Are virtues universal? Unhelpfully, my answer is both “yes” and “no.”
I justify my wishy-washiness on the grounds that while a general concept may be universal, its specific manifestation might well not be. Charity, for example, looks different if you’re in a society that believes everyone has a fundamental right to food, water, shelter, and health care, than if you’re in a society that believes if you’re poor it’s due to your own moral failings (either in this life or a previous one). Courage means one thing when your culture’s warrior ideal involves charging headfirst into battle in search of personal glory; it means something else entirely when soldiers are expected to hold the line with their buddies — and does it get counted as “courage” when the peril you’re facing is instead the consequences of speaking truth to power, or the vulnerability of confessing your own weakness to another person? The answers to those questions will not be the same from place to place and time to time, even if everyone in those places and times agrees that “courage” is a good thing to have.
Beyond that, however, there’s another level that interests me. This is what I think of as “cultural virtues”: aspects of behavior that are especially prized in a certain society. Individualism and collectivism, from a couple of essays ago, might fall under this header; certainly I would say individualism does in the United State. In some instances this is not dissimilar to the codes of honor I’ve talked about before — “honorable” conduct having a lot to do with adhering to a certain set of virtues — but cultural virtues as I conceive of them are a wider set than that. Not all such virtues have to do with honor.
Take, for example, the Greek concept of arete. Although this is usually translated as “excellence,” the actual sense of arete is broader than a mere demonstration of skill: someone demonstrates their possession of this virtue through mustering all their resources and faculties to achieve effective action. In other words, the kind of thing we often cheer when we see it in fictional protagonists — and that’s not an accident; arete can only really be seen in the context of agon, i.e. struggle. A protagonist is one who undergoes that struggle, and an antagonist is the one who creates it. Arete can encompass the notion of courage in the standard battlefield sense, but it isn’t limited to that realm: Penelope’s trickery in stalling her suitors is her exhibition of arete.
Is this unique to Greek culture? Certainly not. The idea of admiring people who use skill and intelligence to get stuff done is universal. But the rhetoric of arete . . . that’s a different matter. The Greeks attached a specific word to this, built an ideology around it, wrote in praise of it. Other cultures turned their attention elsewhere. Even Roman culture, often lumped in together with Greek under the header “Greco-Roman,” differs notably in what it prizes; virtus or “manly virtue” is absolutely a military quality (more akin to Greek andreia than arete). It can also be demonstrated in the public sphere, via bold political and legal action, but not in the domestic sphere, and it’s almost never ascribed to women — who, being barred from warfare and political office, have almost no chance to develop or display it. But unmitigated virtus isn’t a good thing: it needs to be restrained by discipline and rationality, like a wild horse brought under control with a bridle.
Virtus is actually part of a whole complex of words that describe the ideal Roman man, one step in a daisy-chain of honor, dignity, and authority, each created by the previous. Which is something I want to emphasize here: rarely if ever do these concepts stand in isolation. Over-emphasizing them flattens out a society into a single dimension, rather than just giving you a small center of gravity around which other aspects of the culture can vaguely orbit.
And it can also — especially when you’re writing in English about a non-Western culture — become massively exoticizing. For this, let’s take filial piety as our example: a concept that definitely shows up elsewhere in the world (“honor thy father and mother”), but which is strongly associated with East Asia in general, and China in particular.
Confucian ethics actually list off a number of virtues. The Five Constants are usually translated as “benevolence” or “humaneness,” “righteousness” or “justice,” “propriety” or “rites,” “wisdom” or “knowledge,” and “sincerity” or “faithfulness.” But a different classic text emphasizes righteousness plus three others: loyalty, continence, and filial piety. Still others show up in other lists; this is not a tradition that singles out one concept above all.
Having said that, it does often feel like filial piety deserves particular notice. European thought may agree that one should honor one’s mother and father, but when I think about the traditional stories I’ve read (folktales, legends, fables, and the like), there are vanishingly few where I feel like the ultimate message is “look at how virtuously this person sacrificed on behalf of their parents, even unto death; you should strive to follow their example.” I have seen that more in Chinese tales. And not just in traditional narratives, either: among friends and online, I’ve seen Asian-American friends make groaning comments about how they don’t want to do a certain thing with their family, but, welp, filial piety, amirite?
So there’s a balance to strike around this kind of thing, a negotiation between placing it centrally enough that the reader feels its weight, but not so centrally that you’re reducing your fictional society to a single overwhelming idea. It helps not to glom onto just a single point for inspiration: if you’re drawing on filial piety, also look at the rest of the Confucian virtues, to see how the former fits among and is shaped by the latter. Furthermore, remember that there can be a vast gulf between what behavior a society idealizes, and what people actually do! We can praise charity while hoarding our wealth, applaud courage while knowing full well that if we were faced with similar danger, we’d turn tail and run. Assuming that the ideal actually controls everyone’s behavior — as opposed to that of a few saintly exemplars — reduces them to puppets, denying their full, messy humanity.
And that’s not a very virtuous thing to do.