Thursday, 5 June 2008

Virtues and Vices

What is a good person? A person who has and seeks to cultivate virtues and weed their vices? This seems a reasonable start but how do we know what the virtues and vices are to cultivate and weed respectively?

Virtue Ethics
This is the domain of virtue ethics and is usually contrasted to focusing either on duties and consequences. The problem with an ethics of virtue is usually certain people are held up as examples to emulate, but the selection of such examples is dependent on the person making the selection and they are, in turn, a victim of their own culture. A Greek example of a virtuous man could be quite different to that of a christian, islamic or an enlightenment example. How can we resolve this?

One way is to look at the idea of virtue differently, in terms of traits. A virtuous person has certain traits that a vicious person lacks or has the opposite traits. How can we be more specific over traits? Here we suggest that traits can be understood in terms of desires. So a good person is someone with good desires. These good desires are their virtues. One can then derive vices from the opposites of these good desires - bad desires. So rather than hold up specific culturally dependent examples of "good" persons, one could, instead, seek to understand what good persons are, at any time and place, as someone with good traits - or good desires.


Why chose desires as traits? Well here we mean the term very broadly, including what you might call needs, appetites, interests, goals, preferences and so on. In this sense if some has good desires then they just want to do the right thing, not for any ulterior motive, say to avoid punishment in this world or the next (if they think it exists). As a trait they simply have the desire and this is the reason they do what they do. Surely this captures the core of what traits and virtue are. And whether an action is right or wrong is derived from whether this is the result of a virtue (good desire) or vice (bad desire). Still how do we know whether a desire itself is good or bad?

Help and Harm
Everyone values the outcome of their desires. If they did not they would not have the desire. Of course, they might be disappointed or dissatisfied if they succeed in realizing a certain desire and so their values might change, still, at the time, the successful realization of the desire is what was valued. Now if a desire is not successfully realized -we can say it is thwarted - this is usually regarded as bad, as people disvalue having their desires fail to be realized. So we know the realizing a desire - having it fulfilled - is good and failing to realize a desire - having it thwarted - is bad. Clearly, in this sense, all desires that are successfully realized are generically good and this does not help in determining what a good desire is. And the same goes for desires that are thwarted, this thwarting is generically bad but again does not tell us what a bad desire is.

We could say that if a person's desire, in the process of being fulfilled, helps other people it is ethically good and if it harms other people's it is ethically bad, since ethics is to do with all the people involved, not just one or a select group. But how do we know what help and harms are? Are these not these are value-laden terms themselves? How can we avoid begging the question? One way to proceed is to note that in the process of realizing a desire, it is the other desires of other people that might get thwarted or fulfilled in the process. That is some actions have material effects on others - in terms of the fulfillment or thwarting of their desires - and these are the ones of interest here. So we can ask as to whether having a particular desire brings about or prevents the realization of other desires. Now we can empirically ground the terms help and harm. A desire that helps is one that fulfills or tend to fulfill other desires, whereas a desire that harms is one that thwarts or tends to thwart other desires. Now we have a basis to look at the virtues and vices in terms of traits of good and bad desires - desires that help or harm others.

Virtues and Vices
What follows is a candidate tentative proposal of the top seven virtues and vices that could characterize a good and bad person respectively. These could be used as criteria to evaluate people and as a basis for cultivation (of virtues) and weeding (of vices) within oneself. Part of the criteria for the selection that follows is that these are, in a pragmatic sense, universal - they are virtues that are, in principle, applicable to anyone, anywhere, anywhen. There are many other good and bad desires that are more dependent on the specifics of situations, they are still good or bad, but not universal enough (in the sense used here) to apply as part of the makeup of a virtuous person in general.

The Seven Virtues
  1. A love of life
  2. A love of liberty
  3. A love of justice
  4. A love of truth
  5. A love of reason
  6. A love of curiosity
  7. A love of honesty
The Seven Vices
By contrast a virtuous person would not have these vices. These are here stated in the way that the those with such traits with might disagree with - not that they are vices, they certainly would disagree with that - but the way that these are phrased here. Still the phrasing here helps illustrate and contrast how these vices compare to the virtues listed above.
  1. A love of violence over life
  2. A love of tyranny over liberty
  3. A love of privileges over justice
  4. A love of comfort over truth
  5. A love of faith over reason
  6. A love of dogma over curiosity
  7. A love of deceit over honesty
This is the briefest and most concise descriptions to help minimize any misunderstandings. The first three vices are those that can lead to the greatest harm to others. The last four are the main means to justify these first three vices. Indeed these last four are often used to say they do support the virtues of life, liberty and justice but by severely perverting the meanings of those virtues and really promoting the first three vices.

A love of violence over life: Where what one is or one stands for gets in the way of a lover of violence, one's life is often the least of their concerns - and they are more concerned with generating fear, intimidation, threats, injury and even death to get their way.

A love of tyranny over liberty: Of course most will not come out and directly say they love tyranny. Still they love tyranny in the sense that it is supportive of their other beliefs and vices and specifically are against the liberty of everyone to best decide for themselves what they want from life.

A love of privileges over justice
: A just society is one where where everyone is treated equally and faces the same single standard. A privileged society has double standards that favor one group to the detriment of others, either officially, unofficially or both.

A love of comfort over truth
: When the truth or the facts of the matter are not the way they want it to be, they sacrifice truth on the altar of comfort. Wishful thinking is not enough to alter reality. Someone who loves truth seeks fact over fiction and prefers to know uncomfortable facts over comfortable fictions, if that is the choice.

A love of faith over reason: Faith here means a desire to believe, if reason shows that a belief is mistaken or false, then a desire to belief trumps reason, to help hold onto that belief in spite of the reasons that the belief is false.

A love of dogma over curiosity: Dogma are unquestionable claims whereas curiosity seeks the truth by questioning, including such claims. Dogma is yet another way to take one away from reality.

A love of deceit over honesty
: Those who use rhetoric, sophistry, uncharitable interpretations/labeling and their ilk are using deceit to promote falsehoods and, of course, they will not admit to this. Someone who is honest pursues the truth knows that such deceitful methods can harm this pursuit and lead to falsehood.

This, like The Ten Aversions is a tentative proposal of what the likely top seven traits - as virtues and vices - are likely to lead to the most help or most harm and, it is argued, are not a matter of opinion but involve matters of fact. Still this is open to review and revision, of course.