A Crash Course in Cultivating Liberal Virtues

Perfect virtue is impossible, and moral growth is challenging. But we can improve ourselves in practical ways, even if we can't achieve the ideal.

We can meaningfully strengthen liberalism while making life in an open, dynamic society happier and more rewarding by cultivating liberal virtues. This entails developing a compassionate desire for others to be happy, and taking pleasure in their achieving it—in all the diverse ways peaceful people get up to pursuing their bliss in a liberal culture. The alternative—resentment of difference and demands for social conservatism—is a straight line to suffering.

Still, one might wonder if the liberal virtues demand too much of us. Yes, we should tolerate difference, as challenging as that can be, by resisting the urge to lash out against it. But to go beyond toleration to actually celebrating difference and delighting in the myriad ways diverse people find happiness is much more difficult, if not impossible. If that’s the case, then no matter how people like me bang on about the benefits of goodwill and sympathetic joy, we’re effectively wasting our breath. Better to focus on the more attainable, and realistic, tolerance—which, even if attainable and realistic, still seems to present a challenge for many.

We might go even further and say that not only are general goodwill and sympathetic joy unrealistic, but they are, in fact, foolish. Must we really have goodwill for Nazis? Must we find joy in the happiness of racists, or people who derive pleasure from harming others? Is it wise to be nonjudgmental, accepting all paths to happiness as valid and praiseworthy?

In brief, yes, we should cultivate goodwill even for awful people. But, no, we shouldn’t take joy in their perception of their own happiness because happiness that derives from ill-will and harm isn’t happiness in the first place. And while we shouldn’t suspend moral judgment and accept all behaviors, it turns out that a powerful way to boost wise moral judgment is to put in the work replacing ill-will with goodwill, and resentment with sympathetic joy. That cultivation is challenging, of course, but there are practical methods for achieving it, methods everyone is capable of undertaking and which demand little sacrifice of our time or other responsibilities.

Let’s start with the possibility of cultivation. After all, to twist Sherlock’s advice to Watson in a way I’m sure the good detective would find irksome, if we can start by showing how the impossible is, perhaps, merely improbable, we can move a good deal closer to the truth. That truth—the wisdom of the liberal virtues and so the dismissal of unwarranted concerns about giving up judgment and allowing the intolerable—will wait until our next essay.

Achieving perfect virtue is, admittedly, beyond our reach. Still, we look to moral saints not as practically achievable ideals, but as North Stars for our ethical striving. Their embodiment of total virtue, even if they only exist in religious mythology or philosophical abstract, provides clarity as to what such virtue looks like, and that clarity makes it easier for us to know, in our individual striving, which direction we must head, and how far we have to go. Christians, for example, don’t ask “What would Jesus do?” because they believe they can attain perfect Christliness for themselves. They ask because they see Jesus’s behavior as the best possible example through which to become more ethical themselves. A similar perspective exists in every religious faith featuring an embodied exemplar of its ideals. It also exists in secular moral philosophies that articulate essential virtues or clear principles of justice.

None of these traditions or philosophies respond to the impossibility of perfection by throwing up their hands and abandoning moral striving. None say the path to improving ourselves by moving toward those unachievable ideals isn’t worth pursuing. In fact, one way to conceive of the virtuous life is not the life of perfect virtue, but instead the life spent in pursuit of virtue.

That pursuit is challenging. Virtue is always more difficult than vice, and working towards greater virtue is more difficult than settling for one’s moral status quo. It’s easier to sit on the couch than it is to get out and exercise. It’s easier to grab a Pop Tart than to cook a healthy meal. But just like good fitness and a healthy diet, pushing through the challenge of virtue is worthwhile, rewarding, and admirable.

So how to approach it? For some, the task is easier of course. They have a more open and welcoming disposition, a natural inclination to view diversity with delight instead of suspicion. For others, the task looks intimidating indeed, for they have been cursed with a personality that feels discomfort in difference, and sees change not as progress but as threatening decline. Both sorts will approach the cultivation of liberal virtue via the same methods, however, even if the former will find the path less arduous. 

Roughly, cultivating liberal virtues begins with awareness, continues through mindfulness, and culminates in habit—though each also can be seen as distinct and supportive of each other. 

We start with awareness of our own ill-will and resentment. If we don’t recognize them, or don’t recognize the problem with clinging to them, then we will maintain our instinctual perspective rather than replacing it with a healthier one. Thus we have to set ourselves the goal of noticing when our reactions are the result of ill-will and resentment. Take a moment, when you have a strong feeling about the actions or beliefs of another, to ask where those feelings come from. 

This noticing becomes easier over time, and more habitual, as we practice it. We can then couple this with a mindfulness of healthier mental states—in this case, goodwill and sympathetic joy—and so develop the habit of abandoning ill-will and resentment when present and substituting them for their virtuous opposites. Because virtues are habits of character, dispositions to see the world in certain ways and to act out of that perspective, the pairing of awareness (noticing unskillful mental states when they arise) and mindfulness (remembering to maintain that awareness and to instead practice skillful mental states) support each other in creating deep and lasting habits of virtue. Like working a muscle, these virtuous habits become stronger with greater use, and greater use makes them easier to exert.

At the practical level, one way to approach this task is through metta meditation. This entails intentionally giving rise to internal states of goodwill and then maintaining a focus on them through the session, which can last as little as a few minutes, and so is accessible to even the busiest of us. Essentially, metta meditation is teaching yourself to feel goodwill and then focusing on that feeling so that it becomes a natural part of who you are, even when the timer dings and the session ends. Going back again to the fitness analogy, if you lift weights regularly in the artificial and controlled setting of the gym, you don’t just become better at lifting weights. You become stronger, and that strength persists when you leave the gym. (I don’t have space here to set out the details of how to practice metta meditation, but if you are interested—and you should be, because it is a beneficial and lovely experience, I encourage you to start with the writings and guided audio instructions of Tasshin Fogleman.)

Thus, in just a handful of minutes a day, we can use this simple practice to gradually undo our habits of ill-will and resentment, and replace them with the more skillful states of goodwill and sympathetic joy. We needn’t achieve perfection to see benefits, to ourselves and others, and any movement toward the liberal virtues is better than remaining stuck without them. That’s not too demanding at all.

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