Virtue Is Just Doing What’s Right

Virtue has kind of a bad reputation these days. People think it means being prudish or acting superior to everyone else.

But real virtue just means behaving in ways that help you, other people, and society. It supports human happiness and well-being.

In the same way as we can practice tennis, we can practice virtue. The more we practice it, the more natural and automatic it becomes for us. We get better at it, and doing the right thing becomes easier.

When he was a young man, American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) made a list of 13 virtues that he wanted to practice. His goal was daunting:

“I wished to live without committing any fault at any time … But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined.”

Franklin spent the rest of his very busy life to get better at the virtues on his list. The only one he found difficult was humility. He wrote that as soon as he got better at it, he felt proud of himself and therefore lacked humility. He listed the virtues in his Autobiography:

Virtue What It Means
Temperance Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
Silence Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
Order Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
Resolution Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
Frugality Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
Industry Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
Sincerity Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
Justice Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
Moderation Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
Cleanliness Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
Tranquility Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
Chastity Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or injury of yours or another’s peace or reputation. (“Venery” is an obsolete word for sexual relations.)
Humility Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

It’s a challenge for anyone to try living by Franklin’s list of virtues. Doing it perfectly is impossible. But life isn’t about being perfect, it’s about getting better. Just like Benjamin Franklin, we can work on the areas we need to improve. If we do it, we can be happier and can make the world a better place.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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