Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Listing Virtues and Vices

The pursuit of virtues and the avoidance of vices are important for the progress of humanity. Both sets of rules and personality traits are designed to improve humankind individually and collectively. Two important affiliated questions are how many rules or qualities we need and how to enforce them.

Fortunately, nowadays, the internet facilitates listing the inventory of such rules. For instance, this site lists a total of 650 virtues and 350 vices. Obviously, not everyone will agree with the classification of a given rule or trait as a virtue or a vice and many rules are correlated or are only variants of other rules. For this reason we need taxonomy to group and classify them.

Indeed, the Wikipedia entry for list of virtues is based on 5 categories defined in relation to their purpose, namely: self-control, self-efficacy, regard, respect and kindness. Others choose to select the top 5, 10 or whatever number they feel appropriate. What is undeniable is that such lists or taxonomies reflect both their historical context and their religious or philosophical roots.

In fact these are often outdated and prevail over a classification system based only on an empirical analysis of their contribution to the betterment of humankind. For instance, the Ten Commandments, The Hadiths, The Modes of Sattva and the Ten Perfections followed by Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, respectively, have many virtues in common but cannot explain the civilizational differences between their followers.

So, when picking up a list of virtues one must choose on the basis of their universality, longevity, and rationality. On the basis of the first two criteria we must certainly include Aristotle´s list of virtues and using the third criteria one must include lists based on the philosophy of enlightenment.

Aristotle defined a virtue as a balance point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait that lies not in the exact middle, but at a golden mean sometimes closer to one extreme than the other (see list here).

From the enlightenment philosophers we can build multiple lists ranging from the popular list of 13 virtues by Benjamin Franklin to Adam Smith´s analysis of the amiable, respectable and intellectual virtues discussed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Yet, some modern philosophers have associated the virtues of enlightenment with being tantamount to bourgeois virtues (e.g. McCloskey) or have criticized them for failing to include the Aristotle´s concept of mean (e.g. MacIntyre´s book After Virtue).

Following on Francis Wheen's defense of the principles of the Enlightenment against various strands of irrationalism in his book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World; we believe that it is possible and desirable to merge the ethics of Enlightenment and Aristotle. We will try to do so in future posts on specific virtues and come up with our own list of enlightened virtues.