How to Explore and Understand Virtue

Virtue is the bedrock of religions, philosophies, cultures and nations. Yet there is more to virtue that meets the eye and often it is when we don't understand it that we can the opposite of what we imagine virtue to be.

Why is virtue so important to our way of life? What is the dark side of virtue and what can we do about it? This tutorial will help you explore virtue and answer these key questions.


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    Consider the purpose of virtue. Mundane virtue is a system in which an interaction be formed on a single basic level. This is often represented in relationships between three main groups -
    1. Social, such as between our friends, family, neighbours and all acquaintances as well as environment.
    2. Legal, such as our relationships with local government and community as well as state, national and international laws and;
    3. Personal & spiritual cohesion. This covers all individual aspects such as our relationship with our physical health and well-being as well as mental or spiritual health. Basic examples include for social interactions of not stealing from your friends or lying to your family or co-workers. Legal may include not exceeding the safety speed limit while driving or vandalism up to criminal activity and higher international laws; and personal includes eating healthily and maintaining a healthy home, as well as practicing acts that may be seen as mental or spiritual, such as forgiveness, generosity and practicing things such as meditation, vegetarianism (etc). In essence, virtue in a cultural sense is about social interaction and the harmony of society. Transcendent virtue on the other hand is a more subtle variation which requires a depth of insight to be able to discern between ordinary and true virtue that leads towards personal harmony.
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    Consider some of the paradoxes of mundane virtue. In times of war, it is seen as virtuous to defend ones country and fight ones enemies, yet this will in some contexts contradict legal but consistently contradict moral virtue. Meanwhile, to be pacifist in war supports moral or spiritual virtue, yet may contradict legal and will often be portrayed as cowardice or treachery in social virtue. Teetotalism (the abstaining from alcohol) can be socially contradictory and isolating while is neutral or positive in legal contexts and is positive in spiritual and health virtue.
    • Mundane virtue therefore is not clean cut and what may be virtuous to one may be non-virtuous to another, especially acts of schadenfreude. Some virtues also change in context so there is never a clean cut way to be perfectly virtuous. It is very important to reflect that true virtue is always within the moment and that there is no genuine set standard of degree of virtue except when a person retrospects or abstracts a cultural system. Protecting the environment on one hand is virtuous but when it affects people livelihoods it is socially inappropriate as well as virtuous at the same time.
    • Psychologically, transcendent virtue is also complex. All humans beings have the ability to love and hate, to be generous and selfish and to to be wise or ignorant. In this itself lies a complex paradox when we are deemed to be naturally good or inherently corrupt. When we assume our inner nature is divine or perfect it can on one hand lead us to aspire to live up to this ideal (which is a good thing), but will also be a consistent problem psychologically whenever our dark side shows itself, which leads to fear, paranoia, depression and other complexities.
    • For transcendent virtue to be natural, it is to be aware that we have the proportionate capacity for both good and bad outcomes, so while we have the capacity to love all beings infinitely, it exists because infinite hate also exists. It is all down to personal choice and awareness of that choice as well as the event itself. Mundane virtue focuses on personal conditioning, which is the training we have had from our parents, friends and teachers about how to behave.
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    Explore cultural variations on virtue. This is a vast area of study, but can give very interesting insights. For example some cultures forbid the consumption of pork, yet others do not. It is useful to understand the foundation or cause of the law as that way you can understand that all virtue is built on reason and cause and effect dynamics.
    • The usefulness of this is that it becomes quite easy to discern between mundane and transcendent virtue. Mundane virtue tends to vary and is subject to social pressures and personal interpretation, where transcendent virtue tends to be universal.
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    Contemplate on the changing nature of mundane virtue. Some virtues have stayed steady for millenia, yet some are only relatively recent such as international trade laws as well as those dealing with technology. Virtue arguably reflects what is appropriate for the age. The complication with this is ancient laws and means of dealing with crimes - such as those only a few hundred years ago such deportation for those caught stealing food and more ancient ones authorising the use of torture to extract confessions. Some scholars have been known to imply a metaphorical context to ancient laws so that they are more socially acceptable in modern times.
    • The value of this helps a person to distinguish between mundane virtue - which only helps us so far to develop as human beings, as well as transcendent virtue which is timeless and natural.
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    Contemplate on the personal merits of transcendent virtue. A central factor to the benefits of being virtuous is a degree of trust a person has with themselves, as well as others who are wise or intellectual will trust such a person. Virtue is often the foundation of society not just because of cohesion value, but because it gives a definite quality of life. Wisdom in essence is the product of virtue, as is developing mental health skills such as letting go, thinking creatively and being humane to oneself and others.
    • Virtue effectively brings a personal freedom that is unexpected from what sounds a very limiting lifestyle. Many communities and religions such as Buddhist monasteries tend to be happy places as there is an appropriate balance with virtue, wisdom, routine and order, as well as mental-health and physical health development (such as contributing and playing an active role) which bring happiness. Societies that tend to favour only certain aspects tend to live less fulfilled lives.
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    Explore what the world may be like without virtue as we know it. This in itself it's a mind puzzle, because what is virtuous in one context is not necessarily virtuous in another, so its recommended to consider the implications of a mind that does not have the limitations of such an upbringing. Is there a sense of natural virtue, is the world complete anarchy, or does it no longer matter? Most people will settle on at least one of these outcomes, if not others, so its very useful to explore other possible outcomes.
    • This can include multiple variables. For a basic example, one may say it is virtuous to act first and apologise after if needed (which is stronger in social virtue than the other two), where another would say be humble and think first, act later (which is stronger in the legal virtue) Both can apply in personal virtue depending on the context. A person who lives in the moment however, arguably does not belong to either schools as wisdom guides their virtue.
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    Consider ways mundane virtue can be manipulated. There are really more ways than can be listed where virtue can be put off course. Its generally all about priorities and priorities are always linked to our wants and needs, but virtue is more concerned ultimately with personal negligence. Suicide generally is seen as immoral, yet willingly dying to save another only varies by intention and motivation. A key area to explore is that politically we are frequently manipulated through applying to one of our concepts of virtue to choose something we may not have chosen had we been more wise to what was going on. This is most frequent in advertising - such as being socially virtuous to buy certain products, or voting on political parties even when candidate or policy is not particularly wise, yet it is by the the use of manipulating virtue and that the voter themselves are perceptible that elections can be won or lost.
    • Likewise when individuals indulge in our own desires, fears and ignorance which can make us deeply unhappy and insecure with ourselves. We may also manipulate ourselves to believe that we were just, virtuous or right to act as we see fit, where many if not most wars and genocides have been stated by its propagators as virtuous and just actions
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    Start to consider how you can apply virtue wisely. In this context wisdom must reflect on the outcome of the action and the goal is to be wise, virtuous but not negligent. When people as individuals have the ability to move towards skillful or unskillful actions, it is we as individuals who ultimately choose to act, even when it does not seem that way. Was the action praised by the wise and innocent? Did it improve our well-being and mental health or did it lead us to remorse or other misfortunes?
    • Many philosophers and great thinkers have said that the greatest gift person could have is good, virtuous friends. Those who we can trust, we can share and learn with and to support each other in their life journey. It is always useful to explore virtue to understand how and why it exists, as well as how it can make the world a better place.

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Categories: Philosophy and Religion