Philosophy and Spirituality

Ancient Philosopher Walks Into a Bar… And Meets Modern Psychology.

Research is emerging that indicates that acting virtuously does more than just buy you a ticket to heaven – it can make your stay on earth much more pleasurable. Weird, right? We associate virtue with characteristics such as ‘boring’, or ‘upright’. The ancients like Aristotle believed otherwise, teaching that we should live virtuously so that we could have eudemonia, which translates into happiness and human flourishing.

In 2004, Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson re-kindled the 2000 year old discussion on virtue. They published the book Character Strengths and Virtues, which recommends six virtues and their corresponding character strengths. For example, the virtue Courage is listed, with the strengths of bravery, persistence, integrity, and vitality as its components.

This research article, by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, builds upon certain components of Seligman’s initial work, while rebutting other parts of it.

Artistotle vs. Seligman

The difference between Aristotle’s approach to virtue, which is supported by this article, and Seligman’s approach comes down to their answer to this question:

What should be done when virtues are in conflict? For example, if an insecure friend asks you how she looks before she goes on a date, should you tell her that she looks ugly, fat, and so on, or lie and tell her she looks great? Clearly, this depends on whether she will have the opportunity to improve the way she looks, on whether she is feeling confident and composed or nervous and self-conscious, and on whether this would negatively impact your relationship. The strengths of social intelligence and integrity are in conflict.

Seligman’s answer to this question is that if character strengths can be defined from a practical perspective, they will come with a set of circumstances in which it is appropriate to use over another. A skimming of his book does not support this idea; however, it does mention a new field of survey research that specifically analyzes different character strengths within the context of different pyscho-social themes, such as the workplace or a marriage.

This article’s answer (and Aristotles), is that virtue ethics has two components: the virtues, and a separate master strength of practical wisdom. Practical wisdom helps decide when to use which virtues, and in what amounts. For example, when seeing a homeless man on the street, should one demonstrate and practice kindness, or prudence? If kindness, how much? Clearly one shouldn’t give away their entire fortune, so perhaps a mix of prudence with a slight bit of kindness is in order. Another example – when a friend asks for special treatment, should you give it to him? Again, the virtue of kindness and love must be balanced against fairness and/or integrity.

It’s not clear to me whose approach is superior; however, I believe the recommendations made by the article are sound, regardless of whether or not practical wisdom should be considered a master strength.


The authors in particle mention two ways in which the modern workplace makes the development of practical wisdom much more difficult than before.

  1. Financial Incentivization: There are two ways in which financial incentivization destroys wisdom. First, by prioritizing making money over developing skills and delivering quality service, workers are deprived of the time needed to get to know people and situations well enough to exercise judgement wisely. Second, the motivation to do the right thing gets replaced by the financial incentive to make money. The situation gets worse, because we then need financial incentives to make people do the right thing.
  2. Bureaucratization: By forcing down rigid operating procedures, workers loose the autonomy and flexibility needed to personalize and improve their skills and work. More than that; however, taking away autonomy and flexibility is one of the fastest ways to take away a person’s motivation. With a person’s motivation gone, even more bureaucratization is needed to get workers to do what is wanted.

Implementing a workplace culture that removes these two negative feedback loops is no doubt extremely difficult. It’s unlikely we’ll see large change in government institutions. However, there is a slowly growing trend in business to decrease bureaucratization. One of two is better than none!

The article was originally posted at, republished with the conset of the author.

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