showing that values are highly relative. What is good in one culture may be bad in another. This doctrine of cultural relativism has largely fallen into disfavor among anthropologists and other social scientists, largely because, when more careful studies were made, good reasons were found for the cultural differences that existed. Trickery and deception, for example, may be admired in a society that is highly tyrannical.
Social scientists look not only at cultures, subcultures and societies, but also at different crafts and groups of workers. Within each area of work there are standards of good workmanship which reflect the necessary functional characteristics, the most desirable qualities, and the special artistry which can be realized.
Play as well as work has standards of excellence. The most welcome participants in any activity that are intended to be enjoyable are those who help make it enjoyable. In athletics the most admired virtue is good sportsmanship, although the most remembered quality is superior athletic skill, which is almost always joined with finesse and grace.
Thus every kind of human activity creates notions of what is beneficial and desirable. As social scientists look at more and more of these areas they gain a richer and subtler understanding of what constitutes goodness and worth.
The behavioral sciences have as their special forte various technical and methodological skills that can be helpful in carrying out the program outlined in the sections, “Ecological, Economic and Social Niches and their Interdependencies” and “Basic Well-being,” in Chapter 4 (pages 53 ff). What was presented there was essentially a program for individuals and groups to: (1) assess their own well-being and the well-being of other individuals and groups with whom they are in contact, and (2) assess how their abilities could be enhanced and perfected to enable them to contribute more positively to the well-being of others. The explanation given there was intended to be sufficient to enable many individuals and groups to make these assessments for themselves without specialized training. At the same time it is surely true that better and more thorough assessments could be made with the help of appropriate training or consulting services from the behavioral sciences.
A reorientation of the social and behavioral sciences might be very fruitful. All behavior manifests abilities, and changes in behavior sometimes demonstrate the acquisition of new abilities. By investigating changes, trained observers can discover the kinds of social rearrangements by which new abilities are acquired or existing abilities are perfected, broadened, or integrated with other abilities.
Sometimes persons or groups can acquire a new ability by reorganizing the way they do their work–that is, by combining lower order abilities in a new way. At other times abilities are expanded as a result of receiving outside help, either in the form of direct assistance or in the form of helpful information. The identification of precisely what reorganizing, recombining, or outside help did the trick is valuable information. What was done to produce the favorable result of course falls within the meaning of our phrase, “doing good.” The reorientation of the social and behavioral sciences that is being suggested is one that involves carrying out the observations and gathering of data about the possession of abilities, enhancement of abilities, analysis of consequences, contributions to well-being, identification of ways of doing good, and description of self-disablement and mutual disablement that were explained in the chapter on “Well-being and Doing Good” (Chapter 4, pages 53 ff) and the section on “Self-Disablement and Harming Others” of Chapter 5 (pages 66 ff).
A partnership between human society as a whole and the behavioral sciences whereby the individuals and groups within society would give to those sciences their assessments of abilities and their observations and analyses regarding how their lives have affected and been affected by the lives of others, could bring about a vast improvement in the level of validity of all assessments of worth and value.