Exploring Virtue Ethics

Kronk, perhaps my most beloved Disney character struggles with virtue

Virtues are broad prescriptions about how one should behave. Virtues represent a collective history and tendency to make specific choices, however those choices need not continue to be made. For instance "courage" is a virtue, someone who is "courageous" usually doesn't flee from what they fear, but it is a choice available to them at every encounter. This draws a distinction between virtues and traits. Physical strength is a trait, and not an (ethical) virtue, just because it is a trait that is useful in many situations does not give it a moral value. Traits, even subtle ones such as intelligence and beauty, live on the "is" side of Hume's Guillotine while virtues live on the "should" side.

Virtues themselves gain much of their value over other styles of ethics its flexibility and the necessity of reflecting on what the virtue means. When I recently I decided to try a more explicit virtue ethics approach I was left with the very messy question "what virtues should I live my life by". There is the temptation of wanting to throw ever virtue and its brother into the list: for instance, I'm all for the virtue of loyalty, but I don't think I want it to make my list. You could say that I have decided that keeping the list of practiced virtues short is a meta-virtue. There are also virtues that I feel need to be excluded because they are simply to all encompassing. For instance "goodness" is clearly a "good" virtue, but telling yourself "be good" doesn't really offer a lot of instruction. In particular I found that "wisdom" fit this category.

To get started I scraped together a quick and dirty compilation of all the sets of virtues from different ethical positions that I was aware of. I definitely had to pull some shenanigans with some of them to cross language barriers, so take this table with a grain of salt. Virtues tend to be the sort of subtle and finicky words that don't translate well, this is particularly true in the case of the Confucian and Taoist virtues. I also tried to group virtues that appear multiple times on the same lines, and this led to a lot of interpretation. In short, I used my discernment to sort out this table, but using your discernment is pretty core to using virtue ethics in general.

Plato Aristotle Confucian Taoists Sphinx Catholics & Masons Islam Ben Franklin Boy Scouts
Justice Justice ?Shu* / Reciprocity     Justice Justice Justice  
Temperance Temperance       Temperance   Temperance  
Courage Courage     To Dare       Brave
  Generosity Ren* / Humility & Charity     Charity Charity    
  Good Temper       Hope Tollerance & Anger Management   Chearful
    Li* / Propriety       Respecting Elders Order Curtious, Obedient
      Frugality   Prudence   Frugality Thrifty
Wisdom   Zhi* / Knowledge   To Know        
  Honor         Trustworthyness   Trustworthy
  Friendlyness         Kindness   Helpful, Kind, Friendly
  Honesty Yi * / Honesty       Honesty & Truthfulness    
    Xin* / Integrity       Fufill Promisise & Sincerity Sincerity  
      Humility     Humility Humility  
        To Will     Resolution  
        To Keep Silent     Silence  
          Faith     Revrent
          Fortitude   Tranquility  
              Cleanthlyness Clean
            Decent Speach    

It's interesting to see how much disagreement there is between different groups, cultures and ages about what virtues should be paramount. Justice1 is by far the most popular virtue, with six systems calling for it2. Only two groups, the catholics and the masons, had a substantial overlap, and they turned out on further research to be identical.

Picking Virtues to Make My Own

Theory of virtue is all well and good. Some pretty well developed thought even contends that "trying to decipher the nature of virtue as it relates to the real world" is itself the highest virtue. I still still strongly believe that for virtues to have any value, one needs to make at least an attempt to live them. So I decided that rather than arbitrarily picking a pre-made system I would think on the virtues which seemed most critical to me. I think that exercise has a great deal of value. and for the last two months, I have been reviewing these virtues daily, and trying to decide where I have held them and where I have failed with them.

The virtues I selected (with a little commentary and clarification) are:


Perhaps I have read too much Eckhart Tolle but this comes up as my core practice and virtue over and over. I also casually study, and attempt to practice NST (Nondualist Shivic Tantrism) and this is again more or less the core practice. Presence is the art of being where you are, in the present time, with your full attention, and accepting it as it is. It is a continuous practice, and harder than it sounds. Meditation tends to hone this practice.
This is arguably on Ben Franklin's list as "Tranquility", a goal he shared with the Stoics. I do however think there are some critical differences though there is a large overlap.
Presence sits between the vices of regret/nostalgia and anxiety/future-fantasy.


I can't help but think of compassion as a core virtue. Caring about others seems at least somewhat critical, particularly for me. I have a bit of a tendency to float off into my own disconnected world of ideas where people and others largely stop mattering to me. I see this as a virtue that it is particularly critical for me to pay attention to and develop.
Charity, which I see as similar, appears for Aristotle, Confucius, the Catholics, and as a virtue of Islam.
Compassion sits between self-consciousness and callousness.


Integrity meaning being of one structural unit. This is the concept of all of my internal and external parts working in alignment. The idea here is to not be in self conflict much, and more critically to know and acknowledge when I am. One natural results of this are Honesty, both in general and particularly with myself, because if the words and the being disagree there is disagreement. Another is "follow through" & discipline which is deep overlap with resolve. Those traits manifest because future me and present me tend to retain the same order of priorities.
Though arguably trustworthiness and Integrity are the same, I see them as different enough that I will claim that no system of ethics calls for Integrity.
Integrity exists between rigidness, which does not acknowledge the changes which have occurred in the world or in parts of the self and re-organize, and self-conflict.

Curiosity & Knowledge

I see curiosity as the active form of knowledge (which is a trait), and as a great virtue. Knowledge allows the other virtues to function more effectively... to act without sufficient knowledge is to invite disaster, and to guarantee inefficiency. Sometimes we are compelled to do it but in most cases, halting problem aside, seeking and using knowledge is the right course of action.
I see this virtue as belonging to "The Sphinx", Confucius, and Plato (I might argue that Plato's "wisdom" is mere knowledge, while Socrates' is something higher)
Curiosity exists between "ignorant indifference" and "analysis paralysis"


Resolve is both the act of consciously choosing to do something, and then actually doing what has been selected. It is an expression not just of will, but also of choice. This is an interesting one for me because while I tend to be reasonably good at the follow-through part of resolve (which shares a great deal with integrity), I seem to be very hesitant at the choosing things to do (Which I see as sharing something deep with the courage aspect below). Unlike integrity, resolve is not subject to changing environmental categories, it is just plain stubborn. If I resolve to build a table, and then someone buys me a table making a table no longer necessary for me, I'm still on the hook to build a table, and then figure out what to do with the extra. This sort of inflexibility causes the creation of major resolutions to be a pretty dangerous thing.
Resolve appears as a Virtue of the sphinx (to will), and of Ben Franklin.
Resolve exists between flaccidity / feebleness and overcommitment / exhaustion


Most of us are pretty familiar with the idea of courage. Courage is taking risks intentionally, and the ability to suppress or overcome fear. Courage does not compel the taking of risks, nor does it even imply that risks are of neutral (or positive) value. It is possible to still be risk averse and to exhibit courage. What courage does imply is that risk aversion does not improperly dominate your choices. In particular there is a pattern of behavior, irrational fear, where we are afraid of things that are either unlikely or irrelevant. The classic example is the worker who is afraid to ask for a raise. Nominally, in his head, this is because they fear some sort of retaliation (highly unlikely), and more honestly it is because they fear rejection (mostly irrelevant). There is also the great, and challenging fear of change (both personal and for the world) as well as fear of the unknown. Periodically conquering both of these fears is critical for all forms of growth and personal development.
Courage is a virtue of Plato and Aristotle, as well as the sphinx, and the boy scouts.
Courage exists between cowardice and foolhardiness or bravado


Perhaps amongst the most likely to be mis-interpreted and to need explanation. In its most simple form silence is the practice of shutting up and not being a braggart or gossip. This has some value and is clearly part of the practice I seek, but there is a deeper concept of silence that I see in this virtue. I am talking about Carse's "Silence of God":
A god can create a world only by listening. Were the gods to address us it would not be to bring us to silence by their speech, but to speech through their silence... Infinite speech begins with a disclosure of silence. --Finite and Infinite games pp 78.

The silence I see at the core of this virtue is the attentive, interested silence that invites and creates response from the world and others. It's something sometimes referred to as "holding space" and more, and a deeply spiritual and philosophical act. It shares a great deal with both presence and compassion.
Silence is a virtue of the sphinx and of Ben, though I am unsure if they think of it the same way I do.
Silence sits between inattention / absence and self-centeredness / oversharing


Another easily mis-interpreted one, this is not the humility of thinking little of oneself, particularly in comparing oneself to others. I hope to practice humility as it relates to hubris, a lack of overconfidence in ones model of the world. Any time I think I really know what's going on... any time that I'm sure that I'm right it's a signal of a lack of humility. For me this is mostly something that comes up in the context of fights and arguments. Conflict is a place where conviction is advantageous, but it's only advantageous in winning the conflict, not in drawing a truce, a compromise, or finding the truth or just resolution. I won't pretend that winning doesn't matter, but it's also not everything.
Humility is about being willing to change yourself and your views to better fit the world.
More in keeping with the naive deffiniton, I also see humility as not trying to inhabit social roles (particularly high status ones) and not particularly seeking to climb the status hierarchy.
Humility is a virtue of the Taoists, Islam, and Ben Franklin. I'm not sure that they think of it the same way that I do.
Humility exists between denial of knowledge / meaninglessness and hubris / rigidness


Play is at the core of life. To fail to play is to fail to be interested, to withdraw into depression and indifference. Perhaps the core concept of Nondual Shivic Tantrism , and of Carse's spirituality as well is that life is a form of divine play by god. In a very real sense we are here to play around. This play can be serious, or it can silly, but it is at the foundation of everything beyond survival and minimization of suffering ( and survival is a hopeless cause anyway). In particular when I talk about play, I talk about the more relaxed, silly, and open sort... the sort where you remember that it's a game and are looking for something creative. In most cases I'm talking about Infinite Play, though a little bit of finite play ads some delicious spice as well. Play usually happens with other players, and invites them into a sort of relationship.
None of the major virtue systems seem to highlight play specifically.
Play exists between indifferent depression, and compulsive or compelled work.

Oh Look, they fit on a 3x3

After I had been trying to explicitly practice my list of virtues for about a month, and noticing that there were lots of overlaps and enforcement, I started to see a pattern. Gradually it emerged into a simple table:


Openness to Change Holding of Space Web of Interactions
Yin Humility Silence Compassion
Yang Courage Play Resolve
Honesty Curiosity Presence Integrity

Honestly, I'm not sure what insight to draw from this, other than that perhaps with some careful linguistics I could reduce my list of nine virtues down to a list of six. As always, it invites further contemplation.

  • 1. I have a whole endless post I have been working on about justice by itself. Suffice to say I don't understand it well enough to make it a virtue I try to live by
  • 2. Depending on how you translate, maybe five