The word virtue comes from the Latin virtūs, which has many meanings including, bravery, strength, excellence, manliness and moral courage. It also has many derivatives but perhaps the one that we are most familiar with in modern times is virtual.
The word virtual also has many meanings – some of them technical – but nowadays it has comes to be widely accepted as anything that, while not real, appears to have the properties of the object or experience – hence virtual reality, virtual tour, virtual community and so on.
Life is complex and there really isn’t any quick-fix formula that will address all the problems of humanity. However, having said that, there are some factors that are more foundational than others. Quite literally, like the foundations of a building, if we don’t ensure that these are in place no matter how good the super-structure looks it will cave in when stressed.
It may sound old-fashioned to say it, but it is most definitely the case that human virtues are foundational principles in society. As Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson says in his 2010 Hancock Lecture entitled, ‘Virtue as a Necessity’ –
Virtue, ethics, morality – isn’t a field of study – it’s a mode of being upon which all fields of study rest. It’s also a mode of being on which everything you do in your life rests. The way you understand yourself – or fail to – the way you understand other people – or fail to – and – more deeply than that – what role you play in your life, in the world. (1)
The recent international financial crisis, for example, was not only fuelled by an age-old vice – greed – it was absolutely exacerbated and dragged on by lack of honesty. Imagine if, in the morning, we could believe everything that our governments and financial institutions say. Imagine if they told the truth and we could believe them. Pretty revolutionary idea isn’t it?
So, maybe the idea of virtue – actual virtue, not virtual virtue – is not so much an old-fashioned idea as a truly radical notion and one which bears looking at anew?
(1) Jordan Peterson, 2010 Hancock Lecture – Virtue as a Necessity – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwUJHNPMUyU