Notes on notes on virtues

In a sequence of posts here, I’ve been sharing my notes about a variety of virtues. In this post, I share my thoughts about why I’ve been on this case and what I’m trying to accomplish.

Here’s a one-paragraph summary: I have come to think that becoming more skillful and well-rounded in the practice of the virtues is key to being a better, more satisfied, and more effective person. However, childhood training in the virtues is scattershot and haphazard, and remedial training (or self-help) as adults is also spotty. I’m trying to contribute toward fixing this by assembling descriptions of the various virtues, with a focus on ways to improve them in ourselves.

Why I think this is important

“The characteristic feature of all ethics is to consider human life as a game that can be won or lost and to teach man the means of winning.” ―Simone de Beauvoir

“The branch of philosophy on which we are at present engaged differs from the others in not being a subject of merely intellectual interest — I mean we are not concerned to know what goodness essentially is, but how we are to become good people, for this alone gives the study its practical value.” ―Aristotle

Life is complex. We are constantly confronted by a variety of challenges. To address those challenges well, we need to have learned a variety of basic life skills such that they are second-nature to us. “The virtues” are a set of such skills that apply to challenges common to typical human lives.

If you have a better command of the virtues, this helps you thrive as an individual and also improves your effect on those around you. Society at large benefits from a higher level of competence in the virtues of those in it. But our culture is not all that good at teaching or encouraging the virtues. Some virtues seem so lacking from the public sphere that I wince when I look at it.

Our institutions of formal childhood education are patchy at best in this regard. You’ll get your reading, writing, and ’rithmetic, if you’re lucky anyway, but will you get resourcefulness, resilience, restraint, responsibility, rectification, or reputability? Other institutions (scouting, religion, etc.) pick up some of the slack, but not nearly enough. Parents have little guidance on how to convey virtue education to their children effectively, and also have their own blind spots from their own spotty educations. There have been some gestures toward formal “character education” of children, which is probably a good sign. But my guess is that children are going to learn most from the example of their elders: if we don’t value virtues enough to pursue them in our own lives, that will make more of an impression on the up-and-coming generation than any “do as we say, not as we do” education will.

A virtue gym?

For a few specific virtues or skills, there are adult education /​ training /​ exercise programs. If you want to be more fit, you can join a gym. If you want to be a better public speaker, you can join Toastmasters. If you want to sober up, you can attend Alcoholics Anonymous. But for most virtues, there’s nothing like this, and that’s a shame.

Two misconceptions that sometimes cause people to give up too early on developing virtues are these: 1) that virtues are talents that some people have and other people don’t as a matter of predisposition, genetics, the grace of God, or what have you (“I’m just not a very influential /​ graceful /​ original person”), and 2) that having a virtue is not a matter of developing a habit but of having an opinion (e.g. I agree that creativity is good, and I try to respect the virtue of creativity that way, rather than by creating). It’s more accurate to think of a virtue as a skill like any other. Like juggling, it might be hard at first, it might come easier to some people than others, but almost anyone can learn to do it if they’re just willing to put in the persistent practice.

We are creatures of habit: We create ourselves by what we practice. If we adopt habits without giving them much consideration, we risk becoming what we never intended to be. If instead we deliberate carefully about what habits we want to cultivate, and then actually put in the work, we can become the sculptors of our own characters.

What if there were some institution like a “virtue gymnasium” through which you could work on virtues alongside others, learning at your own pace, and building a library of wisdom about how to go about it most productively? What if there were something like Toastmasters, or Alcoholics Anonymous, or the YMCA but for all of the virtues people need?

Ben Franklin’s experiment

One day Benjamin Franklin “conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He explains in his autobiography, “as I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.”

He quickly found that he had underestimated the task. “While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct.”

So he decided to be more methodical. He reviewed various lists of virtues in the literature he was familiar with, and then created his own list of a dozen virtues that he thought were particularly important. With the intention of making each of these virtues habitual, he struck on the idea of tackling them one-at-a-time, starting with ones he thought would help him more easily acquire the others. (Virtues have a way of building on each other. Some virtues, for example persistence, or curiosity, or honor, can make other virtues easier to acquire. In this way, the process of strengthening virtues bears compound interest.)

He decided to do a daily accounting of each virtue he was practicing. He created a notebook with a table for each week. The table had one column for each day of the week, and one row for each of his virtues. Each time he failed to fulfill a particular virtue on a certain day, he marked the table cell for that virtue/​day with “a little black spot” (or more than one if he screwed up multiple times). The plan was that when he achieved a week in which he successfully kept the row for Temperance blank, he would move on to concentrating on Silence (attending to Temperance as well). When he managed to keep both of those rows clear for a week, he would move on to Order, and so on.

“I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.” He carried his notebook with him for several years. “[T]ho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been…”

He hoped at one point to write a book, The Art of Virtue, which “would have shown the means and manner of obtaining virtue, which would have distinguished it from the mere exhortation to be good that does not instruct and indicate the means.”

He toyed with the idea of a political party that would not advocate for the benefit of a certain segment of the people, but for the good of the country and of mankind in general: the “United Party for Virtue.” This morphed into an idea for a fraternity: the “Society of the Free and Easy.” His plan was to initiate members by putting them through the same practice he had undergone with his notebook of weeks and virtues. He explained the name of the society this way:

The Society of the Free and Easy: free, as being, by the general practice and habit of the virtues, free from the dominion of vice; and particularly by the practice of industry and frugality, free from debt, which exposes a man to confinement, and a species of slavery to his creditors.

He got as far as getting two young men to sign up and begin the work, but then he got distracted with other things and abandoned it. “[T]ho’ I am still of opinion that it was a practicable scheme, and might have been very useful...”

The Society of the Free & Easy

Last year I set about trying to pull together something like Franklin’s Society of the Free and Easy (and borrowing his name). I worked with a group of friends and acquaintances to come up with what I think is a pretty good framework for working on virtues in a peer-supported way. In a nutshell, the process is pretty simple:

  1. Find a partner or form a small team.

  2. Each of you choose a virtue to work on.

  3. Take a close look at your virtue, and at any obstacles you feel when you try to practice it.

  4. Work with your partner(s) to come up with exercises in which you will frequently, deliberately practice that virtue in ways that challenge your current level of fluency.

  5. Check in with your partner(s) regularly to encourage each other and to keep each other accountable, and adjust your curriculum as you learn more about what works and what challenges you face.

  6. When you feel you have integrated the virtue adequately into your character, start the process again with a new virtue.

Alas, after some initial promise, the group began to dwindle, and then the pandemic disrupted everything, and now as far as I know there are only two of us still working through the program on the regular. But in the course of researching, we dug up a lot of information about virtues in general and about particular virtues, and that’s forming the basis for the posts I’m sharing here.

Notes on virtues

What I’m hoping to do with these notes on virtues is to collect ideas that will be useful to people who want to improve in a certain virtue. This may include actual concrete advice about strengthening that virtue itself, and may also include some discussion about other virtues that are related in some way: maybe they’re prerequisites, or harmonize in some way, or maybe there’s some tension between them. I sometimes find it challenging to define the virtue precisely, or to distinguish it from another virtue — and sometimes the term for the virtue gets overloaded with a variety of meanings in common use — so I include discussion of those nuances too.

I’m aiming to be inclusive of a variety of useful perspectives, and of a variety of cultures, rather than definitive or dogmatic. It’s a fuzzy subject matter to begin with. I’m feeling my way about, leaning on existing guides when I can find them (though I tend to find a lot more examples of people praising or advocating certain virtues than of people explaining them or giving practical advice on how to go about learning them).

I take some inspiration from Aristotle, who, when he examined a set of virtues in his Nicomachean Ethics, started with virtue-concepts as already found in common language and folktale, rather than starting from a theoretical foundation and building ideal virtues from there. When it comes to dividing up a complex subject matter into manageable and coherent chunks, previous generations have already done a lot of the work for us and handed that down to us in the language and tropes we use. That we have found a word or trope useful is a good clue that there’s some reasonably-helpful and worth-noticing regularity at the base of it. While this sort of understanding shouldn’t be confused with the gospel truth of how reality is constituted, it seems wise to glean as much as we can from it before trying to systematize more deliberately.

One of the things I did was to investigate several virtue-based traditions (the Greek cardinal virtues, the traditional Christian virtues, the virtues of Bushido, Confucian virtues, the virtues of Scouting, the West Point virtues), the virtues favored by some particular philosophers (Aristotle, Cicero, Ben Franklin, Ayn Rand, Henry David Thoreau, Shannon Vallor, the Cynic philosophers, the developers of care ethics, William De Witt Hyde, Eliezer Yudkowsky), and the virtues identified as “character strengths” by psychologists operating in the positive psychology paradigm. This isn’t comprehensive by any means, but it was revealing.

For one thing, there was a lot less consensus than I thought there would be about which virtues are the important ones. This is somewhat complicated by problems of terminology. For example, what one philosopher will call self-control, another will call continence, another restraint, another discipline. Or, while Paul says that the greatest virtue is love, he defines “love” in such a way that it incorporates patience, kindness, mudita, modesty, humility, respect, good temper, forgiveness, righteousness, care, trust, hope, and perseverance. Or different cultures will partition virtue-space differently: sisu is only kind-of like perseverance; mudita is only kind-of like sympathy; nying je is only kind-of like compassion. This can be challenging for works in translation, where the translator has chosen the closest equivalent English word, but a close reading shows that the author meant something different from what we mean by that word.

I tried to correct for things like these. I consolidated various terms for very-similar virtues together, and created a spreadsheet where I could note which virtue-clusters had been promoted in which systems or by which philosophers. But of the hundreds of virtues I found, only six of them were on more than half of the lists:

If you add those that were on exactly half of the lists, you also get justice, wisdom/​philosophy, sincerity/​straightforwardness/​earnestness/​frankness, industry/​effort/​enterprise/​productiveness, duty/​responsibility/​purposefulness, piety/​reverence, and strength/​toughness/​vitality/​health/​fitness.

You may have heard that patience is a virtue, but it didn’t make that cut. Neither did humility, hope, perseverance, courtesy, generosity, friendliness, creativity, caution, cleanliness, mercy, forgiveness, wit, originality, calm, warmth, curiosity, hospitality, pride, or gratitude. Some lonely virtues like boldness, imagination, spontaneity, and playfulness appeared on only one list. Other skills that are often popularly admired — like being influential, having emotional intelligence, or being good in bed — weren’t on any lists at all.

Some virtues are debatable. Selflessness, pride, altruism? The apostle Paul and Ayn Rand would disagree about what’s the virtue and what’s the vice. Virtues like chastity, obedience, and patriotism give some of us the willies.

I’m aiming to be inclusive and to eventually give some attention also to these less-prominent and more controversial virtues.

Why am I going to this trouble?

My hope is that whatever virtue it is that you’re hoping to improve, you’ll be able to get a head start from the research and write-ups I’ve done.

I’m also motivated by self-improvement. I’ve been working to deliberately improve some of these virtues in my life, and I hope to make that an ongoing project, so putting together these virtue-dossiers helps me to lay the groundwork for this.

If we manage to reboot the Society of the Free & Easy in the post-pandemic time, these may help us hit the ground running.

I also have vague ideas about this being a worthwhile political project. I’ve come to distrust talk of elections and revolutions and institutional reforms. I think the longer, harder, more subtle project of helping people improve is a more reliable path to a better future than trying to impose wise policies on them from on high. If people become braver, wiser, more just, and more honorable, public policy will follow their lead. If people become more cowardly, foolish, grasping, and disreputable, conniving politicians will lead them by the nose.

I’m sharing these at LessWrong in particular because I value the sort of insightful feedback people share here. Since I’m not an expert at any of the virtues I’m writing up, I’m slyly taking advantage of Cunningham’s Law to correct my misunderstandings about them.