Virtue is not a Scary Word

When someone uses the word virtue, we immediately form a mental picture of a saint or an unattainable standard, but that need not be so. Virtue is not necessarily the sole domain of religion or any moral philosophy, nor should its association with religion create a barrier to adopting virtue as a “Be.”

The Critiques of the Idea of Virtue

It’s helpful to examine the common critiques up front. Critics of the idea of virtue as a realistic, achievable standard of behavior dismiss the idea that humans have the innate ability to live virtuous lives. It would be naive to ignore the terrible offenses people commit against others and society, but the opposite is also true. There are just as many stories of valor, love, self-sacrifice, and generosity in the world as well. People are capable of great evil, but we are also capable of great virtue.

We know, from observing the world, that both are true, that evil and good coexist within humanity, so it makes sense that an admirable goal is to cultivate the good and weed out the bad in ourselves. When we nurture the goodness in ourselves and others, we call that goodness “virtue.”

“Ethics” and “Core Values” are Virtues Codified

Every culture, community, and religion has its own idea of what virtue means. For example, in the U.S. Air Force, we define virtue as adhering to the Core Values: “Integrity first,” Service before self,” and “Excellence in all we do.”  As an institution, the Air Force considers an Airman virtuous if he lives by the Core Values,

We can trace our modern concept of virtue back to the classical Greek civilization of in the 4th Century BC and the famous philosopher, Aristotle. He defined the classical ideal and what has become known as the “Cardinal Virtues.”  The word cardinal refers to the “principle” or “main” virtues, much like north, south, east, and west are the cardinal directions on a compass.

Aristotle’s idea was that the highest calling was living a virtuous life, which perfected a person in the eyes of the gods as well as in the eyes of his fellow man. These ideas became so central to Western culture, that years later, when Christianity became dominant in political and philosophical thought in the Roman Empire, other philosophers like Augustine and Aquinas “baptized” the ideal of Classical Virtue and then added their own Christian-specific virtues called the “Theological Virtues.”

Universal Human Goods

The Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato both agreed that virtue begins with the understanding of what the medieval philosopher Aquinas later called “first principles.”  First principles are the “universal human goods” that all humans aspire to and recognize as admirable. Aristotle’s list included Life, Beauty, Love, Truth, Creativity, Religion, And Sociability. The virtuous person protects and seeks to increase these universal human goods, while the imprudent person squanders them. While we probably rarely use the words virtuous and vice in everyday speech, we have all seen people whose choices we questioned. Social media and the paparazzi thrive on highlighting behavior that makes us wonder, “What were they thinking?” 

When someone gets in trouble or makes choices that harm their reputation, or others, those choices are usually a direct result of someone not exercising a virtue. In fact, we don’t need a specific belief system or code of ethics to understand what’s right or wrong–although they certainly help as guides–those Universal Human Goods are written into our hearts.

Mickey is an expert in leadership and organizational change. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. Mickey now works with clients around the country to improve performance and help organizational transformation. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC. Mickey is the author of eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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