Are there any basic universal virtues? Do virtues change based on time, place and social context?
Answer by Paul Fagan
If we accept that human beings evolved from apes, which had to live together in some harsh environments, then it would be sensible to assume that virtues evolved and allowed them to survive this experience. For instance, the virtue of sharing would have been essential in order to share food in times of scarcity. But prior to sharing food, one would have to realise that one of your compatriots was hungry and this would require one to have the virtue of compassion. From this simple scenario, it should be noticeable that plural virtues were seemingly necessary for the survival of our ancestors. Hence, it may be expected that there should be basic, universal virtues lodged within human beings.
The problem for our ancestors is that they may have also had to face adversity of such a magnitude that it outweighed these basic virtues. For instance, if you only could obtain enough food to ensure your own survival, then you would need to be able to override both virtues of sharing and compassion. Consequently, the basic virtues may have been accompanied by an innate rationale which was also important.
With regard to the second part of your question, inquiring whether virtues change with time, place and social context, then it is certainly true that moralities may change on this basis: the society that one finds oneself in often sets the morality that one believes to be righteous (please see my previous articles What is a moral environment? and The consequences of cultural relativism). To explain, if a society exists with little food, then eating moderately may be considered to be a virtue: in order to ensure food for all. However, in a society with an abundance of food, having a voracious appetite may be considered virtuous: as less food would go to waste. Here differing virtues have been constructed, and although both are based upon the asset of food, they differ markedly due to food’s availability.
Although we may see ethical values changing both through time and place, there would be opponents to the above argument, who may claim that too much emphasis is being placed upon the exterior behaviour of persons. They may believe that there is a deeper, underlying morality that links human beings: for example, they may note that whatever society we live in, we all feel the same disgust when our leaders abuse their positions of power to enrich themselves. The problem here is that not all persons would be disgusted and some may be pleased that their leaders have done ‘well’ for themselves; moreover they may wish to do likewise if placed in the same position of power. Hence, a complex tapestry of virtues and rationale seem to be operating at all times
In concluding, although there are specific values that we may recognise as virtues, they are often intertwined with other values that we may not. It is not an area where philosophers may give a simple answer, and it may be worth the inquisitive reader’s while to consult with psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists in order to gain a fuller view.