Last week, we discussed whether there’s a greater good and whether there’s any good to a greater good. Today we’re talking about virtue and a well-lived life. And next week…well, I don’t know yet. 🙂

On Friday, September 27, please plan to join our open combox “Ask Anything.” Brittany and I will be replying and interacting and I’ll do my best to copy and update this post with comments and conversation.

atheist and catholic

Sarah: Would it be fair to say that you advocate a life of “virtue”? (I know that’s probably not the wording you would use. Feel free to correct me on the wording.)

Brittany: I think that is fine wording, and accurate.

Sarah: What is the basis for “virtue”?

Brittany: I’m not a philosopher or a theologian, I’m a scientist, so my answer is going to be pretty pragmatic. I’d say that virtue are those values that most everyone agrees with. People can find their own answers, too. Ugh, I sound really pop psych. I think if you start with the Golden Rule as your premise, you probably can’t go too far wrong. There’s some research on morality that suggests that fairness and (avoiding) harm are two values that everyone has. People have others, of course, but those two are fairly universal. The fact is, we don’t know where these values come from. Infants seem to intuitively grasp fairness, and not harming people would facilitate successful group interaction, civilization, etc. So probably a combination of cultures adopting as values things that made them more successful and maybe even some instincts. But this is very speculative.

Sarah: How does one know if their life of virtue has been successful?

Brittany: Well, personally, if I feel good about what I’ve done and other people are happy with me, I feel successful. There’s a few social psychological theories that self-esteem depends on how well you’re interacting with others and living up to their expectations (and your own). So if you feel good about yourself, it means others feel good about you, too. This might be why praise is such a powerful reward: it’s a signal that one is worthwhile and good.

Sarah: What’s the basis for success in a well-lived life for a non-believer?

Brittany: Same as above. If you start with the premise that religions are human inventions, then you can see how nonbelievers and believers would value the same things. This is broad brush strokes; some people might emphasize other parts of their identity or be proud of things that I consider immoral. It’s definitely my bias as a social psychologist, but I think that if you have a community of people you regularly help and whom you can trust, you’ve probably got a good life.

I just read an article about the link between average happiness in a country and community service. It’s a win-win proposition because even if the link is spurious (i.e., being helpful doesn’t make you happy or being helped doesn’t make you happy), the net is still services provided. Does that make sense? It’s probably why I don’t worry overmuch about happiness and where morals should come from, because equality, fairness, avoiding harm, and charity would all benefit the greater good, even if they don’t do anything for individuals.

See you next week for a surprise topic. And don’t forget our open combox on September 27 for “Ask Anything”! You can see all the posts in the An Atheist and a Catholic series here.