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Virtue Ethics: An Introduction

As long as people have asked questions, one of them as been about ethics, how to determine right and wrong. One of the oldest and most useful answers to that line of inquiry is found in virtue ethics.

The conception of virtue ethics originates at least as far back as Aristotle, who himself articulated the virtues based on the already firm values that existed in his culture. The primary difference between virtue ethics and other models is the question asked. “For traditional duty-based ethics the question is: What should I do? For virtue ethics the question is: What sort of person should I become?”1 Virtue ethics supposes that there is an ideal end or telos for the human person described primarily through the four cardinal virtues: temperance, justice, courage, and fortitude. Thomas Aquinas would later add three “theological” virtues: faith, hope, and charity (love).

The basic idea is that ethics should not be about applying endless rules to hypothetical scenarios. Instead, virtue ethics takes the long view of human life. As with an arrow flying through the air, there is a path that leads to the goal, the virtuous of life. The ethically right choice in any situation is the one that contributes to that path, one that makes you more virtuous. C.S. Lewis explains the advantages of the virtue model by stating three bad ideas you might get without it:

  1. We might think that, provided you did the right thing, it did not matter how or why you did it … But the truth is that right actions done for the wrong reasons do not help to build the internal quality or character called ‘virtue,’ and it is this quality or character that really matters.

  2. We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.

  3. We might think that the ‘virtues’ were necessary only for this present life … The point is not that God will refuse you admission to His eternal world if you have not got certain qualities of character: the point is that if people have not got at least the beginnings of those qualities inside them, then no possible external conditions could make a ‘Heaven’ for them — that is, could make them happy with the deep, strong, unshakable kind of happiness God intends for us.2

But Does It Work?

The primary critique of virtue ethics has been that it is the least practical ethical model regarding individual human choices. For example, one author states, “Precious little is said about what we are supposed to do. One would think that ethics should be, at least to some extent, action-guiding. Aristotle’s answer seems to be: Do what a good person would do. But, the question arises, who is the good person, and how shall we recognize him or her?”3 In short, virtue ethics makes you think about a choice in more abstract terms and tends to shy away from technically precise rules, but sometimes nice, tidy rules are helpful.

Its defenders would argue “contrary to critics who suggest that virtue ethics does not offer ethical directions or rules, it surely does offer rules. Virtue ethics offers prescriptive rules: do benevolently when benevolence is called for, do justly when justice is called for, and do them all on the right occasions, toward the right people, and for the right reasons. It offers also prohibitive rules: do not do what is mean, unjust, or dishonest. Moral action is action according to some virtue; vicious action is action according to some vice.”4 However, many still view the objection as fair, because virtue ethics leaves hazy the articulation of what specific actions correspond to the sought after being. The objection points forward to the need that Christianity will attempt to fill – the personal embodiment of goodness.

Christian Virtue Ethics

What Christian theology has added to the mix of virtue ethics is an answer to question of who is the good person. It answers this question in three ways.

First, drawing from Jewish theological roots, Christianity affirms that God alone is good. Good is not a faintly outlined ideal, but a person. God is neither the arbitrary determiner of good, nor the slave to the abstract reality of good. God is good. The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures affirm this both positively and negatively. Jesus in Mark’s Gospel affirms, “No one is good but God alone,” and the Psalmist repeatedly affirms of humanity, “there is no one who does good, no, not one.”5

Second, the affirmation of God’s goodness in Hebrew Scripture takes on new life in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. Israel’s history had made known the goodness of God, but now it is more fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The logos is the culmination of God’s goodness to humanity, Israel, and the human person. He is the embodiment of good, and so fittingly his message is called good news. Per Barth, “The Word of God is Gospel, that is, the good word, because it declares God’s good work. In this Word, God’s work itself becomes speech.”6

Third, Christianity adds to virtue ethics a better description of the ideal states to which humanity’s becoming should attain. Jesus himself is a preacher of the eschatological telos of the good – the kingdom of Heaven. Through their narratives and prophetic visions, the Christian Scriptures offer a description of a good being or state, much more than they attempt to set forward rules for good actions. As an example, Hays offers three focal images for synthesizing the moral vision of the New Testament: community, cross, and new creation.7 The choosing of these images furthermore becomes pivotal for how Christians interact ethically with their Scriptures.8 Christian ethics, following a virtue model, is all about shaping a people’s identity more than than assigning a new set of religious rules.

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