I drank tea with Jonathan Aitken in his lovely library in London. He was an honest and enthusiastic participant in the process, holding nothing back about his controversial past, his time in prison, and his conversion to Christianity.
Jonathan defines virtue as a personal quality that raises those who possess it above the run of the mill. Virtuous people honour both the spiritual life and the earthly life in a community of their choosing. The behaviour most closely associated with virtue is moral courage which, he freely admits, can make virtuous people incredibly stubborn as they may be unshakeable in their belief system. Nevertheless, his experience is that this kind of moral courage (of convictions) can be rather infectious and feels admiration and respect for people who display it whom, he observes, have a certain something about them. They radiate, they shine, and that radiance affects other people.
Jonathan thinks about virtue actively as he daily strives to be a better person, "less self-centred and more Christ-centred" is the way he phrases it. This translates into a constant attempt to have better relationships and to be more grateful for what he has and what he receives. The benefit of attempting to behave virtuously is "peace at the centre" which is a Quaker phrase. Although he has elected to follow a Christian path to achieving this kind of peace within himself by building relationships with loved ones, neighbours, and God, he is perfectly comfortable with the idea that this can also be achieved in a non-religious way. People, he believes, have a remarkable store of qualities which they can put to virtuous use.
He is saddened by his observation that virtue is low down on most people's behaviours as the spiritual side of life is squeezed out in a secular age. He sees that behaviour has become rather "scientific" rather than conscience-led. One example of this is regulation: where there is a regulator, people doing a job, whether it is a city trader or an executive in an electricity company, or a politician, may choose to try to get away with as much as they possibly can, delegating responsibility for "what is acceptable" to the regulator. This scientific approach in an increasingly litigious age is the biggest barrier to embedding virtue, for him.
To enable the embedding of virtue, Jonathan believes we have to become more comfortable talking about it as a day to day part of our lives. Leaders in institutions can play a key role in this if they elect to discuss virtue, weave it into a well understood and broadly shared value system, and develop a behavioural code for the workplace where the virtuous circle can spring into life.
For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)