Practice These Principles
Living the Spiritual Disciplines and Virtues in 12-Step Recovery

Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology
by Robert C. Roberts & W. Jay Wood

Intellectual Virtues in Recovery,
a review by Ray A.

I read Intellectual Virtues as part of my research into the role of the virtues in 12-Step recovery. Some virtues are said to be intellectual because they govern the use of the intellectual faculty with which we are endowed. That doesn’t mean we have to be intellectuals to practice intellectual virtues. All of us practice them—or their counterparts in character defects—all of the time.

In discussing traditional classifications of the virtues found in the 12 Steps of AA, I note in Practice These Principles that "Some of the above virtues may also be organized under different types of activities where they perform distinct functions. Thus humility, open-mindedness, generosity, courage, and wisdom work in certain situations as intellectual virtues or traits of intellectual character, for they govern the right exercise of such activities as learning and teaching, or acquiring and imparting knowledge and understanding. This of course doesn’t make them any less moral."

The intellectual virtues are fundamentally moral because they affect how we conduct ourselves and relate to others. Many of us have a tendency, for instance, to think that we know more than others, and we are often tempted to show it. What we usually show when we act on that temptation, however, is our conceit or lack of intellectual humility. When people make mistakes, our first impulse is to correct them and tell them how wrong they are. When we do, we miss a chance to exercise "restraint of pen and tongue" and practice a generosity that is no less spiritual for being intellectual. As William James would point out, we also fail to practice the wisdom of knowing what to overlook. And when, as the Big Book says, we close our minds to spiritual concepts and indulge in “contempt prior to investigation,” we fail to practice the virtue of open-mindedness, behind which we usually will also find the character defect of intellectual pride, what is often at the root of dismissive and contemptuous attitudes which we end up directing at those who don’t see things our way.

This take on Intellectual Virtues of course flows from a recovery perspective and is intended for the recovery reader, whereas the primary audience for this work is the specialist and those who have a general interest in epistemology. More accessible and more useful for the recovery reader is Roberts’ other book, Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues, a seminal (and decidedly practical and spiritual) work that sheds light on the relationship between virtue, emotion, and character and which influenced my own understanding of how the spiritual principles in the 12 Steps can lead to emotional sobriety. 

Note: See “Mental Virtues,” David Brooks’ Op-Ed piece inspired by this book (NYT 08/29/14)  

For other reviews, please click on Ray's Book Reviews