Science on Religion

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Virtues: biologically or culturally based?

Nose guyWithin any given culture (say, the English-speaking West), virtue seems pretty obvious: be kind, compassionate, don’t be mean or selfish. While Westerners will readily affirm these virtues, denizens of other cultures may not. This raises the question of whether virtues come from a biological, evolutionary basis – in which case they should be more or less uniform across cultures – or whether they stem from culture. In a recent investigation psychologists Jan Pieter van Oudenhoven (University of Groningen, Netherlands) and colleagues claim to havefound that virtues are culturally based.

The researchers define virtues as “morally good traits that everyone either may possess or can learn.” This definition of virtue encompasses certain personality traits, character strengths, and motivational values. In general, virtues assert how one should or should not behave.

In order to test where virtues come from (either the biological or cultural past), the researchers made two crucial methodology decisions. First, they wanted to focus on what regular laypeople felt were virtues rather than a religion’s educated class. In other words, they had less interest in the cumulative findings of a religious tradition, and more interest in what people thought, regardless of their religious education. Secondly, the researchers wanted to include open-ended questions. Rather than merely having participants fill out a static questionnaire, they wanted to give the participants the freedom to write whatever they thought.

For their research, the psychologists received nearly 3,000 student volunteers from 14 nations (specifically, Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Norway, Poland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Spain). In terms of religious affiliation, 41.5% identified as having no religion, 25.1% as Roman Catholic, 12.6% as Protestant, 7.5% as Muslim, 5.2% as Hindu, 2.4% as Buddhist, and 4.9% as other (with 7.9% missing).

Each participant answered open-ended questions, namely, “What do you find important personal characteristics which you would like to bring into practice in daily life?”, “What are bad personal characteristics to you?”, and “Which characteristics may, to your opinion, improve relations between different cultural groups in your country of origin?” Finally, participants rated the importance of the following 15 virtues: respect, justice, wisdom, joy, resolution, mercy, reliability, hope, courage, faith, moderation, openness, modesty, love, and helpfulness.

For the open-ended questions, the researchers found that only the virtue of honesty exists universally across all 14 countries (that is, it made the top ten). After that, 11 countries had the virtue of respect in their top ten virtues, 10 had kindness, 9 openness, and 8 tolerance. Some virtues appeared nation-specific, such as generosity in France (although this may be due to the flavor of the French word “générosité” versus its English counterpart), wisdom in the Czech Republic, and dynamism in India. As for the closed-ended questions (the preselected 15 virtues), the ones rated most important overall were respect, love, justice, joy and reliability, while the least important were moderation, mercy, faith, modesty, and hope.

The authors conclude by saying, “Our main question was whether virtues differ between nations. They definitely do.” Nations significantly differed on which virtues were important. Secondly, nations that shared a language also seemed to share virtues (for instance, the United Kingdom and the United States, Spain and Mexico, Austria and Germany). In fact, the researchers go so far as to argue that since Germany is closer to the Netherlands religiously than Austria, yet Germany and Austria share more virtues, language is more important for determining a culture’s virtues than religion. Finally, regarding the universality of virtues, the authors state, “On the basis of data from 14 nations we cannot draw strong conclusions on the universality of virtues. However, the results show that the freely mentioned virtues honesty (which is mentioned in all nations), respect (mentioned in 11 nations), kindness (mentioned in 10 nations), openness (mentioned in 9 nations), and tolerance (mentioned in 8 nations) are potential candidates.” Perhaps with more research, one of these candidates will emerge as a clear universal virtue. Until then, patience is a virtue.

For more, see “Are virtues national, supranational, or universal?” in the journal SpringerPlus.


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