Skip to main content

Understanding Virtue as a Human Need


Possibly, no term in the history of moral thought has stimulated more interest, reflection and speculation than that of virtue. Its importance for religious persons has been uncontested, but its necessity for all human person is not so understood. Why do we need virtues, or more specifically, what for? Humans need virtues to do whatever humans are for. This simple answer almost immediately requires another question: what are humans for? This question makes sense although we may not be as ready with an answer even a partial answer as when we ask: what are hearts for? What are teeth for? However, when we examine the meaning of the Latin ‘virtus’ meaning ‘manliness’, we see that virtue talks about the quality or state of being human and the inner dispositions that a human is possesses. A human person is not just a being in existence, but a being with the potential to be more.

There are divergent views about what a person is. However I do believe that there is a sufficient and practical consensus based on some key elements. This is shown for instance in the declarations of Human Rights that sees a human person is a free being endowed with reason and conscience, expected to act in a spirit of brotherhood towards one another, and who however may be compelled to act on the contrary when not in the right condition and frame of mind. This means that a person requires some right values to truly behave like a human person. It is meaningless to urge a pig to behave like a pig, but to tell a man to behave like a man, is not meaningless. It is precisely by means of virtues that is, good habits that a man behaves like a man and he achieves manliness. Virtue is a habit that makes both its possessor and his actions good. It is the accessory quality that enables a person to use his potency or faculties correctly; with ease, promptness, pleasure, and also with some stability since otherwise it would simply be an inclination and a disposition.



A virtue is an operative habit that is good. However, virtue goes beyond good habit. It is more of a mode of life. The term ‘habitus’ is closest to the conception of virtue. It connotes socially ingrained habits, skills and dispositions. It is the way individuals perceive the social world around them and react to it. It is something distinctively human and it is more comprehensive than mere habit. Animals can acquire habit and they have or can develop inclinations. They get accustomed to things and they are domesticated, however they do not acquire a habitus. The habitus goes beyond mere habitations, reactions or automatisms which is a result of inertia or adaptation.

Habits are very useful for life and particularly for the practice of science. In fact, all education consists in the formation of habits. Whitehead asserts that civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. It is also true that men get used to a certain type of food, temperature, climate and environment. As profound as habit is to the human person, habitus acquires a higher place and value in a person. Psychologically, the phenomenon of habitus is found in the contact point of spirit and body, the conscious and the unconscious, and the will and the mechanism. A person is not viable if the habitus is not added to support his nature.

Habitus is the literal translation of ‘Exein’, which means ‘to have’. Exein is a certain mode of having; not to have something but to have oneself. It is a form of self-possession. However, to attain self-possession is not easily achieved, it requires a long process. What a person can be will not be immediately actualized, that is, transformed into actual being or doing. In this, a person is different from fire, plants or animals whose actualization is immediate. The possession of a mere ability and faculty does not mean that a person possesses its actualization. St. Anselm put that beautifully when he said: The fire does truth and rightness necessarily, not so man in when he does what is good.

To act as he wants, a person must first possess himself. This possession of himself will enable him to be what he wants to be. Man of course, cannot become a bird, or a computer. However, within his nature he has the capacity of putting the maximum of good in his actions thereby realizing the truly human in the field of his factual existence. The fact that he can do something, or that he is capable of doing something does not make a virtue. Nobody is good by a single act of goodness. Everybody can sing, but not everybody is a singer. There must be an inner attitude. Virtue is therefore the expression of man’s commitment to his own destiny and not just a lack of spontaneity which is the mechanical fruit of an acquired habit. So, to tell right from wrong and also to do the right thing, a person needs a firm attitude and a possession of the self. He needs virtue.


Why do we need virtue or what do we need virtue for? To answer this, we have to approach it not only in terms of the purpose of virtues but looking at the reason for their existence. We need virtues because we are not angels. Angels do not need virtues because they are not embodied or incorporated spirits. God of course, does not need it as He is a pure act. He simple is. Humans need virtues not only because we are incomplete or self-determined or called to great undertakings, but because we are corporeal. A human person is a soul and a body, an incorporated spirit who shares in the plasticity of the matter. This is why we can state openly that virtue is the masterpiece of the spirit, the fixation in matter of its free activity. We need virtues because man is incomplete, unfinished, finite, but also open to great things, open to infinity. Made from nothing, he is destined to an immortal good. Man is, in his freedom, a task he is supposed to fulfill. All this wealth proper to the human being brings into evidence his transcendence as the constitutive dimension of his existence, for man is called by his very humanity to surpass himself. His value is not decided by his origin but by his destiny. He comes from nothing. His aim is eternity. He needs to cultivate virtues to become the superior being he is called to be, and to achieve his full potential while directing his life towards greater good, happiness and fulfillment.

Human basic needs are food, clothing and shelter. This does not mean that there are no other needs to be accomplished. A comprehensive conception of human needs is presented in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which comprises a five-tier model of human needs in ascending order: physiological, safety, belongingness and love, esteem and self-actualization needs. Maslow asserts that individuals must satisfy lower level deficit needs to a satisfactory level before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs, though the movement is not static and one can fluctuate between the levels. More interesting is the fact that the first four needs (physiological, safety, belongingness and love and esteem) are said to be deficiency needs because they arise due to deprivation and there is a constant longing to have it in full. Self-actualization however is seen as a growth need. Rather than stemming from a lack, it stems from a desire to grow as a person, and to meet our human potential. It is a continuous process of becoming rather than a perfect state one gets to. In self-actualization a person comes to find a meaning to life. Chiefly among its characteristics is strong moral/ethical standards.

Virtue as a human need is a self-actualization need. It stands above and over all other human needs because it seeks growth and perfection, and aims for the actualization of the human’s full potential which is entrenched in the good. With it, we journey towards the ideal, and it set us in motion from what is prevalent to what should be; showcasing our ability to raise and attain perfection. Virtue is an ennobling value that sees man as capable of the extraordinary. With the satisfaction of the deficiency needs man is still not fully satisfied. He definitely must seek the higher need, that which is centered not on material things but on the higher good. A need which is not selfish, but self-enriching and serves for the good of all. Thus it serves as the crowning of all needs, bringing to completion the human desire for satisfied needs.

Virtue is also a human spiritual need for it aims at communion with God; a life lived in union with his will. To possess virtue is to possess dominion over one’s spiritual and sensual drives and passions, so as to be able to do the good which one esteems and loves. Virtue is grounded in the unequivocal and definite orientation towards the supreme goal which is the glorification of God and the realization of his salvific plan for humans and the world. All the particular virtues are veritable only insofar as they are rooted in the true option and existential choice, which consists in the unwavering love for God and his will. The intellect and will as powers of the soul are naturally oriented to the true and good, and thus we possess the virtues inchoately. This goodness is centred on the love of God.


For a Christian, there are three sets of virtues: the cardinal virtues (Prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude), the eschatological virtues (gratitude, humility, vigilance, serenity and joy that are given to the believer by the Holy Spirit), and the theological virtues (faith, hope and charity). These suggest that different virtues are needed to perfect the various powers and appetites of the moral subject and also that there is a diversity of goods or values to be sought after in the moral life; each set of values requires a distinct aptness or ready disposition to achieve them. For example, prudence and faith dispose reason to seek values of an intellectual nature; and the virtues of justice, hope and charity facilitate the will to achieve moral values on a regular basis.

Virtues are needed to live a spiritual and moral life directed to the supreme God. However for these powers and actions to be directed towards the supernatural destiny, and thus to intend God as their ultimate end, the divine gift of grace must be infused. Just as grace perfects nature so the infusion of the theological virtues of faith hope and charity gives a supernatural finality to the actions performed as virtues. Christian virtue as the ready disposition to act on behalf of values for the wellbeing of others, can never be undertaken in isolation. It requires a community of believers who commit themselves in love to one another and who sustain each other’s efforts. The need for virtues goes beyond the individual self because virtues are never merely private realities in individual’s lives, but they also have a necessary and inevitable public end whereby the converted and virtuous person act to convert the structures of the society into meditations of social justice and love.

Virtues are the seedbed for equality and upright living in the society. It is the breeding of moral excellence and respectful behaviour, and the firm disposition to do good. Expressions of the individual’s good character and morals are visibly seen in acts such as respect, moral discipline, honesty, courage, prudence, love, transparency, truth, commitment and faithfulness. This moral wholeness of individuals in the society will lead to better living in the community through better communication, understanding and acceptance of the right. These basic societal and communal qualities are necessary for our relationships, wellbeing and happiness.

Virtue because of its intrinsic nature is universal and highly recognized by all the cultures of the world although they differ as regards number. However, it is accepted that a virtuous person does the right thing; he does not bend to the impulses, urges and desires of the flesh or from other external forces, but act in truth according to values and principles. Virtues are held in high esteem as rare values because it is believed that is it needed for a just society and for better living. It is needed for any large-scale worthy enterprise, just as health and sanity are needed. We need prudence or practical wisdom for any large-scale planning. We need justice to secure cooperation and mutual trust among men. We need temperance in order not to be deflected from our long-term and large-scale goals by seeking short-term satisfactions, and we need fortitude to persevere in the face of setbacks, weariness, difficulties and dangers. A virtue is an excellent trait of character. It is a disposition well entrenched in its possessor to notice, expect, value, feel, desire, choose, act, and react in certain characteristic ways. It makes its possessor good. A virtuous person is a morally good, excellent or admirable person who acts and feels as he/she should.

Possessing a virtue is a matter of degree. To possess such a disposition fully is to possess full or perfect virtue, which is rare. Most people who can truly be described as fairly virtuous and certainly upright still have their blind spots, little areas of faults. Like reality which is not static, man is not a static compound but a dynamic entity, an entity that continuously happens. Virtue is precisely the power of the happening being, and the road to man’s self-understanding and discovery. The need for virtue is evident because it is linked to every facet of our lives as humans; the realization of our potentials and our aspirations towards the supernatural and the divine.

Related Articles