Twelve Virtues to Aspire To

Earlier this year, Claire Wolfe attended the Court of Honor ceremony for a newly-minted Eagle Scout. She then shared her ambivalence about the ceremony and about the values in the Boy Scout Law. This prompted me to share my Picket Line post from last year in which I reflected on various lists of virtues (including the twelve in the Boy Scout Law). This in turn led to a follow-up post from Claire in which she challenged her readers to share their own lists of twelve virtues to aspire to.

Here is what I came up with (revised since I first posted it as a comment at Claire’s Living Freedom blog):

First, Character: the “Metavirtue”

I think there’s a prerequisite to my twelve virtues that’s a kind of umbrella over all of them — a “metavirtue” maybe — that might be called character but requires more from me than just having character in a passive, descriptive sense. It means I must value my character, be invested in it, see it as an end in itself. So this is not to be confused with “reputation,” which is sort of like character, but only as a means to an end.

I considered honor and nobility (divorced from its hereditary aristocracy connotations) as possible synonyms for this virtue.

If I have character, this fortifies the rest of the virtues that I try to develop. Without it, the other virtues may fail me when I need them most, because they will lack foundation.

My Twelve Virtues

I chose these as my twelve specific virtues to aspire to build on this foundation of character:

The Intellectual Virtues
  1. curiosity
  2. rationality
  3. know-how
The “Core” Virtues
  1. moderation
  2. endurance
  3. courage
  4. fitness
The Social Virtues
  1. rectitude
  2. generosity
  3. amiability
  4. humility
  5. cooperation

Curiosity

To be a virtuous person, I must make myself aware of how the world is and how it works, and the drive to do this is curiosity. It helps when I can be mindfully aware rather than lost-in-thought, and open-minded so I don’t inadvertently filter out the very parts of reality that I can best learn from. Curiosity also means inquisitiveness and skepticism: I don’t want to believe but to understand.

When I’m curious, I’m also exercising imagination so as to try out new possibilities for understanding the world, and this leads also to creativity and inventiveness as I imagine ways of changing or reinterpreting this world.

Curiosity and awareness also show themselves as vigilance and heedfulness. These allow me to anticipate occasions that will require something of me, prepare myself for them, and keep my eyes peeled for opportunities and dangers.

Rationality

To engage with the world well and virtuously, I need to understand how the world works. This means holding tight to what is really true, and fighting against the many temptations to believe what just isn’t so. This is a lifelong project, so rationality also requires intellectual growth. It also requires testing ideas against empirical reality with a scientific mindset and (when combined with curiosity) deductive skill.

Know-how

For some skills, there’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty and learning by doing. Technology and affluence can make us helpless if we’re not careful. I am more virtuous the more well-rounded I can become in art, craft, and general know-how.

Moderation

When I value my character, this helps me to not take pleasure from vices (anti-virtues). Moderation goes the next step and helps me to not wholly forget myself in pleasure, even when that pleasure comes from virtuous or indifferent things. A temperate person appreciates and enjoys the pleasures of life without getting lost in pursuit of them.

Moderation also tempers other emotions: preventing anger from easily boiling over into rage, for instance. When I’m temperate, I also have balance in my life, and I have my priorities straight.

Moderation also guides me towards a life of simplicity, as I’m more able to live life well if I’m not pulled in many directions at once and I don’t have to shepherd too many possessions. Similarly, the more I can trend toward serenity or at least calmness, the better grounding I will have from which to practice the other virtues without getting distracted.

Endurance

Endurance means working through pain, difficulty, boredom, and frustration. It includes resilience, persistence, patience, and forbearance.

Combined with the serenity that comes from moderation, it can display itself as an attractive unflappability. When persistence is combined with the inventiveness that comes from curiosity, it becomes adaptability.

Endurance comes to the assistance of the other virtues by helping me to stick to them when the going gets rough.

If I can adopt the advice of the Stoics, and see the various slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as opportunities to practice endurance, this will also help me to endure such things with more serenity.

Courage

While endurance helps me deal with current hardships, courage helps me with the fear of future hardships. When combined with generosity, it can even rise to the level of valor, occasionally encouraging me to put myself in harm’s way by seeking out dragons that need to be slain.

When combined with the intellectual virtues, courage helps me to know which risks are worth taking and then to take them unflinchingly.

Fitness

We’re each dealt a hand not of our choosing when it comes to the state of our bodies and our health. But we all can play this hand better or worse. I respect the virtue of fitness when I take care of my body and try to keep it strong and able. This in turn helps me be more able to practice the other virtues.

Rectitude

I practice rectitude when I’m honest with myself and others, when I’m sincere in my speech and earnest in my endeavors. This virtue encourages me to be a man of my word: trustworthy and reliable. I try also to know my duty irrespective of any explicit promises I have made: to be responsible and diligent.

I also want to be someone who can be trusted not to practice favoritism or self-dealing but to exercise a well-honed sense of justice.

I also put Aristotle’s “quasi-virtue” of shame under this heading. Shame enables me to know when I’ve fallen short of the standards of rectitude, and gives me visceral feedback that helps me learn to be better. Curiosity, moderation, and endurance help me to investigate and hone my sense of shame, so I am not shamed by things that are not really shameful.

Generosity

Generosity is my desire to give more than I take. It means that I strive to be self-reliant (for which know-how and fitness help) and independent when I can be. From that base, it is easier for me to be charitable: to take delight in giving to others or to enriching the commons.

I hope to cultivate virtues like ambition, industriousness, enterprise, productiveness, and initiative so I can boost my positive effect on the world around me (though I often struggle here with the vice of sloth, and also fear of sticking my neck out).

On rare occasions my generosity can even blossom into something approaching magnificence (in the Aristotlean sense).

Amiability

I aspire to be pleasant to be around, to be a note of harmony in social situations, and to elevate those around me. I want to respect and to strive to understand other people, with sympathy, compassion, and consideration. I want to demonstrate kindness, courtesy, and gratitude. I want to contribute to warmth, joy, hope, wit, good humor, and cheer.

Humility

Conscious of my faults and of the many times I have fallen short, I strive to be humble, which I think will also encourage me to be tolerant and forgiving.

I want to seek out and discover the best in other people, as well as the strongest parts of opposing arguments and viewpoints, rather than trying to prove myself and my points of view to be superior by ferreting out the worst things around me to compare with.

I should remind myself to temper my sense of justice with mercy.

I ought to tread lightly when I am tempted to meddle in any business that isn’t my own.

Cooperation

I want to share in projects and activities with others in a way that promotes cooperation. I need to be a team player when that is called for, and to strive to be conciliatory and peace-promoting rather than sowing discord or trash talking for low stakes.

I want to be a role model for others, and a mentor when I can be. When a leader is needed, I want to be able to step into that role competently and to be able to command respect and confidence from those who follow my lead. I want to nurture the virtues in those around me and to be helpful and encouraging to others in their projects.

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