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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!


  1. Great way to rip off Ultima and Richard Garriott.

  2. There's also the three Christian virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. The classical system had four: temperance, prudence, fortitude, and justice. The ancient Romans had many, as do the Muslims. Like the Buddhists, I believe the fictional system of Ultima had eight virtues :)