Last month I wrote about the importance of values, particularly in times of uncertainty. I asserted that if you are aware of and live consistently with your values, you will flourish. If you don’t, you will suffer. Here’s the incredible thing about values — there are so many of them. It is this diversity that makes human beings so unique. The odds of any person having the same ten values in the same order of importance is roughly one in fifty quadrillion (that’s sixteen zeros)! To put that into perspective, you would need approximately sixty-six million earths (at current population levels) for that to happen.
To function effectively as a society, it is critical that we appreciate and honor this incredible diversity. At the same time, we must seek to understand what unites us as one people. This is where virtue comes into play. Values are the beliefs that individuals hold as most important. Virtues, on the other hand, are the values that societies hold as most important regardless of individual differences. Scholars have found that the following six virtues are shared universally across the wide spectrum of religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions.
Courage: Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal; examples include bravery, perseverance, and authenticity (honesty).
Justice: Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life; examples include fairness, leadership, and citizenship or teamwork.
Humanity: Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others; examples include love and kindness.
Temperance: Strengths that protect against excess; examples include forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self-control.
Wisdom: Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge; examples include creativity, curiosity, judgment, and perspective (providing counsel to others).
Transcendence: Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and thereby provide meaning; examples include gratitude, hope, and spirituality.
There are also studies that examine contemporary opinions. They reveal similar universal virtues: honesty, respect, kindness, openness, tolerance, and love.
So here it is. Our timeless blueprint for functioning as a society. It counsels us to respect the immense diversity of the human condition while adhering to a core set of virtues that unite us as one people. It is in times of difficulty that this blueprint becomes essential. As the philosopher Seneca wrote, “Disaster is virtue’s opportunity.”
As you try to make sense of and navigate through the incredible uncertainty of these times, I encourage you to find refuge in virtues. When angry, frustrated, or confused, ask yourself, “What would it look like if I acted from a place of virtue — from love, wisdom, courage, forgiveness, and self-control?” “And what would it look like if I could begin to see others through the lens of what unites us, not divides us?” Let virtue be your guide in doing your part to make this world a better place for all of us.