Clear Thinking in Four Easy Steps

I ran across this graphic from a paper called Character and Leadership: Situating Servant Leadership in A Proposed Virtues Framework, co-authored by Jim Lanctot and Dr. Justin Irving. Something about it immediately tingled my “clear thinking sense” (like Spidey sense, but more cerebral), so of course I had to investigate. The paper itself, I discovered, wasn’t badly done. It presents a reasonable layout of what may be considered basic virtues, not necessarily the ones I consider most important, but definitely virtues. It also provides reasonable definitions for those virtues. What bothered me about it was the chart of “The Virtue Continuum.”

Here is the figure: clear thinking on virtues in a continuumSome problems stand out. It is hard to see how one could have an excess of integrity, or how such an excess would lead to legalism. Wouldn’t legalism be the result of an overly enthusiastic respect of the rules, in other words, an insufficient respect for persons? The last item, courage, may indeed lead to foolhardiness, but if temperance is the practice of moderation, how is strictness due to too much temperance? Surely an excess of either strictness or licentiousness could be explained as a deficiency of temperance.

But I didn’t want to get caught up in criticizing details of the work. I wanted to see if there was something valuable there. In other words, was it something worth criticizing, or was I wasting time on it? It turned out there was something useful there that I was able to express in a form more meaningful for me. Let me walk you through how I processed the information there, so you can see how clear thinking works for me.

Step One: Organize and identify.

Identify the actual scales in use.

First I put everything in the chart into a word processor so I could rearrange the concepts. Then I asked myself questions. What is really going on here? If it is impossible have too much integrity, then what is legalism too much of? If the endpoints of the range are corruption and legalism, it must a measure of rule-breaking, or of how strictly the rules are followed. It’s a scale of “obeying the rules.”

I followed that line of reasoning on each item, and came up with a modified chart that shows what I supposed to be the things actually being measured:

corruption -to- legalism — Obeying the rules
foolishness -to- judgmentalism — Affixing blame
selfishness -to- enabling — Yielding to authority
disregard -to- idolatry — Admiration
pride -to- degradation — Self-effacement
slothfulness -to- workaholism — Drive
licentiousness -to- strictness — Obeying the rules
cowardice -to- foolhardiness — Daring (opposite of prudence)

We can begin to see the problems with conceptualizing virtues as a midpoint between extremes. When we identify what the scale is measuring by examining its endpoints, what is really being measured is not exactly (or approximately) those virtues listed. Two of the ranges appear to be measures of the same thing: obeying rules, which I don’t see as one of the major virtues. I decided to come at it from a different angle.

Step Two: Take another look. Rethink and refocus.

Analyze the original chart in light of the first modification. Identify the faults and their corresponding virtues:

I decided to turn it around, to think about the faults in the original, whether on the “deficient” side or the “excessive” side, and reason out which given virtue would be the foil for that fault. For instance, it makes sense that the opposite of corruption is integrity, but the opposite of legalism would be valuing individuals more than the rules—not so much “integrity” as having respect for people. I continued to work through the list in that fashion, with this result:

Corruption / integrity (valuing self and others)
Legalism / respect (valuing individuals more than rules or status)
Ignorance, gullibility (foolishness) / discernment (understanding other points of view, empathy)
Judgmentalism: blaming / respect
Selfishness / unselfish love (compassionate concern for others)
Enabling: fear of confrontation, selfishness / courage
Disregard / respect
Idolatry / respect
Unrealistic self-image (pride) / humility
Unrealistic self-image (self-degradation) / humility
Lethargy (slothfulness) / energy, drive (diligence)
Workaholism / balance, temperance (moderation)
Licentiousness / self-control, temperance (restraint)
Strictness / perspective (respect)
Fear (cowardice) / courage
Foolhardiness – lack of self-respect / prudence (self-respect)

Notice that I added notes to myself to keep track of my ideas on redefining the original terminology. I am getting somewhere, but it looks messy.

Step Three: Clarify and reorganize.

Consolidate the terms and remold the structure so it makes sense.

From the original eight virtues I ended with sixteen pairs of shortcomings and their counterparts. I put them in order according to the virtues I had associated with each. Some were duplicates; respect was the answer to five or six of the faults. I decided to combine legalism, judgmentalism, disregard, and idolatry. Strictness seemed to be a restatement of legalism and could be discarded. Foolhardiness indicates to me a lack of self-respect, so it seemed to fit better with humility (a realistic self-image). There seem to be two kinds of temperance, moderation and restraint, so I left them as separate concepts. Perhaps they should be termed “balance” and “self-control.” After the rework, this is what remained:

Corruption / integrity (valuing self and others)
Ignorance, gullibility (foolishness) / discernment (understanding other points of view, empathy)
Selfishness / unselfish love (compassionate concern for others)
Legalism, judgmentalism: blaming, disregard, idolatry / respect (valuing individuals more than rules or status, perspective)
Foolhardiness, unrealistic self-image (pride or self-degradation) / prudence, self-respect, humility
Lethargy (slothfulness) / energy, drive, diligence
Workaholism / balance, temperance (moderation)
Licentiousness / self-control, temperance (restraint)
Fear of confrontation (enabling), selfish fear (cowardice) / courage

Step Four: Simplify.

Put it all together:

At this point I moved the virtue terms to the left and faults to the right, to make it easier to identify the virtues. I also removed a few unnecessary words, and renamed “temperance” to balance and self-control. I retained the notes I had added, as I might find useful going forward. This is the result:

Integrity, valuing self and others / corruption
Discernment, understanding other points of view, empathy / ignorance, gullibility
Humility, self-respect, prudence / unrealistic self-image: pride or self-degradation
Diligence, energy, ambition, drive / lethargy, boredom
Balance, moderation / workaholism
Self-control, restraint / impulsiveness
Courage / fear
Love, compassionate concern for others / selfishness
Respect, valuing individuals more than rules or status, perspective / disregard, idolatry, legalism, judgmentalism, blaming

All of the original terms for virtue are there. (“Temperance” is there twice, in the guise of “balance” and “self-control.”) The faults are all there, too, although I varied some of the terminology for the sake of clarity. I find “impulsiveness” more useful than “licentiousness,” for instance. The resulting list gives me more to work with. Virtue is no longer a set of midpoints on behavior ranges, and it is easier to determine what the corresponding misbehaviors are for each virtuous quality.

This is how I extracted meaningful information from a chart that was originally unhelpful to me. It is not a finished product, but it is useful to me. Now, just for fun, let’s add another step.

Step Five: Repeat as necessary.

Consider the result a new quandary and begin again.

Try to look at the result with fresh eyes, as someone would who isn’t familiar with your thinking. Ask others what they think. Rework as needed, using the process outlined here or one of your own design. Clear thinking is not a particular set of well-defined steps. There are many ways to organize your thinking and increase the efficiency of your problem-solving. Finding or developing methods that work for you is good practice in itself.

Image credit: Clarity Counseling Center.

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