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The Virtues

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The Virtues of Self-Help

Philip Cafaro asks what virtues are prized today, and why, and finds inspiration in a place few philosophers look.

The resurgence of ‘virtue ethics’ in the past twenty years has been tied to a number of different philosophical projects. In my opinion, its most important achievement has been to reopen Aristotle’s central ethical questions – What are human excellence and flourishing? How can we achieve them? – as major questions in philosophical ethics. In doing so, virtue ethics has reclaimed this neglected half of our ethical lives for intelligent consideration.

In 1993 the philosopher Julia Annas perceptively remarked that in our time – as opposed to Greek and Roman times – those interested in questions concerning personal development or the pursuit of happiness are more likely to consult the popular ‘self-help’ literature than works of philosophical ethics. Other writers on virtue ethics, such as Rosalind Hursthouse (1999), have noted in a line or two the overlapping concerns of ancient ethical philosophy and modern self-help books. But philosophers tend to condescend to this literature, when they notice it at all. For example, Stanley Cavell in his 1990 Carus lectures on ethical perfectionism remarked that “false or debased perfectionisms seem everywhere these days, from bestselling books with titles like Love Yourself to the television advertisement on behalf of Army recruitment with the slogan, ‘Be all that you can be’.” Cavell implies that such books are hogwash. Other philosophers may not say this, but neither do they explore this material in any depth.

In my opinion, this condescension and neglect are unjustified. The self-help literature, in fact, is filled with intelligent discussions of central issues in virtue ethics (along with a certain amount of hogwash, it must be admitted). The proper roles of pleasure and the pursuit of knowledge in a good life; the right attitudes toward money and material possessions; the proper boundaries between concern for the self and concern for others; the issue of weakness of will (akrasia): these and other key issues in virtue ethics are staples of discussion and exhortation. That these concerns are often treated less as theoretical than as practical problems allows for different, complementary insights that philosophers may find valuable.

Another benefit of looking at the self-help literature is that it focuses our attention on popular, current conceptions of human excellence and flourishing. Early in the virtue ethics revival, many proponents called for an increased empiricism in ethics, but more recently this goal seems to have been forgotten. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle considers popular conceptions of eudaimonia, or human flourishing, partly because such popular beliefs are likely to contain some truth and because they are necessarily in competition with any doctrines that philosophers may propound. But contemporary philosophers are much more likely to write about Aristotle’s own ethical theories than to follow his example and review popular ethical beliefs. Consequently they miss opportunities to learn from (and influence) popular opinion.

In this article, I will analyze the conceptions of human virtue and flourishing in five popular self-help books. Checking New York Times bestseller lists for the past thirty years (at half year intervals) allowed me to select the following blockbusters for reading and analysis: Wayne Dyer, Your Erroneous Zones (1976); Robert Ringer, Looking Out for #1 (1977); Leo Buscaglia, Love (1972); M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled (1978); and Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul (1992).

Each of these books stayed on the list for many months, or in some cases years, and sold in the range of 4-12 million copies. All of their authors subsequently had from one to four other books on the bestseller list; the combined sales of all the books by these authors undoubtedly topped 100 million copies (and counting!). Given these books’ popularity and influence, I believe they can tell us a lot about current notions of virtue in our society – particularly among its more literate and earnest segments.

I found that these authors delivered new insights on a whole range of topics in virtue ethics. I shall focus here on their notions of virtue and the relationship between virtue and human flourishing.


The meaning of ‘virtue’ is of course a contested point in virtue ethics. Following Martha Nussbaum (1993) and Rosalind Hursthouse (1999), I here define a virtue as any character trait that makes a human being a good human being (however one defines that) and that helps him or her succeed in characteristic human activities. The possession of the various virtues, thus defined, makes it more likely – though it does not guarantee! – that a person will achieve a good life (again, however one defines a good life).

Of the five authors surveyed here, only one, Thomas Moore, consistently uses the word ‘virtue’ to denote those character traits or personal qualities he praises. ‘Virtue’ is my word for such qualities. Interestingly, these authors get by without any single general term for the traits they are praising, but those of us who want to analyze and compare their views need such a term and ‘virtue’ is the natural and traditional choice. The qualities they discuss do indeed fit the definition of virtue given above: they are praised because these authors believe they are qualities that make a human being a good human being, help him or her succeed in characteristic human activities and make it more likely that a person will achieve a happy and fulfilling life.

My procedure in identifying the virtues in each of these books was simple. I read each of them, noting every personal quality or character trait praised by their authors. Then I read them through again, identifying those qualities that they repeatedly praised and discussed in the greatest detail. It is this subset of traits that I identify as virtues in the summary table. Especially important (cardinal) virtues are boldfaced.

Much could be said about the conceptions of virtue revealed here. I shall restrict myself to three points.

(1) One way that today’s self-help authors appear to be the true heirs of the ancient ethicists is in their emphasis on self-knowledge. Four of these writers treat self-knowledge as a cardinal virtue, making it by far the most widely accepted cardinal virtue. For Peck and especially Moore, selfknowledge is an end-in-itself: perhaps the most important activity in which we can engage. For Dyer and especially Ringer, self-knowledge is among the most important means for fulfilling one’s desires or achieving personal goals (Buscaglia mentions self-knowledge once or twice, but his focus on loving others makes it relatively unimportant).

Many contemporary virtue ethicists, with their concern to justify or ground ethical judgments, look to a general knowledge of human nature as key. Examples are Nussbaum (1993), Hursthouse (1999) and Philippa Foot (2001). The selfhelp writers, with their more practical bent, emphasize the need for personal insight. General knowledge of human nature cannot tell you what goals to pursue in your own life, or show you how to resolve your repeated problems with anger or unsatisfying relationships. But self-knowledge can. These writers also give many convincing examples of how lack of self-knowledge can undermine happiness, often drawn from their practices as therapists. I think the Oracle at Delphi would be pleased to see its injunction held in such high esteem after so many centuries.

(2) The self-help literature tends to put forth conceptions of virtue that are less moralistic than much of the contemporary philosophical literature. Although there are as many accounts of virtue as there are philosophers writing on the subject, one key distinction is between those such as Iris Murdoch (1997) and Michael Slote (2001) who see virtue solely as moral excellence and those such as such as Richard Taylor (1988) and Martha Nussbaum (1993) who define virtue as general human excellence, with moral excellence (understood primarily as kindness, concern for duty, and respectful behavior toward others) making up a more or less important part of it. This difference is roughly that between common and philosophical usage of ‘arete’ in the ancient world, and common and philosophical usage of ‘virtue’ in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (but see Sherman (1997) for a sustained argument that the ancient and modern conceptions of virtue are not as distinct as I am suggesting). My sense is that for every contemporary virtue ethicist who embraces the wider ancient conception of virtue, there are four or five who are wedded to the narrower, modern conception.

Of course, this brief summary makes a number of gross simplifications. Nevertheless, these simplifications preserve an important disagreement in contemporary ethical philosophy which more nuanced accounts tend to obscure. The key questions are: What makes a person a good person? Is being moral enough? Or must one also be intelligent, accomplished, or other things as well?

My analysis of the self-help literature revealed that it propounds a non-moralistic view of human virtue. Not immoralist: all but one of these authors recognize the need for morality and many emphasize moral virtues such as compassion, dutifulness and self-discipline. However, they all praise non-moral character traits, as well.

Thomas Moore lauds a suite of intellectual virtues such as imagination, attentiveness, intelligence and creativity, because they help us to know ourselves and the world around us, thus making life more enjoyable and interesting. While Moore also believes these qualities (and the knowledge they further) help us to feel compassion for others and to treat them better, that is not his only or even primary reason for valuing them. Rather, self-knowledge, pleasure, the play of the imagination in art or science, are all valuable in themselves. The qualities that make us more likely to engage in or achieve these things are virtues.

Leo Buscaglia and M. Scott Peck are the most moralistic of the five authors, albeit in very different ways. Peck is the ‘Kantian,’ emphasizing the need for discipline, rationality, a keen sense of responsibility and absolute honesty with oneself and others. Buscaglia sticks up for aspects of ethics that philosophers tend to neglect, emphasizing feelings of compassion, tenderness and love, and the need for acceptance, tolerance and gentleness in our relations with others. Yet despite their moralism and concern for positive relations with others, both authors also praise ‘non-moral’ virtues and the value of ‘moral’ virtues for achieving ‘non-moral’ or personal goals. Buscaglia talks a lot about the need for spontaneity in life and for cultivating a sense of wonder and appreciation of the world. Peck talks as much about putting discipline and commitment to work in pursuing personal goals, as about how they help us recognize our obligations and treat others well. He also praises character traits such as intelligence, competence and being organized – qualities that have little or no connection to acting morally, but a lot to do with happiness or success out in the world.

Wayne Dyer and Robert Ringer, in contrast, provide much less morally-focused accounts of human excellence; Ringer can even be read as hostile to morality. Both believe that our primary responsibility in life is to make ourselves happy. Both argue that focusing on whether life or other people are treating us fairly leads us to abdicate this responsibility to secure our own happiness. Reviewing their lists of virtues, we see a preponderance of hyphenated ‘self’ virtues: self-esteem, selfreliance, self-knowledge, self-respect. Dyer adds those qualities that he believes add zest to life: creativity, spontaneity, a sense of humor, living in the present. Ringer, who has a sort of heroic ‘me against the world’ outlook, emphasizes discipline, organization, integrity and courage, virtues that foster success and maximum self-reliance.

We thus see wide differences in how these authors treat morality, ranging from Peck’s moralism to Ringer’s sustained hostility to the claims of morality. (Incidentally, I did not find any difference in the relative moralism of American self-help books over the past thirty years. Peck’s and Ringer’s books were published one year apart). These differences in emphasis and attitude to morality make it even more impressive that all five authors go beyond morality in specifying the virtues. It seems that even moralists, in telling people how to lead better lives, must move beyond moralism in order to give good advice!

(3) Philosophers such as Philippa Foot, Rosalind Hursthouse and Martha Nussbaum have argued that there is a necessary connection between virtue and human flourishing; they see elucidating this connection as the best grounding for virtue ethics. Others have looked to some other foundation for virtue judgments: sometimes transcendental (Louden 2000), sometimes religious, sometimes ‘common-sensical’ (Wallace 1978). For these latter philosophers, grounding virtue in personal flourishing seems too selfish. Proponents of the virtue/flourishing connection sometimes respond that virtues help further the flourishing of whole societies. This remains a key, inconclusive debate within contemporary virtue ethics.

My analysis of these self-help books suggests that grounding a conception of virtue in a view of human flourishing is, indeed, both a common and a convincing way to go. In the final column of the table, I quote key passages summarizing each of our authors’ conceptions of happiness or human flourishing. Comparing the ‘virtues’ column with the ‘happiness’ column, you can see a tight connection between an author’s conception of human happiness and the virtues he praises.

For Dyer, happiness shows itself above all in a zest for living, a fullness of experience, and an acceptance of oneself and others that allows one to avoid anxiety and moralism. ‘Self-growth’ is not particularly painful, but rather a continuous opening up to happiness. Given Dyer’s focus on living in the present and exploring new, pleasurable experiences, virtues such as confidence, spontaneity and enthusiasm are important. Given his sense of the pitfalls of moralism, a basic self-love is key.

Ringer is a hedonist and psychological egoist, as the quotations indicate. He elaborates these positions at great length and about as plausibly as they can be presented, in my opinion. Given his belief that shortsightedness and poor planning often undermine a rational hedonism, his emphasis on ‘virtues of effectiveness,’ such as rationality and discipline, makes sense. Given his apparently genuine belief that a widespread rational selfishness would lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, it isn’t surprising that the moral virtues have little place in his scheme of things.

Leo Buscaglia’s soft, gentle outlook on life is about as far from Robert Ringer’s libertarianism as one can get. While Ringer’s ideal is to turn all human interactions into ‘value for value’ contractual types of relationships, Buscaglia insists on the redeeming power of love, sent out as often and as widely as we can. Love and others will love you back, he believes. Even if they don’t, you will reap rich rewards. Given this view of human flourishing – more love equals more happiness – it makes sense that Buscaglia eschews the intellectual virtues almost entirely. Instead, he emphasizes ‘feeling virtues’: compassion, tenderness, sensitivity to others. Given Buscaglia’s relatively undemanding ideal, it makes sense that acceptance of others and oneself will be a key virtue. The capacity to love remains the cardinal virtue, since nothing else so greatly improves our lives.

M. Scott Peck, on the other hand, emphasizes the arduousness of the attempt to understand and improve ourselves, his great desiderata. Therefore both intellectual virtues and the virtues of personal discipline are important for him. Just as convinced as Buscaglia that good interpersonal relationships are key to happiness, he takes a more skeptical view of the power of love to sweep all difficulties before it. He reminds his readers more than once that we must do what is right even when we do not want to do so – even in the absence of love. While he would probably not deny the importance of Buscaglia’s ‘feeling virtues,’ he emphasizes instead ‘virtues of duty,’ such as a sense of responsibility, discipline and commitment, and ‘virtues of effectiveness,’ such as being organized.

Thomas Moore’s list of virtues show his emphases on the pursuit of self-knowledge and engagement with the world. Believing as he does that our modern ‘problem solving’ mode tends to lead us away from self-knowledge, he emphasizes such intellectual virtues as imagination and creativity, rather than logic and linear thinking. This makes an interesting contrast with his more analytically-inclined fellow therapist Peck. Attentiveness and curiosity are virtues for all sorts of artists, naturalists and others who ‘care for their souls’ by creating or appreciating beauty. Since Moore shares some of Dyer’s worries about how moralism harms life, he too makes self-acceptance or self-love a key virtue. Since he believes along with Peck that some sort of spiritual life is a sine qua non of living a happy life, he includes reverence and devotion as virtues. Moore often speaks of the need to add ‘depth’ or ‘meaning’ to our lives, so he emphasizes what we might call the ‘hermeneutic virtues’ of imagination, playfulness and attentiveness.

To sum up: all these books show a tight connection between their accounts of virtue and flourishing. In explaining why we should cultivate a particular virtue, these authors always refer back to the fact that it will make us (sometimes, us and those around us) happier or more fulfilled. They suggest that grounding virtue in the lives we actually lead or want to lead is the key to developing plausible accounts of virtue.


By now, though, some readers may be impatient with my use of this material. Assuming that I have accurately portrayed the views in these books: so what? Can we really prove anything about the nature of virtue by showing that lots of people share (or were willing to pay $12.95 to read about) a particular conception of it? Well, no. However, I do think, along with Aristotle, that common beliefs are the best starting point for speculation concerning human flourishing. These books’ popularity strongly suggests that they express or resonate with widely held beliefs. In addition, the fact that so many people with at least some interest in bettering their lives found them helpful, argues for taking these books’ ethical positions and practical suggestions seriously.

The commonalities I have described in these books – their emphasis on self-knowledge; their lack of moralism in specifying the good life; the connection they make between virtue and human flourishing – should command our attention, partly because these books really are focused on the key questions in virtue ethics. What are human excellence and flourishing? How can we achieve them? Philosophical ethicists have had to fight their way to a place where they could ask these questions, and their positive accounts of virtue remain, for the most part, implausibly moralistic. (An important exception is Thomas Hurka’s Perfectionism (1993). That Hurka takes seriously commonsense, pre-philosophical reflections on happiness helps account for the plausibility of his account of virtue.) Since the authors canvassed here start from a concern with virtue and flourishing, they might be more likely than academic philosophers to articulate plausible accounts of them.

People need help to think clearly about virtue and human flourishing. Over the past hundred years, philosophers rarely provided this help. But questions concerning how to live well remained as vital as ever – how could they not? – and a prodigious self-help literature sprang up to fill the void. Philosophers have much to learn from these writings, both as a source for common ethical beliefs and – at least in some cases – as a source for intelligent discussions of central issues in virtue ethics. At the same time, these self-help authors sometimes suffer from philosophical naïvety, or muddled, lazy thinking. Bringing rigorous analysis and philosophical perspective to this literature could lead to an ethics with more depth and more practical value for human life than we have seen in centuries.


Philip Cafaro is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University. He thanks Greg Boettcher and Southwest Minnesota State University for assistance in researching this article.

Works Cited

Annas, Julia. The Morality of Happiness. Oxford Univ. Press, 1993.
Buscaglia, Leo. Love. Fawcett Crest, 1972.
Cavell, Stanley. Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism. University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Dyer, Wayne. Your Erroneous Zones. HarperCollins, 1991/1976.
Foot, Philippa. Natural Goodness. Oxford Univ. Press, 2001.
Hurka, Thomas. Perfectionism. Oxford Univ. Press, 1993.
Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford Univ. Press, 1999.
Louden, Robert. Kant's Impure Ethics: From Rational Beings to Human Beings. Oxford University Press, 2000.
Moore, Thomas. Care of the Soul. HarperCollins, 1992.
Murdoch, Iris. ‘The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts,’ in Roger Crisp and Michael Slote (eds.), Virtue Ethics. Oxford Univ. Press, 1997.
Nussbaum, Martha. ‘Non-Relative Virtue: An Aristotelian Approach,’ in Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Quality of Life. Oxford Univ. Press, 1993.
Peck, M. Scott. The Road Less Travelled. Simon & Schuster, 1978.
Ringer, Robert. Looking Out for #1. Fawcett Crest, 1977.
Sherman, Nancy. Making a Necessity of Virtue: Aristotle and Kant on Virtue. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Slote, Michael. Morals From Motives. Oxford Univ. Press, 2001.
Taylor, Richard. ‘Ancient Virtue and Modern Folly,’ in Peter French et al. (eds.), Midwest Studies in Philosophy, volume 13: Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).
Wallace, James. Virtues and Vices. Cornell University Press, 1978.

Conceptions of Virtue and Happiness

Your Erroneous Zones
by Wayne Dyer
Self-love, self-reliance, self-knowledge, freedom, confidence, creativity, adventurousness, spontaneity, a sense of humor, enthusiasm, honesty, realism, living in the present. “People who are free from erroneous zones are … enthusiastic about life, and they want all they can get out of it … free from guilt and all the attendant anxiety … they seek out experiences that are new and unfamiliar to them … They know how to laugh, and how to create laughter … These are people who accept themselves without complaint … They have insight into the behavior of others … insight into themselves too … They have self-discipline but no need to have things and people fit into their own perceptions of how everything ought to be … Organization then, for these people, is simply a useful means rather than an end in itself … They are motivated by a desire to grow, and they always treat themselves well when given the option … they live and happiness is their payoff.” (pp.222-234)
Looking Out for #1
by Robert Ringer
Honesty, freedom, rationality, courage, flexibility, self-knowledge, selfishness, self-esteem, self-discipline, self-respect, realism, integrity, being organized. “Looking out for Number One is the conscious, rational effort to spend as much time as possible doing those things which bring you the greatest amount of pleasure and less time on those which cause pain. Everyone automatically makes the effort to be happy, so the key word is ‘rational.’” (p.10)
“What is joy? Rather than go around in a circle of technical definitions, I think you and I inherently understand what it means. When you experience pleasure or an absence of pain, you know one thing; you’re feelin’ good … Happiness isn’t a mysterious condition that needs to be dissected carefully by wordologists or psychologists.” (p.12)
by Leo Buscaglia
Acceptance (of self and others), ability to love, respect for others, compassion, being observant, sensitivity to others, tolerance, honesty, tenderness, concern for others, knowledge, flexibility, sense of wonder, spontaneity, positive thinking. “We need not be afraid to touch, to feel, to show emotion. The easiest thing in the world to be is what you are, what you feel … and this loving person is also one who sees the continual wonder and joy of being alive.” (p.38)
“[The Lover’s] main function is to help unfold his true Self. Equal to this is helping others to become strong, and perfect themselves as unique individuals.” (p.195)
The Road Less Travelled
by M. Scott Peck
Discipline, maturity, sense of responsibility, intelligence, self-knowledge, courage, openness, friendliness, rationality, honesty, competence, strength, independence, being organized, being healthy, commitment, love, wisdom. “Believing that the growth of the human spirit is the end of human existence, I am obviously dedicated to the notion of progress … I make no distinction between the mind and the spirit, and therefore no distinction between the process of achieving spiritual growth and mental growth.” (pp.56, 11)
“If someone is determined not to risk pain, then such a person must do without many things: having children, getting married, the ecstasy of sex, the hope of ambition, friendship – all that makes life alive, meaningful and significant.” (p.133)
Care of the Soul
by Thomas Moore
Imagination, attentiveness, intelligence, self-knowledge, ‘capacity to be affected’, devotion, intensity (passion), creativity, forcefulness, individuality, courage, strength, depth, insight, self-acceptance, wisdom, reverence. “We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth … it is tied to life in all its particulars – good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart. Soul is revealed in attachment, love, and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy.” (pp.xi-xii)
“Fulfilling work, rewarding relationships, personal power, and relief from symptoms are all gifts of the soul.” (p.xiii)
“The goal is a richly elaborated life, connected to society and nature, woven into the culture of family, nation, and globe.” (p.xviii)

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