The Three Primary Virtues
Adam Smith, in his important book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, wrote that excellent people have three primary virtues: prudence, justice, and benevolence, in that order. Each of them is essential to the others and to the living of a full life in society.
Virtue #1: Prudence
The virtue of prudence refers to your developing the habit of providing well for yourself, your family, your friends, your co-workers, and your company. This requires that you think intelligently and honestly about the very best course of action to maximize your opportunities and minimize possible danger and threats. The habit of prudence means you investigate every investment carefully, think ahead about what might happen if you were to take a particular course of action, and take intelligent steps to guard against setbacks and reversals of fortune. The most successful people are those who are prudent in the conduct in all of their personal and business affairs.
Virtue #2: Justice is Blind
The second habit for you to develop is the habit of justice. This refers to your commitment to the establishment and maintenance of laws in society that protect the person and property of every individual. The American republic has endured for more than 200 years because it was carefully established by the founding fathers on the basis of law, not men. At every level of our society, specific laws are prescribed and laid down that are applicable to all people, regardless of wealth or station in life.
John Rawls, the Harvard philosopher and author of A Theory of Justice (Belknap Press, revised edition, 1999), once presented a question to his class that has been repeated often through the years.
Imagine that you could write the laws and create the circumstances of your society. You are given the power to prescribe the economic, social and political relationships that would exist in your country throughout your lifetime.
There is only one limitation on your power. You would set up this structure without knowing into what sort of family or situation you would be born. You would not know in advance what sort of physical condition you might be born with. Whatever system of laws and customs you decided upon, you would then be required to live by them for the rest of your life. What kind of structure would you design in this situation?
The answer to this question is the very essence of the concept of justice. The statue of justice, holding the balances and scales in her hand, is blind folded. True justice is therefore applicable to all people who live under a certain system, irrespective of their background. When you make the habit of justice an organizing virtue for your own character, you will insist that, whatever the relative power of the parties, everyone be treated fairly and justly in the resolution of any difficulty or dispute.
The habit of prudence is essential for personal success. The habit of justice is essential for the creation of a society within which a person can pursue his or her own best interests with the greatest of possibilities. The rule is that you should never want or demand anything from anyone else that you are not perfectly willing to accept for yourself.
Virtue #3: Benevolence
The third quality you must develop is the habit of benevolence. This is one of the hallmark characteristics of the truly superior person. Aristotle referred to it as one of the eight essential virtues, that of “generosity.” Most people are psychologically and emotionally structured in such a way that they are only truly happy and satisfied when they feel they are doing something that serves and benefits other people. When you give freely and generously of yourself to others, whether it is to members of your family or to members of the public, you feel more valuable and happier inside. When you dedicate yourself to serving your customers with the very best quality product or service of which you are capable, not only do you feel a deep sense of personal satisfaction, but you also put yourself on the side the angels when it comes to personal and business success. You remember the principle: “The more you give of yourself to others with expectation of return, the more good things there are that will come back to you from the most unexpected sources.”
The regular practice of prudence, justice, and benevolence leads naturally to feelings and actions of kindness, compassion, and tolerance toward other people. You become more open minded and flexible. You develop greater patience and understanding. You are less judgmental or demanding of others. You become a better and finer person.
Imagine yourself to be a person of complete honesty and impeccable integrity. Is there any behavior of yours that you would change?
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