Truth, beauty & goodness are ideals, not virtues

Psychology Crap

Several years ago I read Howard Gardner’s The Disciplined Mind; and I thought, “Truth, beauty and goodness are ideals, not virtues.  This is an incredibly ironic book title.”

Those thoughts returned when I read Gardner’s recent response to critics:

He wrote:

Reflecting on my educational philosophy, I confronted a dilemma.

Do I retrench, and defend the traditional views of the virtues against all comers? Do I jettison them? Or do I attempt to reframe truth, beauty, and goodness in light of the philosophical critique and the digital revolution?

Cut the Crap

Dear Howard,

The time to jettison is long overdue.

Truth, beauty and goodness are ideals, not virtues.  Simple definitions from Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition (1970) explain the difference:

1.  Virtue — “a specific moral quality regarded as good or meritorious”

2.  Ideal — “thought of as perfect or as a perfect model”

Truth, beauty and goodness are ideals because they represent perfect forms. Writing about ideals, as if they were virtues opened you to criticism. As you point out in the commentary, relativists argued against your ideals. Both you and I know why. They believe “everything is relative”– I love the irony.

My point is different. Truth, beauty and goodness are not virtues because they aren’t “specific moral qualities.” Let’s look at each.

Truth is the ideal for which honesty is the related virtue. And virtuous honesty requires understanding, imagination, and strength. In other words, those three virtues make truth an ideal and honesty a virtue.

Beauty is the ideal rooted in appreciation for what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. It is in all creation and sometimes created by humans who possess certain knowledge and skills. And knowledge and skill cannot be developed without bringing the six virtues to the learning situation.

Finally, goodness is the ideal we strive for throughout our lives. It takes many forms, none of which are possible without demonstrating the six virtues.

If we want truth, beauty and goodness in our lives, we should teach the six virtues of the educated person. After those are modeled and taught, educated people will naturally seek your ideals. That would truly be a good, beautiful thing.


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