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The Four Indispensible Tools

By Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J. , Ph.D.
The four cardinal virtues aren’t names for a bird, or a baseball team, or the men who elect the Pope.  The word “cardinal” comes from the Latin word, cardo, which means hinge.  So the cardinal virtues literally mean those virtues on which all moral behavior depends.  Practicing the four cardinal virtues:  prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude (courage) make it easier to do the right thing consistently.  Conversely, without them, it makes doing the right thing difficult.

When these virtues are directed at Love and placed in the service of others, they provide the essential means for living an ethical Level 3 life.  The virtues form our character, and character matters because it becomes our destiny.  We see the necessity of character play out in media reports of famous people whose virtue waned leading to bad decisions.  The focus on an athlete’s or famous person’s character indirectly challenges everyone, especially leaders, to take a look at our own practice of virtue so that we can lead well.  

So what are these virtues and how can we practice them?

1.  Prudence.  Prudence is the primary cardinal virtue—the cardinal of the cardinals.  The other three virtues are virtues of the will, but prudence is a virtue of the mind.  It can be defined as “the perfect ability of right decision-making.”  When a parent hopes their child makes good decisions, they are saying they hope their child is prudent.

Without prudence it is hard to judge what is fair, or when courage will lead to positive or negative results (picking battles wisely).  Prudence tells you what types of occasions of self-control will bear good fruit, and which amount to little more than distraction from a higher priority.  Prudence requires a commitment to lifelong learning and reflection.  

2.  Courage.  Often equated with physical bravery or the ability to overcome fear with determination, courage most often reflects peace of mind that arises from conviction and nobility of our cause or principles.  This peace allows us to overcome peer pressure to acquiesce into wrongdoing, and to speak up even when we have reason to fear retaliation or humiliation.  People of courage admit mistakes, defend others who are being unfairly maligned or marginalized, and even take difficult actions, such as resigning from a job, rather than do or support something wrong.  

You need prudence to know how to apply courage to a situation, and to judge when your hesitation to act is rooted in fear or good sense.  For example, it may take courage to criticize an injustice in front of an audience, but in some situations, a public rebuke may be the worst way to reverse the action.

3.  Temperance.  You can’t say yes to others and to higher-level pursuits if you can’t say no to temptations and desires that conflict with Level 3 goals.  The virtue of self-control or temperance not only moderates our desire for pleasure and ego satisfaction, but also provides the discipline needed to master skills as well as other virtues.  It takes discipline to control emotions like anger and arrogance; to pause and question your own motives; and to overcome dejection when plans go awry.  It takes self-control to remind yourself to look for the good in others when it’s so much easier to focus on their flaws.  

4.  Justice.  Fairness, or justice, is simply giving the other his due.  It is the desire to provide people with proper compensation and credit for their work, and to ensure a balanced and equitable relationship between activities done and rewards or penalties received.  The figure of Justice is customarily blindfolded to convey impartiality.  That’s because we are powerfully tempted to unfairly favor our friends and allies and short-change strangers and competitors.  

In organizations, fairness is the cornerstone of empathy.  You can’t build a constructive Level 3 culture if people perceive that fairness is being violated.  (“Times are tough, so we are cutting pay by 10%.  We reached this decision at last week’s management retreat in the Bahamas.”)

 The cardinal virtues are mutually reinforcing, and it is not unusual to find yourself in situations where all four work together.  For example, when you intentionally practice prudence well, it naturally lends itself to the improved practice of courage, temperance, and justice.  Conversely, just as it takes one flat tire to stop a car, the absence of any one of these virtues can undermine your Journey to Excellence.  

It pays to keep all four virtues in mind and practice; because practice makes habits, habits form character, and character determines your level of happiness.