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Virtue or Vice


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): HerbSilverman.Com

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/03/19

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Virtue seems mostly like a habit. Then we call long trends in behaviour in someone a character trait. It seems like this to me. So, virtue starts with the habituation of ethical conduct. There are consequences to a certain behaviour. Good results become consequentially good, tautologically. Bad results become consequentially bad, but come from antecedent behaviour, inescapably. The possible good and bad have a range of known and unknown consequences. So, I am noting some virtue ethics and consequentialism mixed together here, where limits get placed on personal responsibility based on cognitive-predictive limits.  What virtues should be encouraged/vices should be discouraged every day?

Dr. Herb Silverman: Let’s first describe what we mean by “virtue.” To me, virtue is behavior that shows high moral standards, which means good behavior. Humans have evolved to be social animals with patterns of behavior to live harmoniously and productively together. Without cooperative behavior, humans would not have survived. Ideas of right and wrong that we call morality arise from human nature. We all have the ability to think in moral terms, except perhaps for psychopaths. Of course, being moral or good means different thing to different folks. Some religious people would say that to act morally is to act in obedience to God’s commandments. Many Christians view virtue as having faith, hope, and charity, described in 1 Corinthians 13:13. Islamic virtue requires submission to Allah. Muhammad said, “Virtue is good manner, and sin is that which creates doubt.” As a secular humanist, I certainly don’t tie any virtues to god beliefs. I think that ethical values are derived from human needs and interests, tested and refined by experience. Morality should be based on how our actions affect others. Our deeds are more important than our creeds, and dogmas should never override compassion for others. 

So how do we make moral decisions? One criterion is to look at what works well and has withstood the test of time. Just about all religions and philosophies have grounded morality in some version of the Golden Rule. But that’s a guideline open to interpretation, not an absolute. Even if we believe in absolutes, we’re forced to make human judgments on how to interpret them. For instance, we agree that murder is wrong. But what do we do about euthanasia, suicide, abortion, war, capital punishment, stem-cell research?  Different religions, and even people within the same religion, often disagree. 

So how do we decide? In tough decisions, I believe we should be guided by the consequences of our actions to individuals, our families, our community, and our world. Morality may arise from human nature, but it is shaped by our experiences and culture. Morality helps humans construct a livable society with human rights for all. It requires flexibility because the circumstances under which we live continue to change and we discover what works better. 

I would say virtue includes searching for truth and obtaining knowledge through rational thought. Belief should be proportional to the evidence. As William Clifford, a nineteenth century mathematician and philosopher said, “It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

Morality should also include creating happiness and fulfillment. As Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic, said, “Reason, Observation and Experience, the Holy Trinity of Science, have taught us that happiness is the only good; that the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so.” And Bertrand Russell said, “A good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”  

Jacobsen: Why is youth important for the inculcation of virtue? 

Silverman: To quote Aristotle, “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.” The Jesuits have slightly modified Aristotle’s statement, “Give us a child till he’s seven and we’ll have him for life.” Unfortunately, this is often true. Fortunately, many people (myself included) cast away their childhood (and childish) religious beliefs. Nevertheless, people are influenced a lot by their upbringing, so it’s important to instill, teach, and inspire virtue in youth.

Jacobsen: Is it just easier to get virtue inculcated earlier than not? Or is it never too late?  

Silverman: Virtue and vice are not an either/or for humans. Throughout our lives, we sometimes act with virtue and sometimes we fall short. We should always learn from our mistakes and observations, and try to improve. For instance, in these uncertain times of the coronavirus pandemic, we all need to step up to the challenge. Are we thinking only about our own families, or are we also concerned about others? Some people look for ways to profit in the crisis. Others are stocking up on enough toilet paper and other household goods to last until Christmas. The virtuous thing for us to do, at any age, is to reach out to others and see how we can help them.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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