Self-improvement – towards moral virtue

Most of us are all too aware of some of our weaknesses. Things like low self-esteem, worry or judgment. We realize that we are not living up to what we consider our ideal selves and that this requires some self-improvement.

However, what each of us means by self-improvement probably differs. What kind of person would each of us like to be? What characteristics are important? Are there excellent qualities that we admire in others that we wish we had more of?

Some of us need more creative or open thinking. Alternatively, we might want more emotional intelligence or other character strengths that are essential for effective living.

An ideal might be something that includes what is traditionally called moral virtue. A difficult to define quality that represents an example of higher principles of living. This is why it is not easy to draw a line between character strengths and moral virtues. On which side do personal qualities such as courage, discretion, purity, commitment, empathy, reliability, self-discipline, forgiveness, and so on fall? Are they advantages or virtues? And does it matter?

Self-improvement in social functioning

When we get along well with people, they accept us socially. This will increase our confidence and self-esteem and reduce stress. One ideal is to be as attractive as possible. Exploiting good looks, maintaining a proportionate body, natural wit and charm; all this results in popularity. Having a better sensitivity to hairstyles, clothing, home furnishings, music, and art could all increase one’s social appeal to those with similar tastes.

Social acceptability is a virtue when it is needed to work with difficult people. Examples include trying to achieve useful things like bringing people together, befriending shy individuals, and offering constructive criticism.

Dishonesty is clearly socially unacceptable. However, a truly honest person cannot be identified only as one who, for example, practices honest business and does not cheat. Such acts may be done only because the individual thinks honesty is the best policy or because they fear being caught.

Decent behavior and honoring debts are not virtues if they are done only for the sake of social status. But they may become a virtue if they express one’s deeper values โ€‹โ€‹of consideration for others.

Self-improvement at work

Just as we need to exercise regularly to improve our physical fitness and strength, so we can improve our strength of character at work to improve our relationships with clients and get the best out of our subordinates. If so, we could better learn how to be more decisive, manage time better, or develop sales, negotiation, collaboration, or organizational skills.

Success in business or profession can often bring influence and control over other people. This may be the case within a large company or public bureaucracy. However, the way progress is made has a moral dimension. Honesty and integrity go hand in hand with telling the truth. We should respect other people’s ideas and not steal their property. This is in line with the principle of respect for other people.

Power can provide the means to make changes that others may not like. Exercising power can seemingly do wonders for the ego. But this is just an illusion. The dictator Adolf Hitler used the character strengths of perseverance, leadership and charisma. He sought political power for his chance to conquer the world and impose his vision on the German people at any cost. A virtuous person would instead do what is right in the service of the common good, not self-interest.

Self-improvement within the family

You can’t hide when you live around others every day. Family life tests our tolerance for other people’s behavior. It reveals our character.

As family members develop, they change. Character strength is being open to the new experience of changes in your partner’s roles and interests and the positive and negative emotions that come with that adjustment.

One of the strengths of parents is sharing activities with their children in a way that involves a willingness to step out of their comfort zone and be creative. An additional strength is to consciously live in the present moment without looking back at the past with guilt or forward into the future with worry. Likewise, the trait of self-restraint is in line with the moral principle of moderation, so we often see it as a virtue.

The moral idea is that the family bond should be nurtured by loyalty to the partner and that we should not adopt any seductive manner towards anyone else. Consequently, purity of thought and respect for sexual fidelity, not sexual licentiousness, are therefore virtues.

“Virtue has its own reward, but it doesn’t sell at the box office.” (movie star Mae West)

In Hollywood, a girl’s virtue is much less important than her hairstyle. (movie star Marilyn Monroe)

Aspects of moral virtue

For spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, there are three aspects of virtue.

  • Thinking that the moral principles are right.

  • The feeling that these principles are good.

  • By doing things according to these principles.

My conclusions about self-improvement

Many, if not all, cultures have some sense of moral judgment and a principled distinction between “right and wrong.” Examples are honesty, sexual fidelity, altruism. Such ideas inform us about what is virtuous.

Any strength of character is virtuous if it is motivated by what is considered a moral principle. To illustrate: developing effort and courage in political campaigns is a virtue if it genuinely supports environmental ethics, gender equality or social justice. But not if it is done for selfish goals like fame and power.

So, the same human traits can be either character strength or moral virtue. It depends on the moral principles if there are any behind their actions. Without a desire for what is right and good, strength of character lacks virtue, whether it is courage, generosity, gratitude, or self-control.

When we know what to improve in ourselves, then it helps with the ancient question ‘How then should I live?’

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