Many people today scoff even at the word “virtue” and hence are quite unwilling to take any discussion of virtues seriously. Some regard virtue as a medieval notion, part of a point of view that they totally reject. Others believe that all value judgments are purely matters of opinion, that they can never be proven objectively. With regard to the first objection perhaps it will suffice to offer assurance that the perspective presented in this section is neither medieval nor moralistic. With regard to the second, it is appropriate to ask for patience. This type of objection will be addressed directly later in this chapter in the section, “The Validity of Assessments of Worth and Value” (pages 77 ff).
Up to now the word good, when used as an adjective, has been intended to have its ordinary–not very precise– meaning. (As a noun the word “good” has been given a special meaning in connection with the phrase “doing good.” There has also been much discussion of “goods and services.”) Yet since “good” as an adjective is a possible source of confusion, some explanation seems appropriate.
When applied to a physical object like a hammer the word good means that the object performs its function well. Each type of object has its own standards of excellence established by the users of that object. If there are different groups of users or specialized uses of the object, there may be appropriate special standards.
When applied to workmanship–that is, to the use of any ability or group of abilities–the word good means work well done according to the standards of the masters of that art. Each art has an apprenticeship. Masters teach their apprentices how to do good work and how to distinguish the good from the bad. These standards determine good workmanship. A piece of work, or an accomplishment of any sort, may fall within more than one art and be subject therefore to more than one standard of excellence. Judgment must then be exercised to see what other accomplishments this one is comparable to and what standards should be applied.
There are virtues of workmanship which result in excellent achievements reached.
There are intellectual virtues which are habits that lead to right thinking.
There are also moral virtues, which will now be discussed very briefly. They are the ideals and standards of conduct that are needed for the success and orderliness of all forms of interrelationships, interactions, and exchanges between human beings. They are necessary to “the good of humankind,” because they are indispensable to human flourishing.
James D. Wallace’s book, Virtues and Vices suggests approximately the following classification of moral virtues (60-158):
1.Courage: not being easily dissuaded by fear
2.Being self-disciplined: having physical toughness and stamina and not being easily dissuaded by desires for physical pleasures
1.Honesty: avoiding any form of cheating or deception
4.Being a person of one’s word
Although the meanings of the terms just listed are widely understood there is an aspect of moral virtue that is often overlooked. Any moral virtue, to be real, must be dispensed evenhandedly. It is not a virtue to be generous or considerate only toward those whose favor one wishes to curry, only to those of one’s own social class or only those of a higher class.
Virtues can be considered as types of abilities, more specifically, as abilities to consistently behave in certain ways. The adopted definition of an ability was anything one has shown oneself able to do. A clause such as “when one chooses to” was not part of the definition. Still it may seem strange to call virtues abilities, since they seem to be more a matter of personal dispositions and attitudes than of capabilities. It should be noted however that all human abilities involve special dispositions and attitudes to some degree. Acquiring an ability involves, as we have noted, an apprenticeship which entails learning to judge when the task has been done well. This apprenticeship, if fully successful, also involves learning to want to do the task well and to feel satisfaction from doing it well. Virtues differ from other abilities in that in order to be learned they must be practiced in real life situations and, perhaps to a greater degree, the learner must come to want to learn them and must take charge of the learning process. Learning any virtue and learning to value it are apparently much easier in childhood than when one is an adult. But the life stories of quite a number of people indicate that virtues can be learned by adults in the right kind of social environment, the kind where those virtues and the nurturing of them are highly esteemed. Sometimes adults have turned their lives around as a result of “hitting bottom” or some other jarring experience.
Although the discussion up to this point has been concerned only with virtues as possessed by persons, it is important to recognize that every virtue is capable of being possessed by any group of people, that is by any group of friends, any organization, any business firm, agency, or nation.
A better understanding of the nature of virtue can be gained by examining the terms “disposition” and “character trait.”
The word disposition is used in two very different senses. First, it is used to mean inclination or tendency. A natural question to ask is what brings about an inclination or tendency to act virtuously? A more difficult question is how to accomplish this without inducing self-righteousness.
Let us consider truthfulness, for example. Cultivating an inclination or tendency in people to tell the truth would seem to require getting people to want to bring about the effects that telling the truth brings about. Thus they would want to contribute to creating an atmosphere of truthfulness. They would want to engender harmonious relationships and mutual trust. The inducement for telling the truth or for any acting in accordance with any other virtue would seem to be the same as the inducement for promoting the expansion of human abilities. It is a matter of recognizing the purpose that human life sustains within itself, thereby giving a recognizable meaning and purpose to the lives of individuals and groups.
There is another necessary ingredient for cultivating any virtue. For any person or group to acquire a given virtue that person or group must learn from experience that acting in accordance with the given virtue tends to turn out well. It turns out well in terms of real benefits to others. It turns out well in terms of a sense of satisfaction from achievement. Acquiring any virtue is thus in every way analogous to learning any kind of good workmanship. It is perhaps true of every kind of workmanship that there are some aspects, such as muscle coordination or attentiveness, that are best learned in childhood and other aspects that can only really be learned as an adult. So too with virtues.
None of this serves to deny that one can also learn to be a thief or a liar. The difference is that being a thief or a liar is inherently destructive. They are not
self-confirming patterns of behavior.
Our discussion began with an examination of one meaning of the word “disposition,” namely the meaning of inclination or tendency. It is worthwhile to look at the second meaning also, illustrated by the sentence, “She has a pleasant disposition.” Here the word means the pattern of a person’s emotional responses: what emotions he or she feels under various circumstances. We have seen that there are certain emotions typically associated with various virtues in particular situations: desires to tell the truth, to keep one’s promise, or to be helpful and feelings of satisfaction when such desires are fulfilled. Emotions will be discussed more thoroughly in the section on “Emotion and Values” in Chapter 5 (pages 82 ff).
The term “character trait” often carries with it the false implication of being a permanent, unchangeable characteristic of a person. The point that needs to be made, emphatically and again and again, is that individual persons have no permanent, unchangeable characteristics, and it is particularly harmful to attribute “character traits” to people when this is tantamount to labeling them as being good or bad. Some behavior of a person may justifiably be called good or bad, but it is harmful to everyone to label any person or any group as good or bad.
What is being claimed here is that what are called virtues are not to be thought of as evidence of the moral worth of the person who possesses these virtues. Instead they are to be thought of as clusters of abilities that are usually accompanied by certain attitudes and certain preferences (or dispositions as just defined), all of which are acquired through appropriate training and self-discipline. A person or group may have the good fortune of being in a supportive environment that provides the appropriate training and encourages the necessary
self-discipline. But very often persons and groups do not have this good fortune. What is needed in such cases is a recognition of the shortcomings of the environment and then undertaking to find help elsewhere and resourcefulness within themselves to build each specific virtue. It does not seem inappropriate for places of employment and religious organizations to sponsor voluntary programs to aid their employees and their members, respectively, in forming and strengthening virtues.
One thing that needs to be understood is that certain patterns of behavior are very difficult to change. Neither virtues nor vices are easily lost. It is difficult to change oneself. Often a person does not want to change, even denies there is any reason why he should change. But that is not always the case. Some people inwardly want to be persuaded to change and then are willing to work hard to produce the change. The same could be said for groups.