EthicsPhilosophy

The Missing Cardinal Virtue (and Deadly Sin)

Once upon a time, it was my job to teach students the four Cardinal Virtues. We would start with Plato’s Republic, where the Cardinal Virtues are introduced,1 but I was always happy when we could begin Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. It’s a much more boring book, but I find its ethical theory significantly more compelling.

Later in the semester, we would then discover what happened to the Cardinal Virtues when Christians turned to philosophy. We read Aquinas’s argument that we ought to add three Theological Virtues to our list. And since four plus three gives us seven—the biblical number of perfection—I wasn’t going to complain.

I began wondering, however, whether there wasn’t something missing. Specifically, I began to suspect that there was a glaring hole in the list of Cardinal virtues—a hole that adding the Theological Virtues didn’t fill. More recently, furthermore, I’ve begun to suspect that there is a parallel gap in the list of Deadly Sins.

We have seven, but really need eight central virtues. We acknowledge seven, but really ought to identify eight central vices. In fact, I eventually concluded we might need nine of each. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

The Cardinal Virtues

The first Cardinal Virtue is moderation, self-control, or temperance (depending on your translation). This is virtue having to do with desire. On Aristotle’s account,2 you have the virtue of moderation if you desire the right things, at the right time, and to the right extent.

If it helps, we can follow Plato3 in imaging this first Cardinal Virtue as belonging to “the gut.” That’s where our desires are. To get to the second Cardinal Virtue, we then move up to the heart. The second Cardinal Virtue is courage, bravery, or fortitude (depending on your translation). This is the virtue having to do with fear. You have the virtue of courage if you feel the right amount of fear about the right things and at the right time.

Since our first Cardinal Virtue belongs to the gut and the second to the heart, you might guess where the third belongs. And you’d be right. The third Cardinal Virtue—prudence or wisdom—belongs to the head. This is the virtue of seeing what is good, especially when it comes to how you conduct your life.

Having started in the gut and reached the head, we now have nowhere to go but out. The fourth Cardinal Virtue, then, is justice. It is the interpersonal virtue—the virtue of giving or restoring to each person what she or he is due.

Why Four?

Plato never bothers to explain why these four should be the central virtues, nor why there should be exactly four. Aquinas’s tries to do just that in Summa Theologica,4 and he seems to me to be roughly on the right track. Inspired by Aquinas, therefore, we might say this:

First, we need both emotional and intellectual virtues.

Second, on the intellectual side, we need virtues both for “outward” (or “other-directed”) thought, and for “inward” (or “self-directed”) thought. To guide our outward thinking (and hence our actions “toward” others), we need justice. To guide our inward thinking (and hence our actions “toward” ourselves), we need wisdom.

Third, on the emotional side, we need virtues both for the “pursuing” (or “advancing”) emotions and for the “fleeing” (or “retreating”) emotions. In desire we pursue, while in fear we flee. So, we need one virtue to guide each.

Two New Virtues

But you might notice that there are at least two emotions (or “passions”) missing here. Is not disgust the opposite of desire? And isn’t disgust a “retreating” emotion, like fear?

Furthermore, isn’t anger an “advancing” emotion, like desire? Anger produces attacks, just as desire produces pursuit. And doesn’t it make sense to say that anger is the opposite of fear?

Call the virtue of feeling disgust at the right things, for the right reasons, and to the right extent, “strong stomach.” Beside moderation, it is a virtue belonging to the gut. And call the virtue of feeling anger at the right things, for the right reasons, and to the right extent, “good temper.” Beside courage, it is a virtue belonging to the heart.

Six Makes More Sense

It would make more sense, therefore, to have six Cardinal Virtues divided into three pairs: one pair for the gut, one pair for the heart, and one pair for the head. Each pair, furthermore, would be divided into one outward/advancing virtue, and one inward/retreating virtue. It’s so beautiful!

But alas, it was not to be. Apparently, “strong stomach” is a virtue that never occurred to any philosopher in ancient Greece. Perhaps disgust just didn’t seem relevant to personal or political life. The thinking might have gone like this: “A strong stomach is useful for disgusting occupations like being a surgeon or changing a diaper, but what respectable (virtuous) person would be involved in such activities?”

In contrast, good tempter is a virtue discussed by Aristotle. He treats it alongside other fascinating virtues like “wittiness” and “truth-telling.”5 Unfortunately, however, “good temper” never made it out of virtue’s minor leagues.

At Least Give Me Five

But why not? Isn’t anger—especially in the form of hatred—the single greatest problem with the world? Perhaps an over-abundance of disgust is not much of a problem. De gustibus non est disputandum (“There’s no disputing tastes”), you might say. But an overabundance of anger is surely a serious problem. It manifests itself in racism, domestic abuse, terrorism, and war. Think how much better the world would be if you could just turn everyone’s “anger dial” down a couple ticks.6

Given the central role anger plays in the most serious social problems humans face, you would expect philosophers to have given its associated virtue a correspondingly-central place in their ethical theories. And the stoics did.7 But somehow that has never translated into giving good temper its rightful spot on the list of Cardinal Virtues.

The Deadly Sins

Where the philosophers failed, however, the Fathers did not. You’ll find “anger” or “wrath” somewhere in the middle of every list of the Deadly Sins. What’s odd, however, is the absence of “cowardice”—the vice having to do with fear.

Or perhaps that’s not so odd. We tend to think of cowardice and courage as belonging to the battlefield. So, perhaps we have a tendency to look at fear the way Greek philosophers must have looked at disgust. It’s something that some people have to deal with sometimes, but not most people most of the time.

This, however, is a mistake. The philosopher P. Benatar, for example, reminds us that even love can be a battlefield.8 Humans are born emotionally vulnerable and insecure, and so many of them never do the hard work of growing up. Instead, they spend a significant chunk of their lives in “fight or flight” mode. And that means they end up hurting the people they love, getting into shouting matches with people they don’t know, and voting for politicians who offer violence to make them feel safe.

In fact, I would challenge you to find an instance of anger that wasn’t ultimately a response to fear. We have notions like “outrage” and “righteous indignation”—notions that present some experiences of anger as active, rather than reactive. But I’m suspicious. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered an instance of anger that didn’t derive from fear.

The Deadliest Sin

Anger is the worst problem we humans face. But anger is a reaction to fear. Therefore, the deadliest sin of all is cowardice. The tendency to fear too much—or to fear the wrong things—leads to more emotional and physical damage than any other human weakness. The connection between fear and anger is so close, in fact, that I believe a person who has the virtue of courage will also have the virtue good temper. Similarly, I believe it is because of the vice of cowardice that people have the vice of bad temper.

In realizing this, I finally had an answer to the question of why good temper was never included as the fifth Cardinal Virtue. Good temper is a product of courage. This makes it derivative, rather than fundamental.

And the fact that anger follows fear (and good temper follows courage) might also help to explain why “strong stomach” didn’t make the list. Feeling disgust at others can lead to significant social ills. But I suspect panic in response to disgust—being afraid of experiencing things you find disgusting—is the primary catalyst that turns disgust into persecution. With courage, that problem too disappears.

Nine Virtues and Vices

Nevertheless, we’d have nine central virtues—six Cardinal Virtues and three Theological Virtues—if I had my way. Then we would add “cowardice” to the list of Deadly Sins—along with “weak stomach,” for the sake of symmetry.

But in making this recommendation, I would be stepping on even more toes. The Enneagram is a personality-typing system you’ve probably never heard of.9 It is based on the idea that different people tend to struggle with different Deadly Sins. But the Enneagram system adds two sins—fear and deceit—to the usual list of seven. Adding fear (or, better, “cowardice”) to the list makes perfect sense, if my analysis above is correct. But why “deceit” instead of “disgust”?

Aristotle does include a kind of truth-telling among the minor virtues. So, I’m inclined to take it seriously. It doesn’t fit the Platonic gut/heart/head schema I use to categorize the Cardinal Virtues, however, and that means I can’t reconcile myself to adding its associated vice (deceit) to the list of Deadly Sins ahead of disgust.

Conclusion

You see what travail we philosophers endure! Nothing is ever simple. People disagree with us constantly. Our theories always seem to be on the verge of working—only to hit a snag.

If you sympathize with our struggles, please consider donating to your local philosophical association. But also consider what role cowardice might be playing in our world. Or, more importantly, consider how we might develop the virtue of quotidian courage. Without a sustained and widespread engagement with this question, I fear the arc of our moral universe will continue to waiver and slide instead of bending toward justice.

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Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah is the host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast. He has a B.A. in computer science (Messiah College), an M.A. in philosophy (West Chester University of Pennsylvania), and a Ph.D. in philosophy (The Catholic University of America). He taught philosophy at universities in the Washington, DC area for 9.5 years, and is now on what he thinks of as a sabbatical.