The year is 1346, the location is Crécy, and the Hundred Years’ War between France and England has begun. The French and English armies face each other. Between them lies an estuary of salty marshes; not a good place to fight.

This is the age of chivalry, and a French knight rides out. He halts his horse, and shouts a challenge. Would any English knight dare to joust three times with him? There is silence. No-one moves. Then a voice – an English voice – roars that he accepts the challenge. The two knights take their places. Each army cheers for their hero. The knights charge. Their lances glance off shields, but no-one falls. They pick fresh lances, and again they charge. Lances strike shields, and the English knight’s shield shatters. He picks his third lance, but now has no shield. To fight on is to die. Yet he will. His code says he must. But another code saves his life. The French knight dismounts. His sense of chivalry will not let him take advantage. He will not attack a defenceless opponent. The knight walks to his foe and announces the fight over. The Frenchman is a warrior with a deep sense of fairness, a man of virtue.[1]

Virtue feels like it’s in short supply these days. Politicians seem willing to take advantage whenever they can. Top executives are applauded for ruthlessness.  Cheating happens in many sports. Footballers ‘dive’ in the penalty area, countless dark arts are practised in rugby scrums, Lance Armstrong was never the only cycle racer using drugs, cricketers have been guilty of roughing the ball with an abrasive. Golf is, to some extent, the exception. It has had cheats, but most judge it one of the fairest sports because players will penalise themselves for actions no-one else could have seen. I’m glad to play a virtuous sport.

(The next paragraph gives some ‘ancient’ background about virtue – skip ahead if you wish.)

More than 2000 years ago, Greek philosophers had much to say and to debate about virtue. Virtue, they argued, was essential for a life of well-being. Plato (writing around 380 BC) believed there were four virtues: wisdom, courage, self-discipline and justice (justice for Plato meant acting in ways that produce well-being). Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, thought a life of virtue was crucial for what he called eudaimonia, happiness in the sense of living well. Writing in 325 BC, Aristotle said that ethical virtue is not ours by nature but acquired and developed by practised habit. Virtues are choices which create the kind of disposition, or inclination, that makes a human being good. In other words, the virtuous person will make good moral decisions.

Personally I like Aristotle’s emphasis on virtue as a choice and a practised habit. But the hard reality is that we live in a world where many neither make that choice nor discipline their lives to be virtuous.

I can’t solve that. There’s no pill and no process that produces virtuous people. But, in what follows, I want to make a case for why virtue matters. It might inspire us to choose virtue as our default ‘disposition’.

Virtue matters because where would we be without it?

I was playing in an important golf match. Joe was my fellow player, and we were marking each other’s scorecards. I drove my ball right and it rolled just off the edge of the fairway. Joe had gone left and was far away from me. I looked at my ball, and saw a small twig lying beside it. The twig wasn’t touching the ball, so I moved it out of my way. But immediately my ball then rolled about an inch (2.5 cm). A small leaf of the twig must have been underneath the ball, hence it moved when I took the twig away. I put the ball back, played out the hole, and told Joe I had scored five.

Joe looked at me quizzically. ‘Surely you had four?’

I explained, ‘I picked up a twig and my ball moved. I replaced the ball before playing but I have to add one penalty shot’.

But Joe said, ‘Alistair, you don’t need to do that.’ He meant I shouldn’t bother about it.

I insisted. ‘I have to do it. I couldn’t be at peace putting in a score that I knew was wrong.’

‘Well’, Joe said, ‘you might be the only golfer here today who’d do that.’

Really? Sadly, yes. The vast majority of golfers wouldn’t breach any major rules, but Joe was right that many would ignore small infringements, especially if they hadn’t gained any advantage.

I’m not wired that way. I want everyone to play to the same rules because, if they don’t, the outcome can’t be fair. And if people breach minor rules, perhaps they also breach major rules. Then the person who wins is simply the best cheat. And that can’t be right.

That was exactly the point of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), when he defined right actions on the basis of a categorical imperative. Here’s Kant’s formula for deciding right or wrong actions: ‘I ought never to conduct myself except so that I could also will that my maxim become a universal law’.

His meaning is actually very straightforward. He’s saying: My action is right if I could want everyone to do it. Therefore, lying must be wrong because, if everyone lied, all normal human interactions would be impossible.

And Kant would say cheating at golf must be wrong because you could never want everyone to cheat. Competitions would be ruined if everyone cheated.

Kant’s principle is relevant in countless situations. If everyone broke speed limits, there would be carnage on the roads. If everyone stole from their neighbours, communities would be destroyed. If shops faked their weighing scales or checkout scanners so that you were under-supplied but over-priced, customers would flee. Hence – by asking if we’d want everyone to do something – we know whether it’s right or wrong.

We need virtue. We must believe most people are telling the truth, charging us fairly, and keeping to common-sense rules. Without virtue ordinary human relationships would be impossible.

Virtue creates better leadership

Harry fitted perfectly the profile of a results-driven leader, a man who (metaphorically speaking) would kick down a door rather than waste time finding a key. He demanded his staff do whatever was necessary to achieve goals, even if that meant cancelling vacations and working all hours. He shouted cruel insults at under-performers, and forced his staff to ignore inconvenient procedures and regulations. Staff trembled when Harry came into their office. He was feared, disliked, and lacked any respect from his team. Here’s the odd thing. Harry didn’t achieve great results. In fact his department’s performance was below average. Why? Several reasons. First, the most talented staff were also those able to get another job, so they left. Second, his team strove to have work done by Harry’s deadlines, but could never do their best work under that pressure. Third, some were so offended by the person they called hellish Harry, they refused to sacrifice themselves just so he could look good. Harry had a serious virtue-deficit, and after three years he also had an employment deficit.

Contrast Harry with any manager or executive you’ve known who was known for her virtues. Perhaps she took time to know her team, cared about their well-being, ensured they had a healthy work-life balance. Perhaps she made sure the work-flow was evenly distributed. Perhaps she praised people for great work, and was gentle with corrections. Perhaps she got everyone together for a snacks and celebrations event whenever a project was successful. Perhaps she defended her staff when top management were critical. Perhaps she knew the names of her team’s partners, spouses and children. Is it any wonder that leader’s team performed well above average. They enjoyed their work, respected their leader, and gave their very best every day.

It’s obvious which of these leaders radiated virtue. It’s not surprising which was the better leader.

The virtuous person is trusted

Once I could afford better than ‘hardly-fit-for-the-road’ cars, I’ve dealt with car salesmen. (Why do so few women sell cars?) Almost all these sales people were perfectly groomed with sales pitches perfectly presented. Whichever car I looked at was the perfect car for me. Everything was utterly wonderful about it. And there were amazing finance deals on that car. Nothing would be a barrier to me buying there and then. One younger salesman in America told me we would definitely agree on a price for one of their brand new cars before I left the showroom. I offered $1000. He didn’t agree. I left the showroom.

Over-hyped sales presentations turn me off. But when I dealt with Jim and (some years later) with Mark, I met salesmen who’d clearly never been to sell-them-quick school. They were almost reserved and totally devoid of hype. They listened when we told them what kind of car we wanted, what our price goals were, what car we’d be trading in. When we looked over cars and took them out for a test-drive, they gave honest answers to questions about a car’s reliability, fuel consumption, servicing needs. If I criticised something they addressed the issue but they didn’t deny any problem existed. Above all, each of these two gave us time, and not once did they try to pressurise us into a decision. Guess what? We bought cars after dealing with Jim and Mark. In fact, because Mark had looked after us so well, I asked to speak to his manager, and told him that Mark was exactly the kind of salesman we found helpful, and that his approach had seriously influenced us in buying our new car. I hope Mark got a bonus.

Because of the qualities they showed, we trusted Jim and Mark. How can anyone buy from a person or business they don’t trust? Whether it’s a salesperson or a company, a good reputation is crucial to make sales or win contracts.

In short, the virtuous person is trusted. And trust is the essential basis of a relationship for business, for friendship, and for marriage.

The virtuous person will tend to make good decisions

That’s exactly the logic behind what’s called ‘Virtue Ethics’. If we follow Aristotle’s view: a) that virtue is a choice, and b) it must be developed by practised habit, then we have the following:

  • A person who wants to be virtuous
  • A person constantly developing a virtuous attitude
  • Consequently we have a person who will make good, virtuous decisions.

They won’t be infallible. No-one is perfectly virtuous, so no-one’s decisions will always be good. But the virtuous person’s decisions will more often be right than the decisions of people with no concern for virtue.

For many years after I made my Christian commitment (which was at the age of 18), I wondered how to make right choices. Late teens and early twenties are a time of many major decisions – some related to work, then about going to university, which courses to take, where to live, how to spend money, about girlfriends, and eventually about getting married. But how could I know the right decisions? As well as obvious things to do – including prayer and asking friends – I finally settled on a good thought: I’ll almost never have one hundred per cent certainty, but if I sincerely want to do right and to honour God and then make choices that fit with that ambition, then I will never go too far wrong. I could put that in fewer words: if I always seek to act virtuously, my decisions will never be far off the mark.

I believe that how your life is centred determines your choices. There’s an old saying which goes something like: ‘Samantha’s life was bounded on all sides by Samantha’. In other words, Samantha was utterly self-focused. Everything had to be done for her pleasure, to suit her desires, to prosper her ambitions. Every decision reflected where Samantha’s life was centred.

But what if Samantha’s life was centred on virtue? Then Samantha’s choices would be very different. Instead of being selfish, they’d be selfless. Instead of being indulgent, they’d often be sacrificial. Instead of using others, she’d often serve others. And so on.

Good decisions flow from a life centred on virtue.

To sum up, I believe it’s time for virtue to be revived. We may not adopt medieval chivalric norms, but we can choose lives of integrity and worth. Virtue is so needed today: for relationships with neighbours, colleagues, business partners, fellow students, communities. We also need virtue in wider society, for civility in discourse, for honesty in government, for fairness in business. And we need virtue in world affairs, to be able to trust what world leaders say and respect what they do, for trade to be conducted fairly, for action to be taken so that especially the world’s poor are benefitted.

I looked up virtue in dictionaries. The eighth meaning for virtue listed in one dictionary was ‘valour’, and valour comes from the Latin valēre, to be strong. I like that. To think and act with virtue/valour shows strength. Why? Because the self-discipline and courage required for virtue comes at a price which only the strong will pay. May God help us.

[1] The account of the two knights is borrowed from The French Knight’s Guide to Corporate Culture, Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford, Apparently the two knights became lifelong friends.