Looking at Character and Capabilities

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Our very own Ped Parasmand has been blogging away recently about all sorts of things, from thinking hats, to design thinking, as well as summarising Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman’s list of character strengths and virtues from their book of the same name.  Here are their 24:

  • Zest: approaching life with excitement and energy; feeling alive and activated
  • Grit: finishing what one starts; completing something despite obstacles; a combination of
  • persistence and resilience.
  • Self-control: regulating what one feels and does; being self-disciplined
  • Social intelligence being aware of motives and feelings of other people and oneself
  • Gratitude: being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen
  • Love: valuing close relationships with others; being close to people
  • Hope: expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it
  • Humor: liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people; seeing a light side
  • Creativity: coming up with new and productive ways to think about and do things
  • Curiosity: taking an interest in experience for its own sake; finding things fascinating
  • Open-mindedness: examining things from all sides and not jumping to conclusions
  • Love of learning: mastering new skills and topics on one’s own or in school
  • Wisdom: being able to provide good advice to others
  • Bravery: not running from threat, challenge, or pain; speaking up for what’s right
  • Integrity: speaking the truth and presenting oneself sincerely and genuinely
  • Kindness: doing favors and good deeds for others; helping them; taking care of them
  • Citizenship: working well as a member of a group or team; being loyal to the group
  • Fairness: treating all people the same; giving everyone a fair chance
  • Leadership: encouraging a group of which one is a valued member to accomplish
  • Forgiveness: forgiving those who’ve done wrong; accepting people’s shortcomings
  • Modesty: letting one’s victories speak for themselves; not seeking the spotlights
  • Prudence/Discretion: being careful about one’s choices; not taking undue risks
  • Appreciation of beauty: noticing and appreciating all kinds of beauty and excellence
  • Spirituality: having beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe
As an interesting point of comparison, here’s a list of 13 virtues that Benjamin Franklin came up with…

1 . Temperance. Eat not to DullnessDrink not to Elevation.

2. Silence.
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself.
Avoid trifling Conversation.

3. Order.
Let all your Things have their Places.
Let each Part of your Business have its Time.

4. Resolution.
Resolve to perform what you ought.
Perform without fail what you resolve.

5. Frugality.
Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself:
i.e. Waste nothing.

6. Industry.
Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.

7. Sincerity.
Use no hurtful Deceit.
Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. Justice.
Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.

9. Moderation.
Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. Cleanliness.
Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.

11 . Tranquillity.
Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.

12. Chastity.
Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.

13. Humility.
Imitate Jesus and Socrates

With all our work on flourishing, well-being and happiness: looking at these lists makes me wonder if it really is the case that we need to all 24 or all 13 in order to be happy and flourish to our fullest. That seems like a tall order. Presumably, the more strengths or virtues that we have and we are able to develop, the greater the opportunity for life satisfaction and well-being. And if agency is a concern (which I think it should be), then perhaps we should be left to our own devices to come up with our own lists too, and not believe that those of others are right, or better, or necessarily prescriptive. Rather, that they are starting points for us to reflect on the strengths or virtues we want to carry ourselves.
So these lists are interesting, but to me they both seem predicated on some basic assumptions that need to be teased out first. Not everyone in this world has an equal capability for these character strengths or virtues: not because some are incapable of them, but because it might be socially or culturally impossible for them to have them.
I am reminded of Martha Nussbaum‘s highly influential list of Capabilities, that were the groundwork for the Human Development Index. A lot of development theory, as well as other areas of philosophy and social sciences, now look back to her thoughts on how we can strive to ensure that we are all free and equal. The capabilities are simply about looking at what individuals are actually able to do or be. This idea is drawn from Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen‘s work on Substantial Freedoms. If you’ve got an hour to spare, watch this brilliant interview with Amartya Sen:
And if you don’t have an hour, then flick your eye over this list. Nussbaum lists ten aspects of life to which capabilities relate and that should be available to every human:

1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length . . . ; not dying prematurely . . .

2. Bodily health . . . Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; being adequately nourished . . . ; being able to have adequate shelter . . .

3. Bodily integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; being able to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault . . . ; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction

4. Senses, imagination, thought. Being able to use the senses; being able to imagine, to think, and to reason–and to do these things in . . . a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education . . . ; being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing, and producing expressive works and events of one’s own choice . . . ; being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech and freedom of religious exercise; being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid nonbeneficial pain

5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves; being able to love those who love and care for us; being able to grieve at their absence, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger; not having one’s emotional developing blighted by fear or anxiety. . . .

6. Practical reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s own life. (This entails protection for liberty of conscience.)

7. Affiliation. Being able to live for and in relation to others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; being able to imagine the situation of another and to have compassion for that situation; having the capability for both justice and friendship. . . . Being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others.

8. Other species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.

9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.

10. Control over one’s environment. (A) Political: being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the rights of political participation, free speech and freedom of association . . . (B) Material: being able to hold property (both land and movable goods); having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others . . .

As much as I am fascinated by Peterson and Seligman’s list, and Franklin’s, I think the simplicity of Nussbaum’s approach makes it more appealing: it feels more achievable to many more people. Although of course the point of it is to highlight those individuals and communities who are deprived of these aspects and opportunities.