The idea this week: virtues are helpful shortcuts for making moral decisions — but think about consequences to decide what counts as a virtue.

Your career is really ethically important, but it’s not a single, discrete choice. To build a high-impact career you need to make thousands of smaller choices over many years — to take on this particular project, to apply for that internship, to give this person a positive reference, and so on.

How do you make all those little decisions?

If you want to have an impact, you hope to make the decisions that help you have a bigger impact rather than a smaller one. But you can’t go around explicitly estimating the consequences of all the different possible actions you could take — not only would that take too long, you’d probably get it wrong most of the time.

This is where the idea of virtues — lived moral traits like courage, honesty, and kindness — can really come in handy. Instead of calculating out the consequences of all your different possible actions, try asking yourself, “What’s the honest thing to do? What’s the kind thing to do?”

A few places I find ‘virtues thinking’ motivating and useful:

  • When I am facing a difficult work situation, I sometimes ask myself, “What virtue is this an opportunity to practise?” For example, maybe now is a great opportunity to practise being honest — even when it’s difficult or embarrassing.
  • Sometimes I get socially anxious. When that happens I often find it helpful to ask what virtues I can bring to a conversation — how would a kind, gracious, and curious person act?

(Some people think that acting in line with virtues is just what it is to live a moral life, but even if you don’t think that, they are still useful mental shortcuts.)

Honesty and kindness are very commonly thought of as virtues. But it’s also worth asking whether there are other, non-standard virtues you might want to cultivate to help you accomplish what you think is most important.

In my case, I think ‘scope sensitivity‘ — caring much more about something that affects many more individuals or affects them to a much greater degree — is a virtue. Everyone has to prioritise in their work, and I think scope sensitivity helps people prioritise in ways that make the world better.

For example, becoming a doctor lets you help a lot of people. But if you’re also well-suited to a career that could help prevent the next catastrophic pandemic, you might be able to help even more people than you would in other areas of medicine. If you’re scope sensitive, you may notice this opportunity, and working to prevent or mitigate pandemics might become very appealing. I think that’s an admirable quality.

The main questions virtues bring up are:

  1. How do you decide which character traits are virtues?
  2. What do you do when two virtues conflict? For example, should you tell someone the brutal truth (honesty) or spare their feelings (kindness) by obscuring it?

I think to answer the first question it makes sense to look at the long-term consequences of acting in a certain way. If you act honestly as a general rule throughout your life, is that likely to make things go better or worse? I think there’s a good case that it will go much better; people will trust you, because you’ll be trustworthy — and this can be a big help in many areas of life.

You can also look at role models — what kinds of lived moral traits do the people who seem to have had a big positive impact have? One answer is courage: for example, Benjamin Lay stood up over and over for the idea that slavery was wrong, even when he faced severe social sanctions for it. To do a lot of good you might have to face down tough situations with courage.

And you can put plausible-sounding virtues to the test by asking what would happen if you applied them consistently over time. For example, you might think that agreeableness is a virtue because it makes people feel comfortable and supported. But if you’re practically always agreeable, people might not trust you to tell them what you really think, and you might go along with others’ plans even when they are bad. So it seems like a mixed bag.

Of course you can also go overboard with honesty; most people probably agree it’s a bad idea to tell the truth if a murderer asks for your friend’s location. But what makes honesty a virtue in my book is that it’s much better to go through life erring on the side of being too honest than not honest enough — so it’s a good general guide for behaviour. I think that’s less true of agreeableness.

Deciding what to do when virtues are in conflict is tough. But here are a few strategies:

  • Is there something about the situation that makes one of the virtues more important? If the context makes trust especially important, you might have extra reason to lean into honesty in this case even at the expense of other virtues.

  • Is there a commonly thought of hard and fast ethical rule that says what you should do? Even if you don’t philosophically believe in absolute rules, they usually point to very important considerations.

  • Look at the consequences: in cases where heuristics fail us, it can be worth it to think explicitly about the consequences of each action — especially if the consequences are dramatically better or worse depending on what you choose.

The web team at 80,000 Hours has a few ‘virtues for 2023’ to help us navigate unexpected situations:

  • Openness: be curious, transparent, and open to changing our minds.
  • Patience: go for what’s best in the long-run, and don’t get unduly distracted by what’s salient now.
  • Boldness: don’t be afraid to prioritise what we think is most important and push for it.

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