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Monday freedom question: Virtues and other aspirations

Okay. I know you’re not making New Years resolutions.

Well, I don’t know whether you are; I just know from years of experience that the most outspoken readers of Living Freedom disdain them. Perhaps rightly so when one considers how laughably and quickly resolution breakages get rationalized.

But last week, the question of virtues and aspirations arose in these parts. It came up as a result of my uncomfortable attendance at an Eagle Scout Court of Honor, and this distillation of what a Boy Scout is supposed to be:


In the discussion that followed, Commentariat member David Gross linked to his own rumination on virtues, Christian, traditional Grecian, modern American, Japanese, and Aristotelian. He also noticed quite a few traits, considered admirable, that never seem to make traditional lists of virtues. Curiosity, for instance, and initiative. Creativity is another that’s among the missing (though Aristotle comes close to naming that one). Willingness to question authority never, but truly never, makes the list. Hm. Wonder why that is?

Could be as Parabarbarian commented, “One problem with any list of virtues is that too many folk treat them not as ideals to aspire to but as excuses to make rules.”

Ain’t that the truth?

Often as not, “virtues” are something meant for We the Peasants. They are imposed by authorities to keep us docile and obedient — or to keep us consumed by guilt and vulnerable to their harsh punishments when we fail to follow their prescriptions for us.

History is bursting with examples of thundering moral crusaders who meant that everybody other than they, themselves should be virtuous. Recent prime example: William J. Bennett, moralist, drug czar, ardent disapprover of everything from gluttony to homosexuality, and mega-selling author of The Book of Virtues. He made millions from parlaying his government position into do-gooding. Then the devout moral authority was revealed as The Bookie of Virtue, being a constant high-stakes gambler who’d lost $8 million in casinos.

Bennett justified his habit by saying it was legal and that he wasn’t risking “the milk money” on it. But seriously. If the man was such a deeply moral Christian, why wasn’t he out handing that $8 million — and the rest of his wealth — to the poor? Although the gambling revelations were his public downfall, the man, apparently having no sense of shame, is still out there writing books from his alleged position of moral authority.

Still, there are such things as virtues, even if the publicly prescribed (and privately seldom followed) ones are only part of the picture. It’s just that separating real virtues — that lead us to be truly better people and lead truly better lives — from faux virtues authoritarians impose isn’t easy. Not everything the authoritarians prescribe is bunk. But they leave out a lot that doesn’t suit them — to the point where the very term “virtue” has developed connotations of public prescription, pulpit pronouncing, and nose-in-the-air snottery So today’s freedom question for you is a bit of a challenge.

If you could could choose a dozen virtues (or fewer, but no more) that you would honestly like to live by and like to see your descendants live by, what would they be? List them in comments. Feel free to draw from the lists on David Gross’ site, or any other lists of virtues you know of. But don’t necessarily limit yourself to those. Also choose from your heart and your rational freedomista mind.

While you’re working on that, I’ll see what I can come up with, too.


  1. rochester_veteran
    rochester_veteran December 26, 2016 9:58 am

    I liked cm1’s distillation of the Scout Law that he posted in the comment thread of your blog post, Claire!

    “We distilled the 12 into “Don’t wreck shit or hurt people”.

    Being a devout adherent to the KISS principle, I really liked cm1’s logic and simplicity!

  2. Claire
    Claire December 26, 2016 10:31 am

    Here are mine (subject to change and I’m very aware that several of these are incompatible with some of the others):

    Judicious kindness (i.e. kind but not soft-hearted to the point of stupidity)
    Practicality and practical skills

    Some I come close to living by. Some I list because I fail to live by them but if wishes were horses …

    Some that didn’t make the cut but might have on another day:

    Common sense

  3. Beth
    Beth December 26, 2016 11:31 am

    What the heck, I’ll play. Listed in no particular order.




    humility — not in a Gomer Pyle sense but rather refraining from hubris, choosing simplicity, remaining open to new truths

    judicious kindness (well put, Claire!)


    independence — of material life, mind, spirit; willingness to question what one encounters and to think/live for oneself

    capacity for joy

    reverence — for self, a beloved other, possibly a divine entity, and nature; allowing space for magic and the mystical to enter into one’s life; experiencing wonder; appreciating and praising, rather than destroying, what one could not create on one’s own


    temperance — as in self-restraint in all forms, not just refraining from alcohol

    industriousness — I see this as a dedication more than an ambition

    Interesting to ponder how a lot of these traits overlap — as David Gross notes in his post about consideration, kindness, etc. Some of that seems to stem from varying definitions, which is why I qualified some of the items I chose. (I too have work to do to live up to my list.)

    One thing I bet many of us can agree on: the recently trendy term “virtue-signaling” is something we’d like to see people doing less of!

  4. Claire
    Claire December 26, 2016 12:16 pm

    Brava, Beth. I particularly like sincerity and integrity. And your definition of both independence and temperance are good ones. I was trying to add something like temperance but couldn’t quite come up with the term. I was thinking “moderation.” But of course there are definitely things worth being blazingly IMmoderate about. Like pursuing freedom.

    And yeah, totally agreed on “virtue signaling.” Ugh.

  5. Pat
    Pat December 26, 2016 12:30 pm

    Common sense (aka applied logic in finding practical solutions to a situation or problem)
    Justice (fairness/objectivity in judgment)
    Respect for others (includes tolerance, courtesy, patience, kindness, compassion, but tough love, also, when needed.)
    Listening (really hearing others, giving them space to articulate, not trying to think or feel for them; the only way communication can go forward)

    Including parenthetical virtues mentioned, that’s over 12.

    I’m also trying to live up to some of them.

  6. Comrade X
    Comrade X December 26, 2016 1:05 pm

    Mind your own business.

    John Locke put it a lot more eloquent than I can;

    “For where is the man that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all he condemns; or can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own, or other men’s opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than constrain others. At least, those who have not thoroughly examined to the bottom all their own tenets, must confess they are unfit to prescribe to others; and are unreasonable in imposing that as truth on other men’s belief, which they themselves have not searched into, nor weighed the arguments of probability, on which they should receive or reject it. Those who have fairly and truly examined, and are thereby got past doubt in all the doctrines they profess and govern themselves by, would have a just pretense to require others to follow them: but these are so few in number, and find so little reason to be magisterial in their opinions, that nothing insolent and imperious is to be expected from them: and there is reason to think, that, if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.”

  7. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty December 26, 2016 1:39 pm

    I have worked very hard to live by my principles all my life. Luckily, I was taught this at a very young age.

    Everything I do or say is first measured against the non-aggression principle. Oh, I make mistakes most naturally, but they seem to get fewer as I get older. And, as far as it goes, the NAP is the other side of the “golden rule” coin.

    Having no desire at all to control the life or property of another (not even my grown children) seems to me to be one of the greatest virtues. And I think that all or most of the other virtues people mention actually grow out of that one way or another.

  8. Ron Johnson
    Ron Johnson December 26, 2016 2:14 pm

    All of the virtues listed above are worth striving for. If I were to rank them, I’d say
    1. Honesty
    2. Kindness

    It’s hard to go wrong with always telling, and accepting, the truth, and always treating others with consideration, asking the same in return.

    When my son was in high school, he called me from his job, sobbing. He had bad news, but he didn’t want to tell me because I would hate him, he said. Since he wanted to talk but felt he couldn’t, I probed.
    “Did you lie to somebody”
    “Did you damage or steal someone’s property?”
    “Did you hurt someone?”
    “Then, whatever it is, you didn’t do wrong.”

    That opened the floodgates and he ‘confessed’ to a legal infraction that ended up costing me thousands. Nevertheless, I never told him he had done wrong. On the other hand, he demonstrated a key virtue: he told me the unvarnished truth.

  9. trying2b-amused
    trying2b-amused December 26, 2016 2:38 pm

    ??? I have trouble seeing this as a virtue, as such. But rather than launch into a Randian tirade 🙂 I will assume you mean something like an appreciation for the ineffable, or perhaps avoidance of intellectual hubris, i.e. knowing what you don’t know. Care to elucidate?

    “Judicious kindness”
    Empathy. But I would not consider this an unlimited virtue; that is, one should have empathy for others by default, absent cause to believe it is unwarranted.

    For a very brief summary of how I would answer the question, I can do no better than Mencken:
    I – But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

    A most interesting extended (i.e. book) meditation on the question is Walter Kaufmann, Without Guilt and Justice: From Decidophobia to Autonomy. The entire text is available on line at:
    A good place to start, to see if you want to RTWT, is chapter 7, The New Integrity. A few excerpts:

    High standards of honesty mean that one has a conscience about what one says and what one believes. They mean that one takes some trouble to determine what speaks for and against a view, what the alternatives are, what speaks for and against each, and what alternatives are preferable on these grounds.

    The Golden Rule is intolerable; if millions did to others whatever they wished others to do to them, few would be safe from molestation. . . . The negative formulation is far superior: Do not do unto others what you would not want them to do to you.

    When someone asks: What is so good about honesty (or rationality)? one might do well to reply: Do you want an honest (or rational) answer? If he were to say no, a whimsical retort in the manner of Taoism or Zen would be called for, and if he were to say yes, one might give him back his own question: What is so good about honesty (or rationality)?

  10. Joel
    Joel December 26, 2016 4:34 pm

    I suck at this list-making thing. I’ve noodled at a list of virtues, but keep coming up with words that I regard as virtually synonymous, like consistency, honor and integrity.

  11. David Gross
    David Gross December 26, 2016 4:35 pm

    My stab at the dozen virtues starts with a sort of over-arching metavirtue that encapsulates the rest: “Character” and in particular, valuing your own character. This sometimes goes by the name “honor” or “nobility” (when that last idea isn’t corrupted by notions of hereditary placement in a hierarchy).

    I chose three Intellectual Virtues:

    1. Curiosity, under which I also put things like inquisitiveness, skepticism, discernment, open-mindedness, and mindful awareness; creativity, inventiveness, and imagination; and maybe vigilance & heedfulness.

    2. Rationality, under which I also put intellectual growth, scientific investigation, and deductive skill.

    3. Know-how: practical skills, art, craft, things you have to learn by doing.

    I then chose four “Core” Virtues (for lack of a better word, in part because they make the other virtues easier to attain or make them shine more):

    4. Temperance, under which I put things like simplicity, serenity, and calmness.

    5. Endurance, under which I put sticktoitiveness, resilience, and persistence; as well as unflappability, patience, forbearance, and adaptability.

    6. Courage, under which I put valor and also “wisdom about when to take risks.”

    7. Physical fitness & health. Here in particular I follow Aristotle’s lead: including things as “virtues” that others would qualify more as “blessings”.

    And then I chose five Social Virtues:

    8. Rectitude, under which rug I swept a whole bunch of things: honesty / justice / integrity / sincerity / trustworthiness / responsibility / reliability / diligence / (and maybe a sense of shame?)

    9. Self-reliance. I put “independence” here but also “generosity” — one test of when you have your own self covered and are not a burden to others is when your self-reliance spills over the top and can help people who don’t have it so together. I also stretched this idea further in that direction to cover ambition / industriousness / enterprise / productiveness / initiative, and magnificence in the Aristotelean sense.

    10. Amiability: all of the skills that make you pleasant to be around, like kindness, charity, sympathy, and compassion; respect for others, courtesy, and gratitude; empathy, listening, friendliness, amiability, and consideration; warmth, joy, hope, wit, good humor, and cheer.

    11. Humility. I like Comrade X’s “MYOB” principle, and put it here, along with tolerance, and the skill of seeing the best in other people and the strongest part of opposing arguments & viewpoints. I put “mercy” here too: a tempering of justice based in part on humbly acknowledging your own faults and being therefore more forgiving of others’.

    12. Cooperation: Being a team player, being conciliatory and peace-promoting. Also, and building on this: being a role-model / mentor, commanding respect as a leader, nurturing the virtues in those around you.

    And that’s my way of choosing 91 virtues while pretending to choose 12.

  12. Beth
    Beth December 26, 2016 5:54 pm

    Hey, thanks, Claire. And a hearty echo to the virtues (heh) of IMmoderation when appropriate!

    You and David both have ventured further into something I was trying to put a finger on earlier: the way virtues tend to cluster, perhaps many subvirtues under a single umbrella virtue — as David expressed with his list. I’m rather wondering if there’s a theme here, perhaps that many “subvirtues” or building-block virtues can be thought of as actions or habits one can practice (honesty, fairness, listening, etc.) and “umbrella virtues” are the aspirational character traits (integrity, honor, reliability, amiability, etc.) one earns through that long and consistent practice.


    Lovely to see you posting here, David. I’ve enjoyed your Picket Line blog for many years, since Claire first mentioned it way back when in reference to your tax-resistance approach. Your posts on similar tactics and beliefs by the Quakers and others have contributed a lot to my understanding. Thank you!

  13. larryarnold
    larryarnold December 26, 2016 9:05 pm

    I strive to be ethical.

    Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent are valid, particularly for teenagers, but IMHO ethical is “the one virtue that binds them all.”

    As for rule-making, I agree. Morality isn’t “doing the right thing.” Morality is choosing to do the right thing. If someone else makes the choice, you aren’t moral. IOW, you can’t legislate morality.

    Of course in choosing the difficult decisions aren’t between good and evil. The hard questions are when you have to select the better of two good options, or the lesser of two bad options.

    “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one is looking, even if doing the wrong thing is legal.”
    Aldo Leopold

  14. Pat
    Pat December 27, 2016 6:15 am

    I’d like to submit this poem as a guide to live by, written by a libertarian of the 80s, and was presented in a pamphlet called The Arbiter:

    The Choice Is Mine (Alexandra Starr, The Arbiter)
    I choose to live by choice, not chance.
    I choose to make changes, not excuses.
    I choose to be useful, not used.
    I choose self-esteem, not pity.
    I choose to excel, not compete.
    I choose to listen to the inner voice,
    not the random opinion of crowds.
    The choice is mine,
    and I choose….

    There are many virtues to be found in there, the importance of them being in the last words, “and I choose…”

  15. ellendra
    ellendra December 27, 2016 12:45 pm

    I’d have to think a bit on the full list, but there’s one I’d definitely add if I knew a word for it.

    There’s a kind of quiet strength, the kind that doesn’t need to be shoved in anyone’s face, and in fact a lot of people might never realize you have it. Until they tried to push in the wrong way or mistook that quietness for weakness, and then they’d find a spine of steel backing it up. The word used to be “meekness”, but the definition of meekness has changed to something wimpy.

    It’s the kind of strength that doesn’t impose on anybody, but that won’t allow anybody to force anything on you either.

    Anyone know the right word for that?

  16. Claire
    Claire December 27, 2016 7:08 pm

    Losing Carrie Fisher was so sad — and strange. How many 60-year-old women up and die of heart attacks? But from the moment they took her off the airplane “unresponsive” to the long silences from her family over the weekend it felt like she wasn’t going to make it, as through they were just hoping against hope and not wanting to pull the plug.

    She’ll always be Princess Leia, but also always that mouthy crazy lady who wrote all those best-selling books and was so upfront about her weird life.

    I’ve had her latest book The Princess Diarist on my library hold list for a while. It arrived at the library this morning about an hour after she died.

  17. rochester_veteran
    rochester_veteran December 27, 2016 7:52 pm

    Claire wrote: “Losing Carrie Fisher was so sad — and strange. How many 60-year-old women up and die of heart attacks? ”

    Tough one. Carrie’s 10 months younger than me. Feeling old right now…

  18. larryarnold
    larryarnold December 27, 2016 9:33 pm

    How many 60-year-old women up and die of heart attacks?

    Lots of 60YO women, and younger, have heart attacks. At 30,000 feet in the middle of an airline flight is just a real sucky place to survive one.

    Carrie’s 10 months younger than me.

    She was 10 years younger than I am.

    I read where she had already finished her part of the next Star Wars, VIII, due in December 2017. That’ll feel weird.

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