There isn’t much talk about virtues today. Even if there is, it isn’t nearly enough. Nowadays, we prefer to talk about values. Schools and most other educational institutions have Value Education as a subject, so that students understand the value behind certain actions. The underlying hope is that once they master the theory, they will be in a better position to put it into practice. How far is this strategy successful? Each of us can do a quick self-evaluation and find out for ourselves how helpful this academic requirement has been. I, for one, can testify that all the ‘A’ grades I scored in Value Education contributed very little to the development of my character.
Values and Virtues
Values can simply be understood as good ways of behaving. You might recall hearing the story of the young village shepherd who decided to play a prank on the villagers and shout “Wolf! Wolf!” He managed to get away with his trick twice but when the wolf actually appeared, nobody came to his rescue. This story is often told to impress the seriousness of a lie and the importance of honesty. It is a classical example of a value.
Virtue, on the other hand, is an aspect of character. It defines who we are in a way that values can never do. One can practise a value irrespective of one’s character; that is, an evil person can practise good values like generosity or kindness but it doesn’t affect him/her in any way. Go back to the example of the shepherd; despite being a person who did not value others’ time or interests, he could still very well have been a diligent worker. Now, diligence is a value that the shepherd perhaps possessed but it definitely doesn’t count as virtue. The shepherd behaved the way he did because he didn’t possess virtue. He was not of sound character otherwise he would never have behaved in that way. Value remains as value if it is practised merely for the sake of doing so or for some other equally unprofitable motive. Value becomes virtue not simply when it reflects in the ordinary behaviour of a person but when it enters into his/her mind and heart, that is, into one’s very being and forms part and parcel of who one is, namely, one’s character. Values thus, are closely related to what one does while virtue is related to who one is.
Virtue is not simply something that can be practised by anyone. It takes a just person to practise justice, a loving person to spread love and a forgiving person to forgive someone who causes hurt. Consider for a moment a friendship. One has to be a friendly, approachable and likeable person in order to make friends easily.