The Mental Virtues

Written by Dr. Carole Garrison

An OP-ED piece in the New York Times, AUG. 28, 2014, by David Brooks raised an interesting discussion about good virtues in the information age. While his focus was on the office jockey, I think it has real time application for online students. I teach a course called “Police Ethics” that requires students to contribute to a discussion board.

Put yourself in the place of the student. What are you thinking about when you’re alone with your computer on your class discussion board?

Thinking well under a barrage of information may be a moral challenge just as a police action is under a hail of bullets. It is, as David Brooks suggests, a character challenge.

Brooks refers to the 2007 book, “Intellectual Virtues,” by Robert C. Roberts of Baylor University and W. Jay Wood of Wheaton College, which lists some of the cerebral virtues.

How good are you at these?

“First, there is love of learning. Some people are just more ardently curious than others, either by cultivation or by nature.

Second, there is courage. The obvious form of intellectual courage is the willingness to hold unpopular views. But the subtler form is knowing how much risk to take in jumping to conclusions. The reckless thinker takes a few pieces of information and leaps to some faraway conspiracy theory. The perfectionist, on the other hand, is unwilling to put anything out there except under ideal conditions for fear that she could be wrong. Intellectual courage is self-regulation, Roberts and Wood argue, knowing when to be daring and when to be cautious. The philosopher Thomas Kuhn pointed out that scientists often simply ignore facts that don’t fit with their existing paradigms, but an intellectually courageous person is willing to look at things that are surprisingly hard to look at.

Third, there is firmness. You don’t want to be a person who surrenders his beliefs at the slightest whiff of opposition. On the other hand, you don’t want to hold dogmatically to a belief against all evidence. The median point between flaccidity and rigidity is the virtue of firmness. The firm believer can build a steady worldview on solid timbers but still delight in new information. She can gracefully adjust the strength of her conviction to the strength of the evidence. Firmness is a quality of mental agility.

Fourth, there is humility, which is not letting your own desire for status get in the way of accuracy. The humble person fights against vanity and self-importance. He’s not writing those sentences people write to make themselves seem smart; he’s not thinking of himself much at all. The humble researcher doesn’t become arrogant toward his subject, assuming he has mastered it. Such a person is open to learning from anyone at any stage in life.

Fifth, there is autonomy. You don’t want to be a person who slavishly adopts whatever opinion your teacher or some author gives you. On the other hand, you don’t want to reject all guidance from people who know what they are talking about. Autonomy is the median of knowing when to bow to authority and when not to, when to follow a role model and when not to, when to adhere to tradition and when not to.”

Finally, my personal favorite: “… there is generosity. This virtue starts with the willingness to share knowledge and give others credit. But it also means hearing others as they would like to be heard, looking for what each person has to teach and not looking to triumphantly pounce upon their errors.”

A responder to the Brooks op-ed reminded me that “Character tests are pervasive even in modern everyday life. It’s possible to be heroic if you’re just sitting alone in your office. It just doesn’t make for a good movie.” 

I would argue the same is true when you are sitting at your computer taking PLS 326: Police Ethics online or posting on Facebook.

A version of Brooks’s piece also appeared in the Houston Chronicle.


Dr. Carole Garrison is professor emeritus and an online instructor at Eastern Kentucky University. She earned her Ph.D. in Public Administration with a concentration in Criminal Justice from The Ohio State University. From 1970 to 1974 she served as a police officer with the Atlanta (GA) Bureau of Police Services. In 1981 she joined the Criminal Justice faculty at the University of Akron and in 1986 served as Commander of a College-Police Academy that tested the State of Ohio's new Basic Peace Officer Curriculum. She chaired the department of Criminal Justice and Police Studies at EKU from 2000-2008.

Published on September 10, 2014