Exploring Human Potential

Virtue Ethics: “The US and Much Of The World Is Out Of Practice.” says…

Posted on | September 12, 2013 | 1 Comment

Mike Magee

While Russia and the US grapple with whether they will align in forging a diplomatic solution to Syria’s use of chemical weapons in the UN Security Council, the United Nations continues to deliberate on what should be the global Sustainable Development Goals for 2015 to 2030. The recently released UN report, “World Happiness Report 2013”, was intended to inform that debate.(1)

The origins of that report date back to July 2011 when the UN General Assembly for the first time “invited member countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use this to help guide their public policies.”(2) In April 2012, the UN sponsored a meeting, chaired by the Prime Minister of Bhutan, on happiness and well-being. A report followed (“presenting the widest body of happiness data available, and explaining the scientific base at hand to validate and understand the data”) and then the publishing of official guidelines on standards for measuring happiness. (3,4)

The newest report, focused on “more specific issues of measurement, explanation, and policy”, was heavily reported in the press. But nearly all missed the real story. More on that in a moment.

Our founding fathers  declared “happiness” an inalienable right. But what does happiness mean to UN world leaders? The problem with defining the term, according to the UN is the dual usage of the term. As they state, “ first as an emotion (‘Were you happy yesterday?’) and the second as an evaluation (‘Are you happy with your life as a whole?’).”(1)

Not surprisingly, the UN tends to heavily weight the long term view in their evaluation of happiness levels. Still their evaluation catalogued three different types of measures including “ measures of positive emotions (positive affect) including happiness, usually asked about the day preceding the survey; measures of negative emotions (negative affect) again asked about the preceding day; and evaluations of life as a whole.”(1)

While facts and figures abound in this report, and were heavily featured in major news reporting (US ranked 17th in happiness worldwide), the most interesting chapter in the report for me was chapter 5 focused on “virtue ethics”.

In the authors’ words: “Chapter 5 discusses a riddle in the history of thought. In the great pre-modern traditions concerning happiness, whether Buddhism in the East, Aristotelianism in the West, or the great religious traditions, happiness is determined not by an individual’s material conditions (wealth, poverty, health, illness) but by the individual’s moral character. Aristotle spoke of virtue as the key to eudaimonia, loosely translated as ‘thriving.’ Yet that tradition was almost lost in the modern era after 1800, when happiness became associated with material conditions, especially income and consumption. This chapter explores that transition in thinking, and what has been lost as a result. It advocates a return to ‘virtue ethics’ as one part of the strategy to raise (evaluative) happiness in society.”(1)

Chapter 5 reminds us of our common humanity and generalized agreement (at least in theory) on the Golden Rule of Reciprocity “What you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others.”)

How does the Golden Rule inform the values of virtue ethics?

“Within the principle of humanity, the Global Economic Ethic identifies four basic values:

(1) Non-violence and respect for life, including respect for human life and respect for the natural environment;

(2) Justice and solidarity, including rule of law, fair competition, distributive justice, and solidarity;

(3) Honesty and tolerance, including truthfulness, honesty, reliability, toleration of diversity, and rejection of discrimination because of sex, race, nationality, or beliefs;

(4) Mutual esteem and partnership, including fairness and sincerity vis-à-vis stakeholders and the rights to pursue personal and group interests through collective action.”

Can we as a human race turn back the clock? The UN says “yes” but it will not be easy. Again, in their words, “There would of course be much work to do to introduce a new virtue ethics into public policy. The US and much of the world are out of practice, to say the least.”(1)

What are the steps forward? The UN prescription:

1. Engage in a deliberative process that highlights “individual values and social norms regarding honesty, trust, compassion, consumerism, and other aspects of virtue ethics.”

2.  “More public education in ethical concepts.”

3. “Public policies to promote voluntary, pro-social actions such as national or international service.”

4. “Encourage civil society organizations to create new tools to monitor business and government for their ethical behavior.”

5. “New thinking to understand and elaborate the modern linkages of virtue ethics and happiness.”(1)

Major media outlets around the world heavily reported the UN “World Happiness Report 2013” but missed the real story.(5,6,7,8,9). The real story is chapter 5. And when you read it (as I am confident you will), consider this question, “What is the right outcome in Syria, and could success there create momentum in the right direction?”

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee


1. Helliwell JF, Layard R, Sachs JD. UN World Happiness Report 2013.

2.  UN General Assembly (19 July 2011).

3. .Helliwell et al. (2012). World Happiness Report 2012.

4  OECD (2013) Guidelines For Measuring Happiness.

5. USAToday:

6. Wall Street Journal:

7. International Business Times:

8. CNN.

9. National Geographic.


One Response to “Virtue Ethics: “The US and Much Of The World Is Out Of Practice.” says…”

  1. John H. O'Byrne
    September 17th, 2013 @ 11:54 am

    Mike – thank you for sending these comments. The principles of happiness align with how I have taught/managed ethics programs. The goal is to provide for a sense of integrity – a feeling of wholeness – within the person and the organization.

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