I met Matthew Taylor in his sunny office at the top of the RSA building just off The Embankment. It was a Friday afternoon and, over cups of tea, we covered virtue as well as psychiatry, nurturing, leadership, and growing up (among other things) in a candid and, at times, poignant discussion.
Matthew would modify the Golden Rule somewhat in order to define virtuous behaviour. Rather than do unto others as you would have them to unto you, he would like to do unto others as they would like to be done by. Doing good, and doing harm are in the eye of the beholder. Whilst that may sound simple, the reality is that for us to behave in a way that enables others to reach their full potential, we need to be enlightened ourselves. We must have self awareness in order to know our limits. We must have confidence in order to be able to accept and resolve differences. We must have compassion and a capacity to nurture in order to truly bring the best out in others. We must understand the relationship between means and ends in order to have a consistently virtuous impact on our surroundings. Whilst it is important to have a clear value set and to adhere to it, it is also important to know how to resolve the conflicts that can come about when two different value sets meet. People who are in positions of leadership, as Matthew is, are in positions of great responsibility because they have the opportunity to impact other people's lives for good or for ill depending on their intellectual and emotional capabilities and their abilities to embrace and resolve differences.
Matthew is driven by a tremendous sense of duty coupled with a genuine desire to be a better person and a better leader. He wants to have a consistently positive impact on the world around him and continues to struggle to develop the qualities that he believes he lacks. When he is successful, when he feels he has done his duty, he experiences a sense of well being which, he freely admits, feels even better when it is acknowledged and/or when he sees his ideas being implemented. For him, the emotional benefit of behaving virtuously is a feeling of contentment and the self expressive benefit is being thought of, by others, as a person with good ideas who is having a positive impact on his surroundings.
Although he believes that virtue is practically relevant for the average person, and that the average person behaves virtuously much of the time, he also sees that many people find the concept of virtue to be "too big" for them. This means they don't think about it consciously and therefore, do not behave virtuously with consciousness - observing how their behaviour makes them feel, and seeking to repeat the positive experiences and cut down on the negative ones. The real problem occurs when people are so unobservant of their own emotional responses to their behaviour that they buy into a destructive set of values which is so easy to do whether you are an average bloke participating in a blokey kind of culture where being virtuous could be perceived as weakness, or are a vulnerable teen ager looking for acceptance in a violent gang.
To embed virtue requires self knowledge and that requires conversation and learning. Given that many people work in organisations, employers have a responsibility to help leaders develop themselves so that they can have a consistently positive impact on the people who work for them. Individuals are also responsible. People should create time in their day to reflect on their behaviour and then make conscious choices about how they would like to behave going forward. Further, people should initiate and participate in conversations that are productive and constructive. Discussing something like virtue makes the concept more practical and accessible and creates moments in which we could all be positively changed.
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)
Related links: http://www.thersa.org