The Atlas Society's Research Workshop met online on Thursday, October 22, for a discussion of virtues derived from the positive psychology movement.
Ayn Rand listed seven main virtues in “Galt’s Speech” and in “The Objectivist Ethics.” Some Objectivists would add benevolence, and other virtues. In this respect, Objectivism belongs in a long history in philosophy and—more recently—psychology of other attempts to list virtues.
11 students and scholars met on October 22, 2015 to examine two contemporary versions and see how compatible those virtue ideas were with the Objectivist approach to ethics and to virtue:
- The “Virtues in Action” program, originally developed by Gallup and associated with the positive psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. Character traits are grouped into six categories in the VIA Classification of Character Strengths & Virtues.
- Virtues for Life. A long list with definitions, similar terms, and contrasting terms
The discussion on centered on three key questions:
1. Are there virtues in these lists that need to be integrated into the Objectivist ethics?
The discussants found that many centered essentially on successful and happy living, and as such could play a role in an Objectivist ethic. In particular, some of these could emphasize aspects of the good life that aren't always well-emphasized in standard Objectivist discussions. For instance, seminar members explored the relation of clearly-compatible virtues such as thrift and perseverance to the Objectivist major virtues. And an extended debate centered on the value of the aesthetic and quasi-religious virtues classified by VIA as relating to “transcendence.” Some of these, it was agreed, could be understood as emphasizing the importance of appreciating the objectively good and valuable things in the world.
2. Are there significant problems or patterns in these lists?
The VIA list is more coherent than the Virtues for Life list, but discussants noted that these lists contain sometimes-contradictory virtue ideas, such as listing both temperance and passion as virtues, when the point of temperance is to restrain passions, and the point of passion is to be intemperate in pursuit of the good.
Both lists include personality traits or skills rather than what Objectivism considers virtues, namely, principles or policies of action aimed at gaining values.
3. Does Objectivism include any essential virtues or ethical ideas that are missing from the lists?
The Objectivist understanding of virtue provides a method for assessing what is a virtue and clarity about what is, and what is not, a virtue. This systematic character was missing from the two lists.
Discussants noted that essential core of the Objectivist cardinal virtues was missing: rationality as commitment to reason as an absolute, productiveness and the key value of productive work, and pride as centered on the need for objective self-esteem. The lists weren't opposed to these virtues so much as neglectful of them. As an example, the VIA list includes humility, but understands humility as an objective self-assessment. But this is exactly the heart of pride in the Objectivist concept, and is dependent, as well, on a basic commitment to reason and objectivity.
The sense of the discussion could be summed up as holding that Objectivism could be enriched by ideas from these lists, but the lists themselves would benefit from the essential insights of Objectivism.
Lecture 3 “Ethics for the Individual”
Lecture 4 “Ethics in Society”
Webinars on Objectivist virtues and values (scroll down)