Portrait of the Artist as a Man
January 1, 2015

Definitions: A little Philosophizing

I think it behooves me to list some definitions. Exploring virtue and morality requires understanding what those concepts mean. The definitions can be a little fuzzy especially since they rely on outside things to exist only in context of individuals and groups thereof.

What I talk about when I talk about Virtue

Virtues are characteristics or traits of right” or good behavior defined by an individual or society. Examples, taking from Benjamin Franklin, can include concepts like Temperance, Industry, and Silence. What is considered virtuous” is malleable considering the can be sourced both from an individual as well as society.

Religion often establishes virtue and codes of conduct for people. Christianity and Judaism both rely on the Ten Commandments. Christianity further includes Faith, Hope, and Love as core virtues defined in Corinthians. Love is, in this triumvirate, the most important and defined as patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude.”

Hinduism has a similar ten virtues written in the vedas, though they are paired down to 5 in later parts of the texts - Ahimsa (Non-violence), Dama (self restraint), Asteya (Non-covetousness/Non-stealing), Saucha (inner purity), Satyam (truthfulness).

Virtues, too, can come from social structure like in the samurai code. The Hagakure defines it’s virtues for samurai (in bushido): righteousness, courage, benevolence, respect, sincerity, honour, loyalty.

What I do when I act out Virtues

If virtues are qualities considered good, the intention of virtue becomes guiding human behavior to goodness or righteousness. Morality is the expression of a virtue. Morality, then, is learned acceptable behavior from your upbringing or social constructs. The interesting thing here is that though we may teach virtues, morality is understood based on reactions to an action in society.

Depending on how pure” you want to make that, you start defining the inherent goodness of an action based on solely the consequences of the action (consequentialism), so an action is moral” if the results are measurably benevolent. Or you can define the morality of an act on the action itself (deontology), so an act is inherently moral or immoral. An easy example would be killing Hitler as a child. Consequentialists would argue the benefits of Hitler dying as a child make the act of killing morally good; whereas, deontologists would argue than any act of killing is immoral according to any social construct. (Note that the above is a radically simplified explanation.)

What I judge when I judge about Virtues

In either case, actions matter and are guided by one’s closely held virtue. Reinforcement of that virtue comes from reactions to actions carried out for that virtue. Your judgement of what I do is a system of understanding the goodness or badness of an action taken in relation to a virtue.

That structure, the response or understanding from society at large, is Ethics. It’s how we reinforce virtue and morality and it develops organically over time. Goodness and badness of actions do not exist in a vacuum nor can you say that outward expressions of belief are natural right or wrong. It’s he consequences of those actions and how we respond that make something good” or bad.” Belching is a silly example. Belching in public is considered rude in America but not in other countries.


Ethics are a system for understand morality. Morality is the expression of a virtue. Virtues are characteristics valued by a person or society. The all exist dependent on each other and necessarily change as society changes. What is virtuous today may not be virtuous tomorrow. And, likely, what was virtuous to Franklin in 1746 may not be virtuous in 2015.

What matters?

That’s the thing, right? Trying to figure out what matters? The curiosity I have is how much of my definitions of virtue will align with what society holds as virtuous. I grew up fairly secular with mostly my family’s, mostly my father’s, actions to guide me. Many of my strongest memories are watching my brothers getting into to trouble for silly things they did, stuff that I learned rapidly were a bad idea.

How much of my personality virtues come from that sort of learning? What sort of virtues do I hold based on reinforced positive behaviors from my childhood? Do my struggles for industriousness stem from seeing my father always relaxing on nights and weekends?

Such shall be the end goal of all this: understanding my virtues. I believe I have them though I can’t necessarily enumerate them. So of them will matter to me more than others and others still I’ll want to adopt from Franklin’s own list as I endeavor to uphold them.

Wrestling with Franklin

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