In India, virtues come up in discussions of spirituality. Newspapers with broad readership have daily columns dedicated to it [for example, at right], and the writers, regardless of their faith, draw from a variety of traditions to make their point: Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, or secular humanist. People also readily engage in the topic. Here, for example, is the opening line of a real email that I once received from a man with a degree in electrical engineering from one of the world-renowned Indian Institutes of Technology. It was sent out to a mailing list of people interested in environmental issues:
Buddha, one day, was in deep thought about worldly activities and the ways of instilling goodness in human beings.
If you're anything like me, you suppressed a chuckle when you read this, or maybe you didn't even bother to suppress. I certainly chortled. Goodness in human beings?! Was he for real?
It's not clear, though, why this elicits a laugh. Don't we want goodness in human beings? Yet, something about the sheer earnestness collides with what must be an entrenched cynicism.
I can think of at least three kinds of cynicism that apply. First, there's what might be called biological cynicism -- a belief that human nature is fixed or sufficiently difficult to change that the effort isn't worthwhile. We can manipulate people's behaviors, but we can't expect people to change intrinsically.
Biological cynicism is built into influential models of policy. For example, classical economics models people as selfish, rational agents and stresses the importance of incentives like money. Behavioral economics has cast doubt on the rational-agent model, and economists readily concede that money isn't the only incentive -- people are said to have different preferences -- yet when policy-makers get down to business, money is the ultimate metric and often the favored instrument.
For most people, though, money is neither the only concern nor the primary concern. The best evidence for this is economists themselves: Here are a set of smart people who are the world's experts on money. If economists were exemplars of their own models, there shouldn't be economists off of Wall Street.
What's more, preferences evolve, often accompanied by new virtues. Among economists I know who've held jobs in banking and finance, several have quit to pursue less lucrative careers, citing desires for more autonomy, intellectual reward, family time, or social impact, all of which reveal additional virtues beyond industriousness.
Of course, it's not just economists. People can and do change.
Second, there's a secular cynicism, the repulsion that some people have for anything that smells of religion. Virtue reeks of it. If you have a disinclination for organized religion, it doesn't help that churchgoers embrace a rhetoric of virtues or that lists of virtues often include traits like chastity.