Virtue denotes moral excellence according to the dictionary meaning. But can virtue be defined? We normally consider acts of honesty, kindness, humility, compassion as virtue. But on closer observation we find that virtues cannot be so easily defined.
In fact nothing is more nebulous than virtue. Every act that we perform cannot be viewed in isolation. We need to take a holistic view of the act – the situation, the circumstances, the cause and the consequences of the act before classifying the act as being morally excellent or not.
A naive definition of truth is generally understood to be a simple statement of a fact. This is what we as kids learn. However as we grow older we learn that sometimes we need tact rather than direct statement of facts – hence we sugar coat the truth. Other times we may have to tell a white lie where we withhold a certain part of the fact when we know that mere telling of the fact can cause greater harm than good. This brings to mind the anecdote in which a sage on being asked by bandits with murderous intentions whether he saw a man flee in a particular direction simply states the fact, resulting in the man being caught and killed. The sage could have told a white lie in this situation. In these situations truth which is pure and the highest virtue cannot be the simple statement of fact.
Another situation that can be considered is when a corporate needs to retrench a part of the workforce. For the employees affected by this move it does appear cruel. But in the eyes of the CEO such a move is necessary for long term health of the organization. In these situations again virtue cannot be easily defined. On the one hand it resulted in people losing jobs and earning capacity at least temporarily, while on the other hand it prevents further decay in the organization.
Was Robin Hood, who stole from the rich, to give to the poor justified in his act? While it may appear that Robin Hood was stealing on the other hand he was using the stolen wealth to help the poor. With this view can virtue be defined as an act in which the ends are noble, though the means are not? Or does virtue necessitate that both the means and the ends be morally justifiable.
The reality is virtue is relative in many ways and really needs to be viewed in totality. We can think of virtue as any act that provides the greatest good for the greatest number or the greatest good for the greatest time. In many ways the Hindu concept of dharma is closest to this view.
In fact at the highest realm of virtue, one virtue is really indistinguishable from another, Hence if we look at virtue as an act that produces the most beneficial consequence then truth, kindness, non-violence and compassion all merge together becoming virtually distinguishable.
Hence virtue at the highest level cannot be easily defined and is in reality an amalgam of many virtues.