Six core virtues of humanity

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 April, 2006, 12:00am

Psychologists are generally brought in only when things go wrong. They are not like plumbers or politicians, who are called upon to fix problems in systems that they, or a member of their fraternity, had a large say in developing.

This 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' approach underpins the main psychological reference tools for understanding, treating and preventing psychological problems. Those are: the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and the World Health Organisation's International Classification of Diseases. They do a fair job of classifying symptoms, but they inevitably talk in terms of deficiency.

By contrast, researchers with the positive psychology movement are trying to identify and classify positive human traits. They are aiming to assemble a positive, rather than deficiency-focused, framework for research, diagnosis and therapeutic interventions.

They are also trying to leapfrog a tradition of cultural myopia by looking beyond the wisdom of the west.

To create a list of positive human traits, they drew upon the worlds' most influential philosophical and religious traditions. They examined Confucianism and Taoism in China, Buddhism and Hinduism in Southeast Asia and, in the west, ancient Greek philosophy, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The researchers - including Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, who jointly founded the positive psychology movement - discovered that six core virtues cropped up in all the most important writings in all these traditions: courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom and transcendence.

This convergence is probably the best stab so far that psychologists have taken at establishing a set of qualities common to good and happy people across history and around the globe.

The traditions do not overlap neatly, and their emphasis is not uniform. The biggest stretch is the virtue of transcendence - belief in the spiritual. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam all value it. But Confucius concentrated on the secular and the rational as opposed to the other-worldly or spiritual. Similarly, transcendence is not a feature of the immensely influential philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.

Justice and humanity are probably the most ubiquitous of the virtues, say the researchers. They are followed by temperance and wisdom - the most essential to the survival of the societies that spawned the world's most long-lasting and influential philosophies or religions. That is to say, they were crucial to the survival of large, educated societies with cities, money, law and divisions of labour.

Perhaps, the researchers speculate, the six core virtues were shaped through evolution - as corrective adaptations that compensated for innate human frailties. They emerged in a minority, and were taken up and captured genetically because they worked better than the alternatives.

Hence, temperance counteracts our tendency to overindulge; humanity overcomes selfishness, and so forth.

This is good news because it means that you, dear reader - necessarily descending from a successful society - have virtue in your genes.

Jean Nicol looks at everyday issues from the point of view of a psychologist

the inner eye

Jean Nicol

'To create a list of positive human traits, [researchers] drew upon the worlds' most influential philosophical
and religious traditions'