Acquiring Virtues

Acquiring Virtues

In The Better Angles of Our Nature Steven Pinker writes about the civilizing process that humans have gone through to be less impulsive, less vulgar, and less violent over time. We are less likely to lash out at people who offend us or minorly inconvenience us today than people of 500 years ago. We have created spaces of privacy for personal grooming or using the bathroom and in 2020 we made such an effort to limit the spread of bodily fluids that wearing masks in public has become second nature to many of us. Beyond these niceties, we are also less likely to murder someone who has seriously wronged us or our family and political leaders (despite the feeling we often get in the news) are less likely to send their countries to war. But what was the process that humanity went through in acquiring virtues that Pinker praises us for in his book?
Pinker spends hundreds of pages demonstrating the declines of violence alongside the civilizing process I mentioned before. What Pinker uses a full book to explain, Quassim Cassam sums up in a single line, “How are virtues acquired? By training, habituation, and imitation.”
In the book Vices of the Mind, Cassam generally takes a consequentialist view when thinking about virtues and vices. He specifically examines epistemic vices, which are thoughts, habits, traits, behaviors, and characteristics that systematically obstruct knowledge. They don’t necessarily need to be evil or clearly dangerous on their own, but what is important, and what characterizes them as an epistemic vice, is that they systematically result in the obstruction of knowledge and information. He characterizes vices based on their real world outcomes. To contrast this view, we can look at virtues as thoughts, habits, traits, behaviors, and characteristics that systematically lead to more positive outcomes for individuals and society. Beyond the realm of epistemology, we can see that Pinker’s praise of impulse control, civilizing forces in history, and reductions of violence are praises of specific virtues.
These virtues did not spring up over night, as Pinker demonstrates with graphs stretching back hundreds of years showing declines in all forms of violence. These virtues were built over time through training, habituation, and imitation, the civilizing process that Pinker refers to throughout his book.
This means that the positive trends identified by Pinker on a global scale can be understood at individual levels, and it means that we can become more virtuous people through our own efforts. By increasing our self-awareness and thinking critically about our thoughts, behaviors, and actions, we can direct ourselves toward ways of being that will systematically produce better outcomes for ourselves and humanity as a whole. By training ourselves to avoid things like epistemic vices, we can put ourselves on a path to be better. We can become habituated toward virtues, and other people can imitate our behaviors to expand the civilizing process and the spread of virtues. Our virtues, and presumably our vices, don’t exist in isolation. They have real world consequences that can be studied and examined in context, and our virtues can be strengthened, harnessing the better angles of our nature, if that is what we set our minds to.

Do What Is In Us

Lord of the Rings can be read as a reaction against the industrial age, a reaction against military might, and a reaction against colonial conquests. The most clean, well functioning, and happiest places in the book are places of nature, where hobbits live peacefully with plenty in the shire, and where elves live with wisdom and respect for trees, forests, rivers, and valleys. Tolkien seems to express the idea that we should live a bucolic life that is more connected with nature, tending to it to receive the gifts that nature gives us as opposed to laying down our black mastery of the planet and bending it to our will as we do with roads, railroads, dams, and the machinery of war.


In the story, Gandalf says, in a reaction to Sauron trying to rule everything, “Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”


Succor is defined, according to the dictionary in my Kindle, as “assistance and support in times of hardship and distress.” Gandalf says that we should live our lives in a way that sets the world up to be more successful and bountiful in the future. We should strive to remove bits of evil from the world, to constantly make small improvements or do our little part to make the world a better place. We should not do this just for ourselves and for our happiness, but so that future generations can inhabit a world that can still provide for their needs.


This message is important for me. We can set out to be the best, to always have more, to accumulate as much fame and notoriety as possible, and to rule the world with golden towers and green acres everywhere we go. Or, we can accept that the world is not ours, we can strive toward mastery of a few things without spreading ourselves too thin, and we can focus on our corner of the world and what is in our power right now to make the world a better place. This may look like picking up trash along our local street, it may look like calling our grandma, or it may look like smiling at that person smoking outside the Walmart and saying hi rather than giving them a contemptuous look and treating them like trash. We can strive to be great and to make lots of money and influence the world, but what really matters is if we take small steps daily in the ways we can to make the world better for the future, even if that means we inconvenience ourselves a little to do the good work.