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The Virtues Of Yes Vs. The Virtues Of No, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:45am

Considering Virtue

I’ve been thinking recently about virtue.

Not the old-fashioned heroine sort, perhaps needless to say. But virtue, built or maintained by living in accordance with a moral code. I’ve never felt very good at that particular variety.

Why? For one thing, it’s not really a part of High WASP culture. We focus instead on the excellent, the appropriate, and the beautiful. Or the Very Attractive, as my mother might say.

For another, I’ve been very busy trying not to Do A Bad Job. Raising children, I wanted to be a good mother, but danged if I know what a virtuous one looks like. You just do the best you can and watch carefully to make sure the kids seem OK. At work, again, I have wanted to do a good job. I have wanted not to make irreparable mistakes. But the closest I ever got to virtue was maintaining my humanity in the fight.

Now I’ve got time. Virtue is easier where the clock doesn’t tick. For example, as anyone who knows me in the flesh will confirm, I’m absolutely my best self here on the blog. Nobody is pressuring me to type these keys, nobody is making me push Publish. I have the time, and therefore the responsibility, to focus on and adhere to the High WASPs boon companion, Good Behavior.

Virtue is Good Behavior’s spirit animal. And hides in the forest accordingly. How to find it? If it follows the same rules as unicorns we’re lost.

Here’s the thing. I think most of us can get to what we might call first line virtue pretty easily. Don’t kill people, don’t take their stuff, don’t lie for your own gain, be courteous. It’s the second and third lines that get hard. With complex moral questions – and you can tell I’m still thinking about the Sodastream issue here – absolutes disappear early in the analysis.

Here’s the other thing. I believe that when we can’t find absolutes, we feel our way along the walls, eyes closed, navigating with feelings. We might speak some words, to spin a theory, to superimpose some structure on our wanderings, but I think complex morals are like politics, and people are hard-wired to go one way or the other.

Both of which things lead me to wonder if some of us are better with the Virtues of No, and some with the Virtues of Yes. This may be a false dichotomy, but let’s consider it anyway. Thank you in advance.

I’m much better at the Virtues of Yes, myself. I find generosity, loyalty, commitment, affection, doable. The Virtues of No, not so much. Self-discipline, minimalism, scrupulousness (for which there is probably a better word but I don’t know it), resistance – I want to be your girl but I probably am not. I can move forward ever so much better than I can hold back.

Do you find yourself in one or the other of these camps? Am I making it up?

In any case, if my highly creative (i.e. speculative and proof-less) theory is right, I’m left with another question, one to consider quite carefully.

If one wants to develop Virtue, is it best to base the effort in one’s strengths (if that “one” is me I mean in the Yes), or to work on one’s weaknesses? (Must I in the end become abstemious? Oh no. Please no. Sadness ensues.) Perhaps the best way to start considering is to define Virtue not by measuring it like an internal quantity, but by our impact on the world. Not in the test tube but as a reagent.

Put simply, is it best to do what’s hardest, because it shows more character, or best to do what’s easiest, because you can perhaps accomplish more? Few people can do both. You see? Even how I frame the question will predict my answer. Thinking, deconstruction, gets us only so far. I will trust that it’s still worth doing.

Have a wonderful, wonderful weekend.


Original photo “Crowd” by Espen Sundve on Flickr. Text added by LPC.

61 Responses

  1. Facinating post and much food for thought.

    How to develop virtue… in my case it’s always a slow process of realising how ugly the un-virtue is, commiting myself (bit by bit and with plenty of hesitance) to change then failing and trying again until I suceed more than I fail.

    I find age very helpful – I am so much calmer and nicer to be around in my 30s than I was in my 20s (my husband can attest).

    As a Christian, every week at church we confess that we haven’t lived up the impossibly high standards we’re set with Jesus as our role model. And commit ourselves to keeping on trying. I find this very helpful.

  2. Intriguing question to ponder on a Saturday morning. I was raised to think about this stuff, Catholic education during the 60’s amid Eceumenical council excitement, nuns getting us to think about Teilhard de Chardin, Kierkegaard, mystics, etc. And then thinking from completely diff. angle through academe, post-structuralism, etc. etc. But seems so much depends on how you define Virtue. The classic seven of the Church Fathers way back when include four from Greek — prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude — and St. Paul’s Faith, Hope, and Charity, so I would generally associate Virtue with what you see in the Yes camp. But I also wonder if you aren’t setting up a false dichotomy. Don’t many of those Yesses sometimes require some of what you label No? Doing the best job you can with children, for example sometimes does demand abstemiousness? Many generosities rely somewhat on self-denial. Etc.
    Much to think about on a Saturday morning when I must Restrain myself from heading out into a beautiful spring day until I apply some Fortitude to a stack of papers to be marked. Suspect I’ll Prudently Temper the task with a few visits back here to check the ensuing conversation, sure to be interesting. Happy weekend!

    1. @Frances/Materfamilias, :). I am coming believe, educated by these comments, that some of us feel the Yes more strongly in certain areas than we feel the No. I never felt abstemious around my childrearing, for example, but I certainly do around stuff that others can do easily.

  3. The four classical virtues are temperance (which is NOT abstinence), prudence, courage, and justice. I think if one can apply those principles in one’s life and not parse it down to the better self versus the not-so-good self, or vice versa, then it becomes much easier. It’s the self. I don’t think that virtue is about triumph over the bad self. Because in certain situations your “bad” self might in itself be a virtuous response in light of the circumstances, and, also, your good self might also not be so virtuous, in certain situations. By bifurcating your “selves,” you end up, I believe, in type of stalemate of the id.

    1. @claire, Yes, I prefer to think of good acts rather than good selves, per se. I love the sentence, “stalemate of the id.” But the Greek virtues leave out any concept of the other, and most of my capacity for virtue seems to involve people close to me, so I’d need to extend the canon if I’ve any hope.

  4. The training program that I am doing this year encourages us always to focus on the “yes” part — adding strength and capabilities to our lives, pushing out bad habits and choices simply by filling up the space in our lives with new things we’re saying yes to, not focusing on what we’re saying no to. I think that’s a pretty positive attitude. I’m working on acquiring it permanently.

  5. loved this post. Consider: the word translated as virtue in ancient greek writings (like Aristotle’s ethical works) means excellence. The virtue/excellence of a knife is in the cutting. And the virtuous human is the excellent person, the one who excels in human qualities. So your focus on excellence is already a pursuit of virtue.

    Maybe Aristotle can help with the Yes/No dichotomy, too: for Aristotle, virtue is generally found in the mean. Courage is the mean between rashness/foolhardiness and cowardice. Generosity is the mean between stinginess and prodigality. If you can never say no (abstain, relinquish, avoid, etc.), then you might fall short of virtue (as you would if you could never say yes). But tending more toward the “yes” virtues does not disqualify you from real moral excellence.

  6. and people are hard-wired to go one way or the other.

    that got me thinking about a statement i read a few weeks ago and have been chewing on ever since. the psychoanalyst adam phillips discusses what he calls one’s “need not to know yourself. Symptoms are a form of self-knowledge. When you think, I’m agoraphobic, I’m a shy person, whatever it may be, these are forms of self-knowledge. What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way. You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself.”

    taxonomies can inhibit us so easily, and i think that one should try to classify virtues, if one wishes to classify virtues, without making the mistake of conflating them with personality traits. the internet has been abuzz lately with various “strength checklists” that encourage users to figure out what they are good at and just do more of it as opposed to wasting energy on friction. that’s well and good when one’s talking about one’s career, say, but when we’re talking about the moral universe, efficiency is so far beside the point it’s almost moot.

    as you know, i’m a strict ethical vegetarian, and it affects my choices pretty significantly. does that make me a YES type or a NO type? i won’t eat flesh, i won’t give factory farms my business via the purchase of inhumanely produced products, i won’t wear silk or leather. hell, i won’t drink guinness. pretty NO. but i refuse all of those things because i believe that creatures are just as important as i am, and i should be as merciful and generous to them as i am to my loved ones. that’s rather YES, no?

    for me it doesn’t really matter what i call it, or if it’s a virtue at all; what matters is that i do what i believe to be right each time i make a choice. i’m not a collection of traits, but an aggregation of choices. i think of the massive faces of sunflowers, those great darknesses composed of seeds upon seeds upon seeds (we used to pull them apart and eat them like birds when i was little). i think of ginsberg:

    We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread
    bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all
    beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we’re blessed
    by our own seed & golden hairy naked
    accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black
    formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our
    eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive
    riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening
    sitdown vision.

    1. @lauren, I am not sure I deserve such wonderful comments. I am coming to think that it’s really more that we all feel the Yes calling from different corners.

  7. “Know Thyself”, said Socrates. When you know, a whole bunch of beliefs become redundant. And just like when you switch on a light, no need to ponder how to dispel that seemingly ever-present darkness. It’s automatically taken care of.
    Kindness, love and generosity are consequences. The rest are traits, which like flavors, hopefully not damaging, but harmless.
    And I believe it is said that knowing one’s true self is indeed the highest virtue.

  8. Virtue, conscience…I always know in my heart, right from wrong. Then I make my choice. You may sort out for yourself, if that choice is virtuous. Sometimes it is in refusal, sometimes in acceptance, but I never delude myself that it is murky. I know, and sometimes I am too lazy, greedy, gluttonous, angry for virtue. Often it is more of an aspiration than an accomplishment, but I always know, I always know.

    1. @Kathy, Perhaps then, Lisa, they are not questions of virtue, but of expedience? I can always ask myself what my mother would have done…or what I would advise my children to do? After that it is always crystal clear :)

  9. I fall in the camp of Hell Yes! My place for a surprise party? Hell Yes! Want to go to the worst staging of Lohengrin ever? Hell Yes! Can I borrow your (fill in the blank)? Hell Yes!

  10. I must admit, after reading your posts and comments from your readers each weekend, I usually come out feeling like a dolt! Such food for thought makes me realize that my world and blog are a bit frilly and frivolous. Not that there is anything wrong with that — but I do wonder where my depth of thought took a turn. And now you have me questioning the virtues of yes and no and wondering in which camp I fall. Sigh…more sleepless nights?

  11. What is virtue? Yes? No? something else? Much has been written, Ages defined, so many ideas and words. I won’t go on and on.

    I love this sentence: “I believe that when we can’t find absolutes, we feel our way along the walls, eyes closed, navigating with feelings.” I am fairly certain that I don’t believe in absolutes, except for perhaps the big “love thy neighbor as thyself” which should in theory cover all the others, and even so, is not particularly clear cut, and at times even vague, when you get right down to it. I’m not saying things are murky, they aren’t, but I do feel that we mostly navigate life, again repeating your words because I can’t say it better: ” feel(ing) our way along the walls, eyes closed, navigating with feelings.

    I suppose I believe virtue is loving oneself, all of oneself, without shame, even things others might call faults, and then extending that love to everyone else in the same way, with kindness and understanding. And we are always clinging to walls and hoping we are taking the right path.

    1. @Mardel, “I suppose I believe virtue is loving oneself, all of oneself, without shame, even things others might call faults, and then extending that love to everyone else in the same way, with kindness and understanding.”

      I might agree. I have a lot to think about.

  12. Very thought provoking post.I think of virtue as doing the thing you know is right. It might mean being kind to someone who has a prickly personality. It could be listening to an old man telling the same story that he has told you a thousand times before. Or forgiving someone who has hurt you; not because they apologized, but because you don’t won’t to become bitter. Virtue can mean refusing to gossip about someone you really don’t like; because you know it is wrong.

    1. @MarilynLeslie,

      I have been recently questioning what forgiveness is recently, and what that means in regards to a specific betrayal in my life and that person has never asked forgiveness and has never said they were sorry. Currently, I thinking that about the best I can do in this situation is to attempt to move on with my life and “let go” as best I can. But that doesn’t fit with what I was always taught as forgiveness. Maybe time will help more? A lot of time…

    2. @MarilynLeslie,
      Hi Lisa,
      When I’m not certain of what is the right thing to do, I pray for guidance. Sometimes the answer comes in something I’m reading, or something I hear on the radio will strike a chord.


      1. I’m sure my atheism makes this much more complicated for me. Perhaps I could see it as listening to the universe.

    3. @MarilynLeslie,
      Forgiveness is hard. Especially if when someone has harmed you without remorse. I have heard and agree, that forgiveness is not about the other person as much as setting ourselves free from the harm they have done to us. When we forgive, we release that person from our desire to be avenged. It doesn’t mean that what they did was OK; it is more a deliberate release of the situation.

    4. @MarilynLeslie,


      Hi Marilyn and Lisa, Thanks for your replies. I like the idea of approaching it as setting myself free from the harm done to me. I read somewhere that it was like letting go of a heavy anchor… I can aim for that and am in process, I guess. And I am also trying to aim for wishing nothing at all to the person that hurt me (ie., being neutral and indifferent, instead of wishing ill). It sure is a process. And Lisa, I am doing okay and healing. And feeling thankful it’s spring. Well, there’s still snow around in the yards, but the sidewalks and streets are clear and the sun is out. :)

  13. What a wonderful post – as usual!

    I’m a secular Buddhist (as some say the Buddha himself was) and so I (try to) practice these things:

    The Dali Lama said (1) all sentient being want to be happy (2) all sentient beings want to be free of suffering.
    (3) The way to accomplish both of these goals is to be of service to all (or as many as you can) sentient beings.

    Being of service makes you happy and it makes the receiver happy too. Being of service also decreases your suffering and the suffering of others. Win Win as the kids say.

    By ‘being of service’ I do not mean (at least for myself) wearing sackcloth and healing the sick in the slums of India – though that is certainly being of service! For me it’s wearing chic black and shocking pink hair and tattoos of the Buddha and gently keeping my raging ego and judgmental nature in check as I go about my daily life. My daily life is crafting spiritual/magickal/transformative-even jewelry/talismans for folks who need them – an incredible job! I often cannot get over my good fortune. I get to create and give beauty and succor to other sentient beings (including a few dogs and cats) as my service.

    I too think you create a false dichotomy if you go the Yes/No route. Really, it’s all seamless; all on a continuum
    and btw never boring!

    I’ve never met you, Lisa, but I value your presence in my life very much. You are of service to many, many women like me I’ll bet.

    1. @pamela gene daley, The concept of being “of service” is the theoretical base of Sturdy Gals:). And BTW I love your jewelry. I wanted to be a witch when I was 14, there was a band called Pentangle back then…

  14. So, so true. Virtue is easier when the clock doesn’t tick.

    I can also relate to the fact that I come across as a better person than I am when I blog. A bit of a worry but there you have it.

    SSG xxx

  15. I wonder if, by dismissing WASP ideas of virtue as Very Attractive, we may be sidestepping another kind of virtue which ran more deeply. The Puritans of New England were obsessed with virtue. Though they mellowed with time there’s still a strain of that proud uprightness which runs through the cultural substratum. Rather like an old house that’s been expanded and redone so many times you can barely make out the old bones. Of course, it’s almost silly to trace how we think today back to family history from hundreds of years ago. My family were Quakers, much less agreeable in the 17th century than they are today. No propensity for wailing and shaking has come down to me. I do think there’s a public-spirited kind of virtue that ran strong. One looks back at presidents like FDR and George HW Bush and feels there must have been some cultural imperative to Do What’s Right. Sorry if I’m starting to sound like a David Brooks column. All this sincerity is exhausting. Your thoughts on personal virtue are right on – but I thought it would be a pity to leave the topic of WASPs and virtue abandoned on the lonely shores of good taste.

    1. @Ben CS, The Puritans were indeed. It’s so hard for me to disentangle WASP civic virtue from colonialism and financial dominance that I have nothing useful to say here. I do like the WASP code of conduct, however, and try to stick to it when it doesn’t involve oppressing other sub-cultures.

  16. Very thought provoking.
    But is virtue absolute and universal? Or is one person’s idea of virtue different from another’s? Or maybe our ideas of virtue are culturally biased? I know my cultural background (Finnish, Northern European) makes me value and expect certain aspects of virtue (self-discipline, honesty, trustworthiness) and find others rather difficult to negotiate (the general pleasing of others for the sake of appearances, anything that is referred to as ‘small talk’, keeping up social appearances). What do you think?

    1. @Tiina L, I think you’re right. I think different cultures place wholly different weights on certain behaviors. The WASP code is very contractual, for example, vs. other cultures which say to heck with contracts, it’s all about my family.

  17. So we ponder the theoretical. Any yet no comments on the last post… At all?

    1. @Meaghan, I closed the comments. Although I make every effort to let people say what they need to say to me, given that I am publishing my opinions on the open Internet, I don’t like to have commenters say mean or argumentative things to each other here, and I don’t like to have to delete comments, and I find that politics encourage both events.

  18. Always a good read. Your commenters can be so thoughtful. So much nicer to read than the superficial. Of course, it is fun to read about metallic sandals and moto jackets too. Just nice to have a mix of things. Good job, Lisa !

  19. I am thankful for this post and the dialogue which has blossomed in the comments. So much to learn, think about, and be grateful for.

    1. Yes, I know all bloggers love their readers but truly mine are extraordinary. I’m grateful too:)

  20. Interesting topic…and good food for thought. When I read what you wrote about Yes virtues and No virtues, my first reaction was that the No virtues could be reframed as Yes virtues. Minimalism could be reframed as Yes to simplicity, self-discipline could be Yes to focus. I prefer to approach them in that way, to find the positive that results from each and focus on saying Yes to that. And for me, I try to focus on the virtues that are necessary in the moment…for me in this busy month, it’s saying Yes to focus. :) As best as I can anyways…

  21. This is a very thoughtful posting. I too am concerned about living a virtuous life. For me it helps to consider these classic lines by Reinhold Niebuhr:

    God, give me grace to accept with serenity
    the things that cannot be changed,
    Courage to change the things
    which should be changed,
    and the Wisdom to distinguish
    the one from the other.

    which has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs.

  22. These are pretty thinky thoughts!

    My earth-loving Prius may be your dirty battery. Your clear electric-powered Volt may be my coal-burning electric utility.

    We just purchased all the leaven from our Rabbi-neighbors parishioners – I”m not sure what the members of a Jewish synagogue are rightly termed. They’re going to buy them all back in a week or so. Since transporting them all would be a lot of trouble, they’ll just stay in their pantries for the duration. They’re on their honor not to be boiling up our pasta.

    I imagine they feel they’re being virtuous, practicing their faith which forbids certain foods during Passover. I’m not going to think otherwise, because I’ve got that Prius sitting in my driveway.

    Everybody should get their virtues, but nobody should be too judgemental about them.

  23. The Greeks, as many have suggested herem are a good place to both begin and return. In the self-absorbed way of so much modern culture, virtue is too often framed as “Six Virtues I Should Work on to Be Really, Really Good”, and I am moved to see so many commenters framing virtue as service, and reminding us that we need others’ virtue to encourage our own. And let’s not forget vice- or is that a next post? We can’t always ascend; the shadow side is here too; pass that tequila, sister.

  24. Lisa,
    What a wonderful, thought provoking post. So much thoughtful dialogue.
    There is a school of thought that one may most readily “improve” oneself through focusing on our strengths. Gallup is the organization driving this and I found it insightful. Whether one can actually be more engaged and more productive and happier (Gallup’s claim) really depends how much autonomy one has to engage activities that are meaningful and aligned with one’s strengths in my experience but it is useful to know.

    Thank you all for sharing your thoughts.

    1. @TB: I’ve used Gallup and Marcus Buckingham’s material for years in my work. When I’ve suggested the notion of working from strengths to clients, often it is counterintuitive- our NA work culture is focused on fixing deficiencies. But if you work from deficiency you are always looking at others for comparison, always falling short, always either making excuses or living with a sense of failure.

      The work is also useful because it does not take a moralistic tone, but a far less judgmental approach, that of using your talents.

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