Can moral virtues become outdated?

by Emrys Westacott

UnknownA virtue is a quality that people consider valuable, admirable, or desirable. Human beings exhibit various kinds of virtues, many of which are specific to particular roles or activities. A strong throwing arm is a virtue in a baseball player. A good memory is a virtue in a stage actor. Some qualities, however, such as courage, kindness, or generosity, are typically viewed as moral virtues.

It isn't easy to specify just what makes a virtue a moral virtue. Like certain talents, qualities such as empathy or cheerfulness may be gifts of nature or ingrained by a certain upbringing, and they can also be deliberately cultivated. So the difference between moral and non-moral virtues doesn't lie in their origin, or in the degree to which one is responsible for possessing them.

Moral virtues do tend to be qualities that it is thought good for everyone to have; but that is also true of such things as intelligence or physical fitness. In general, though, we think of particular skills as valuable for some people who engage in particular tasks, while moral virtues are qualities that it is good for anyone and everyone to have. They are those excellences that help one to be a good human being (rather than just a good x) and to live a good life. Something like this underlies the way Socrates talks about virtue in Plato's dialogues.

These days, we tend to think of moral virtues as traits that directly affect our dealings with others; they are traits that make someone a more valuable colleague, neighbor, friend, companion, or compatriot, or fellow citizen. If we adopt Peter Singer's notion of expanding the circle of moral concern, we will also count among "others" humanity as a whole, and at least some non-human animals. But philosophers, like Aristotle, the Epicureans, and the Stoics conceive of moral virtues more broadly still, as including traits that have to do with how fulfilling a life one leads. Thoreau, for instance, who could reasonably be described as a modern stoic, views curiosity about the natural world, or an ability to appreciate beauty, as moral virtues in this sense.

Can a moral virtue become outdated? However one conceives of the moral virtues, this is an interesting question to ponder.

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