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Asked in psych SE and was re-routed here [1].

What if anything has been written about the tensions between commonly accepted virtues?

Here's the small list I have as an example:

  • Honesty and Kindness. At odds when one prioritizes telling the truth despite causing another pain and the inverse.
  • Independence and Sociability. At odds when one prioritizes themselves over others or vice versa.
  • Justice and Empathy. //
  • Prudence and Bravery. //
  • Etc.

How can we find the world of virtues and then those pairs with greatest conflict?

[1] - https://psychology.stackexchange.com/questions/28750/at-odds-virtues

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  • "Everything you say should be true, kind, and helpful, and be needed now." You are free to talk and I am free to walk. "There is no justice without kindness." "Discretion is the better part of valor." "Nothing new is learned until existing systems have failed to maintain equilibrium."
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 19, 2022 at 20:38
  • Made me think of empathy vs compassion, & the book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. You might find the Tibetan Buddhist idea of the near-enemies of virtues relevant: theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jun/07/…
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 19, 2022 at 20:41
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    Sounds like you're on the right track towards your enlightenment so long as you could synthesize and handle your rightly conceived seemingly Hegelian tensions. Btw, causing pain itself could be actually good for people since from biology we know if we couldn't feel pain it would be very dangerous to live in various situations and environments... Aug 19, 2022 at 21:55
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    Hopefully relevant: contrastivism in ethics. Aug 19, 2022 at 22:23
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    See Becker, Unity, coincidence, and conflict in the virtues:"There are many putative virtues, and they often appear to conflict... Historically, they have been framed as questions about the "unity" of the virtues, and I shall follow that tradition... unified in the sense that, given any conflict between trails, it will always be possible in theory to determine which one is primary - which one is the "first virtue" in that circumstance." Googling "unity of virtues" brings up a lot of hits. Try also related issue of "moral dilemmas".
    – Conifold
    Aug 20, 2022 at 6:08

3 Answers 3

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Prudence was considered by the ancient Greeks and later on by Christian philosophers, most notably Thomas Aquinas, as the cause, measure and form of all virtues. It is considered to be the auriga virtutum or the charioteer of the virtues... Without prudence, bravery becomes foolhardiness; mercy sinks into weakness, free self-expression and kindness into censure, humility into degradation and arrogance, selflessness into corruption, and temperance into fanaticism.

thanks wikipedia

the virtue is the ability to judge between virtuous and vicious actions, not only in a general sense, but with regard to appropriate actions at a given time and place. Distinguishing when acts are courageous, as opposed to reckless or cowardly, is an act of prudence, so for this reason it is classified as a cardinal (pivotal) virtue.

So to take one of your examples at whim:

  • Independence and Sociability

Most people need some human contact to maintain a sense of independence. There are times and places (if not people) that require one, in place of other, even to support the other, let alone the other virtues.

It's an interesting question, because of simplistic psychological biases no-one is immune to (the beautiful are noble, etc.). Perhaps we need not just prudence but God.

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My answer assumes an Arisototelian definition of virtue. It is a golden middle in between two extremes, therefore you cannot have "too much" of a virtue. And also, a crucial aspect is that it involves a certain mindset and a specific kind of deployment: e.g. being honest in the right way, in the right situations, for the right reasons, toward the right persons, etc. — which really moves the core of the definition elsewhere (What's the right way? What are the right situations? Etc.), and I won't explain that here, but that shift alone is helpful for answering your question.

My answer also presupposes that virtue involves not just certain ways of acting, but even more importantly, it involves certain ways of thinking, dispositions, and perceptual filters.

So, taking your first example...

I'd start by saying that proper honesty doesn't mean "blindly spit out everything you think". And proper kindness doesn't mean "coddle everybody around you and don't hurt or bother anyone, ever".

Those would be extremely simplistic versions of honesty and kindness. Definitely not "virtuous" ones.

To me, proper honesty is a middle point between dishonesty/deception/deviousness, and... insensitivity/bluntness/mindless sincerity.

And proper kindness is a middle point between hostility/aggression/rudeness, and... passiveness/gullibility/people-pleasing.

I think of kindness and honesty as related to and intertwined with respect and assertiveness, too.

All this being said... Here is my answer:

If the pairs you listed are proper virtues, then there is no conflict at all.

(Side note, the notion that honesty and kindness conflict often pops up in the mind of unkind people)

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In classical virtue ethics there is a suite of virtues. Logically, when one has a suite of ultimate references, one cannot construct a logically coherent system that accommodates all these ultimate references. When one has a diverse set of differing base principles, there IS no one “right” answer to any question.

The Greek Tragedies generally focussed on the conflicts between virtues in real life cases.

Aside: this multiple answers problem for virtues is shared by other derivative systemsthat have multiple references. One of the major objections to “rights” ethics is this conflict between rights, which leads to irresolvable disputes based on judgement as to which rights trump others. Legal systems face a similar conflict between laws, which leads to an ever growing set of case law as judges seek to find ways to reconcile conflicts.

Returning to your question — the conflict between virtues is intrinsic to a multi-virtues system. Some virtues thinkers have tried to address this by treating singular virtues (TRUTH or LOVE or BEAUTY) as pre-eminent, and additional virtues, like the ones you note as being in conflict, as advisory.

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