Values and Virtues



From Dave Smith
To Be Of Use (2005)

Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life: if it has been honest and dutiful to society the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one. ~Thomas Jefferson

VIRTUES and values are sometimes used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Values are moral codes, often inflexible, based upon our particular social, cultural, religious, or political circumstances. They are codified, standardized, absolute, and then imposed by authorities and used to judge others. Example: The Ten Commandments

Virtues are a person’s admirable character traits, principles that are adjustable to changing circumstances. Examples: courageous, honest.

What qualifies as “courageous” in one situation or society will not be the same for a different situation or society. Holding on to or identifying with the virtue of “courageous” can, however, allow the best in us to come forward regardless of what situation we find ourselves in.

One shortcut to defining personal virtues is to ask “What do I consider are the character traits of a good person?” And then go further to ask “How do I actually practice the virtues I want to live by?”

Virtue based morality
We tend to judge others based on abstract interpretations of values that our own social group, religion, or wider culture has adopted. This divides us against each other. Rather, if we could step back and appreciate the personal virtues of others, a lot of the hostility inherent in competing doctrines of religious and political systems would seem much less important. This happens all the time in personal relationships when a relative or neighbor holds opposite views from our own on current issues, but we admire and care for each other deeply. When our heads get in the way of our hearts, we get out of balance emotionally and wars can result.

My friend Dan cancels out my every vote by voting the opposite of me. I never ask him if he wants a ride to the polling place. We have big-time arguments about politics, but I love the guy for who he is… for what he is inside. If we could look at a whole culture for who they are inside, what they really care about and how they live their daily lives, we may be less interested in looking down at them as a group.

If we moved from value-based morality which causes hate, violence and wars, to a virtue-based morality which is more human and honorable of other people’s strengths and rights, we would be more forgiving of those practices or weaknesses which harm no-one else, and the world would be a more creative, peaceful place.

The old blues song said it best…

If I should take a notion
To jump into the ocean,
It ain’t nobody’s business if I do.

If I go to church on Sunday
And I shimmy down on Monday,
It ain’t nobody’s business if I do.