The Small Virtues

In a discussion at Talking Philosophy a few days ago there was some talk of the “small virtues.” It’s tricky coming up with examples. Punctuality seems like a small virtue, but then maybe it’s actually one of the less important expressions of a great virtue—respect. I made it to a meeting on time recently and while we waited for the others, everyone agreed that’s what punctuality is all about.

What punctuality amounts to varies a lot depending on the context and culture. According to an article in The Economist (so don’t blame me for the stereotype), “Punctuality is not a Latin American comparative advantage.” But I take it everywhere there is some limit on how late you can be. (Right?)

Marital fidelity was mentioned in that earlier discussion as a small virtue. Bill Clinton’s unfaithfulness was not a small matter to Hillary, I’m sure. “Small virtue…nonsense!” you can just hear her say. But better that in a president than other vices that play out in a big way on the world stage. Maybe it was cowardice that made Clinton stand by and do nothing during the slaughter in Rwanda. The opposite—being rash—seems to be part of what got us into the mess we’re in in Iraq.

Sense of humor seems like a small virtue, if it’s a virtue at all. Aristotle actually does list wit alongside “serious” virtues like courage and justice (which I’ve always found intriguing). How about neatness as a small virtue? And being a slob as a small vice?

Respect is a virtue that interests me a lot–especially the question of what it means to have it when you disagree strongly with another person. But I’d say it’s a big virtue, so will save the topic for another day!

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