Whence virtue? | Politics in Focus

Research has shown that if we think about certain virtues when we are confronted with difficult issues, our personal behavior changes as a result. If, for example, we read about the virtue of honesty before we make a decision about a moral issue, we are more likely to act honestly.

Do you know the seven virtues? The ancient Greeks gave us four of them: prudence, justice, temperance (restraint) and courage. The Bible adds: faith, hope and love.

The Apostle Paul listed nine virtues or “Fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Ben Franklin emphasized 13 virtues: temperance, order, resolution, frugality, moderation, industry, cleanliness, tranquility, silence, sincerity, justice, chastity and humility.

Have you noticed that our time does not hold these virtues as goals to be sought?

Perhaps it’s time to return to our cultural and historic roots and seek these virtues again. If we followed the virtues, perhaps borrowers would have been more prudent when they took out sub-prime variable-rate loans, realizing they couldn’t afford to buy that house because interest rates would eventually rise, bankrupting them.

If investment bankers had followed the virtue of humility, we wouldn’t have seen the misuse of credit default swaps and the near destruction of the U.S. and world economies.

If we held these virtues as our standards today, perhaps Anthony Weiner would not have sent his “sexts,” Mark Sanford might not have “hiked the Appalachians” while really visiting his mistress in Latin America and Bernie Madoff wouldn’t have set up his Ponzi scheme to bilk billions of dollars from overly trusting clients.

Obesity might not be epidemic in this country if people were constantly thinking about Ben Franklin’s moderation and the Apostle Paul’s self-control. If we followed the faithfulness virtue, perhaps we wouldn’t need to sign 100 documents when we buy a house today, when 30 years ago we required far less.

Emphasizing the virtue of courage might make us more willing to face difficulties in marriages and could influence the president and Congress to get along in order to deal with the big problems we face today like immigration, health care and the national debt.

Some of you might be thinking at this point that those virtues I am touting so strongly are from a lost “better age.”  You might be arguing that the 18th and 19th centuries were times of slavery and Jim Crow Laws, of scalping and massacres (by whites as well as Native Americans), of railroad and land deal scandals, of selfish and greedy industrialists living in great wealth while their workers and their families barely scraped by, and an age where a disastrous Civil War killed 628,000 Americans and devastated much of the South.

You would be right in your observation. A list of virtues did not stop all the abuses of that earlier period.

So, why bother to go back to the classic virtues?

My answer is this: research has shown that if we think about certain virtues when we are confronted with difficult issues, our personal behavior changes as a result.   If, for example, we read about the virtue of honesty before we make a decision about a moral issue, we are more likely to act honestly.

According to research noted by David Brooks in his book, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement”: “We are good about talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions. We are good at teaching technical skills. But when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.”

Individualism is highly valued today in American society and, while it is important, it is strong social institutions like marriage and family that build virtue. Sixteen-year-old Harry Truman summed it up best: “This world is made up of all sorts of conditions of men, from the best one could wish for to the basest one could imagine. There are men who love money who will do anything for money, who will sell their souls for money. Then there are men who love money for the good that is in it, who like to make others happy….

Then there are those who are so religious they have no time to think of anyone or anything. These people are extremists who run the thing into the ground. I like a man who has enough worldly wisdom to take care of himself, but I like him to have time to love both his God and those around him.” (David McCullough, “Truman,” page 60).

 

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