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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Unwarranted Compassion

Yesterday I stopped to get some gas and went inside the shop to get a newspaper. The lady behind the counter seemed flustered, rung me up, and then went on about doing something else.

Normally, I would have left thinking, "No 'have a nice day', no 'thank you', nothing. I'm not here for her, she's here for me! But that's the state of service these days - bad!" and I would have been right. I'm a big advocate of consumers demanding good service for their money.

But, for some reason, I didn't think that this time. Instead, I wondered if maybe there had recently been some tragedy in her life, or if she was stuck in a job she hated, or if she was just having a bad day. Of course, none of that would be an excuse to not do a good job and treat the customers nicely.

But, as I left the shop, I turned to her with a smile and said, "Have a nice day" - and not the sarcastic "have a nice day" that you might say if you were trying to remind the clerk that she should have said it.

She looked up with a smile (a real smile, not the "it's my job to smile" kind), somewhat surprised, and just seemed just a little shy about it. Maybe that brightened her mood, I don't know. But for a moment she was happy and I left the shop feeling good instead of angry.

That's the nature of mercy. It's never deserved, but it's often necessary. Since none of us deserve compassion all the time, and since the lack of compassion breeds bitterness, then we can't simply operate by the standard that compassion will always be handed out only when it is deserved. This would lead to a downward spiral where, eventually, there'd be no compassion left - that's simple math. And the best part is, the giver of compassion is often benefited for having shown it - even, in some cases, when it's not deserved.

Monday, November 29, 2004

A Cheating Gene?

Last Wednesday Reuters news agency reported a study on female infidelity(1), which was referenced in a CNN story this morning. According to the study, conducted by St. Thomas' Hospital in London, about 40% of the influence on infidelity and number of sex partners is due to genetics. In the study, they compared identical to non-identical twins, presumably to filter for upbringing and other environmental causes.

But what does this mean? Does it mean that cheaters "can't help it" because they are a slave to their genetic programming? I don't think so, although it is unfortunate that a lot of folks will get this impression by reading about this study.

What I find interesting here was that the study indicated that genetics did not influence the subjects' attitudes about infidelity - which means that some of them tended to cheat even when they thought it was wrong. When we take that fact, along with the fact that the number of sex partners is also tied in, it appears that what's actually being measured here is sex drive. It would stand to reason, then, that there would be a higher incidence of infidelity among those with higher sexual drives.

There is no doubt that it is more difficult for a person with a high sex drive to remain faithful when tempted than it is for a person with a low sex drive. But this is no different than any number of other matters we face day to day. Some people may have a high appetite while others may have a bad temper. We all face our own level of strengths and weaknesses, but it is incumbent upon each of us to resist those urges when they encourage us to be unethical. Regardless of our urges, we must each be held responsible for our own actions and expected to live up to our commitments. And, aside from psychologically damaged or deranged people, it is possible for anyone.

As science continues to understand more and more about human biology, we will no doubt be able to spell out in fine detail every explanation for nearly every action. But who ever said that responsibility only counts when our inner workings are a mystery? What we should keep in mind is this: explanation is not excuse. So, sorry, but genetics aren't a free ticket to do evil.

1. Reference:

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Dating, Relationships, and Virtue

I can't tell you how many people I've known who get into one bad relationship after another. And, of course, we've all heard of the people who keep getting lied to, cheated on, or worse. When one hears them discuss their problems, it seems to me there is a common thread connecting them.

One problem that seems consistent in all of these cases is that they don't seem to be screening their dating partners for virtue. They'll screen for looks, money, common interests, sense of humor, and so on - but never consider their integrity, honesty, or other such traits.

Part of this comes from a prevailing mythos that seems to have been building in this country (the United States) for some time now. That mythos suggests that there are "no bad people - just bad choices." It also paints any sort of discernment as "judgmentalism" which is allegedly to be avoided at all costs. Apart from the fact that this mythos is extremely harmful to ethics and society in general, it also makes for bad relationships.

For instance, it's quite common to find people dating someone who is married. They'll think that this is okay because they themselves aren't married. Never does it occur to them that if this person is cheating on their current spouse, that they may cheat on them someday. Note that I'm not talking about the sort of relationships where a person may be married but separated, or where there are understandings between marriage partners. I'm talking specifically about cases where there is deception.

Instead, the focus is on the immediate circumstances only. They think, "well that spouse of there's is just bad" or "things aren't working out between them." So the fantasy continues that since they will be a good partner and things will work out with their relationship, that there should be no reason for cheating right? Wrong. Such folks are paying no attention to the nature of the character of the person they are seeing. If that person thinks that it's okay to cheat when one has sufficient impetus to do so, then there will be nothing stopping them from cheating with you.

And believe me - the impetus will come someday - it is inevitable. That is, unless you truly think that you are objectively the most beautiful person in the universe. On a planet of billions, it is guaranteed your spouse will run into many he or she finds attractive. It is also guaranteed that, in the normal course of highs and lows, any long term relationship will reach points where things are tough. And when those conditions pass by, someone with an outlook that cheating is permissible will cheat if given the opportunity. It has nothing to do with you or the relationship - it has to do with your partner's character and his or her outlook on relationships.

And this is not just about cheating. It has to do with trustworthiness and integrity in all matters, from birth control, to finances, to a willingness to compromise over differences, and more. This is why, if you want a good relationship, you simply must screen your dating partners for virtue. Observe them over time. What do they say? What do they do? Try to get a sense of what sort of ethos they live by (if any). Are they just following their desires wherever these impulses take them, like a dog, or do they have some sort of principles they live by? And observe - don't ask them because they will always tell you they have principles. What counts is if they walk the walk.

Of course, sometimes people simply aren't compatible and they end up going their separate ways, so there are still issues of common interests and compatibility. But if you start with principled people, then you can be more certain that, however the relationship works out, you will be treated fairly and considerately.

Fortification Exercise

I have just added the "Fortification Exercise" to the Primary Virtues homepage at

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Some Thanksgiving Cooking Enlightenment

Although Thanksgiving has a religious significance to a lot of people, it's also a good time to thank those around us, as well as to take time to appreciate the good things about our lives.

Now, usually my wife does the cooking. Not out of tradition or gender roles, but mainly because I can't make much of anything, except for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich - that, and the fact that I hate cooking.

When I was single I lived in an apartment for two years and my friend was helping me move out. As we were leaving he opened my oven to make sure I had cleaned it, so as to avoid a penalty on my deposit. He started laughing when he saw that, not only was the oven spotless, but the instruction manual was still inside. Later I was dealing with the manager to get my deposit back. I had a cat and the carpet was in bad shape so she had considered deducting for that, but she actually mentioned, "But the kitchen appliances were the cleanest I've seen so that counts for something."

After I was married and in a new place, there was also the time I tried to heat up a frozen pizza in the oven. Same pizza, same process my wife had always used - but somehow it transmogrified in the oven and didn't even behave the way that material should. That's what my wife said and she's a physicist, but I digress.

Anyway, this Thanksgiving I decided to make my first pie ever (actually a chocolate cheesecake, though not really a cake). It would be to signify my thankfulness for her cooking and everything else she does. I think I learned something about the appeal of cooking today.

One of the reasons I've never liked cooking is because it seems so inexact. What the heck is a pinch, and just how many smidgens are in a pinch? But you know how the appeal of riding a roller coaster comes from the feeling that you may suffer massive bodily injury - that at any moment you could be flung out, smashed against a support beam, and torn asunder? I think that somehow must relate to the thrill some people get out of cooking. It seems that at any moment, things could spiral out of control and your kitchen and all of your ingredients could be ruined. So there's a rollercoaster/mountain climbing sort of thrill to it I suppose. At least that's the feeling I get from cooking.

But all worked out for the best. After it was over I realized it couldn't have been too bad, even if it was just a big lump of goo. After all, every single ingredient was something that tasted good on its own (sugar, cheesecake, crust, chocolate), so how can you go wrong with that?

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Summary of the Primary Virtues

Last time I gave an introduction to the Primary Virtues. With this post, I'll summarize what they are and how they relate to one another...

These three virtues form the complete system of action for the virtuous person - from priority, to plan, to execution. Like the primary colors, these virtues are the basis of all other virtues and are not themselves made up of any others. Secondary virtues are derived from combinations of the primaries. “Shades” of the primaries form sub-categories. Because virtue is synonymous with wisdom, the three primary virtues together form Wisdom.


In the virtuous person, compassion forms the basis of all moral action and there can be no higher priority. Compassion establishes priorities, it is the ultimate motivation for the virtuous person, and creates the impetus for thought and action. Its shades include, but are not limited to:

· Love for self (self respect)

· Love of life (sense of wonder, adventure, and learning)

· Love for life (valuing all life in the universe)

· Love for fellow human beings (from those close, to whole human family)

· Empathy (ability to feel other’s pains and joys)


Reason provides the basis for facts and the plan of action. It sets the procedures for realizing Compassion’s priorities. While the virtuous person may frolic, he or she is not a slave to his/her passions. Reason (acting to further the causes of compassion) must always remain the master of the virtuous person’s actions. Its shades include:

· Truth/Honesty

· Critical Thinking

· Knowledge

· Objectivity

· Healthy Skepticism


Discipline is putting Reason’s plan to action and seeing it through. It forms the execution of the course that Compassion commands and Reason plots. It provides the control to keep the virtuous person on course, despite a wave of distracting influences and temptations. Its shades include:

· Fortitude (stick-to-it-tiveness)

· Commitment/Loyalty

· Courage

· Temperance (moderation)

· Tolerance/Patience

Secondary Virtues:

Not named as such in order to suggest lesser importance, the Secondary Virtues are merely those which are made up mainly of combinations of the primary virtues. So, the term refers not to importance but to composition. The secondary virtues by far outnumber the primary virtues - there are as many as there are colors. They would include such virtues as the following, for example:

· Justice (Compassion + Reason)

· Humility (Compassion + Discipline)

· Industry (Reason + Discipline)


Many may question why so many extremely important values are relegated to “secondary” status. In simplifying the virtues, it was important that the primaries be so universal as to not have exceptions. Truth, for example, is crucial to moral character. Nevertheless, it has exceptions. There are times when it is necessary to forego truth (lie) in order to protect an innocent, for example. This indicates that there is a higher, overriding (and perhaps more “pure”) ethic upon which this moral decision is made. Compassion has no exception, although there may be times when a greater cause of Compassion overrides another. Reason also has no exception. While it is fine to be foolish for fun, this must always be within Reason. Frolic and emotion form the “spice” of life but may never exceed reasonable boundaries (endangering people or causing harm or irresponsibility). Discipline also has no exception. While some instances do not call for a great degree of Discipline, there is never a case where lack of Discipline is required or considered a virtue.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the Primary Virtues are not a psychological model of human behavior. They do not attempt to outline the system of action by which human beings function. In that regard they would be incomplete. Instead, the system outlined by the Primary Virtues is a system of action we might follow if we are attempting to live and act virtuously. We can ask ourselves, "Is my motivation compassionate? Is it reasonable?" Many times we have our hearts in the right place, and our Reason is sound, but we lack the discipline to do what we know needs to be done. This is the sort of model we can refer to as a guide in such matters.

In future installments of Virtuous Living, I will address relevant personal and social issues as seen from this perspective. I will also continue to develope the Primary Virtues into a more full system. However, there is a lot more to the system currently, which is available on the Primary Virtues website at and it includes such topics such as:

• Are the Primary Virtues Compatible With Your Beliefs?

• More detail on each of the Primaries

• The Motivation for Virtue

• Improving our Virtue

• Teaching Virtue

• Virtue Exercises & Techniques

I will keep a link to this site for future reference in the sidebar. Thanks for reading!

Introdcution to the Primary Virtues

The Primary Virtues are a virtue system designed to help conceptualize the relationship of various virtues to one another. They are one way of looking at virtues - not "the" way. Nor are the Primary Virtues necessarily "better" or "worse" than other ways of thinking about virtue. But they may be helpful in guiding one wishing to lead a virtuous life.

This is because the Primary Virtues are more than merely a detached list of different virtues. Instead, the Primary Virtues are arranged into a "system" of action, which begins with the moral basis of virtue, then expands to the means by which we achieve those ends, and concludes with the virtues needed to follow through. The system could be thought of as an embodiment of the heart, mind, and hand.

Furthermore, the Primary Virtues are designed to be compatible with nearly any belief system, worldview, or religion. Using the Primary Virtues in one's life does not preclude one's personal beliefs about the supernatural, the afterlife, or God. The Primary Virtues also do not require one to "add to" or alter their current religious beliefs. No doubt, religious people will find many references in their own belief systems as they are, which already support and promote these very virtues because truth is universal. Whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Humanist, Atheist, or any other belief, one will find that the Primary Virtues are a helpful tool for remembering virtues and approaching them in this life, as all human being should.

Virtuous Living will generally be a series of entries on everyday life issues, both personal and world issues, but many of the first entries will cover some of the basis of the approach taken on these things. At the same time, Virtuous Living will be a sort of journal as I explore ways of fleshing out the Primary Virtues into a more complete system.

Next time - "Summary of the Primary Virtues"

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


As of right now, I am planning on posting a journal-style entry once per week (usually Mondays). Comments are welcome.