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 affect and shape desires and deeds. Desires can include faculties of the senses: passions, imagination, dreams, experience, etc. as well as faculties of the appetites: nutrition, reproduction, growth, etc. Moral virtues are thus none of these but are that which govern these. To repeat, moral virtues are habits of the intellect which govern desires and deeds, in other words, the intellect having dominion over the senses and appetites whether an internal motion (longing, wanting) or external motions (doing, acting out). Moral virtues are when the mind finally gets reigns over the heart to do good, which ultimately leaves the heart wanting to do the good. It's like breaking in a horse for good work.

Since Faith, Hope, and Charity are all Theological Virtues none of these are Moral Virtues. This 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 goods 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 the appetites. Since they are habits, one doesn't think about them any more than one breathes. As long as we think about the virtues and virtuous acts, we can be assured we are not yet in the habit of virtue.

Some thinking and reflection can be helpful in spiritual growth, but also overthinking, 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 breathe," 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 (the habit of willing one's own will rather than the Father's) 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 the superior nature men call “The Divine” form of Justice; regulates what all humans ought to do for God (NOTE: If The Divine reveals how to be worshipped, aka Mass, this is how one becomes religious)

  • Piety: doing what one ought toward parents and country form of Justice: regulates what you ought to do to neighbour

  • 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: It's important to note these really are not classical, Christian virtues. When people call these "old fashion" they mean since the 18th or 19th c., whereas the virtues have been discussed for thousands of years across cultures. The American use of these terms then needs clarification. IF they are virtues, one must define them specifically, and some common uses of them do not qualify as virtues (this is the degree to which common sense culture has ceased to be a Christian Culture of Virtue). If you agree to the definitions above, then you could file them as follows:

  • Respect and Responsibility might be under Piety (Justice) If by these terms you mean "showing owed deference," even in situations where you should act against a person's actions, then no, these are not virtues. E.g. showing deference to an evil man in an office that owes none but is demanding deference with respect to some evil, then worry about perception and status must be ignored for the sake of the good. If by "respect" you mean tolerance or ethical relativism, then no, it is not a virtue, since all virtues must aim at the good and these can't be good since they try to include disparate views on morality under one umbrella. One can "respect" a man's idea that murder is okay, but this is no virtue, for one cannot honor it or consider it just. If by "responsibility" you mean obeying the World on its terms, no it is not a virtue. E.g. it is not responsible to abandon one's family by being a workaholic who lives at the office and sends paychecks home, nor it is responsible to abandon them by living at the bar and refusing to send paychecks home. While the former is closer to the virtuous mean, neither is virtuous, for neither give "due time" (justice) to one's family. 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 work, then no, hardworking is not a virtue. If by hard work you mean the Puritan kind where one works all the time and leaves no time for proper leisure (time with family, cooking, reading of spiritual books, time with the poor, etc.), then no, hard work is no virtue. Nor is the secular kind where one works through the Sabbath (Sunday). If you mean persevering in work of good quality to its 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. If by "nice" one means "kindness," then yes this is a virtue. But we must consider what it means to be kind. If one's kindness does good deeds but never upsets anyone, then one is equally confused about what kindness is. Recall Jesus is God, God is Love (Charity/Agape), and out of this Being, Jesus flipped tables and make a whip to drive the Usurers out of the Temple. This means this act was kindness, kind to God for protecting His Holy Temple, kind to neighbours for making the Temple a place of sacrifice and prayer, and kind to the Usurers for admonishing them for evil and giving them an opportunity to repent (Greek: metanoia, to change their mind about what's good). If you consider Jesus flipping their tables and running them off with a whip as "nice," then yes, "niceness" is "kindness," and " kindness" is Love (Charity/Agape), and this is a virtue, for he was patient not to destroy them for such sacrilege but rather gave them time and opportunity and proper admonishing without actually striking them, and restored proper worship to Israel without the death of a single man that day.