The universality of virtue

virtueWhile going through my notes for the book I’m writing during my sabbatical here in Rome (entitled, of all things, How to Be a Stoic, and to be published next year by Basic Books), I was reflecting on a 2005 paper by Katherine Dahlsgaard, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman in Review of General Psychology, entitled “Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History.”

The point of the paper is to conduct a qualitative comparative analysis of the concepts of virtue across a number of cultures with a long tradition of written philosophy: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, “Athenian philosophy” (mostly Plato and Aristotle), Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The results are well worth discussing.

Let us get out of the way first the obvious observation that this sort of attempt comes with a number of caveats, of which the authors in fact mention and discuss a few. To begin with, the (near) “universal” virtues they identified are not equally important within each tradition examined. Second, their work concerned — by design — only cultures that “come from large, literate, and long-lived societies with cities, money, law, and division of labor.” Any extrapolation to other types of human cultures (such as hunter-gathering societies) needs to be done very carefully or, better yet, not at all until there is pertinent empirical evidence.

So with that firmly in mind, Dahlsgaard and colleagues zeroed in on six “core virtues” across the traditions they surveyed: courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom, and transcendence. The bulk of the paper aims at substantiating this core by providing an overview of the pertinent texts within each tradition, and I’ll refer the interested reader to the authors’ detailed discussions and sources. I’m certainly no expert on any of the philosophies-religions they considered, except for my personal acquaintance with Christianity and my late studies of ancient Greco-Roman philosophy.

Here, however, is an explanation (adapted from Table 1 in the paper) of the virtues in question:

Courage: Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal; examples include bravery, perseverance, and authenticity (honesty).

Justice: Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life; examples include fairness, leadership, and citizenship or teamwork.

Humanity: Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others; examples include love and kindness.

Temperance: Strengths that protect against excess; examples include forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self- control.

Wisdom: Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge; examples include creativity, curiosity, judgment, and perspective (providing counsel to others).

Transcendence: Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and thereby provide meaning; examples include gratitude, hope, and spirituality.

Let me briefly discuss them from a specifically Stoic perspective. Courage, justice, temperance and wisdom are, of course, the four Stoic cardinal virtues, and they are defined by the Stoics in very similar terms to those of other cultures, so there is obviously no further issue there.

“Humanity” isn’t a Stoic virtue, but the fundamental Stoic concept of oikeiôsis encapsulates the same idea, as far as I can tell. This is the most pro-social aspect of the philosophy, famously presented in the form of Hierocles’ circles. Hierocles encouraged us to think of strangers as natural extensions of ourselves and our close kins, with the goals of extending to humanity at large the same sort of concern and care that we as a matter of course extend to people who are close to us (don’t forget that the Stoics inherited from the Cynics the very concept of cosmopolitanism). Here is Hierocles, from the Ethical Fragments Preserved by Stobaeus:

“Each of us is, as it were, circumscribed by many circles; some of which are less, but others larger, and some comprehend, but others are comprehended, according to the different and unequal habitudes with respect to each other. For the first, indeed, and most proximate circle is that which everyone describes about his own mind as a centre, in which circle the body, and whatever is assumed for the sake of the body, are comprehended … The second from this, and which is at a greater distance from the centre, but comprehends the first circle, is that in which parents, brothers, wife, and children are arranged. The third circle from the centre is that which contains uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, and the children of brothers and sisters … Next to this is that which contains the common people, then that which comprehends those of the same tribe, afterwards that which contains the citizens; and then two other circles follow, one being the circle of those that dwell in the vicinity of the city, and the other, of those of the same province. But the outermost and greatest circle, and which comprehends all the other circles, is that of the whole human race … it is the province of him who strives to conduct himself properly in each of these connections to collect, in a certain respect, the circles, as it were, to one centre, and always to endeavour earnestly to transfer himself from the comprehending circles to the several particulars which they comprehend.

It is requisite, likewise, to add a proper measure conformably to the general use of appellations, calling indeed cousins, uncles and aunts, by the name of brothers, fathers and mothers; but of other kindred, to denominate some uncles, others the children of brothers or sisters, and others cousins, according to the difference of age, for the sake of the abundant extension which there is in names. For this mode of appellation will be no obscure indication of our sedulous attention to each of these relatives; and at the same time will incite, and extend us in a greater degree, to the contraction as it were of the above mentioned circles.”

What about “transcendence”? Well, there things get a bit more tricky. It is of course true that the Stoics mentioned god and soul, but it is also true that they equated them with Nature and thought they were material, non supernatural, entities. As I mentioned a number of times in the past, this is actually one of the strengths of Stoicism: it makes ample room for both religious and secular sensitivities, so that one may or may not “go transcendental” and still be a full fledged Stoic.

In the beginning of this post I parenthetically observed that the core virtues identified by Dahlsgaard and colleagues are near universal, and this, I think, requires a qualification. Here is an adaptation of their Table 2:

(where E=explicitly named; T=thematically implied)

Courage Justice Humanity Temperance Wisdom Transcendence
Cunfucianism E E T E T
Taoism E E E E T
Buddhism E E E T E
Hinduism E E E E E E
Athenian philosophy E E E E E T
Christianity E E E E E E
Judaism E E E E E E
Islam E E E E E E

Notice the somewhat peculiar position of courage, by far the least universal of the core virtues. However, I do agree with the authors that there is a simple explanation for this: “courage is quite explicitly nominated (usually as physical valor) on most lists but is missing on others, notably those from the Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist traditions. We doubt that this means bravery is not valued in these traditions, and more modern definitions of courage that extend its meaning beyond the battlefield to fortitude in other domains can readily be detected in their classic literatures.” And indeed, the Stoics also used this broader definition of courage as not just physical.

All in all it is encouraging to see cultural convergence, which may be due to reciprocal influence, of course, as much as to independent derivation of the concepts. This sort of analysis strongly suggests that the Stoics were right in talking about a universal human nature, at the least by the time humans had culturally evolved into the sort of literate, “city-centric” societies of which all these venerable cultures are examples.


Categories: Virtue Ethics

4 replies

  1. The CSV (Character Strengths & Virtue) book and model is a great project. I always viewed Stoicism and virtue ethics itself as a system to create/form heroic individuals, in the manner best suited to a person’s particular context.

    With Wu-Wei and ‘The Path*’ coming up now in popular culture from Chinese philosophy, it will be exciting to see how ‘good life’ get’s molded into a truly cosmopolitan conception.


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  2. Try ‘The Sacred Path of the Warrior’ Chogyam Trungpa. A traditional meld of the nomadic warrior culture of Mongolia and Tantric Buddhism moving north from India.


  3. Now I am wanting to read something about hunter-gathering groups. I may reread Bellah’s book and make a belated report if an exception would be allowed. Evolutionary morality is essential to a study of morality. These six categories seem very useful. Can anyone recommend another book – I’m about to be laid up with a repaired shoulder and have time to read!

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