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What Is the Distinction Between Values and Virtues? One Leads to Deliberate and Thoughtful Action

What Is the Distinction Between Values and Virtues? One Leads to Deliberate and Thoughtful Action
Photo by Free Nomad / Unsplash

Practicing the virtues expressed in the Tao Te Ching is not for appearances, recognition, or validation.

These are actions that are a way of making life significant and benefit others without judgement or need for reciprocity.

This is the nature of humility, a core virtue expressed in the Tao Te Ching.

In an episode of Ancient Greece Declassified, “The Hunt for Justice: Plato’s Republic, book 1,” the host, Lantern Jack, opened the show with a discussion about virtue:

“Our society today seems obsessed with values — just think about how many times you’ve heard the phrase “our shared values” or “that goes against our values.” Every club, company, corporation, political party, and religious institution today touts its own list of values up on their website. By contrast, the ancient Greeks didn’t care much for what we call values. For them, it was all about virtues. What’s the difference? Well, values are essentially beliefs; Anyone can claim to have them. But virtues are behaviours or activities. It’s very difficult to claim you have a certain virtue, say courage, unless you have a track record of behaving courageously. By contrast, anyone can claim to value courage.”
The Hunt for Justice (Plato’s Republic I)
Our series on Plato’s Republic continues with this deep dive into book 1. What makes it good philosophy? What makes it fine literature? And what does book 1 accomplish in the context of the entire Republic?

The important distinction is the difference between understanding value as limited to appreciation (which takes no meaningful action), or as a virtue, like humility, that requires conscious, deliberate practice and affects the way one thinks, feels, and behaves (leadership).

In the Tao Te Ching, ‘te’ is often translated as virtue, but it cannot be fully understood as “practicing virtue or being virtuous” in the way we define that word in English.

Alan Watts offers what, I think, is the best exposition of this core concept, which he terms “virtuality.”

“‘Te’ is the realization or expression of the Tao in actual living, but this is not virtue in the sense of moral rectitude. It is rather as when we speak of the healing virtue of a plant, having the connotation of power or even magic, when magic refers to wonderful and felicitous events which come about spontaneously.”
— From “Tao: The Watercourse Way”

This stands in stark contrast to a fixed binary of what is right and wrong.

It is not moral relativism to recognize the value of the grey areas of justice.

Without humility in justice, there is no possibility of interpretation — there can only be right or wrong.

This is not the easy path, choosing to embrace an organic nature of ethics and morality in a human-hearted, humble, flexible and yielding way. Contrast this idea with those who seek power over others through ideologies or polarizing politics of us versus them.

How do we support and maintain the virtuality of humility and open-mindedness when so many people believe there is only one right kind of morality?