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Vices and Virtues

Notice that you never have to teach a young child to keep the ball. He must be coaxed to give it up, to throw it, to share. Why should he toss the ball away? He already has what he wants? He ponders, “Should I give up the ball? Will I get something in return?”

We, like this child, are in the balance of vices and virtues. We don’t need to be taught vices but we do need to be encouraged toward virtue.

Just what do we mean by vices and virtue?  Virtue, by definition, is the moral excellence of a person. Virtues are traits universally recognized by every culture as basic qualities necessary for well-being and happiness. Examples of Virtues would be: kindness, respect, cheerfulness, patience, reverence, compliance, tolerance, restraint, selflessness, and frugality.

Vices on the other hand, can be defined as habitual, repeated practice of wrongdoing. It is the opposite and the corruption of virtues. (See Moral Decision-Making) Examples of vices would be: cruelty, disrespect, grumpiness, impatience, insolence, obstinacy, prejudice, self-indulgence, selfishness, and wastefulness.

Aristotle believed that the practice of virtue leads us to a more purposeful life. He says that man has a natural tendency to want to live in a social environment where he can flourish. A good life, he says, is one that fulfills man’s desire for happiness, knowledge and God.

Each of us makes up part of the fabric of the social environment we live in. Therefore we either contribute to or take away from its success. Return to the child with the for example.  What kind of social environment would you want for him? Would you want a violent, abhorring, disregarding world? Of course you would not. We would want this child to be brought up in a peaceful, loving, safe environment. How can we provide it? For our part, we do so by becoming a more peaceful, loving, caring person, by becoming a virtuous person.

A virtuous person is said to be an ethical person and ethics help define how each of us should behave in a civilized society. Ethics is a guide for the individual or group to do the right thing in a social setting. Ethics however, without virtue and vices, would concentrate on doing instead of being. It would be based solely on rules and regulation rather than springing from a person’s moral character. This type of ethics would be an illusion. So the key then, for an Aristotelian society to exist where all can be happy and flourish, is an ethical society based on virtuous individuals.

It can be discouraging at times when you see others profit by wrongdoing: the Wall Street and bank scandals, the many internet scams for instance. It is not difficult to see how the exploitation of people on a grand scale can keep our society from advancing.  But it is also true on a smaller scale. Isn’t it true that people who are self-centered, demanding, or arrogant also bruise the fabric of our society? Isn’t also true that they seem to be the ones that get what they want - at others expense?  Remember the child who chose to keep the ball rather than share. That child got what he wanted but at a cost - he will never learn to play ball. There is no such thing as a society of one.

An Aristotelian type of society may sound utopian and surely no one believes that we will ever see a world where all people will become peaceful, loving, caring etc. But we can truly make a difference in our family, work place, town and even country. We cannot change the behavior of others but we can change our own and thereby influence others to do the same. Keep in mind that vices never deliver what they promise but virtue is more pleasurable and lasting.

In the second half of this article on Vices and Virtues we will look into ways of identifying and changes our vices into virtues and by so doing, making ourselves a better individual as our part in bettering our society.