Universal virtues?

Celo asked:

Are there any basic universal virtues? Do virtues change based on time, place and social context?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

A recent account of so-called universal virtues is found in a book entitled Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Petersen and Martin Seligman. Its underlying motivation was a confrontation with moral relativism, which is of course precisely the gist of your question. I have to admit that I’m wholly unconvinced of their pseudo-scientific approach and regard it as a major delusion of our era that we can learn something about human nature from tick boxes, numbered gradings, statistics and so on. Science is essentially a pursuit for knowledge in which the observer absents himself from the observations, leaving personal opinions and predilections at home while performing objective evaluations. A single glance at any moral issue, however, tells us immediately that both observer and observations are soaked in subjective choices and motives, not only in the derivation of their results but in the very criteria upon which their research is based. In short, the dictum that “all research is theory laden” holds from the outset; and on this subject matter it seems impossible to work with a wholly objective, unprejudiced methodology. In fact, a quick count of the virtuous character traits of the above authors reveals that 19 of the 26 are lifted straight out of Aristotle, i.e. 2300 years old.

Having said this (and you are at liberty to dismiss it as yet another personal opinion), I invite you to look into the history of mankind, which is stamped by an endless succession of thinkers who were all concerned with the unreliability of moral criteria by which we humans have lived. In large part of this is undeniably due to environmental factors, such as the variety of habitats in which human groups have settled and learnt how to cope with its specific survival necessities. It stands to reason that virtues enforced by polar regions must differ from those which pertain in tropical regions. They would also significantly influence the nature of their religious beliefs, which have from times immemorial affected the moral fibre of social groupings and what kinds of traits may be called ‘virtues’.

These few remarks already point the lesson that no single coherent doctrine on virtues has the slightest chance of being universally applicable, i.e. to the entire human race. Yes, every single human being might agree that murder is heinous and drug addiction corruptive, and to conclude from this that abstention from these practices is a virtue — and so with a raft of other traits. But a glance at the ‘character strengths’ of the above mentioned book shows us at once that about half of them are particular virtues and character strengths — if all humans had them, life on earth would be paradise!

Does this open the door to virtue relativism? It seems to be a fashionable point of view at present, but it comes and goes with self-doubt and skepticism. Having ‘seen through’ virtues and morals as merely conventional attitudes, a skeptic might readily conclude that no set of virtues can be intrinsically better than another. But here the little word ‘merely’ is the clue to what’s wrong with this attitude. Although on one hand the idea of a universal code of morals and virtues is a pipe dream (and would incidentally deprive countless numbers of people of their value and belief systems), the opposite notion that every human is entitled to perfect freedom in their choice of values and beliefs defeats itself, as for this to be made possible, there has to be a prior social convention in place. However, “no man is an island”; therefore congregation into associations, societies, clubs, lodges, cadres, teams et al in pursuit of common goals and interests is the first step towards shaping a convention-within-a-convention; and each of these groupings might well eye the others with suspicions as to their allegiance to the overall conventions in force (e.g. political parties).

To come to the end: Yes, there are universal virtues, though very few; and even these few are not necessarily agreeable omnilaterally. Yes, virtues depend overwhelmingly on time, place and social context. Being the beings we are, namely outcomes of evolution and habitat, it would be asking too much to expect more. Perhaps someone should for once break this monotonous obsession with virtues and morals and sing in praise of the virtues of variability and diversification, which after all enabled the species Homo to accommodate to every earthly habitat. Maybe the question is more relevant why all of us should possess the same virtues and making them all measurable on some sort of faked Richter scale of psychological fitness?

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