Inter-belief Conversation Cafe: Are There Absolute Virtues?

We are told there are seven cardinal virtues—chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. On the other hand there are seven deadly sins—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, sloth, and wrath. Wouldn’t everyone agree these virtues are virtuous and these sins are sinful? Religions, philosophies, and codes of ethics agree on this, don’t they? Isn’t the problem now solved? But are these virtues and sins so clear? Can’t pride be a good thing sometimes? Gordan Gecko and possibly Adam Smith tell us greed is good? Doesn’t humility tend to make door mats of us all? How can we be sure these are absolutes without knowing where they come from? Do we have to look to religion, to reason, or biology? Do they never change? Is chastity the same now as it was in Puritan times? Would a Muslim and a secular humanist have the same definition? One of Murphy’s Laws says that “Truth varies”. Can we say the same of virtue and sin? Can we be absolutely sure of anything?

Codes of ethics going back to Hammurabi’s Tablets and the Ten Commandments seem to agree with this definition of virtue and sin lets us be right with God. Plato’s ideal forms and Aristotle’s Golden Mean agree. Buddha’s path to enlightenment would seem to define virtue and sin in roughly the same way. Isn’t the Golden Rule just a short cut guide to this positive and negative definition of morality? Would anyone say that kindness is a sin and gluttony a virtue? But is pride in one’s country the same as pride in oneself? Can diligence turn into OCD? Do we need a power of discernment that goes beyond labels? What if chastity requires a hijab in one place and is satisfied by a bikini in another? Does charity mean donating a certain percentage of income to the poor or is it a spirt of giving without restraint? Should one’s family go hungry to provide a stranger a meal? Is temperance social drinking or no alcohol at all? Is any of this truly absolute?

Scriptures of our faiths tell us virtue is always virtue and sin always sin. Does this mean absolute values require God? Can it be reasoned that following the virtues gives us overall a better life and better society while the sins threaten all we hold dear? Is the greatest good for the greatest number the only absolute value we need? Does reason lead to see minority rights as important because we may be in the minority some day? Can we reason our way to absolute truth or is there something innate within us which really points the way? Is this where God enters in? Or is it evolution and biology? Rats will assist other rats in trouble. Societies that restrain themselves and take care of each other are more likely to survive than ones which abandon themselves to greed, lust, and gluttony perhaps? Don’t we have to know if it is God, our mind, or our genes which provide value? How can we tell what the absolute is if we don’t know?

Would our ancestors agree with our virtues and sins? Didn’t they believe in a hierarchical society where everyone had a defined place like the castes of India? Slaves should be obedient, women should be submissive and lady-like, and minorities should know their place. Do we believe any of this now? Must our virtues change with the times? Do we have new deadly sins like institutional racism, sexism, and denying climate change? Would someone living in the Roman Empire say that we have gone crazy? Maybe eat, drink, and be merry works as well as any value? If definitions of virtue and sin can change can we rely on them? Or have the values always been absolute, but we have just now started to really understand them? To live the virtuous life what do we look at and what do we do?

On Monday, March 15 from 7-9 PM on Zoom, Inter-belief Conversation Café will try to pursue virtue and avoid sin. Our agreements of open-mindedness, acceptance, curiosity, discovery, sincerity, brevity, and confidentiality may help us tell the difference. Remember attending the dialogue is an absolute virtue!!