Many philosophers have put the development of virtue at the core of what it means to live a good life. However, today, the idea seems a bit antiquated. How often do we hear about virtues in popular television shows or on the news? Courage, humility, generosity, and patience are just a few historical virtues that continue to be praised by those who take time to study and develop them. Mindfulness, too, can be thought of as a virtue to be developed in our own pursuit of a good life.
The British Christian philosopher John MacQuarrie (1919 – 2007) wrote that:
In ethics, virtue is moral excellence, a settled attitude which conduces to habitually good action in some respect. The virtues been variously classified. The intellectual virtues (e.g. wisdom) are distinguished from the practical virtues (e.g. courage), the former being associated with the life of contemplation, the latter with the life of action.
So virtues can range from among many kinds of excellence. And these are excellences that become habitual, like always telling the truth (honesty) or always giving something when you see someone in need (generosity). They can also be intellectual, such as open-mindedness and intellectual rigor, or what we might call critical thinking today.
Kant on the development of virtues
My favorite Western philosopher, Immanuel Kant, tends to be distinguished from those who teach virtue ethics. Instead, he is classified as a philosopher of duty, or deontology. While this is partly true, he still had a lot to say about virtues and why we should cultivate them.
Principally, the development of virtues helps us to break away from our egotistical drives, desires, and inclinations. Speaking for myself, at any given moment I’d love to be in a comfy chair, watching the latest great movie, with greasy popcorn and a soda. These are some of my desires and inclinations. However, if I let myself follow them too often, they’ll become my habits and will lead to a life not very well lived.
On the other hand, if I push myself to exercise at least a bit each day, eat right most of the time, and read and write about ethics and psychology regularly, it’s more likely that I’ll live a good life. At least in our society, virtues that maintain a degree of physical health and intellectual fortitude are valuable and praised.
But for Kant, just being valued in a particular society isn’t the reason we pursue virtues. After all, in our society we might notice that vanity and self-aggrandizement seem to be praised by many people as excessively beautiful people become stars on Tic-Toc and reality show hosts become successful politicians.
Kant saw correctly that virtues tend to be embedded in societies. What is more important, he suggested, was touching base with our fundamental or innate human goodness. Again, the cultivation of most virtues helps us do this. But we must be careful not to then desire the virtue itself, to fetishize it as some modern philosophers would say.
We must instead see the development of virtues as a means to a further end. For Kant, that further end was the abandonment of individualistic drives in exchange for truly selfless behavior. Kant, a Christian, called this state one of “holiness.” He was also pessimistic that we could ever achieve it. He suggested that Jesus was a true representation, completely sacrificing himself (quite literally) for the sake of humanity. For Kant, the best we could do was to aim for this kind of life and to strive for it. After death, he held, we could reasonably hope for an afterlife in which we would finally achieve holiness ourselves.
Nonetheless, we persist
For me, Kant’s vision of an ideal holiness has always been appealing. Even though I am not a Christian, I have always been drawn to this notion of an ideal life of total selflessness. For Kant, too, the ideal person was also one of total wisdom.
In our lives, we’ll find many opportunities to try to develop practical virtues and intellectual ones. We will also find many obstacles. The major obstacles I’ve already mentioned: our egotistical drives and desires. But beyond these, we also find that the demands of work can sap the energy needed from us to develop virtues. Forces such as a chaotic economy might make it hard to be generous.
The abundant availability of cheap entertainment also makes it very easy to turn our time and attention away from these pursuits. Nevertheless, we should persist in our efforts to cultivate practical and intellectual virtues.
When we talk to our elders, we can see that what they treasure most about their lives is rarely the entertainment they consumed or the delicious food they ate. These are mere weigh stations in the broad course of a good life. Instead, they will talk of their difficult journeys, whether they were homesteading in difficult terrain or earning the first PhD in their family or simply doing the hard work of raising a family. These are not things that bring pleasure in the short term, but they build a good life over time.
As such, we can ponder the virtues we may have already partly developed. These may be things we’re complimented for from time to time. Patience, intellect, kindness, “a way with people.” All of these are things we might be good at now, but could be truly excellent at if we put in regular effort. And with excellence will come a life story built around these traits, the kind of life story that we can pass on to our own children and grandchildren.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.