Why I Go for Values over Virtues

A fellow admirer of Peirce who has written extensively about his thought has questioned my distinction between values and virtues.

I have seen virtues as Aristotle’s list of such terms as honor, prudence and courage. There is no real interest in values in Aristotle’s ethics.

When I first conceived the centrality of values to ethics in the 1970s, I arrived at the four values I still see as core and ontological.

They are three active values — tolerance, helpfulness and democracy.

The root value of all values is non-idolatry, essentially the First Commandment. No other gods.

Now when I started to write of these matters, I looked into Aristotle and found no place for these terms in his character-based, virtue-based ethics.

When I think of honor I think of Shakespeare’s classic skewering of honor in the speech he gives to Falstaff. It is, he concludes, a scutcheon. It encourages one to acts that do harm and that result in harm to the doer. It is at best neutral on the scale of good and evil.

It is also the case that someone who is intolerant is hardly a poster child for the value it inverts. Tolerance might be added to the list of virtues. But why isn’t it?

And why not helpfulness which is surely related to the First Commandment as well?

And why not democracy which, one must conclude, is the only polity that can acknowledge the fundamental rights and unity of all who live on this planet?

No, I grew tired of reading the likes of David Brooks and Mr. Bennett trumpeting virtues, essentially relegating values which are prophetic to where the prophetic has always been. To the periphery. Along with the ethic of Jesus which has been consistently distorted and ignored by the churches.

If I cotton to values and name them thus, it is because they are indeed ontological, if you take Peirce’s notion of the agapic seriously.

If we are continuity — fallible but admirable — headed toward the agapic, then certain values or virtues if you will admit my four, are the viaticum we need for the journey.

Should I invest energy in seeking to amend Aristotelian ethics? I think not. Better forge ahead, enlisting Pierce, not as exemplar but inspiration. And seeing pragmaticism the intellectual means to this agapic end.

The goal is to move beyond the present stasis. That is worth the candle I feel.

Here is how I would propose ethics in a nutshell:

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