One of the key underpinnings of the field of positive psychology is that utilizing one’s character strengths is an essential component of a flourishing life. After researching valued virtues across history, religions, and cultures, Peterson and Seligman (2004) delineated twenty-four different traits that are considered esteemed by most societies. These include kindness, persistence, vitality, honesty, fairness, humility, gratitude, hope, humor, amongst others. One common intervention to boost happiness and well-being is to discover our signature strength, which can be done through a survey (www.viacharacter.org) and utilize it in different ways throughout our day.
Critics point that the approach is missing a larger, cohesive moral framework. Kristjánsson (2013) writes that:
There is no attention given to the problem of one virtue colliding with another or to the bigger picture of relevance: how different characteristics fit into a well-rounded life. There is no moral arbitration, no whole-person focus. Rather, individual strengths are treated as logically, empirically and morally independent – and virtuous character as a smorgasbord where items can be picked or not picked more or less at random (p. 154).
Aren’t there certain traits that are more morally valuable than others? What should we do when different virtues conflict? Should we be looking to inculcate different virtues that balance each other out, helping to create a more wholesome and integrated personality? While recent researchers are trying to account for these critiques (see Ratchford, Cazzell & Schnitker, 2023), the field of positive psychology as it currently stands encourages individuals to find and utilize any of the strengths without accounting for a larger moral theory.
In our Mishna, we are presented with three important virtues: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: on three things the world stands: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it says: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16). The “world stands” lends itself to several interpretations. One possibility is that G-d runs the world on a cosmic level using these three components. Alternatively, according to Sforno, “the world stands” means that human society relies on these three values to function properly. A third possibility is that “the world” is a metaphor for the human personality, meaning that each individual needs these three virtues in order to succeed.
These three traits are not just a random collection of optional values, a smorgasbord to choose from. If we are deficient in one of these strengths, we cannot sidestep our moral obligation to cultivate them and decide instead to focus on building our sense of humor (no matter how valuable a sense of humor may be psychologically or morally). Rabbi Israel Lipschitz understands these three virtues as representing a unified moral theory aimed at integrating the different parts of the self. The underlying message behind all three virtues of justice, truth, and peace is that we are not allowed to cause any sort of harm to another person. Each of the three represents another aspect comprising the totality of a person’s whole being: action, speech, and thought. Justice is reflected in action, truth in speech, and peace through thinking which promotes emotional calmness. Through justice, truth, and peace, we are enjoined to develop our actions, speech, and thoughts to align with the moral imperative not to harm others.
By juxtaposing these three values, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel is also alluding to the complexity that sometimes arises when values are in conflict. Most pronouncedly, an emphasis on justice and truth can often diverge from the pursuit of peace. Elaborating on this theme in the Mishna, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm writes:
Each of these is a good – but not an absolute, for they can be overdone. Important as truth is, uninhibited honesty can be poisonous. It can lead one to the foolish frankness of telling everybody what he thinks of them, even if he was not asked. When you face a dying patient, whether to tell him the truth or not depends solely on the kind of person he is and whether it will do him good or not, whether he can accept it or not. To tell the truth unconditionally in all circumstances is cruel and brutal. Similarly, justice is certainly a foundation of society; but without mercy and compassion it can become sadistic. And peace is certainly good, but it can lead to pacifism and passivity in the face of evil, and then it is suicidal. For the world to be kayam, to exist and survive, we must have all of these taken together, so that each can modify the extremes of the other, so that we have a good thing in this world – not too much of a good thing, which is a bad thing. Only with this attitude of dynamic moderation can we make our contribution to haolam kayam, a world that deserves to survive.
While a more exhaustive analysis is warranted, what emerges from Rabbi Lipschitz and Rabbi Lamm’s commentaries is that embedded in Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s succinct formulation is a multifaceted moral framework of virtues that would also serve as a critique of a looser, less developed strength-based approach. Some virtues are more important than others. Virtues require a focus on the whole-person, encompassing behaviors, speech, and thoughts. Finally, due to their complexity, nuance, and context-dependency, virtues require moderation and precise application to specific circumstances.