At the Sports Center gym where I workout every day, there's a cafe or deli. One day this week, when I was walking by the counter, the young lady who works there making sandwiches and ladling out soups, putting together salads, and handing out sports drinks, called out to me. "Mr. Morris, can you help me with something?"
I thought she needed help lifting and carrying something heavy. So I said, "Sure," and turned around to go heft whatever burden she had been struggling with. But she didn't move as if to show me what big box or sack she needed to have repositioned.
Instead, she said, "Can you explain to me virtue ethics?"
That gave me pause. It's not a request for help you often hear in a gym. "Yeah, no problem," I replied, before figuring out how the heavy lifting was going to be done on this one. What angle did I need to take? What leverage could help?
So I explained that Aristotle and a bunch of other ancient philosophers believed that we bring into any situation various personal strengths and weaknesses of character. The strengths, they thought of as virtues. Our word 'virtue' comes from the latin 'virtu' which meant strength or prowess. And that in turn came from 'vir' which meant man. The Greek word was 'arete' which itself could mean excellence or virtue. Aristotle thought it was worth figuring out what strengths or excellences would be universally good to have, and built his conception of ethics (from the Greek word 'ethos' or character) around these virtues.
He identified as virtues such things as honesty - a strong inclination toward truth - and liberality, a habit of giving to those in need what they could well use, and courage - an ability to do what's right rather than what's easy, even if it's quite challenging. He then came to see courage as perhaps the most crucial of the virtues, since you probably won't exercise any of the others in difficult circumstances without courage.
Modern approaches to ethics have focused on rules. Perhaps inspired by scientific laws, or the civic rules and legal regulations that make civilized society possible, philosophers began to hunt for the rules that ought to govern our conduct. The ten commandments are a start. But as important as rules are, you can never have enough, and paradoxically you quickly get too many. Something more is needed. Rules need interpreting. Every rule is general. Any situation is specific. We need discernment. We need wisdom and the habit of acting in accordance with wisdom, which may even be another nice general definition of virtue.
One of my colleagues during my days at Notre Dame decades ago, Alastair McIntyre, almost singlehandedly revived the ancient tradition of virtue ethics, a focus on character more than rules, as being what's at the heard of ethics. For a masterful and difficult account of it all, you might want to consult his book After Virtue.
There are now many qualities you can call virtues. I read an article today about positive passion as perhaps being one. The author mentioned also patience. And that got me thinking. Positive passion is a hot virtue. Patience is a cool one. Passion gets you started. Patience keeps you going. Passion can fuel a journey. Patience can keep it on track. Passion is a youthful virtue. Patience is a mature one. You have to wait for it, appropriately. If your passions bring you too much success too quickly in life, you often never develop the virtue of patience.
My friend at the gym cafe seemed to be sincerely pleased by our discussion. And I was equally pleased at the vigorous workout with weights that followed.
Whenever you're confused by anything, that means it's time to get out of Plato's Cave and get yourself to Plato's Gym. Give yourself the mental workout of thinking things through, carefully and clearly. Or if the issue seems too heavy, just elicit the help of a workout partner of the mind.