Which Beliefs Contribute to Virtuous Behavior?

Virtuous Behavior?Shutterstock

Which beliefs contribute to virtuous behavior? In other words, which beliefs can we form to make it more likely that we act virtuously in the future – more honestly, more compassionately, more courageously, more humbly, and the like? In this brief essay, I will propose four different answers, but I want to stress that these are not the only ones that could be given. I have included them only because these answers repeatedly show up in my own reading of research in psychology and philosophy.

First we should note that our question is asking specifically about beliefs. Beliefs are not the only mental states worth mentioning – desires and emotions are also incredibly important to virtuous behavior (but will have to wait for another essay). Just having a belief – say that I ought to stop gossiping or that it would be good for me to donate to charity – can leave me indifferent to actually behaving in that way if I do not also care about these things. So to become virtuous people we need to form appropriate beliefs as well as cultivate the right desires and emotions, as both of these components play a central role.

First Answer – Beliefs about People’s Virtue. Having good role models in our lives who we admire because of their moral behavior or character can make a huge difference. These role models can lead us to form beliefs such as:

  • Mother Teresa is someone I really admire.
  • My grandmother is very courageous.
  • If he can stand up to injustice, then so can I.

Why would these beliefs make such a difference? Because of their connection to powerful emotional responses. For instance, the University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done research on what he calls the emotion of “elevation.” This is what we feel when we see another person do something particularly virtuous or morally admirable. Just think back to a time when you were feeling uplifted and inspired by someone’s bravery or loyalty or charity – perhaps your heart was moved, inspiring you to similar acts in your own life.

Research by Haidt and others has found a strong relationship between feelings of elevation and increased virtuous behavior. For instance, one study found that elevation neutralized anti-black racism and increased helping, while another found that, when compared to controls, elevation led to participants doubling the amount of time they spent on a helpful task.

Second Answer – Beliefs about Your Own Virtue. The first set of beliefs has to do with other people’s character. But we also have beliefs about ourselves, such as:

  • I am an honest person.
  • I care for other people.
  • My spouse thinks that I care for other people.
  • Other people do not see me as lazy.

The first two beliefs are about a person’s own virtuous character, and labeling ourselves in these ways can have an effect on our virtuous behavior because we want to live up to how we believe ourselves to be as moral people (at least for the labels we think are positive). On the other hand, note that the third and fourth beliefs instead have to do with what other people think about our characters. Such beliefs can also lead to virtuous behavior since we think that those people expect us to live up to the particular label in the future, and we naturally want to continue to be regarded highly by them.

Lots of research over the years has found that both kinds of beliefs about our own character can have a significant effect on behavior. To take just one example, the psychologist Robert Kraut at Carnegie Mellon ran a study where participants were asked to make a donation to the Heart Association. For those who did donate, half were told that they were “generous,” while the other half received no such label. A week later, everyone was again asked to donate, this time to a local fund-raising campaign for multiple sclerosis. Here are the results:

Average Amount of Donation to MS  Research
“Generous” Label          $0.70
No Label                            $0.41

Even though the donation amounts might not have been large, there was a significant difference between them. Whether this was because the “generous” donors took the label to heart, or only were concerned with what others might think of them, remains to be seen.

Third Answer – Moral Standards. Surely if any beliefs enhance virtuous behavior, our beliefs about what is right and wrong would, such as:

  • I ought to give 10% of my income to charity.
  • It is wrong to steal from a store.
  • We must treat others with respect.

But it turns out that many times a person’s moral standards do not have a significant bearing on how she acts in a particular situation, as we probably already know from our own experience.

Nevertheless, fascinating research is being done to discover ways of increasing the psychological impact of our moral standards. For instance, most of us presumably believe that cheating is wrong (at least in most cases), and yet many studies have found that we often cheat anyway when we think that we will not get caught. To find ways of bolstering honest behavior, marketing professor Nina Mazar of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management divided participants into two groups and had everyone take a test for which they would be paid for each correct answer. Here were the results:

First Group – No Opportunity to Cheat          3.1 correct answers
Second Group – Opportunity to Cheat           4.2 correct answers

It is hard to believe that the participants in the second group were that much better at taking the test; instead it looks as if at least some of them took advantage of the opportunity to cheat.

But Mazar also had a third group of participants first recall as many of the Ten Commandments as they could, before they took the same test with the opportunity to cheat. Now she found:

Recall Ten Commandments + Opportunity to Cheat         2.8 correct answers

Note that cheating in the third group was on average even lower than in the first group.

These results suggest that moral standards can increase virtuous behavior, provided they are salient in the person’s mind at the moment. Other factors, which we can discuss in the comments, are also being discovered that can similarly increase the power of our moral standards in leading to corresponding behavior.

Fourth Answer – Certain Religious Beliefs. Positive religious beliefs could be categorized under the previous heading of moral standards, but they are worth highlighting separately given the number of studies done in recent years which focus specifically on these beliefs. Examples of positive religious beliefs include:

  • The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself.
  • I will be punished in the afterlife if I do not become a better person.
  • Every human being is created in the image of God.

Naturally the category of religious beliefs is very broad, and different beliefs can trigger rather different desires and emotions, some of which are not very virtuous. But there is now a large body of research which has found a strong correlation between various measures of religiosity and everything from increased completion of homework, health care utilization, donations to charity, and volunteer work, to reduced criminal behavior, suspensions from school, and smoking. To take just one example, the 2002 National Study of Youth and Religion looked at the self-reported behavior of 2,478 twelfth-grade students and found the following

Weekly Religious Attendance   No Religious Affiliation

Sold Drugs in Past 12 Months                                     6.7                                     18.4
Used Hard Drugs in Past 12 Months                        19.8                                    37.1
Been in Trouble with Police in Past 12 Months    6.4                                     13.7
Never Skipped School in Past Year                          47.8                                    31.0
Never Volunteered in Community                           13.1                                    37.8


Religious attendance does not necessarily imply religious belief, but similar patterns also arose when the measure was self-reported importance of religion.

Admittedly, much of the research on religion and positive outcomes takes the form of correlation studies, and we all know that correlation does not imply causation, in this case by the religious beliefs. Clearly more work needs to be done.

So which beliefs do increase the likelihood of virtuous behavior? The emerging answer seems to be that many different beliefs can, including others not mentioned here such as empathetic beliefs. In some cases the primary role of the beliefs is to trigger particular feelings and emotions, as in the case of role models. In other cases the primary role of the beliefs is to structure a person’s worldview or outlook on life, such as with the moral and religious beliefs. Furthermore, it is important to stress that the four answers offered above are not unrelated to each other – a positive role model, for instance, can influence what moral and religious beliefs we might have, and vice versa.

But I want to end with a question that psychology cannot answer, namely, “Which of the beliefs mentioned in this essay should be promoted as a way of increasing virtuous behavior?” Certainly, I would argue, beliefs involving good role models and correct moral standards deserve to be at the top of the list – it is hard to see what would be objectionable about having a role model who is a virtuous person, or about developing an accurate understanding of the principles of morality.

But what about beliefs in our own virtuousness, e.g., that we are honest or compassionate people? Should they also be encouraged? The problem is that such beliefs usually are false, since most of us are not virtuous people and do not have the virtues like honesty. Or at least that is what the psychological evidence suggests to me, and I would be happy to talk about this more in the comments. The question for now is this – is it okay to try to increase virtuous behavior by promoting beliefs which may seriously misrepresent who we are? Similarly for the positive religious beliefs, should an atheist or agnostic encourage other people to form those beliefs, if he also thinks that they are mistaken?

It is initially tempting to answer these questions with a “no.” But a counter-argument is that sometimes we value benefits to society over the truth. For instance, placebos are sometimes used in the medical community, even though they promote false beliefs and involve deception.

Personally I am not persuaded by this counter-argument. It would be too manipulative and lead to too many problematic results if, for instance, many people were encouraged to believe that they are compassionate when we know that they really are not. We can continue this discussion in the comments. For now my hope is that, as we continue to discover which beliefs contribute to virtuous behavior, we will also keep in mind the further question of how that behavior can be promoted in the most appropriate and admirable ways.

Discussion Summary

I am very grateful to the many commentators who posted about my article on the Big Question Online site during the week of June 18. The comments really challenged me to think deeper about these issues. I wanted to pick up on a few of the central themes that were raised, and I apologize that there is not more space to mention every topic.

Central Themes

In my article I offered four answers to the question of which beliefs contribute to virtuous behavior: beliefs in positive role models, beliefs in your own virtue (or that others believe you are virtuous), certain moral beliefs, and certain religious beliefs. Let me mention three themes that were generated in the discussion.

One theme had to do with my third proposal about “certain” moral beliefs, which I tied to correct moral standards. That naturally led to questions about what makes a moral standard “correct.” I noted that I am assuming an objective framework for thinking about moral standards, and that in contemporary Western ethics there are two main approaches to conceiving of an objective morality. One is to say that the objective morality just exists as an objective feature of the universe, and was not created by anyone. An analogy would be to the laws of physics, which can be said to just exist as objective truths as well. The other leading option is to say that the objective morality is based on a divine being, in particular the God of the three main theistic religions. In other words God has, either through his commands or his will or in some other way, set into place a moral framework for human beings to live by. My response led to follow-up comments about what practical difference these two options end up having in the end.

Another theme which emerged is the importance of belief in your own agency, and relatedly in free will and moral responsibility. I agreed that these beliefs are important, and I would have addressed them if there had been more space. As I noted in a comment, I tend to think of all these beliefs as background conditions for forming the virtues. They can contribute in positive ways to enabling a person to become more virtuous, but by themselves they do not make a direct contribution to virtue, although their absence can contribute to morally problematic behavior. In other words, there are many people for whom it is true that they believe that they are agents, believe in free will, believe in changeable, controllable traits, believe that they are able to help others in various ways, and believe that they are self-controlled – and yet at the same time they have one or more vices, or at least do not have the moral virtues like honesty or compassion.

Finally, there was active debate and disagreement on the ethics of my second strategy of encouraging belief in our own virtuousness. As I claimed in the article, while there is psychological evidence that such beliefs can make us behave more virtuously (at least in the short run), on ethical grounds there are serious questions about whether this should count as a morally acceptable strategy if it involves knowingly promoting in others false beliefs about themselves (since most people are not in fact virtuous). In reply, some comments noted how believing that you are virtuous can be helpful, and one in particular urged this approach to moral education for children. My final thought was that, while I certainly agree that it is great to nurture the seed of good character, is the right way to do this by telling children that they are already virtuous, i.e., already honest, already compassionate, etc., if it involves deceiving them in a certain way in order to make the ends justify the means? Rather, my alternative approach would be to say that it is important to become virtuous, to become honest, to become compassionate, etc. So I agree that encouraging compassion in a person can initiate a process whereby that character trait materializes; I am just worried about initiating that process bytelling the child that he is already compassionate.

Two New “Big” Questions

In light of the discussion online, here are two natural questions to pursue next:

1. Does thinking of yourself as a free and responsible moral agent contribute to virtuous behavior?

2. Having identified some of the strategies which could actually promote virtuous behavior, is it important to consider which ones should be promoted on ethical grounds and which ones should be avoided? In particular, should virtuous behavior ever be promoted by strategies that encourage non-virtuous motives, or by strategies that involve cultivating false beliefs?

I hope that a discussion of these questions will appear in future articles on this website.

40 Responses

  1. Hmm says:

    In your essay you write:

    “Certainly, I would argue, beliefs involving good role models and correct moral standards deserve to be at the top of the list – it is hard to see what would be objectionable about having a role model who is a virtuous person, or about developing an accurate understanding of the principles of morality.”

    I’m curious to know if you have a proposal for arriving at “correct moral standards.” I am asking because it seems to me to go to the core of the range of questions raised in your essary, or  “about developing an accurate understanding of the principles of morality.” For instance, an “objectivist” may have rather different-from-traditional but reasonably thought out and argued notion regarding the “moral correctness” of a “virtue” like “altruism.” And of course, this is just one example So how to arrive at “correct moral standards”? What thoughts do you have along those lines?

    • Christian Miller says:

      Great question, Hmm. Also a really big one! I am assuming an “objectivist” or “moral realist” framework here. I do think that some actions, such as torturing to death an innocent child purely for amusement, are just wrong, period. This would be true even if (somehow) the majority of people came to think it was okay. Where does this objective morality come from? In contemporary Western ethics, there are two main options in answering that question. One is to say that it just exists as an objective feature of the universe, and was not created by anyone. An analogy would be to the laws of physics, which can be said to just exist as objective truths as well. A good discussion of this position can be found in Russ Shafer-Landau, Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? (Oxford, 2003). The other leading option is to say that the objective morality is based on a divine being, in particular the God of the three main theistic religions. In other words God has, either through his commands or his will or in some other way, set into place a moral framework for human beings to live by. I have looked at the pluses and minuses of this position in some of my own writings. But as far as the topic of this essay is concerned, I think my main point could hold regardless of which of these two options is accepted. I haven’t said anything yet about how one would learn about what an objective morality says, since it seems to me that that question will depend in large part on what you first think about the origin and nature of the objective morality itself. Hope this helps, and happy to talk more!

      • Karen Blakeley says:

        You know Christian, I've always been confused as to the psychological status of values.  Are they innate and linked to motivation e.g. independence or caring are both values that can be linked to motivational/personality differences.  Are they learned as religious values are learned by being raised within a particular religious tradition.  Are they 'rationalisations' as Haidt would have it i.e. we want something rather selfishly (e.g. an executive pay rise) so we make those desires acceptable to others by calling on values to justify them (by calling on market values of demand and supply).  Are they beliefs which have less influence on our behaviour than deeper drives and motivations (I am thinking of the Good Samaritan study by Darley and Batson).  They are, I know, all of these things.  But when you talk about the value of 'wanting to hurt a child for fun' is this not really just a drive or motivation?  Do you think we need greater conceptual clarity regarding what values are?

        • Christian Miller says:

          Thanks for following up, Karen. I would say that the answer to your last question is – absolutely! In my way of thinking, there is a narrow and a broad conception of “values.” On the narrow conception, they are the objects of certain beliefs (as distinct from desires, drives, emotions, etc.). In particular, they are the objects of beliefs about what I think is good or bad, right or wrong, or virtuous or vicious. For instance, one of my values is that slavery is wrong. This is the content of a belief. Another of my values is that charity work is good. That’s the content of another belief. Values on this narrow conception could also include religious values, as in a belief in the goodness of God or that we are to love God. Now where these beliefs come from is a different matter. Whether some of them are rationalizations, or products of our upbringing, or mental states we have formed using our own conscious reflection, will likely vary significantly from belief to belief, from person to person, and from culture to culture. I find this narrow conception to be very helpful to use in focusing discussion. However, we can also talk about values more generally as any state of mind where something is important to us. That would include states of mind involving caring, drives, needs, beliefs, desires, emotions, and so on.

          I would suggest that whether a belief can have a significant influence on behavior would seem to vary depending on what the belief is about. Religious beliefs and moral beliefs seem to me to sometimes be very significant, depending on such factors as whether they are salient or not (as mentioned in the essay).

        • EdFF says:

          As a by-the-bye, Wired recently reported ( http://www..com/wiredwiredscience/2012/05/does-thinking-about-god-improve-our-self-control ) on research led by Kevin Rounding whose research was also reported in an essay by Wray Herbert – “Why Do We Have Religion Anyway”  ( http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/were-only-human/why-do-we-have-religion-anyway.html ) .

          While both reports state that thoughts of God (generated by the researchers) increased self-control, The APS (Association for Psychological Sciences) version notes that:  “… those with religion on their minds were statistically no different than those with morality on their minds.”

      • Hmm says:

        Christian, I was using "objectivist" in the tradition of Ayn Rand and her followers. Not that I am one, but they are out there and seem to be gaining influence.

        Back to objective morality or standards you cite two lines of thought. I'm checking to see if I am clear. Is the biggest difference between those two approaches that one says "they just are like the laws of physics and nobody put them in place," and other position basically says the same thing, but that a God put them in place? Aside from that distinction, are the two positions about the same? Second, am I correct to think either or both views (or any view that advocates for "objective moral standards") are small minority views in the post modern world? In other words, these may be the two leading views among those who hold any ideas of an objective morality, but what portion of the population do they comprise?

        Next, perhaps mixing humanism with theism here, but assuming, or wanting there to be such standards in the universe (whether put there theistically or just there) what part of us is it that would/could or can/does recognize these "laws," and if it is a very big part of us, why so much doubt and dissent over the existence and/or nature of the laws? I think this also touches on much in the other comments having to do with values, drives, motivation, etc. The questions in that part of the discussion pretty much go to what I am asking here. 

        • Christian Miller says:

          Sorry about the mixup, Hmm. Philosophers don’t talk about Ayn Rand much these days, and use the language of “objectivism” more often to refer to the objective morality position. On the first question, yes that is right as far as the fundamental metaphysical story. However, this difference will have also kinds of ramifications. For instance, there may be very different stories that are told about how we learn what this objective morality says. In the secular version, the story is typically that we learn about it via intuition. In the religious version, one component of the story will involve divine revelation, say in the form of the Ten Commandments, although that won’t be the only way to discern God’s will. On the second question, I am not sure at all that objective views are small minority views. First, they are the majority view in the theistic traditions, and Islam and Christianity have the largest number of followers of any religious (or non-religious) outlook. Secondly, among philosophers in the US at least, postmodernism has not made as much of an inroad, and the objective views are very popular. I agree, though, that this is not true in other parts of the humanities like comparative literature. Finally, among non-academics, it is not clear that objective views about morality are rejected. See an influential recent study by Goodwin and Darley, “The Psychology of Meta-Ethics: Exploring Objectivism,” Cognition 2008: 1339-66.

          Finally, the last question is a very big one, and let me just suggest one thought. The answer is going to be influenced by which version of the objective morality position you adopt. For instance, if you accept the theistic version, then theists will often appeal to notions like the fall of mankind and the pervasiveness of sin to explain our failures here. As I mentioned earlier, the non-theistic objective views will often appeal instead to reason and intuition as the means to grasp the objective morality, and will have to tell a different story.

          • Karen Blakeley says:

            I think we are talking about process and content here i.e. how can we encourage virtuous behaviour and what beliefs should we promote.  I was struck by the research on church attendance.  I interpret this as an alliance between content and process in that religious beliefs both define virtue and promote virtuous behaviour by the continual priming of it – church attendance, regular prayer, home groups remind practitioners of the virtuous behaviour that they should be attaining – hence it is constantly on their mind.  However, church attendance also operates as an alternative social group that enforces certain behavioural standards (sometimes not that well, as we have seen). If we wish to maintain membership of that group then we have to comply with their standards and if our identities are tied up with this social group we will internalize their beliefs.  Another function of religious groups in promoting virtuous behaviour is that they operate as an alternative paradigm to the dominant market ideology making it possible for those who critique it to find a space to share their thoughts with those who share similar views.  I think this is crucial, because without such alternative communities, it would be much more difficult to critique dominant paradigms – we would be lone voices and probably considered mad.  Maybe this is why Giles Fraser was such a hit recently and why there has been interest in Christian Atheism.  But I love the Darley and Batson study of the priests who, on rushing to get to a talk on the Good Samaritan, walk past someone who is obviously ill and needs assistance (only 10% stopped when they were in a hurry).  This suggests that values which are the objects of our beliefs are often less powerful than values which are the objects of our goals and desires!  Great definition Christian – thank you.

          • Hmm says:

            Christian, thank you for the thoughtful replies.

          • Hmm says:

            Christian, I had asked: "what part of us is it that would/could or can/does recognize these "laws," and if it is a very big part of us, why so much doubt and dissent over the existence and/or nature of the laws? I think this also touches on much in the other comments having to do with values, drives, motivation, etc. The questions in that part of the discussion pretty much go to what I am asking here."

            You replied in part: "Finally, the last question is a very big one, and let me just suggest one thought. The answer is going to be influenced by which version of the objective morality position you adopt. For instance, if you accept the theistic version, then theists will often appeal to notions like the fall of mankind and the pervasiveness of sin to explain our failures here. As I mentioned earlier, the non-theistic objective views will often appeal instead to reason and intuition as the means to grasp the objective morality, and will have to tell a different story."

            My resulting question comes back around to this idea. You have also mentioned the theist and non-theist takes on "moral law," and unless I have misunderstood, the upshot of that has been that the two takes on moral law are very similar in a pragmatic sense of what they mean to us in a "how then shall we live?" sense, with a key distinction being either "they (moral law(s) just are there," or "A God put them there," but in either case, both sides would agree "it/they are there" (moral law(s)). 

            So my questions to the effect of "what parts of us recognize this moral law, and how does that work?" does not seem to be anymore contingent on whether god put it there, or whether it just is. What I am asking for is, in the same  way theist and non-thiest alike can agree that "moral law is there" (disputing only "how it got there"), what are the parts of us that all moral objectivists (well, mostly all — assuming not everyone will ever agree about anything) can say, "yes, this is how it works" even if they disagree as to whether "god made it work that way" or "it just is that way without any god." — Do you see what I'm getting at? I'm not trying to be cantankerous — but actually looking for "points of general agreement" or a "wider base of agreement." — perhaps even between people who are quite different minded from one another on some of these topics. 

          • Christian Miller says:

            Dear Hmm…Yes, I see what you are getting at – what can moral objectivists agree upon regardless of whether the foundation of the objective morality is God or not. I think there are quite a few things:

            That moral judgments express beliefs (opposing traditional non-cognitivism)

            That some moral judgments are true (opposing the error theory)

            That there are objective moral facts and truths (opposing the other views along with moral constructivism)

            That human opinion does not determine the content of the objective morality

            That we are capable of grasping what the objective morality says

            That we are capable of acting in accordance with what the objective morality says

            That we are not infallible and are prone to make mistakes in grasping what the objective morality says and in following it in our lives

            That even if the Nazis (or pick your favorite example) had won WWII, their behavior still would have been wrong.

            That the content of part of the objective morality says, for instance, that torturing a child purely for amusement is objectively wrong.

            I’m sure there are other items that belong on this list, but that’s what jumps out at me at the moment.

  2. Karen Blakeley says:

    Great thought piece Christian.  Firstly, I am not sure we would be able to encourage people to believe in their own virtuousness if it simply weren't true.  I know that we tend to believe things that boost our self-esteem, even in the face of contrary evidence, but, the gap between our self-righeous beliefs and our behaviour would be apparent to others and all this would achieve is further cynicism.  Secondly, the church has been trying to promote religious beliefs for centuries and does not appear to be succeeding all that well – again, I am not sure it is possible to promote religious beliefs nowadays.  Holding religious beliefs is quite a complicated business in these postmodern times! 

    I do feel that what we can do is to promote a set of beliefs that support individual agency.  Apparently, a belief in free will can generate virtuous behaviour (according to research by Masicampo et al.).  if we believe that our beliefs and behaviour matter and have a real effect, then we are more likely to be virtuous.  We see this all the time in organisations when people give up, shrug their shoulders and say things like – "that's the way things are done around here, what can I do about it?"  This reminds us of the Burke quote – 'all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing'.  When we believe that we cannot influence anything, we tend not to take responsiblity for our moral behaviour and go along with the 'crowd'.

    Hence I would promote education that helps people identify their values, recognise the importance of their values and help people live out their values – the underlying belief would be: 'your values matter both for the quality of your own life and for the quality of the society you inhabit' – a sort of virtues ethic.

    Finally, I feel that we are in the midst of an ideological battle at the moment between a belief in the inherent morality of the markets and the need to limit market ideology to its own sphere of activity (as recommended by Michael Sandel).  In other words, we should promote the belief that 'values matter' at the societial level as much as they do at an individual level, and that values are too important to be left to markets. 

    So I guess I am saying that what promotes virtuous behaviour is a belief that 'you matter', 'your values matter' and 'your society's values matter'.

    • Christian Miller says:

      Thank you so much for these very interesting comments, Karen! There is much to talk about here, but let me pick up on two themes. First, I agree with you about the importance of a belief in free will, along with a belief in moral responsibility and in the power of one’s own agency. If I had had more space, I definitely would have wanted to mention these beliefs too. E. J. Masicampo is actually a colleague of mine here at Wake Forest, and has done very interesting work in this area. I also agree that the flip side is dangerous – when responsibility is defused over multiple people, it can lead us to justify all kinds of terrible things, as a lot of research has shown as well as (unfortunately) many real world events.

      I also agree about the importance of recognizing our values and helping people live them out. I would only add – some values. Unfortunately many people have valued terrible things, like child abuse or slavery. If someone recognizes that he values child abuse, then that person should work to change himself, and others should not help him live the value out. Together with freedom and responsibility and agency, also come moral standards that we should try to live up to and against which we can be held accountable. Or so, at least, I would say.

  3. Arnie says:

    As much as I have read of this discussion, it leaves out what I consider absolutely basic: An understanding of the differences between facts and convictions. Every belief not testable by repeatable observation is a matter of choice, which can be completely ad hoc, momentary, looking for immediate gratification or advantage.  Or it maybe a matter of personal conviction or commitment–and if we don't have that, we are hardly human.  No matter what we believe, if it is something with a degree of permanence in our personality, we are likely to act in accordance with it,or feel a certain loss, a failure to be our selves.

    Accordingly I would say that the most fundamental belief that contributes to virtuous behavior is the belief in individual responsibility for one's actions, that they are expressions of what we are, that deviations tend to make us feel less what we want ourselves to be, that make us less reliable to ourselves and to others. But if we don't recognize that our commitments are ours, our own choices, for which we are responsible, no matter what our social surroundings pressure us to be, we live with a vague sense of values imposed by some others, with various opinions,vaguely urging one thing or another, and depnding on the crowd we happen to be hanging out with.

    I think my argument is buttressed by a fairly universal religious practice: The commitment at some stage of "maturity" to the values of your group, in "confirmation","bar mitzvah", and the thousand other rites of passage that anthropologists have described. Indeed, I think we should have a perfectly secular commitment ceremony for each of us as we get old enoughto vote. Admittedly, that would make obligatory a commitment to some, very few but basic democratic values, onl a little more explicit than in the oath of allegiance.

    • Christian Miller says:

      Thank you for these interesting thoughts. In your second paragraph, you pick up on a theme echoed by Karen Blakeley about the importance of responsibility. As I noted in a previous comment, responsibility, free will, and agency definitely seem like they need to be part of the discussion too. Here is one concern that a critic could raise about this idea, though. A belief in individual responsibility might be important to being an agent in general and to being held accountable for our actions. But does it actually contribute to virtuous behavior itself? For instance, a person with a terrible character, like Hitler, still could have a strong sense of individual responsibility and believe that his choices are his own. Yet he had many vices, not virtues, which gave rise to vicious actions. So, this argument would say, it is not just a matter of being free and taking responsibility for your own values which is central or fundamental to promoting virtuous behavior, but a matter of taking responsibility for the correct or appropriate values. Hopefully worth thinking about!

  4. EdFF says:

    I believe that the vast majority of people will never consider the question. They acquiired a set of beliefs, mostly as children and mostly without thought and then go through life on thoughtless autopilot. Which may explain why I find one of your sentences confusing: “Similarly for the positive religious beliefs, should an atheist or agnostic encourage other people to form those beliefs, if he also thinks that they are mistaken?” 

    Are you asking whether the atheist / agnostic should attempt to promote religious beliefs; or, whether they should attempt to presuade a religious person to give up their religious belieIf the latter, would you phrase the issue as whether a religious person should attempt to convert an atheist? I think not.



    • Christian Miller says:

      I agree that many people may not ask this specific question. However, I would not jump to say that most people go through life on thoughtless autopilot. I suspect that most people, at some point or other during their lives, ask thoughtful questions about whether God exists, what the point of it all is, how can I tell whether this action is right or wrong, is there an afterlife, and so on.

      On the question, it is your second option. If promoting certain beneficial religious beliefs can also promote good things in society, then perhaps atheists should not try to convince theists to give up their religious beliefs. Perhaps society as a whole would be better off if there were plenty of sensible theists. That, at least, was what the question was asking.

      • EdFF says:

        It may be that the social and professional circles you most frequently find yourself around would not fit the type of character I had in mind; never mind, not all that important.

        But promoting hypocrisy in an essay promoting values, that is significant. Up to that point I tend to agree with you. I know atheists who feel compelled to challenge theists. I don’t (allowing for exceptions) because I do believe the world is a safer place when people believe an all-seeing, all-knowing higher power is watching them. But, on the other hand, I would not deny my beliefs in order to secure a small bit of possible safety. Even if that were a more significant possibility, I would still not get on that downward slope and, again, I am surprised that you would  suggest considering the tactic and I am positive you would not suggest such an approach to one of those young people knocking on doors and handing out bibles – as one example.

        But then those religious people have higher values than the godless; right?

        • Christian Miller says:

          Thank you for continuing this discussion, EdFF. I’m not sure we disagree here. I did raise the question, “Similarly for the positive religious beliefs, should an atheist or agnostic encourage other people to form those beliefs, if he also thinks that they are mistaken?” But in the final paragraph, I tried to make it clear that I was not accepting this strategy. It seems like in your comments above you agree with me. But we may not be on the same page, and I would be happy to continue the discussion further.

          • EdFF says:

            I have re-read the comments in question and concede that I may have read more into the phrasing than is really there. We agree that those holding a set of values should not speak against them in an effort to, possibly, make things safer. Since noone else has commented, it would seem to be a dominant view. 

  5. stonecypher says:

    In my experience of recovering from addiction, I was initially turned off by the idea of "affirmations," because much of it involved saying things about myself that weren't true, such as "I am honest" and "I take care of myself," but over time I discovered myself becoming more honest and more willing to take care of myself.  Psychologically speaking, by labeling myself "honest," I verbally programmed myself to believe that I value honesty, and that programming caused me to actually value honesty more than I previously had.  From a more theological angle, I believe that God has made certain things true of me–that the real me is good and just and truthful–and that when I believe that truth about myself, it causes that truth to express itself more and more in my behavior.

  6. awkennedy says:

    Reading this, I was not struck so much by disagreement, but the conspicuous lack of reference to the real contexts where virtue happens. I can see where institutional concerns may limit examining these contexts in philosophical publications, but the internet is where we can talk to each other like real people! And even still, there are a variety of academic disciplines invested in seeking out the answer to this question in less de-contextualized language. And I know there may not be space for an examination of what virtue is here, but the picture of virtue we get is mostly from the actual photo at the top and the studies that mostly illustrated not-virtuous, leaving us with what I think is a fairly common idea about virtue and morality – that it's mostly just being not-bad.

    I think the belief that virtue is active, often the 'unnatural' product of effort is an important one. The belief that virtue is both a yearly mission trip and every day at work and at home. Psychological tests are bounded scenarios, and I'm pretty sure there are psychological tests that show we behave complicatedly when we're in situations we experience as bounded off from 'real life.' And real life is where virtue happens, real life is where our behavior is the most habitual, the most pragmatically goal-oriented. And then, by many accounts, our beliefs happen afterwards.

    Maybe I've missed the point of something, but I think this answer to the question is one that feels very bounded off from a real interest in how real people get along in the real world.

    • Hmm says:

      Awkennedy, you write: “Maybe I’ve missed the point of something, but I think this answer to the question is one that feels very bounded off from a real interest in how real people get along in the real world.”

      Please fill in with the examples of the kind you would like to see discussed. I am of the opinion that it starts with ideas, but am fully in agreement with you that the ideas need to translate into real life, real world action. While maintaining that ideas are very much a part of my real life in the real world I inhabit (maybe less dichotomizing?) I will appreciate more of your take on this.

    • Christian Miller says:

      Thank you for these very interesting thoughts, awkennedy. I couldn’t agree more that looking at real world people in real world situations is absolutely crucial to understanding virtue and character. Like “hmm” in the comment earlier, I would invite you to expand on your ideas. For instance, I agree that the famous Milgram experiments from the 1960s, for instance, do not involve a “real world situation” specifically, but they can teach us a great deal about how disposed people are to obey authority figures. And that lesson can be very beneficial in all kinds of real world situations, especially during wartime as we know. I would also say that the beliefs I talked about in my essay are very much “real world.” It is very ordinary to have role models, and to believe that someone like Mother Teresa is virtuous. It is also very natural to have beliefs in moral standards such as that murder is wrong or helping others is good. And for religious believers, it is very natural and important to have beliefs about what God wants human beings to do. So in real life, it seems to me, these various beliefs are indeed important to virtue.

      • awkennedy says:

        First and foremost, this is by far the most civil and engaged discussion I've had on the internet, having just stumbled upon this site earlier this week, so thanks!

        I think I may have chosen a sort of abusive position by claiming 'real world' and 'real people.' Maybe more accurate (and less confrontational) is the suggestion that believing all of one's behaviors, all day, every day, are morally relevant is one that contributes enormously to virtuous behavior. That virtue is not limited to how one treats family or friends, or performs in moments of crisis or confrontation, but extends to whether one allows another car to merge during rush hour. Even if you're really tired from a crappy day and still have to stop off at store before you can go home and relax. I know I'm veering away from statistical studies and logical/conceptual formulations into narrative, but I can't shake the feeling that if at some point a discussion of virtue is not grounded in the mundane, people are able to go on thinking they would be the exception to the Milgram experiment, or that their habitual reactions to their day-to-day are entirely 'natural' (which in some sense could be totally valid) and therefore virtuous (which does not follow at all). I think a belief that virtue is deeply unnatural may contribute to intentional virtuous behavior.

        And I've really appreciated that there has been so much discussion on the nature of beliefs, values, emotions, and the distinctions between them. Personally, I opt for what may be a deeply over-simplified type of pragmatism that may also sound backwards to a lot people here; what you do habitually is what you believe. Stated beliefs that are not realized behaviorally are not held beliefs, in a relevant way. As one commentor pointed out, stating beliefs repeatedly can certainly influence behavior in a way that alters held beliefs over time, and there's definitely a complicated sort of double-feedback loop at work there. But there is a wealth of research, literature, and myth concerning our ability to lie to ourselves that should not be underestimated. So I guess my point there is, and I'm quoting someone, but it's late and I'm tired so I can't remember who, with regard to belief, there's a point where we can only believe that we believe. 

        Basically, I do believe that for most of us, virtue must be wrested from the most mundane and seemingly meaningless normal everyday situations. And certainly, everything from the original essay (role models, religious participation, etc) is relevant and important. I just think that at some point we need some way of confronting our own (and others') delusions and rationalizations if we are truly interested in a more virtuous world, and it seems to me the best way of doing that is insisting on theories that get very low to the ground, what is virtuous during rush hour? What is virtuous at work? What is virtuous on the internet?


        PS; I'm really not feeling values from God and values existing in the Universe as the only two options. Values from the expansive history of humans figuring out how best to live together seems like it should at least be on the table.


        • Hmm says:

          awkennedy, you write: “PS; I’m really not feeling values from God and values existing in the Universe as the only two options. Values from the expansive history of humans figuring out how best to live together seems like it should at least be on the table.”

          I laughed outloud at the thought of your last sentence. Phunny how easily we can skip the obvious, and out from the range of options on the table, probably the “most clearly researchable.” Thank you for tweaking our menu selection. I hope we will pursue this futher. Even if not an “ultimate” kind of answer, (though some might decide it as “ultimate enough for them” and humanists might suggest it’s all we have whether it’s ultimate enough or not) surely there is much to be mined from your third option there. Of course, there are myraid examples of us not living so well together, but we do tend to take an awful lot of social functionality for granted. In other words, there’s a lot more going right here than we frequently acknowledge, and a lot of that has probably been learned too. So it’s not only the areas where we need to learn better/more or improve — I agree that one way or another we’ve had to learn an awful lot to get along with one another as well as we do.

        • Christian Miller says:

          Thanks for following up, awkennedy, and for the very kind words. I am very happy with how civil the discussion has been in general.

          Let me take your last point first by inviting you to unpack the final sentence. It could be that humans throughout history have been figuring out how best to live together, and in doing so they have come to learn better what the objective morality says. But then we are still back to the two main options. Or it could be that humans throughout history have been figuring out how best to live together, by inventing or creating a morality that works best for them. But note that now we are no longer talking about an objective morality anymore, but rather a human-dependent one that is relative to human opinion. So perhaps the two options still really do hold for understanding an *objective* morality.

          On your main point, that helps me understand your position much better. And I agree with the perspective that virtue does not apply just to the dramatic moments in life, such as running into the burning building, but that it also does and should apply to the more mundane moments as well. How someone behaves in rush hour traffic, or on the internet, or when interacting with a waiter, are all valuable clues about that person’s character. That seems exactly right to me. Where I might part ways is with your claim that what people do habitually is what they believe. It seems to me that people can put up facades around others through their behavior, and thereby deceive others about what they believe. For example, someone might make a lot of donations and others could think that he really believes that helping the poor is important, but really he doesn’t and just believes that it is important to look good. Now if instead the claim is that what people do habitually *when no one else is looking* is a reflection of what they truly believe, then that sounds much better as a principle to me.

          • awkennedy says:

            So, wouldn't that belief (giving to charity makes you look good) be one that contributes to virtuous behavior? If our goal is virtuous behavior and not a virtuous person, do we have a problem with virtuous behavior motivated by questionable beliefs?

          • Christian Miller says:

            Thanks for following up. If a person can perform a virtuous behavior without having the corresponding virtue, then yes this belief can contribute to virtuous behavior in some cases. On the second question, many philosophers would say there is a problem here. It has to do with the reliability of the virtuous behavior. Such a person would only give to charity, let us suppose, when it would make him look good. But then there will be plenty of times when he won’t give because the self-interested payoff is not there.

            To expand, suppose instead of giving to charity, the action was visiting your sick child in the hospital, and the belief was this – it is good to visit my child in the hospital only so long as it puts me in a good mood. Well, this belief can lead to some hospital visits, and maybe those are virtuous actions. But it is clearly a problematic belief – it will also lead the parent to ignore the child on many occasions as well. The problem with the belief is precisely that it is purely self-interested. When it comes to helping others and supporting our families, I think we value not just virtuous behavior but also virtuous motivation and belief. In the hospital case this would be altruistic rather than self-interested motivation and belief.

          • Christian Miller says:

            Thank you to everyone who participated in the discussion of my essay! I really appreciate all the thoughtful and interesting comments. I hope that everyone will continue to reflect on how to promote virtuous behavior, and in the most appropriate ways possible.

  7. Raghuvanshi says:

    I think emapthy is  most effective  belief   contrubute to virtuous behavior.Empathy   created in your mind  sympathy for  helpless,miserable man.If yuo do that guilt feeling harried to yuo. Yuo punish yuor self.Those who did great work for society are  suffering from guilt feeling so they are prepared themselve to do well for unfouttune people.

    • Christian Miller says:

      I completely agree that empathy is very important to virtuous behavior. In fact, I wrote an article exploring this very point! The only reason I did not mention it in this essay, is that I don’t think empathy is a belief, but rather is an emotion. But that’s not to say that it isn’t very important to compassion in particular.

  8. C. Lee says:

    Dr. Miller,

    Thank you for opening up this discussion.  The content of your essay certainly invokes considerable reflection and corresponding discourse.  In your essay you write, "But what about beliefs in our own virtuousness, e.g., that we are honest or compassionate people? Should they also be encouraged? The problem is that such beliefs usually are false, since most of us are not virtuous people and do not have the virtues like honesty."

    I counter that supposition with this point:  belief in oneself as a person of virtue should emanate from within and subsequently spawns a succession of events which develop that trait in the individual.   Essentially, this cyclical paradigm begins with the "encouragement" from another, the acceptance of that belief by the individual, and the subsequent manifested actions of the trait.  In a sense, planting the seed of virtue in an individual becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The public school system has implemented strong programs of character development.  I would venture to say that the efficacy of those systems rests not so much in innate virtues already resident within the students (although I do believe that character is there in a somewhat dormant state), but the encouragement and training that causes character to develop.  As a Christian, I see the encouragement (which you referenced in your comments) as a dual process of seed planting and seed nurturing.  Furthermore, because humanity is made in the image of God, those good character traits are already available but need to be developed.  An analogy of how one exercises a muscle offers a visual clarification of my point.  For example, if one desires to strenghten his bicep, the muscle may be weak initially but through much hard work, the muscle's potential becomes maximized. Likewise, encouraging and sowing compassion (or honesty) into a person initiates a process whereby that character trait materializes.  I would disagree with your statement that "most of us are not virtuous people and do not have the virtues like honesty."  Such commentary implies a level of cynicism and a denial of the image in which we are made.

    • Christian Miller says:

      Thank you very much for these excellent points! I actually agree with most of what you say, and hopefully I can clarify my perspective. I am all in favor of character education and character development, including in the school system. It is great to nurture the seed of good character, as you say. But the question I raised was – is the right way to do this by telling children that they are already virtuous, i.e., already honest, already compassionate, etc. True, that might be an effective tool to help shape them that way. But it also involves deceiving them in a certain way, in order to make the ends justify the means. My alternative would be to say that it is important to *become* virtuous, to become honest, to become compassionate, etc. It is intrinsically important as a goal in and of itself, it is important because being virtuous also is linked to all kinds of other goods like health, and it is important (in the Christian way of thinking) because that is the kind of person God desires us to become. So I agree that encouraging compassion in a person can initiate a process whereby that character trait materializes; I am just worried about initiating that process *by* telling the child that he is already compassionate.

      Finally, on the last point, I have actually written on this at great length, and while I say that most of us are not virtuous, I also say that most of us are not vicious people either. So it is not as if we are mostly dishonesty or cruel people, which would be cynical. My picture could fit nicely with both being made in the image of God, but also living in a fallen world where sin is everywhere.

      • Hmm says:

        On this string of deceiving people about their self-qualities, It doesn't seem a deception is justified or necessary. It seems to me we can be very encouraging without any denial of the distance yet to go. For instance, a "needs improvment" shown on a child's report card is an opportunity — opportunity to recognize a need for improvment, and act on it. Back to someone else's desire for "real world" applications of the discussions here, this is a real world example of "glass half empty or glass half full" kind of perception. It seems to me that what is needed on these topics is more one of perspective. In these regards we need to emphasize the glass as half full, and yet, there is a whole glass to be filled. 

  9. Dr. Damon Sprock says:

    We must initiate into the lives of humanity the need to acknowledge and apply the reality of the location of comprehension. The following system relates to paradigm shifts within human consciousness, bringing into existence new levels of understanding and altering an individual’s view of reality. The newly established paradigm creates a shift and exposes three, different levels of comprehension in which humans express their view of reality. This presents a new paradigm and explains the need for shifting from external, objective, world stimulus to internal, subjective, spiritual acceptance. It is where the individual discovers the source of all existence as a collective base that is innate in nature.

    This explains three levels in which humans perceive reality. First level involves action in our perception using emotional content. This is a result of our five senses interpreting observations. Many people react to everyday situations only with emotions. This can be harmful. Not having a self-awareness of the consequences of emotional reaction can result in experiencing much misery.

    The second stage of development used to interpret the environment is self-awareness. When an individual is able to remain calm while experiencing daily activities, he or she can choose to replace it with a more acceptable conditioning. It is when humans become more aware of whom they are and responds to the environmental stimulus with more understanding of the nature of things and why they happen is when a shift in perception occurs and allows one to act out his or her decisions with a higher degree of consciousness.

    Learning is realized as inner acceptances rather than a result of external causes. The third and most profound level reveals the true essence of who we are and our relation and interconnectedness to all things and the spirit of creation regarding an all Universal Mind. Third reality functions as one’s source, the question of epistemology or philosophy of the nature of knowledge awakens to a total change from our early realities. We discover that how we know and what we know is an intuitive awakening.

    This paradigm shift in understanding entails a preexisting potential that is omnipotent (all power), omniscient (all intelligence) and omnipresent (everywhere present). It is one of the most important discoveries in the late twentieth century, revealing that the self-image is part of a process of human perception that evolves through three, different realities. It is a realization that the senses do not give us meaning and feeling regarding our so-called external world. What we “see” (sense) externally from us is not the cause of our frustration but the meaning we ascribe to that sensed experience.

  10. frharry says:

    I have a comment on Christian Miller’s very fine essay regarding his reference to religious beliefs as a basis for moral behavior. He uses three examples: “The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. I will be punished in the afterlife if I do not become a better person. Every human being is created in the image of God.”

    It is true these examples all come from the same religions, Judaism for the first and third, and Christianity for all three. But they are hardly the same in terms of the moral reasoning that informs behaviors. The first example, love of neighbor, raises all kinds of questions about the scope of one’s circle of caring as discussed by Peter Singer and W.E.H. Lecky. The third example points toward a universality of ethical duties and a deep interconnectedness of all human beings resting in their common divine creation, a very high stage of moral reasoning indeed.

    But it is the thought of Lawrence Kohlberg which helps distinguishes the three. The concern only for one’s self and one’s afterlife embodied in the second example above is the epitome of preconventional, largely undeveloped moral reasoning. The essential concern here is “What must I do to avoid being punished?” and alternatively, “What’s in it for me?” This is the reasoning of small children though all human beings are capable of functioning there at any point in life. It is also the reasoning of most consumerist advertising. What should be of concern to us is that this is perhaps the dominant agent of socialization in 21st CE western culture today and thus of self-understanding and resulting moral reasoning.

    Religious thought, like any other, is not all born equal and thus disparate levels of moral reasoning cannot be simply listed as somehow representative of religion as a source of moral behavior. Religious thought certainly contains aspects of nobility that “elevate” human beings and incline them toward virtuous behaviors, as Haidt notes, as well as immoral, perhaps even pathological aspects that would could readily be seen as legitimating if not mandating genocide (i.e., the book of Joshua). While the listing of these four sources of virtuous behaviors is helpful, if we are going to use any of them as guides for our behaviors, I think it is necessary to critically distinguish these beliefs and standards based on some kind of evaluation system. The Seeger/Lecky system of expanding circles of care and thus ethical duty provides one basis. Kohlberg’s evaluative system of moral reasoning provides another.

    • Christian Miller says:

      Thank you for taking the time to post this, frharry, and your kind compliment. I entirely agree with the basic position here. There are all kinds of ethical teachings that can be grouped under the broad heading of religion, and certainly not all of them would promote virtuous behavior. Even the three examples you mention are different – the second one can promote a kind of egoistic motivation, for instance, whereas the first one is (I believe) meant to be understood in altruistic terms. It also raises very interesting questions about who counts as your neighbor. I would actually say that it shares the same features you note for the third example – universality and deep interconnectedness. In fact, you might argue that it is because of the third principle about being created in the image of God that the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself holds, where “your neighbor” is everyone created in this way. But you are certainly right that in a longer discussion it would be crucial to distinguish different religious standards using some kind of evaluation system.

      • JanMorgan says:

        As a newcomer to the site, I first read the summary Sir John Templeton's views. He had a refreshingly pragmatic attitude to religion and morality.

        Having now read and enjoyed Christian Miller's presentation and the responses, I find myself on a much more pragmatic and practical level than many of the respondents. The evidence seems to me to indicate that we probably do not have free will, but we have to act as if we do. Neither does it seem to me at all likely that there is an entity like "God", nor probably was there ever a beginning nor will there ever be an end – concepts that are almost impossible for humans to grasp, but surely that is what all religion has been, the effort to explain the unexplainable.

        That said, what matters to each of us, in a world becoming more and more interconnected, is intelligent self interest. I act in as honest and helpful a way as I can – and I teach my children to do the same – because I want to live in as honest and helpful a world as possible. As a child i could create some pretty impressive alibis, but my mother pointed out to me that if people learned not to believe me how could they ever distinguish when I was telling the truth? 

        I do assume that no matter what the moral upbringing of any of the myriad groups around the world, there are some pretty basic underpinnings which we can all recognize as helping us to have the most secure and satisfying lives possible. 

        • Christian Miller says:

          Thank you for joining the discussion, JanMorgan! There is a lot to talk about in your comments. Let me pick up on just two threads. First, the vast majority of scholars who work on free will would actually say that free will does exist. Some of them believe that free will is compatible with determinism (the compatibilists), while others believe that free will is incompatible with determinism (the libertarians). Of course, popularity does not decide truth, but I just wanted to note that free will is alive and well in academic circles. Similarly with the idea of a beginning, if we connect that to the beginning of the universe with the Big Bang. But that’s a discussion for another day.

          On self-interest, I agree that self-interest matters to us a lot. But I think that altruistically helping others matters to us too. And furthermore, it *ought* to matter. If self-interest is the only form of motivation there is, then virtue is in trouble. Compassion, for instance, requires altruistic motivation, not self-interested motivation. Fortunately, though, there seems to be a lot of evidence for altruism, specifically in relation to the work of Dan Batson on empathy.

          Just some thoughts to think about!