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Virtue Doesn’t Care About Your Values: Another Blog Article That Fails to Explain Virtue


In our last article, "Virtuous Cynicism," we navigated the often misunderstood waters of cynicism and its place in our moral universe. We untied it from its negative associations, presenting it as an essential tool for discernment and intentionality. Today, we're setting sail further into the vast ocean of moral philosophy, embarking on a journey to explore the elusive concept of Virtue itself.

Virtue, as Aristotle coined it, stands for “Human Excellence.” However, upon hearing this, one might feel as though we’ve merely kicked the definitional can further down the road. To add some specificity, virtue is about doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right place, in the right way, in the right amount, towards the right people, with the right understanding about why we're doing it. This is about aligning our actions and dispositions with the “Golden Mean.” The Golden Mean, as we discussed last week, is defined as the perfect balance between excess and deficiency. This portrayal of virtue, as precise as it is, could still leave us scratching our heads, asking “Alright, but what exactly is the right thing to do?” Despite its detail, it doesn’t necessarily bring us any closer to a concrete, actionable understanding of virtue. Aristotle, in his wisdom, acknowledged that while we may not pin down a definitive explanation of virtue, we can, at least, sketch its outline.

Previously, we highlighted cynicism as the Golden Mean with regards to the value of incredulity, balanced between the extreme deficiency of naïveté, and the extreme excess of misanthropy. This brings us to an important concept we're introducing today: "Cardinal Values."

Now, before we delve deeper into these Cardinal Values, it’s crucial to remember that they are all part of the singular concept of virtue. Just as various forms of energy all stem from a singular energy concept, our ‘values’ are the numerous ways we express and pursue virtue in our lives. We’ll start our exploration by contemplating this singularity of virtue, to better appreciate the cardinal values and their relationship to virtue. By understanding this interconnected nature of virtue, we can set a course for our journey through cardinal values, with the ultimate destination being Virtue itself.

Unveiling the Singularity of Virtue

To comprehend the singularity of virtue, let's venture into an unlikely field—physics. Consider energy. In physics, everything revolves around energy; it’s the most fundamental concept. Yet it remains an elusive term to define definitively. This isn't because energy lacks coherence or distinctness, but because it's a holistic concept. It always remains energy, regardless of its various forms—thermal, kinetic, potential.

Each form of energy is simply a different manifestation of the same holistic concept, hinging upon a particular context or conditions. To understand the nature and capacity of energy, we examine its different forms in something like The Standard Model of physics, and the way these particles and forces behave under given conditions. Similarly, we can view virtue as a singular, holistic concept, akin to energy.

Our 'values' then are comparable to these different particles and forces; they are the numerous ways we express and pursue virtue in our lives. However, as with different forms of energy, our values can seem so various that we might forget their common origin— our desire for excellence, or Virtue. Recognizing and embracing this singularity of virtue is crucial.

Though discussing specific values is simpler than trying to explain exactly what “Human Excellence” or “Virtue” is in general, it can also create confusion. Some people, through their actions, may imply that things like wealth, status, or power are Excellent in themselves, even if they don’t refer to them as “virtues” outright. Interestingly, this mix-up tends to crop up as much among those who lack such possessions or social status as for those who have them.

This can bring about the common misconception that only people of certain economic or social status can be excellent or virtuous. This idea misrepresents virtue as something reserved for particular groups, ignoring its universal reach. History shows us this isn’t the case. Take, for example, Epictetus, who started life as a slave and went on to embody the virtues of Stoicism as a respected philosopher. On the other end of the spectrum, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius showed virtue through his humility and wisdom. These examples prove that virtue isn’t confined by societal or economic boundaries; it’s accessible to all humans… by virtue of being Human.

Another significant obstacle on the path to virtue is the misconception that individual values, like honesty, courage, or tolerance, are equivalent to virtue itself. This is like confusing the ingredients for the final dish. Just as flour, eggs, and sugar contribute to a cake, but aren't a cake themselves, these values guide us towards virtue but don't constitute virtue on their own. They are individual components, and it's only when they are blended together in the right way and with the appropriate balance that they result in the ultimate concept of virtue. In this sense, values serve as building blocks of virtue, not virtue itself.

Misunderstanding values as virtues can lead to imbalance. For instance, we will consider the spectrum of disclosure and see that honesty is a cardinal value, but without Compassion, it can lead to the excess of indiscretion. Similarly, compassion without a balance of sincerity could become mere politeness, placing it at the extreme end of the tact spectrum. Hence, the goal isn’t to inflate individual values, but rather to find equilibrium among them, steering us towards the unified concept of virtue.

This brings us to the concept of cardinal values themselves. These are values that act as our moral compass, guiding us towards virtue. They help us maintain our course, even amidst life's storms and uncertainties.

Balancing the Cardinal Values

In our journey towards understanding virtue, we can view it as a pursuit of excellence, manifested as balance within various general values, guided by Aristotle’s golden mean. Let's think about virtue as if we're standing on a set of scales, one for each aspect of our behavior. Cardinal Values are the optimal points on the different scales of consideration, where deficiency and excess find their harmonious balance. Cardinal, derived from the Latin 'cardo', meaning hinge or axis, suggests these values are pivotal in our understanding and application of virtue. They guide us, not by providing a rigid rule or standard, but by offering a dynamic point of balance that varies depending on context and individual circumstances.

Let’s delve into some general values keeping in mind that the golden mean isn't about hitting the exact middle, but about finding balance without tipping too far to one side or the other, and along the way we’ll Notice how perception of our standing may be skewed by our position. While this exploration will provide insight into several important dimensions, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not an exhaustive investigation of all potential general and cardinal values.

Picture standing on the Earnestness Scale. On one side, there's silliness, on the other, seriousness. The trick is to balance on the Cardinal Value of sincerity. Too much weight on the silliness side and you risk frivolity; lean too much towards seriousness, and you lose the joy in life. The silliness and seriousness at either end of the spectrum often fall into a common trap; each believes they stand at the center. The silly individual sees the serious person and correctly perceives them as lacking joy, but they see the sincere individual as overly stern as well. Meanwhile, the serious individual views the silly person as frivolous and the sincere person as similarly lacking depth. Both extremes fall into binary thinking. However, the sincere individual, truly occupying the middle ground, can see the silly person’s lack of gravity and the serious person’s absence of levity. They understand their position within the spectrum and can adjust their behavior towards excellence - sincere earnestness balanced with a sense of joy.

Next up is the Bravery Scale, with cowardice on one side and recklessness on the other. Lean too far towards cowardice, and you miss opportunities; tip too much towards recklessness, and you waste your energy on unnecessary risks. Courage then is the Cardinal Value between these extremes. The coward may see both the courageous and reckless individuals as foolhardy risk-takers, while the reckless person may see both the coward and the courageous person as overly cautious. The courageous person, however, can adjust their footing, striking the balance between bravery and wisdom.

Now let’s explore the scale of Tact. One side leans into frankness, the other into excessive politeness. Compassion is the Cardinal Value occupying the golden mean between the two. Here too the overly frank person may view both the compassionate and polite as servile, while the excessively polite person sees both the frank and compassionate as rude. The compassionate individual, however, recognizes the necessity for both honesty and empathy, thus achieving excellence.

On the Disclosure Scale, you're balancing between evasiveness and indiscretion, with honesty as the Cardinal Value. Too evasive, and you seem secretive while failing to say things that need to be said; too indiscreet, and you become a bore, either oversharing, or brutalizing with “truth”. The evasive individual sees both the honest and indiscreet as overly revealing, while the indiscreet views both the evasive and honest as either secretive liars, or thin skinned “snowflakes”. The honest person understands the value of appropriate truth-telling, demonstrating excellence.

Finally, there's the Ego-esteem Scale. Here you’re looking for the balance between the deficiency of meekness and the excess of pride, trying to find the Cardinal Value of humility. Leaning too far towards meekness, you can lose self-respect; tipping too far into pride, and you come off as arrogant. The meek may see both the humble and proud as arrogant, while the proud view both the meek and humble as lacking self-respect. The humble person, truly balanced, understands the value of their own dignity, combined with a healthy respect for other individuals, society at large, and Luck in general, displaying excellence.

The pursuit of virtue isn't about standing dead-center on these scales, but about feeling the sway, adjusting your footing, and finding the right balance. It's about understanding the scales are interconnected. They're all part of the same balancing act, leading us towards virtue. As we understand where we're leaning on these scales, we can consciously adjust our footing. This careful balancing of qualities brings us closer to the essence of virtue, the true mark of human excellence

Values, and Misconceptions

The discourse surrounding values can become tangled due to a conflation of two distinct notions that we can think of in financial terms: value and credit. To help untangle this, let's use the example of honesty.

Consider credit as an acknowledgment of the importance of honesty - it's like recognizing the worth of a profitable stock in the market. You believe in its potential and admire its strength, but your wallet remains closed. You haven't actually put your money in - it's an endorsement, a nod of appreciation, but not an action that affects your personal portfolio.

Valuing honesty, on the other hand, is a step further - it's when you put your money on that profitable stock, anticipating its growth. You're willing to take on the risks associated with the stock, accepting that there may be bumps along the road. In the realm of values, this means you commit to telling the truth, even when it's uncomfortable or inconvenient, even when it means risking disapproval or facing potentially unpleasant consequences.

Understanding this difference - between valuing something (investment) and merely believing in something (credit) - is pivotal to avoid misconceptions about virtue. While giving credit to a Cardinal Value like honesty is crucial, it doesn't carry the weight of true value unless it's been invested in through consistent behavior, particularly in challenging situations.

To further illuminate the relationship between value and credit, it's worth drawing parallels with the perspective laid out in "The Fool's Ethics: Safety 3rd – A Selfish Guide to Morality." This earlier work highlighted the principle of gaining enough credit to enable more good work in the future. In that context, credit is seen as the merit or recognition received from doing good work, akin to a potent societal currency.

The dynamics between valuing and crediting a virtue, as discussed here, reflect a similar pattern. It is possible for a person to believe in honesty and recognize its importance, while not valuing it enough to put it into practice. This is the fundamental distinction - to believe in something is to acknowledge its importance, but to value something is to embody it in our actions. This aligns with the Fool's Ethics' emphasis on doing Good Work, which involves more than just crediting the idea of doing good; it requires action that creates real value and earns credit in return.

This brings us to a central idea: Values, especially cardinal values like honesty, are like the air - philosophically important and should always be 'in the room' with us. They are not something we typically need to assert or declare unless there's a significant reason to do so.

In a business context, for example, a leader might emphasize full disclosure if their aim is to promote open communication across all company levels. They may appear brutally truthful, but their aim is not to be harsh - it is to ensure transparency and understanding within the organization.

In both personal virtues and societal contribution, the act of recognizing or crediting the importance of a value isn't enough. The true weight of a Cardinal Value, and the credit it brings, comes from deliberate, consistent, reasonable action. This interplay between value and credit creates a cycle of good, from the individual level of personal virtues to the broader societal level of ethical conduct.

In recognizing this parallel, we begin to see how these dimensions of value, credit, and morality interact, enhancing our understanding of both personal virtue and societal ethics. However there's a tendency to treat Cardinal Values as fixed entities, like unchanging commodities in a market. But this approach overlooks the dynamic, fluid nature of virtue. Virtue demands a delicate balance of our cardinal values, requiring contextual, situation-based application rather than rigid adherence.

The Dangers of Misunderstood Virtue

Our journey of understanding virtue and cardinal values has led us here, to a critical point of exploration: the consequences of misunderstanding and misapplication of these cardinal values.

Take the Disclosure Spectrum for instance. Picture an individual who takes “telling the truth” to an extreme, under the belief that they are acting virtuously. This person is not sparing in their brutal truthfulness, whether it’s about their colleague’s ill-chosen attire or their friend’s mediocre cooking. This might seem like a strict adherence to the cardinal value of honesty, but in reality, it is an excess, a misapplication that leads away from virtue and into the territory of indiscretion. Such blunt honesty can strain relationships and foster unnecessary hurt.

Misunderstanding and misapplying cardinal values can create ripple effects, affecting not just the individual but the society they inhabit. An example of this is captured in the popular meme "Facts don't care about your feelings". While this axiom holds weight in empirical domains like geology, it morphs into brutish indiscretion in the context of social systems. Emotions are an integral facet of our human experience and can't be brushed aside in interpersonal exchanges. An overzealous focus on 'facts' without any regard for feelings is a distortion of honesty, a slide into excessive frankness, a deficiency of Tact, thus straying from virtue.

Now, let's not forget the dissonance created when professed values are at odds with actual behavior. Picture a leader who loudly proclaims transparency as their guiding principle but regularly conceals information for personal gain. This incongruity sows confusion, nurtures misanthropy, and gradually corrodes faith in virtue itself.

Or perhaps imagine a politician who consistently champions the values of peace and democracy. They proclaim these principles with eloquence and conviction in every speech, every interview, every campaign. Yet, behind the scenes, they authorize arms deals with dictatorial regimes and groups known for terrorist activities. This stark discrepancy between professed values and actual actions doesn't just create a personal disconnect but also carries severe geopolitical repercussions. Such hypocrisy breeds mistrust among allies, stokes excessive incredulity within the populace, and erodes the credibility of the very principles they claim to uphold. In the process, their misguided pursuit of short-term gains threatens the long-term stability and integrity of peace and democracy. Just like the leader who professes transparency yet conceals information to hide corruption, this politician's actions veer far away from the virtue they claim to pursue, highlighting the dangers of misunderstanding and misapplying cardinal values.

The danger here lies in the illusion of virtue. Misunderstood and misapplied, these values can lead us astray, away from the path of excellence. Virtue is a delicate balance on the scales of the cardinal values. It requires discernment, wisdom, and a deep understanding of ourselves and our values. As we continue to navigate these spectrums, let’s strive for this balance, for it’s through this balance we journey towards true virtue.

So, for those who've been wielding "Facts don't care about your feelings" as a weapon in the arena of public discourse, remember, the real virtue of truth-telling isn't about winning arguments or proving superiority; it's about fostering mutual understanding and seeking solutions. If we deliver truth in a manner perceived as an attack, defenses are triggered and the conversation is likely to derail. The focus then shifts from the 'truth' to the 'conflict', resulting in our noble intent of enlightenment getting lost in the ensuing chaos.

In engaging with individuals who prioritize brutal honesty, our goal isn't to change their character but to channel their intent. Appeal to their value for truth by emphasizing the significance of its effective propagation. If Honesty is indeed the cardinal value, then we must remind ourselves and them that the truth must be delivered in a way that can be heard, understood, and accepted. This requires us to temper our words with tact and patience, being steadfast yet flexible in our approach.

When we insist on 'truth' at the cost of 'understanding', we lose the confidence of our audience, pushing them further into their beliefs instead of inviting them into a dialogue. Our words then lose their power, not because they lack truth, but because they fail to foster understanding. And in this failure, we stray from virtue, for virtue lies not just in knowing the truth but in knowing how to convey it.

Virtue vs. Idealism: The Attainable Human Excellence

Navigating through life often invokes the metaphor of the North Star - a beacon of ideal north, visible yet unreachable. In moral terms, we are often drawn towards lofty ideals that mirror this unreachable star, forming messianic ideologies, and philosophical fever dreams of the 'ubermensch.’ These ideals, like the North Star, provide valuable guidance on our path, yet remain beyond the realm of our actual attainment.

This is where the concept of virtue diverges from idealism. If idealism is the North Star, then virtue is the North Pole - a destination within our reach. Unlike the distant star, the North Pole represents an attainable state of human excellence. It may not be visible from our starting point, but it embodies a realizable manifestation of balanced cardinal values like honesty, courage, compassion, and humility.

Our journey towards virtue is akin to setting out for the North Pole, guided by the brilliance of the North Star. The ideals we aspire to, embodied by the North Star, are indeed inspiring, but the real, tangible balance of cardinal values - virtue - remains our true destination. The pinnacle of human goodness, then, is not an out-of-reach ideal but a feasible balance within the spectrum of cardinal values.

Virtue is not a compromise or a consolation prize - it's the highest form of human excellence we can attain. If we could reach the North Star, we would be overwhelmed by its intensity, contradicting our human capabilities and thus straying from virtue. Virtue aligns with our nature and abilities, transforming it from a theoretical concept into a practicable goal within our everyday life. In recognizing this, we redirect our pursuit of brilliance towards achieving a balance in our cardinal values, making virtue an achievable goal and not just an inspiring ideal.

In the light of our understanding of virtue, it is important to remember that our perception of it may not be entirely accurate initially. Our personal shortcomings and imbalances in cardinal values can distort our view. However, as we strive towards virtue, our understanding evolves. We realize that virtue lies not in 'always telling the truth' but in practicing honesty in a balanced way. This recognition is an integral part of our journey towards virtue, transforming it from an abstract notion into a tangible goal within our reach in everyday life.

True Nature of Friendship: Moral Exemplars as our Guides to Virtue

Shifting our gaze to a more personal and relational facet of virtue, we begin to see the role of friendship. Aristotle’s understanding of friendship, or philia, extends beyond the commonly assumed notion of loyalty within a social group. Instead, he emphasizes the sharing of virtue as the core element in authentic friendships. This conception aligns well with C.S. Lewis’s idea of ‘philia love’, one of the four loves he describes in his book "The Four Loves" (found on The Fool's Reading List), which is born out of mutual respect and a shared journey towards virtue.

Just as a virtuous individual desires not blind loyalty but justice from their friends, so too should we seek relationships grounded in fairness and mutual respect. Loyalty can sometimes imply an expectation of special treatment or favoritism, which stands in stark contrast to the principles of virtue. Thus, true friendship demands not just loyalty, but a shared commitment to virtue.

This commitment begins with being a friend to oneself through the pursuit of virtue. An individual failing to seek virtue cannot truly engage in friendship, as they undermine their own welfare and, by extension, the welfare of the friendship itself.

This brings us to the pivotal role of moral exemplars, individuals who embody virtue to a degree higher than our own. They are the real-life manifestations of Aristotle’s virtuous friends. These exemplars, by their actions, choices, and life experiences, inspire us to strive towards virtue. They provide tangible models of what the balanced practice of cardinal values looks like.

Maintaining relationships with moral exemplars offers invaluable opportunities for growth and a better understanding of how cardinal values can be harmoniously balanced in everyday life. These relationships are not one-sided; they are reciprocal, contributing to the collective growth in virtue of both parties involved.


In our journey to understand virtue, we've revisited Aristotle's conception of the golden mean and explored the many spectrums of cardinal values. We've learned that virtue isn't an elusive, unattainable ideal, but a harmonious balance across all cardinal values — a balance that can be achieved and continually maintained. It's not about striving for an unreachable perfection, but about our ongoing commitment to seeking balance in our values.

We've also cautioned against the dangers of misunderstanding or misapplying these cardinal values. Virtue, in its essence, isn't about taking a value to an extreme, but about finding the balance, the 'just right' spot within the spectrum of any given value. We've seen the potential pitfalls when a value, such as Disclosure, is taken to an extreme and becomes a departure from virtue rather than a pathway towards it.

The importance of the balance of values has been further emphasized in the context of friendships. As we've discussed, true friendships, according to Aristotle and C.S. Lewis, are grounded in mutual respect and a shared journey towards virtue. The relationships we form with moral exemplars, individuals who exemplify this balance, offer us tangible models of how to navigate the various spectrums of cardinal values in our daily lives.

In previous articles, we've journeyed through different aspects of virtue and its cultivation. From exploring the practice of "Noticing" and confronting the five barriers to peace of mind in our "Vibin' Like a Sage" article, to uncovering the traits of Good and Bad Faith and their impact on our interaction with the cosmos, ourselves, and others, we've sought to provide tools for achieving inner peace and balance.

Our exploration of the role of moral exemplars in "Becoming a Cult Connoisseur" article allowed us to discern between genuine gurus and charlatans, both in spiritual and non-spiritual contexts, emphasizing the importance of cultivating discernment. Through studying the Alcoholics Anonymous model, we learned about the value of genuine spiritual support and sacred spaces.

Further, we delved into the realm of self-reflection and personal development in our discussion of the "Hierarchy of Prayer" in the context of personal growth. This approach illustrated how various prayer practices can promote psychological benefits and foster a balanced path of virtue.

While we've touched on several core concepts, these articles do not represent an exhaustive exploration of all possible general and cardinal values. This path towards virtue is ongoing and consistent growth and balance is key. As we continue, let's draw from our growing understanding of virtue, the wisdom of moral exemplars, and the tools for self-reflection we've discussed, to keep striving for that balance.

Just remember, when it comes to finding the balance and being reasonable, there's no silver bullet. It's like attempting to ride a bicycle for the first time, you may wobble, you may fall, but once you find your balance, it becomes second nature. No shortcuts, no life-hacks, no cheat codes. It's a package deal, all or nothing. It's almost as if life is telling us, "Want a shortcut to wisdom? It's simple: Stop looking for shortcuts.

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