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Posted by on Feb 6, 2013 in Ethics | 4 comments

Alain de Botton offers virtues for atheists

According to this story in The Independent, Alain de Botton has offered a list of ten new virtues for atheists: resilience, empathy, patience, sacrifice, politeness, humour, self-awareness, forgiveness, hope, and confidence.

I don’t have too much trouble seeing all these as virtues, but what is new about them? They all sound rather well-known to me, and when you read his more detailed descriptions they continue to sound familiar. And why should they apply especially to atheists? If these really are virtues, wouldn’t we want our fellow citizens more generally to exhibit them? The bit about atheists actually sounds like a gimmick.

I suppose I could understand if it turns out that de Botton was trying to find especially non-religious virtues to contrast with the “monkish” virtues famously identified and denigrated by David Hume – virtues such as piety and chastity. It’s a relief to see that at least those don’t appear on de Botton’s list. But nor does his list contain distinctly opposed virtues, such as skepticism, anti-authoritarianism, sex-positivity, or enthusiasm for change. Surprisingly, the traditional virtue of courage does not appear on the list.

The list has some virtues, such as empathy, that I’d also rank as important, but it does sound mainly like virtues for people who are not especially interested in changing things or making their mark on the world. In some cases, I think that impatience, of a kind, might be a virtue – if it means, for example, impatience with bullshit. Aristotle would probably say that the trick is actually to be patient at the right time, with the right people, for the right reasons, and so on (and similarly to be impatient at the right time, etc.).

There is probably some benefit in discussing what, in the twenty-first century, we think are virtues. Those of us who’ve left religion behind might well deny that many of the old virtues that were entangled with religion are especially virtuous at all, and we might offer genuinely new ones. In the end, however, I doubt that we’ll be able to come up with a definitive list, or that we should even try. New manifestos of what count as virtues and vices, to be endorsed collectively, sound just a bit too religious for those of us who have quite explicitly freed ourselves from religion.