Virtues and values are commonly treated as synonyms, but there is a distinction — virtues are lived values, values in action, values which are achieved on a dependably regular basis, while values by themselves are ideals or goals which tend to be more aspirational and not uncommonly fail to be achieved on as regular a basis as desired.
That’s the real point or purpose of this informal paper, to emphasize that values are primarily aspirational and that the real goal is to realize values, to make them virtues, by living them in our daily lives on a consistently regular basis.
As but one example, honesty is a cherished value, but not everyone is as honest as might be desired. Many people and indeed all of society may claim honesty as one of their values even as they themselves and others may too frequently find themselves being less than fully honest. Meanwhile, particular individuals or groups may be notable for their possession of the virtue of honesty — the much-repeated experience people have had with them where they were by and large honest far more often than not.
We can all value honesty, but not all of us will possess the virtue of honesty, to be honest consistently over time with everyone we interact with.
Value and virtue both refer to the same thing — beliefs, principles, ideals, qualities, traits, properties, attributes, expectations, or characteristics of individuals or groups that are highly-valued, desired, admired, and prized in society, but the key distinction is that values are aspirational expectations, ideals or goals that are not always achieved, while virtues are those principles or qualities that have actually been achieved and can be directly observed and experienced in the here and now.
Values are more the theory, while virtues are more the reality.
Values are in principle, while virtues are conformity with principle.
That said, traditionally what we consider values today were commonly referred to as virtues in past centuries (and millennia.) As in the proverbial cardinal virtues.
The reader is perfectly free to ignore this informal paper and continue to treat values and virtues as approximate or even exact synonyms. The purpose of this paper is to draw a distinction that helps us better understand ethical behavior, in practice as well as in theory.
A simple model is to assert that values represent intentions, expectations, and aspirations, while virtues represent realized intentions, expectations, and aspirations.
The background for this paper is my Search for American Values project. I had initially wanted to focus on virtues, but quickly realized that values were the larger, broader topic area.
Relevant dictionary definition entries for value from Merriam-Webster:
- something (such as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable
- to consider or rate highly — prize, esteem
- usefulness or importance
- to think that (someone or something) is important or useful
- a principle or quality that is valuable or desirable
- to think highly of
Relevant dictionary definition entries for value from Dictionary.com:
- relative worth, merit, or importance
- to consider with respect to worth, excellence, usefulness, or importance
- to regard or esteem highly
- the desirability of a thing, often in respect of some property such as usefulness or exchangeability
- worth, merit, or importance
- principles, standards
- A principle, standard, or quality considered worthwhile or desirable
Lead from the article for value (ethics) from Wikipedia:
- In ethics, value denotes the degree of importance of some thing or action, with the aim of determining what actions are best to do or what way is best to live (normative ethics), or to describe the significance of different actions. It may be described as treating actions as abstract objects, putting value to them. It deals with right conduct and living a good life, in the sense that a highly, or at least relatively high valuable action may be regarded as ethically “good” (adjective sense), and that an action of low value, or relatively low in value, may be regarded as “bad”. What makes an action valuable may in turn depend on the ethic values of the objects it increases, decreases or alters. An object with “ethic value” may be termed an “ethic or philosophic good” (noun sense).
- Values can be defined as broad preferences concerning appropriate courses of actions or outcomes. As such, values reflect a person’s sense of right and wrong or what “ought” to be. “Equal rights for all”, “Excellence deserves admiration”, and “People should be treated with respect and dignity” are representatives of values. Values tend to influence attitudes and behavior and these types include ethical/moral values, doctrinal/ideological (religious, political) values, social values, and aesthetic values. It is debated whether some values that are not clearly physiologically determined, such as altruism, are intrinsic, and whether some, such as acquisitiveness, should be classified as vices or virtues.
Relevant dictionary definition entries for virtue from Merriam-Webster:
- conformity to a standard of right — morality
- a particular moral excellence
- a beneficial quality or power of a thing
- a commendable quality or trait
- morally good behavior or character
- a good and moral quality
- the good result that comes from something
- morally good behavior or character
- a good, moral, or desirable quality
- the good result that comes from something
Relevant dictionary definition entries for virtue from Dictionary.com:
- moral excellence — goodness, righteousness
- conformity of one’s life and conduct to moral and ethical principles — uprightness, rectitude
- a particular moral excellence
- a good or admirable quality or property
- the quality or practice of moral excellence or righteousness
Lead from the article for virtue from Wikipedia:
- Virtue (Latin: virtus, Ancient Greek: ἀρετή “arete”) is moral excellence. A virtue is a trait or quality that is deemed to be morally good and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being. Personal virtues are characteristics valued as promoting collective and individual greatness. The opposite of virtue is vice.
- The four classic cardinal virtues are temperance, prudence, courage, and justice. Christianity derives the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love (charity) from 1 Corinthians. Together these make up the seven virtues. Buddhism’s four brahmavihara (“Divine States”) can be regarded as virtues in the European sense. The Japanese Bushidō code is characterized by up to ten virtues, including rectitude, courage, and benevolence.
Overlap between values and virtues
As already noted, value and virtue can be used as synonyms in many contexts.
But in which contexts?
Essentially they can be treated as synonyms where they are being used in an abstract, theoretical sense rather than referring to whether an individual or group actually has a referenced trait, characteristic, property, attribute, or quality, or is living in accordance with a referenced principle, goal, or ideal.
Purpose of values and virtues: happiness, excellence, well-being, and flourishing
Values and virtues have the same ultimate purpose, traditionally described using terms such as:
- Or eudaimonia in ancient Greek philosophy.
Goal is to lead a good life
The goal of values is to be a guide to helping us to lead a good life.
Values as the plan for living a good life
Values are the plan for living a good life.
Do these things (principles, qualities, etc.) and you’ll achieve a good life.
Values as the theory for leading a good life
Values are the theory for how to go about leading a good life.
Put the theory into practice and the promise is that the result will be a good life.
Values as a promise for a good life
The theory, or even the commitment in society, is that if you put values into practice, the result will be that you will be living a good life.
Virtues as our track record of living a good life
Virtues are our track record of living a good life.
Put values into practice and the promise is that others will be able to see that you are being successful at living a good life, and worthy of admiration and respect.
Values as aspirations
The essence of values is that they are aspirational. They may also be expected, but human nature being what it is, expectations are too frequently not met, or at least not fully met.
Rather, values are closer to ideals or goals, something to work towards.
Values are essentially worthless if they are not lived in everyday life.
Granted, it is indeed too much to ask to insist that every individual and every group must live every value at all times, but the more commonplace the living of values is, the more successful and satisfying society will be.
And it is these lived values which become our virtues.
Virtues as reality
While values are primarily aspirational, more ideals and goals than necessarily a reality, virtues are inherently about reality.
Living a value make the aspiration real, a virtue.
Sure, there is a lot more to reality than virtue alone, but virtues are the parts of reality that are particularly admirable and laudable.
Virtues as bedrock of society
Aspirational values are all well and good, all quite admirable but if they are not commonplace in society, their value is minimal, negligible, or even nonexistent, mere empty promises.
The abilities and efforts of individuals and groups to put their values into action, to live their values are the bedrock needed for a sustainable, resilient, and vibrant society.
Traits, characteristics, properties, attributes, and qualities
The vast bulk of values and virtues are traits, characteristics, properties, attributes, and qualities, such as:
To name only just a few.
Such attributes apply to individuals or groups as a whole, and may vary between individuals and between groups.
They are in contrast to beliefs, principles, ideals, and rights, which apply more broadly, abstractly, and universally, regardless of the attributes or efforts of a particular individual or particular group.
Desirable and admirable traits and qualities
Not all traits and qualities amount to values or virtues. Many are superficial and merely descriptive rather than amounting to ethical behavior.
It is the fact that a trait is desirable or admirable where it begins to take on the essence of being a value or virtue.
While values can be broad and relate to all of society or individuals in a more generalized and abstract sense, virtues tend to be related to personal traits of particular individuals.
The sum total of all personal traits for a particular individual constitutes their personality.
The personality of an individual or a group exists at various levels:
- Underlying. Core personality. May not always be visible and readily apparent.
- Superficial. The aspects that are typically visible and readily apparent.
- Drives. The aspects of personality controlled by deep drives. Frequently genetic, but may be culturally conditioned as well.
- Intuition. Reasonably rational leaps that don’t have a readily apparent reason or pure logic that can be plainly articulated.
- Emotions. Reactions that may or may not be reasonable.
Personality is not always reasonable or rational.
Personality may or may not be in accord with values.
Aspects of personality that are consistently in accord with values would constitute virtues.
Morality and ethical behavior
Morality and ethical behavior are the main reasons for focusing so much interest and energy on values and virtues.
Values are seen as a primary tool for encouraging, promoting, and reinforcing ethical behavior.
Admiration and other methods of rewarding virtuous behavior work towards the same end.
Principles, rights, and ideals
Principles, rights, and ideals are a little more broad and abstract than particular traits, characteristics, properties, attributes, and qualities.
Some examples of principles, rights, and ideals include:
- Democracy. Representation. Voting.
- Pursuit of happiness.
- Right to vote.
- Right to acquire and own property.
- Freedom. Speech, expression, press, association, assembly, religion.
- Right to fair and speedy trial and representation.
- Equal application of justice.
- Checks and balances in government.
Such principles and rights apply to all individuals and aren’t traits or qualities of an individual (or group), so they don’t amount to being virtues of any particular individual, but we can say that they are virtues of a society of a whole or its government, to the degree that these values are practiced on a consistently regular basis for all members of society.
Beliefs are values that can be more general, more specific, or more vague than principles, rights, and ideals.
Principles, rights, and ideals tend to have a distinct ring of clarity and specificity to them.
To be sure, principles, rights, and ideals are beliefs as well.
Some examples of values which are beliefs that don’t have the crispness of principles, rights, and ideals:
- The existence or nonexistence of God or some other deity.
- The inherent goodness of man.
- The inherent fallibility of human nature.
- The value of work.
- Pursuing our hopes and dreams.
- Evil exists in the world.
- Heaven and hell exist.
- Man lives in a state of sin.
- Democracy is the best form of government.
- Everyone deserves a second chance.
- People are innocent until proven guilty.
How does any of that relate to virtue?
It doesn’t unless one can identify specific aspects of beliefs that can actually be lived, observed, and experienced, such as giving people second chances, engaging in productive work, or people being happy with various aspects of society and government.
Values can sometimes be reduced to mere platitudes in order to make them easier to consume by the average person.
A given platitude may or may not be so readily translated into action worthy of being considered a virtue.
It may be necessary to parse the platitude to determine which specific value or values it encompasses. Those specific values would more readily be translated into the action required of a virtue.
Rights as values rather than virtues
As laudable and cherished as rights are, they are values for the individual rather than virtues of the individual.
One could say that rights are virtues, but of the society as a whole rather than of the individual.
On the flip side, individuals acting as if they had rights in a society which denies such rights can indeed be said to be acting virtuously, primarily due to their courage to act despite potential draconian consequences.
Religious values and virtues
Religion and religious values fall into various categories:
- Spiritual. God, heaven, hell, good, evil.
- Dogmatic. Principles and rules of the religion itself. It’s institutions.
- Fellowship. Interactions between members of the congregation.
- Community. Helping the needy in the community. Evangelism.
- Relations with the state. Balance between respect for the state and willingness to stand up to oppression by the state.
- Global. Helping others around the world, especially under-developed countries and evangelism.
Lived values in any of these categories would constitute virtues.
Political values and virtues
Politics and its values would be split into three distinct domains:
- Ideology. What the party will do for real people and real institutions. What the party stands for.
- Power. Gaining and maintaining power and control of government. Winning elections. Fielding credible and appealing candidates.
- Governance. Ability to keep the ship of government on course and the trains running on time. All the while pursuing party ideological objectives.
Political virtues would similarly be split into those same three domains, corresponding to the ability to achieve the political values in each of those domains.
Ideals, hopes, and dreams
Values are a method for embodying and expressing our ideals, hopes, and dreams, both for all of society and for the individuals and groups in society.
Achieving ideals, hopes, and dreams
Virtues are the result of actually achieving those ideals, hopes, and dreams that are embodied and expressed in our values.
Who are we really, each of us? We could all list out our purported values, but it is only our lived values which truly define us.
It is our lived values, our virtues, that define our authenticity, our authentic selves.
We can claim values, but merely claiming them does not make them real.
Making our values real makes us authentic. Being authentic is virtuous.
Innate vs. learned virtues
Some of our virtues are built into our basic character. Like it or not, they are innate.
Other virtues (and vices!) are learned. From cultural conditioning. From education. From our observations of how the world and society work. From our own experiences. From observing the experiences of others. From our own study. From our own choice, or reinforced by others.
Natural vs. acquired virtues
One can evaluate virtues as to whether they occur naturally in the individual or must be acquired such as through experience or learning.
One can examine the motivations for seemingly virtuous behavior. Does the individual have some ulterior motive or are they strictly focused on doing good.
Traditionally, the moral character of an individual or group could be ascertained or judged based on the degree of virtue or virtuous behavior that they exhibit.
Quality of character
Whether or not one chooses to judge an individual on a strictly moral basis, one can certainly judge an individual or group on the quality of their character by judging the degree of virtue or virtuous behavior that they exhibit.
Which comes first, value or virtue?
Are some virtues natural and don’t need to be learned or conditioned?
Good question. And it’s an open debate.
The problem may be that so much cultural conditioning tends to occur well before the individual will have had an opportunity for any innate virtue to have been expressed in a clearly observable manner.
Still, my sense is that at least a fair number of elements of virtues and values really do derive from our genetic heritage, or at least in an indirect manner.
Expectations of self vs. others
Some values relate to what we expect from ourselves, while others relate to what we expect from others, and some relate to both.
Some values relate to what society as a whole expects from us, while others related to what others have a right to expect from us, and some relate to both.
Some values may depend on reciprocity, but some values may be held by the individual without regard to whether there is any reciprocity.
Many or even most values are commonly embodied, promoted, and rewarded or punished as cultural norms or expectations of society as a whole or of particular groups.
Cultural conditioning is the general mechanism for promoting and reinforcing both values and virtues for society as a whole.
Values are easier to promote through cultural conditioning since promotion does not necessarily require any immediate action on the part of any individuals.
Virtues can be promoted to some extent by cultural conditioning, but it is primarily the will and choice of the individual to act on values that actually causes a value of society to become an actual virtue for that individual.
Learning values and virtues
Values can be learned voluntarily or forcibly. Cultural conditioning may be rather strict, but individuals or groups may choose to accept values of their own volition as well.
Virtue is inherently voluntary
Technically, one can learn that values should be lived, but to act out of fear alone is not particularly virtuous.
In fact, it is the willingness and enthusiasm to act in a virtuous manner that invites the most admiration.
If the individual or group merely superficially accepts a value but fails to live that value in their daily life, we commonly refer to that as paying lip service, nodding or even stating a belief in a value even if your heart is not really and fully into it.
It might also be true that one truly believes in a value, but lacks the courage to put that belief into action, possibly out of fear of potential consequences.
Either way, failure to live a value results in that value being an empty value, a superficial shell.
It’s still a value, the same value, whether lived or not, but has lost its potency for becoming a realized virtue.
A third scenario is that one does indeed live a value but only out of fear or guilt arising from overly-strict cultural conditioning. Technically they seem to possess the virtue of living the value, but once again it is somewhat of an empty shell. Society might give the individual a free pass on this superficial virtue, but the emptiness will be known and felt by the individual.
Again, true virtue is strictly voluntary.
Sin and vice
Generally, vice is the opposite of virtue, taking an action (or inaction) for something that is not desirable, admirable, valued, or expected by society or a group.
A vice may be a sin of commission or a sin of omission. Theft would be a sin of commission, while cowardice or lack of courage would be a sin of omission.
Responsibilities, obligations, and duties
Quite a few values relate to responsibilities, obligations, and duties of individuals.
An individual’s consistent ability, willingness, enthusiasm, and success at carrying out their responsibilities, obligations, and duties will accrue as virtue(s) on their part.
But the degree to which the individual is less than willing, not so enthusiastic, and inconsistent in doing so will be seen as not so virtuous.
And even if the individual fully carries out all of their responsibilities, obligations, and duties but is merely going through the motions rather than giving it their all, those efforts will similarly be seen as somewhat tarnished and less than fully virtuous. Half-hearted enthusiasm doesn’t characterize virtue.
The emotional state of an individual is very relevant to whether otherwise virtuous ethical behavior will be seen as truly virtuous.
To constitute true virtue, even ethical behavior must be performed with a very positive and enthusiastic attitude.
Anger and even mere disdain are not consistent with virtue.
As mentioned in the Wikipedia citation on virtue, the four cardinal virtues are:
Personally, I would classify them as values or ideals.
Once an individual exhibits those qualities, then we could call them virtues, for that particular individual.
I’m honestly not sure how to classify wisdom. It’s a bit too vague, too broad, and too abstract compared to most values.
Still, we do of course greatly value wisdom in society and in individuals, so I would agree that we should consider it a value.
And any individual who possesses and exhibits wisdom should be considered wise and considered to possess the virtue of wisdom.
Values as tools or guides to contemplate how to act
The essence of values in ethical behavior is that they are tools which help to guide our decisions and thought processes about how to act in any given situation.
Is virtue the application of value?
One could consider values as plans or intentions, and that virtue comes from the execution of those plans, the carrying out of those intentions, such that virtue is the application of value to situations in daily life.
That would not be the case if the virtue is natural, innate, and ingrained in the individual in the first place.
But if virtue comes from conscious decision or development by the individual, it would seem to make sense to refer to virtue as the application of value.
Virtue as your underlying tendency to act
While values may tend to require a conscious decision to act, virtues are more automatic, even to the point where the individual may act in a virtuous manner without any conscious thought at all.
Of course, it may seem automatic to an observer, but it may simply be that the individual happens to consistently decide to act in a particular way.
Virtue as internalized value that becomes second nature
Either way, the point is that once a value has been internalized and become second nature, that’s when it has been transformed into a virtue.
I would define true virtues as virtues that come natural for the individual or group, not seeming to require any significant effort at all.
On the flip side, some might suggest that if no conscious effort is required then it wouldn’t be truly virtuous, that true virtue requires some degree of effort, pain, and even sacrifice to feel virtuous.
The reader is free to choose which form of virtue is more true.
I generally define a virtue as a value that others can observe and experience about an individual. Generally, that covers most cases.
But it is very possible that an individual could act virtuously without anybody else noticing. They might, for example, act anonymously so that nobody knows. An anonymous donation, for example. Or they may act without intent to hide but there is simply nobody around who notices.
The bottom line is that the individual is aware of their own virtuous behavior even if nobody else sees it.
In fact, one could assert that a hidden virtue is the truest form of virtue of all.
Individuals and groups
Although we tend to think of values and virtues from the perspective of the individual, they apply to groups as well. Even to all of society.
Granted, some values may not apply to larger groups or all of society, but some groups may have a particular affinity such that its members tend to share values. Religions and religious congregations, for example. Or political parties. Or professional associations. Or social service organizations.
And an overall society will tend to have at least some values that are near universal, so that we can speak of the entire society as having those values.
What are your values?
The values of an individual or a group can be categorized as:
- Sense of self.
- Hopes and dreams.
What are your virtues?
The virtues of an individual or group can be categorized as:
- What others can observe, experience, and value. Particularly what they consider admirable and laudable.
- Seen from within. If the individual or group is self-aware and sufficiently reflective, virtues can be seen from within the individual or group, but there is the risk of all the lies that psychologists say we tell ourselves.
- Personal or group history. All the good things that the individual or group has done. Their track record. As opposed to their vices, all the bad things they have done.
- Hidden virtues. All of the good things that are not so readily apparent to others.
Values are gifts, virtues must be earned
Values are essentially free. Anyone can voice the words and claim the values at any time and with no cost. They are essentially gifts from society. Living those values is another story.
For individuals and groups to get credit for possessing virtues, they must first earn that credit through their actions over time as they consistently live those values.
Virtues as reputation
Your virtues are the essence of your reputation.
You may have great values, but it is only to the degree that you actually live and realize your values to make them virtues that you gain a reputation that will be respected.
It is not the intention of this informal paper to comprehensively review two and a half millennia of philosophical thought on the topic of virtue ethics.
A nice summary of that topic can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for Virtue Ethics.
I did consult that entry while writing this paper, but more for background than any substantial content.
Applications to AI (artificial intelligence)
One of my personal interests in the ideas expressed in this paper is to apply them to artificial intelligence (AI.)
As machines, robots, driverless cars, smart appliances, and intelligent digital assistants become more capable, especially in the areas of social interaction, social intelligence, and emotional intelligence, the human concepts of values and virtues take on increasing relevance.
But to apply such powerful and complex concepts to machines, we need to be much more clear about exactly what we are talking about.
We people have eons of genetic and cultural background to help guide us, but machines have none of that except to the degree that we can come up with ways to code such genetic and cultural expertise.
Two open questions are how much of values or virtues would need to be pre-programmed into a machine, comparable to our DNA heritage, and how much can be taught or learned after the machine begins interacting with the world.
That’s a very tall task. This paper is just a tiny stab at the problem. Or merely a hint.
Values can be fleeting and too frequently empty or vague words, but virtue is something that can be more directly observed or experienced, providing us with a method for judging the moral character or simply the quality of character of individuals or even entire groups.
Values are the aspirational goals, the lofty ideals of an individual or group, while the virtues of an individual or group exist only to the extent that those values are lived in their daily lives and can readily be observed, experienced, and judged by others.
Although, some virtues may not be directly observable or experienceable by others.