Value or Virtue?

What is the difference between a “Value” and a “Virtue”.

A value is “A person’s principles or standards of behavior…one’s judgment of what is important in life.” Values are the ideals or standards that people use to direct their behavior; values are what people strive to realize in their lives. Values are the standards we use in making judgments about what is important in life and what is right or wrong in human behavior. We judge ourselves and others in terms of our values. We may not agree with another person’s values, but everyone lives by values – everyone makes judgments about what is important in life through their values.

Virtues are personal character traits that embody and express values that are judged desirable, good, or admirable. A virtue is a good value lived. Virtues are character traits or dispositions in a person that embody and express values that are judged desirable or admirable. A person’s virtues define the ethical character of a person. Virtues are values that have become intrinsic to the personal identity and way of life of a person. If a value is practiced enough, it becomes part of the personality – the character – of a person. You become what you do – what you value and aspire toward.

Not all values lead to virtues; some values lead to vices. If one values money above all else, or power over others regardless of how we affect them, developing character traits that embody these values would not be seen by most people as examples of ethical character virtues. Do we see greed as a virtue? If I value being rich – regardless of whether I need to steal from others or manipulate them with false promises and lies to get rich – then I will develop a whole set of character traits that are vices, rather than virtues.

Hence, not all values are good. There are values that lead to unethical behaviors. Even though everyone possesses values, not everything that is a value, if practiced, turns into a virtue. There are things that people value that lead to vices rather than virtues. Virtues however are always (by their definition) “Good”.

There are though values that if pursued and practiced lead to recognizable virtues. Valuing truth leads to honesty, integrity, and courage; valuing justice leads to fair-mindedness; valuing freedom and self-determination leads to self-responsibility and autonomy; valuing others leads to respectfulness, compassion, and kindness. These character traits are generally valued around the world and have positive effects on one’s life.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, in The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1995), states that “it was not until the present century that morality became so thoroughly relativized that virtues ceased to be ‘virtues’ and became ‘values.'” The change in vocabulary itself constitutes a revolution in thought. “Values Clarification” brought with it the assumptions that all moral ideas are subjective and relative, that they are mere customs and conventions, that they have a purely instrumental, utilitarian purpose, and that they are peculiar to specific individuals and societies.”

If we intend for our civilization to step back from the amoral abyss, we had better turn away from focusing solely on “Values” (talking the talk), and start paying more attention to “Virtues” (walking the walk).