What are Moral Virtues?

Moral Virtues are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love which are acquired by human effort (CCC; 1804).

Last year in Septuagesima 2018 we listed the major seven virtues in What is a Virtue? There we outlined:

  • The Definition of "Virtue"

  • The Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity

  • The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude

In February 2018 we mapped out a brief developmental sketch of the virtues to show Catholicism's unique addition to the dialogue on excellence in The Development of Virtue.

Out of the major Seven Virtues they can be categorized into three groups:

  • Theological

  • Intellectual

  • Moral

Moral virtues, being virtues, are firm dispositions of the intellect and will to do good. However, since they are moral virtues, they are habits of willing good that effect and shape the appetites, senses, passions, and deeds. Moral virtues are thus none of those, but are that which govern those. To repeat, moral virtues are habits of the intellect which govern appetites, senses, passions, and deeds.

Since Faith, Hope, and Charity are all Theological Virtues none of these are Moral Virtues. These leaves us with the four Cardinal Virtues as possible Moral Virtues. Prudence is a virtue that governs reason, and thus is not a moral virtue. This leaves us with three major Moral Virtues:

  • Justice a.k.a Righteousness

  • Fortitude a.k.a. Courage

  • Temperance a.k.a. Moderation

How is each a Moral Virtue?

  • Because Justice gives God, neighbor, and self their due, it is about action, and thus is a moral virtue.

  • Because Fortitude gives firmness and constancy to face dangers and difficulties it governs passions, and thus is a moral virtue.

  • Because Temperance moderates attraction to pleasures and use of created good it governs desires and deeds, and thus is a moral virtue.

This means Justice, Courage, and Temperance are not strong feelings, intuitions, gut instincts, rule following, or any of the like. They are habits of one's intellect governing the passions and appetites. Since they are habits, one doesn't think about them anymore than one breathes. As long as we think about the virtues and virtuous acts, we can be assure we are not yet in the habit of virtue.

Some thinking and reflection can be helpful in spiritual growth, but also over thinking, over recording, and over planning can stifle virtue cultivation by preventing the deeds from becoming habits. Imagine if you were trying to make a habit of breathing or walking in a straight line. The more you thought about each breath or each step, the longer it would remain awkward. To use an athletic metaphor, "Get out of your head and get in the game." Do a virtuous act and don't think too much about it. Reflect at the end of the day and have a rough plan on how to proceed tomorrow, but don't "make a plan to breath," that sort of planning will inhibit rather than cultivate virtue as a habit.

It's Sexagesima Friday 2019, so Ash Wednesday comes this Wednesday. Have you prepared for Lent by analyzing your moral virtues? Which do you think God is asking you to focus on? Remember, none of the virtues can be ultimately separated because they are ways of being, and ultimately God is Being-Itself. But at the same time we can work on Justice and it will accidentally work on Courage at the same time. We don't have to be aware of everything for it to work on us. This can be a great gift to relieve potential anxiety about "which virtue to focus on?"

Here are some examples of minor Moral Virtues or sub-virtues, meaning they are forms of Justice, Temperance, or Fortitude.

  • Chastity: chastises concupiscence

  • form of Temperance; regulates immoderate desire

  • Meekness: regulates the onslaught of anger

  • form of Temperance; regulates immoderate passion

  • Obedience: to follow a superior’s will/command

  • form of Justice; regulates what you ought to do

  • Clemency: regulates external punishment

  • form of Temperance; regulates immoderate action

  • Humility: regulates a tendency towards immoderately high things

  • form of Temperance; regulates immoderate desire

  • Religion: offering service and ceremonial rites to a superior nature men call “divine”

  • form of Justice; regulates what all humans ought to do for God

  • Piety: doing what one ought toward parents and country

  • form of Justice: regulates what you ought to do to neighbor

  • Honesty: being in an honorable state due to spiritual beauty

  • form of Temperance; regulation of beauty and honor in oneself

  • Diligence: eagerness to do one's prescribed work well and to its completion

  • form of Fortitude; regulates firmness and constancy toward the good

  • Perseverance: constant will despite difficulties or delay

  • form of Fortitude; regulates firmness and constancy toward the good


Q: What about respect, responsibility, loyalty, hardworking, etiquette, manners, politeness, and niceness?

A: Their American use as virtues needs some clarification. If you agree to the definitions above, then you could file them as follows:

  • Respect and Responsibility under Piety (Justice)

  • If by these you mean showing deference, even in situations where you should act against a person's actions, then no, these are not virtues. If by "respect" you mean ethical relativism, then no, it is not a virtue, since all virtues must aim at the good. If by "responsibility" you mean obeying the World on its terms, no it is not a virtue. If you mean giving due time and work to the deeds you ought to do in all situations, then yes, these are virtues.

  • Loyalty under Obedience (Justice)

  • If by this you mean staying on someone's side, even if they go evil, then no loyalty is not a virtue. If you mean doing your due to those with a legitimate claim on you to the good, then yes, it is a virtue.

  • Hardworking under Diligence (Fortitude)

  • If by hardworking you mean high energy even if every hour of hard work is interrupted by a two hour break, or high energy but never finishing works, then no, hardworking is not a virtue. If you mean persevering work of good quality to it's completion, then yes it is a virtue.

  • Etiquette, Manners, and Politeness under Honesty (Temperance)

  • If by these you mean rule following for the sake of pride, pleasure, to flatter, or for their own sake then no these are not virtues. If you mean giving your due to others through certain beautiful deeds, then yes they are virtues.

  • Niceness is not a virtue; nice is a vice

  • This term almost always means the same as the problematic definition above for etiquette, manners, and politeness -- a pleasantry for its own sake. If one is nice when they should admonish, then clearly niceness is not a virtue. Jesus was not nice when he flipped the usurers' tables, but Jesus is perfectly virtuous, thus niceness is not a virtue.