Against Virtue Ethics

Jeff Biebighauser

[1] Let’s get the cheap shot out of the way first. Aristotle – the “damned, conceited, rascally heathen” whom God has sent “as a plague upon us for our sins”[1] – has had surprising success infiltrating Lutheran ethics in the past two decades. In the wake of Vatican II, a strongly Aristotelian virtue ethics began to dominate in the Roman Catholic Church, and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue[2] and subsequent writings popularized the approach in the academy. Mainline Protestant ethicists have slowly but enthusiastically joined the throng, largely due to Stanley Hauerwas’ impressive and charming work. Lutheran ethicists in particular were late to the party, presumably in part because of lingering skepticism regarding Catholicism and Aristotle. But as of this writing, “virtue ethics” has become the dominant model in Lutheran academic and ecclesial parlance. Such was the case at the end of the last century, when the important and still frequently discussed Promise of Lutheran Ethics colloquium[3] was commissioned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ( ELCA). Just a few years later, Joel Biermann showed that the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) was also substantially flirting with this model of ethics, in his doctoral dissertation recently published (and generally favorably accepted by LCMS readers) as A Case for Character.[4] My hope is that a brief and critical appraisal of this trend is in order.

[2] Cheap shots aside, my actual reservation about the ascendancy of virtue ethics is, in short, that the proponents of Lutheran virtue ethics have not yet established, and probably cannot establish, that virtue ethics is more appropriate to Lutheranism (or to the Gospel) than other ethical systems. In this essay I will provide a brief review of the Lutheran virtue ethics landscape, pointing out the diversity in what attracts Lutherans to virtue ethics and in what results they glean from it. I will suggest that in the midst of this diversity, a common failure to attend to the history of virtue ethics (and more particularly, the philosophical models it has attempted to supplant) has muddied the waters of our ethical deliberation, and resulted in an under-theorized ethics which threatens to undermine what is distinct both about Lutheranism and about virtue ethics. And I will finally indicate the broadest possible contours of a philosophical model for ethics that retains the most valuable parts of virtue ethics, but reorients it in an actually distinctively Lutheran way.

What is Virtue Ethics for us?

[3] For my purposes, the most important part of defining “virtue ethics” is pointing out what it rejects. After Virtue is both readable and still determinative enough in today’s conversations about theological ethics that reading it would suffice for anybody interested in knowing the positive content of the theory. The aspects of virtue ethics that have proven especially attractive to Lutherans have been its emphasis on how narratives can shape communities, how communities shape individuals, and how communities and individuals participate in traditions and practices that guide their characters in the concreteness and the particularity of the world. MacIntyre’s elaboration of the ways that these mechanisms work is clear, and the attractiveness of these aspects to those who think about the church – also a community that aims to shape individuals by means of traditions and stories – hardly needs extensive description from me. A few quotes suffice to show the extent to which Lutheran ethicists are enamored with this way of talking: “Lutheranism if it is anything is such a [MacIntyrean] tradition”; “Christian freedom is the embodiment of practicing God’s commandments as a way of life”; “Lutheran ethics [is] an ethics of formation shaped by certain practices”; “As the reformers knew and taught, there is a place within Lutheran theology for ethics. Today, that place can be filled remarkably well by ethics that focus on the cultivation of character and the promotion of the virtues.”[5] However, this broad (if not entirely universal)[6] agreement with regard to ethical framework masks some significant and troubling disagreements with regard to the conclusions they draw from the framework. Lutheran engagement with virtue ethics to this point results in a caricature of virtue ethics, which claims as its slogan to be more interested in “who we are” than “what we do.”

[4] To take the most obvious example, The Promise of Lutheran Ethics is clearly interested in the question of human sexuality; nearly every essay therein alludes to, or explicitly makes a claim about, the questions of that time regarding homosexuality, and ethicists with very similar alleged starting points come to entirely opposed conclusions. This points to a problem in how virtue ethics is being adopted. It is not the case that MacIntyre or Hauerwas have nothing to say about the ethical actions and decisions we make. Indeed, they both have compelling methods of enumerating and defining virtues, and establishing some kind of hierarchy for the virtues, or at least a prudential method of discerning which virtues are right for which occasion. Their Lutheran inheritors, however, are so far speaking much more clearly about the need for virtues than they are the particular virtues and particular practices that are, or ought to be, present in the church. The result of this lack of clarity, at least at the turn of the century, was that Benne and Stortz could agree that virtues and practices in the abstract should guide our social and political deliberations, but Benne could claim fidelity to tradition as his virtue while Stortz claimed joyful trust as her virtue, with the predictable results for how they viewed the question of how the ELCA ought to respond to the presence of gay members or pastors. We might expect Biermann, in a book length treatment of the subject, to provide more in the way of articulating and defending a particular set of virtues, but he takes the “Towards” of his title quite seriously, and only gestures toward this particularity.

[5] It seems possible that, upon request, a Lutheran defender of virtue ethics could provide a catalogue of the virtues and practices most appropriate for Lutherans. Stortz, with her insistence on viewing ethical questions empirically, seems especially well-suited to develop and defend such an account. But a more central issue exists, which could short-circuit that entire argument, and that relies on the part of MacIntyre that no Lutherans have engaged so far: namely, his positioning of virtue ethics in opposition to Enlightenment ethical systems based on duty or utility. The lesser-read parts of After Virtue (judging by citations in its theological appropriators), in which he develops a history of how the West constructed and lost its emphasis on virtue, are terribly important to what MacIntyre is doing in the more popular constructive parts of his argument. He argues, uncontroversially by this point, that the Enlightenment project of defending a universal grounding for ethical behavior – either according to obedience to our rationally determined duties, following Kant, or according to a calculation of the results of the action, following Mill – was opposed to the models of locality, tradition, and culture that Aristotle and the medievals each followed. But MacIntyre, in his book, argues in a way that was very provocative when it was published but has since lost its power to provoke, that the collapse of Enlightenment optimism regarding a universal rational morality leaves only two basic options for society: the rejection of all ethics, or the reclamation of Aristotle. The proclamation of universal laws is disreputable, on the grounds that it is at once imperialistic and naïve; an emphasis on “doing the right thing” cedes to cultivating the characters of people in accordance with the accepted values of a community.

[6] At this point, those who care deeply about Reformation-era condemnation of Aristotle, and of the traditions and laws established by Popes and other people, should get at least a little queasy – not because we need to reject Aristotelian thought out of hand, but at least out of a sense of loyalty to our Lutheran brother Kant. But the attraction to the virtue ethics trend is strong enough that even Biermann spends an entire chapter picking around some relatively obscure bits of Melanchthon[7] in order to show that the Reformers wouldn’t be aghast at all this talk about Aristotle. Indeed, Biermann’s preoccupation with showing that ethics as such ought not to scare Lutherans has pushed him to adopt uncritically the most popular model of ethical discourse. This certainly doesn’t get us as far as defining, let alone defending or practicing, a MacIntyrean or Hauerwasian recapitulation of virtue ethics. Biermann tries to show (and to a large extent succeeds in showing) that virtue ethics is not incompatible with Lutheranism, or at least a strand of Lutheranism. But he never tries to show that it’s the best fit (if ethical systems have to come from outside of theology) or that it provides an avenue for a distinctively Lutheran contribution to ethical conversations (if theology is permitted to govern ethics).

[7] Virtue ethics is by its nature conservative of a status quo, preserving and deepening the values and practices of a community; Lutheranism (or any ideology interested in reforming society) can at best fit awkwardly within it. This is seen more sharply in the surprising habit of virtue ethicists – Lutheran or otherwise – to situate their ethical reflections in a narrative of moral decline.[8] As a result, when Lutherans have thus far tried to adapt or adopt virtue ethics, it has weakened Lutheranism and it has weakened virtue ethics. The weakened Lutheranism appears in the lack of distinctive Lutheran methodology: close readings of Scripture, polemics, and a reforming tendency to regard tradition with some skepticism. The weakened virtue ethics appears more dramatically in a phenomenon that would alarm MacIntyre: his purported heirs focus their content on “responsibilities,” “obedience,” and “callings,”[9] all of which are given by a transcendent God, and all of which are virtually indistinguishable from Kantian duties! A failure to agree on (or even to articulate and defend) the practices and the virtues most distinctive to Lutheranism results not in the eradication of Kant’s influence, but only in hiding it. The debates about our individual and collective duties – and thus our ethical action, ecclesial policy, social and political advocacy – happen only indirectly, through basic dispositional differences about whether our society is in grave moral decline or whether we may hope that greater liberation lies ahead of us. We people of the text have become, at least in this matter, people only of subtext.

Whose duty? Which calling?

[8] My suggestion that part of “distinctively Lutheran” ethics is a restoration of “duty” to the top of the ethical ladder is not an argument for a full restoration of the Enlightenment. It is ahistorical and naïve to claim that a simple repositioning of any historical figure – Kant, Luther, Aristotle – into the 21st century is possible or desirable, and Enlightenment philosophers in particular are, for good reasons, among the least likely to win admirers in such a project. Nevertheless I want to claim two features of one of Kant’s central doctrines as fruitful for (1) deciding which part of the Lutheran canon can best serve these deliberations, and (2) for beginning to articulate an appropriate role for particular virtuous action. The central doctrine is his categorical imperative, the (allegedly) purely formal and universally applicable rule that actions derive their ethical status from the actor’s ability to will the actions universally.[10] The first feature I’d like to claim is the emphasis on willing or desiring, and the second is its widely recognized similarity to (or perhaps appropriation of) one of Christ’s teachings, namely the “golden rule” of Matthew 7:12. Kant shows his Lutheran (and ultimately Augustinian) roots by basing his ethical system in a scriptural line about the duty of acting in accordance with correct desire. The scriptural text which Kant’s doctrine parallels has the firm recommendation of Jesus calling it equal to “the law and the prophets.” But Kant could have been more Lutheran by relying on Jesus’ other formulation of the rule on which “the law and the prophets” hang, namely “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart….This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). Based on this pairing of commandments, especially the one which most obviously relates social and political ethics, I will suggest that “love of neighbor” – as a duty which precedes and supersedes all other virtues and actions – could be the heart of a distinctively Lutheran contribution to conversations about ethics in the church, the academy, and the world. I will do this in two movements: first, an examination of Luther’s own most sustained reflection on what it means to love the neighbor, and why and how we should love the neighbor, and second, a brief contemporary reflection on those same words.

On “The Freedom of a Christian”

[9] Just past the lengthy introductory letter to Pope Leo, and just before the treatise’s most famous faux-paradoxical lines which we all think are the first lines of “The Freedom of a Christian,”[11] lie the actual first lines of “The Freedom of a Christian”: “Many people have considered Christian faith an easy thing, and not a few have given it a place among the virtues. They do this because they have not experienced it and have never tasted the great strength there is in faith.” There is a hint, instructive for the current essay, in the words I have italicized – both are translations of the Latin word virtus. With this play on words, Luther subtly establishes the whole work as an attack on scholastic catalogues of virtue, and announces that his approach regards faith not as one virtue among many, but as that which stands before, contains, and directs virtue. This wordplay is extended into the structure of the rest of the treatise: roughly the first half of the work details three virtutes fidei (“virtues/strengths/powers of faith”), and then the word virtus disappears for the second half of the work, which is an articulation and defense of the spontaneous acts of love that the faithful person feels and performs for her neighbor. The three virtues of faith show three logical stages of the will’s conformation to God. First, it faith has the power to transform the commandments of God into promissa Dei (“promises of God”), as the will begins to hear “thou shalt not” as a comforting future tense, instead of a threatening imperative. Second, the will and God begin to regard each other as mutually trustworthy as they confess each other’s faithfulness. Third, faith gives strength and wisdom to the will, as the will is “wed” to Christ. The whole progression culminates in the rejection of any virtue except those governed by a free and loving will: “I need nothing except faith exercising the power and dominion of its own liberty [virtutem et imperium libertatis].”

[10] The transition from faith in Christ to love of neighbor follows this progression, and Luther’s attack on the idea that practicing virtues apart from faithful love has any power to makes us virtuous begins in earnest. In addition to the hammering repetition of libertas and amor (“freedom,” “love”), which are clearly the theme of the work, Luther liberally peppers his prose with adverbs: Sponte and libere and hilariter, spontaneously and freely and with joy. Luther not only provides, but hammers hard, the quickest scriptural dismissal of virtue ethics: “Consequently it is always necessary that the substance or person himself be good before there can be any good works, and that good works follow and proceed from the good person, as Christ also says, ‘A good tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit’ [Matt. 7:18].” No doubt Luther is interested in who we are, but that is instantly and without mediation subordinated to action. We can wonder what value it is to God or to the world to have churches full of faithful, generous, just, merciful, temperate, courageous, inactive people; Luther here questions whether such a thing is logically or practically possible: “Here faith is truly active through love [Gal. 5:6], that is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward; and for himself he is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith.”

Life in the neighbor

[11] Lutheran ethicists are typically wary of the claim that “love your neighbor” is sufficient ethical guidance: “No Christian ethic can say everything that needs saying solely through the Reformation language of ‘faith active in love’.”[12] But this formulation keeps the single greatest strength of Lutheran ethics – even of the work I have criticized in this essay – namely, the strong link between “horizontal” and “vertical” dimensions of life. Luther closes the substance of Freedom of a Christian with his pithiest and most intriguing formulation of the connection between the love of God and the love of neighbor: “a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor … He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love.” The remainder of this essay will indicate a few ways that this relatively underexplored formulation of living in our neighbor might outpace virtue ethics as it has been so far described in Lutheran circles.

[12] The command to “love your neighbor” is impossible for virtue ethics to understand: in plenty of areas, the virtue ethicist’s exhortation to “fake it til you make it”[13] can have passably virtuous results, but in no case can it approximate the natural, spontaneous affection that we commonly describe as love. Christ’s commandments to regard all who do the will of God as family,[14] and his other attacks on “family values,” can all be understood as an imperative to take the natural and spontaneous affection and enjoyment that we frequently feel for our families, and extend it to those living near us. This is a miracle, not drudgery.

[13] Luther understands “neighbor” quite literally, in a way that can save Lutheran ethics from vagueness, impossibility or imperialism. It is common to take the parable of the Good Samaritan as an exhortation to find the person who is most in need, according to my own pre-determined definition of need, and to claim them as my neighbor. Luther’s preaching on this parable emphasizes instead the historical and especially geographic particularity of the neighbor, on the one hand, and the reciprocal relationship between neighbors on the other. [15] The first model privileges me and views my neighbor not as my equal but as a victim. The second is more in line with community organizing than with a condescending charity, and encourages both people involved to acknowledge their own needs and their own gifts. It also encourages both people involved to look outside of themselves, to try to gain an appreciation of each other’s strengths, and to develop these strengths further both in themselves and in the neighbor. This also has an ontological dimension: I can’t love a neighbor without becoming a neighbor. When I try to love somebody across the world from me, I neglect my own neighbor, and I make several unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable assumptions about the person across the world. Part of the freedom of Lutheran ethics is the freedom to trust that neighbors everywhere are able to love each other, and so I can focus on my own neighbor’s needs and gifts. Loving a neighbor – a fiercely literal neighbor, a person in proximity to me – is enough work.

[14] But what of the purported “vagueness” of the command to love our neighbors? It is in fact its greatest strength. “Universal laws” attempt to negate their particular time and place of origin, but the law of loving the neighbor is absolutely embodied, transcendently particular. All other ethical injunctions, and all other virtues, are left undefined by the command and by the one giving the command. First century Jesus doesn’t tell me what my 21st century neighbor needs; he encourages me to go ask her. It isn’t quite the case that an ethics of love has to oppose character development and a certain styling of virtue, but virtue needs to be subordinated to love. My neighbor, when loved, can tell me what virtues to develop. Some communal discernment is certainly possible here­; my neighbor and I can talk! But when I dwell “in [my] neighbor through love” my neighbor’s position is privileged to my own, just as when we dwell “in Christ though faith” Christ’s virtues precede and determine mine. Then the spontaneous, faithful, trusting love I feel for the neighbor can form my character, my desires, and my choices. The dynamic is entirely akin to the famous Augustinian instruction to “love, and do what you want.”[16] Our neighbor’s stories, values, practices, and traditions are all open for us to learn from. If we are able to ask her about them, seek them, literally knock on her door, then we may be able to reclaim some virtues. And this time, let’s not couch it in a myth of decline from an allegedly previously virtuous period of time, but in a hope for a future when neighbors will delight each other.

[1] Martin Luther, “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate” (1520), in Luther’s Works, 44, ed. James Atkinson (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 115-217.

[2] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

[3] The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, ed. Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998).

[4] Joel Biermann, A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).

[5] Respectively: Robert Benne, Promise 11; Reinhard Hütter, Promise 33; Martha Ellen Stortz, Promise 55; Biermann, Case for Character 37.

[6] I’ve only cited the contributors to Promise that explicitly endorse virtue ethics. I would describe as implicitly sympathetic the contributions of David Frederickson, Larry Rasmussen and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and implicitly critical the contributions of Richard J. Perry, Jr. and James M. Childs, Jr.

[7] Principally in the Orations on Philosophy – cf. Case for Character 65-103.

[8] Biermann: “[I]n the culture of America, character is quite dead and memorials and requiems for the departed are altogether appropriate” (op. cit. 197); MacIntyre: “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us …This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they

have already been governing us for quite some time” (op. cit. 263).

[9] Benne, Hutter, and Stortz respectively.

[10] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. James Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993).

[11] Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian” (1520), in Luther’s Works, 31, ed. Harold Grimm (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1957), 327-77.

[12] Gilbert Meilander, “Grace, Justification through Faith, and Sin” in Reinhard Hütter and Theodor Dieter, eds, Ecumenical Ventures in Ethics: Protestants Engage Pope John Paul II’s Moral Encyclicals (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) p. 82.

[13] Cf. Hauerwas: “I want to be part of a community with the habits and practices that will make me do what I would otherwise not choose to do and then to learn to like what I have been forced to do” (In Good Company (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995, p. 75).

[14] Mark 3:35.

[15] “[The lawyer says] ‘I am also inclined to think that I am under obligations to no man, yet I would like to know who my neighbor is?’ The Lord answers and tells him a very beautiful parable, by which he shows that we are all neighbors among one another, both he who does another a kindness, as well as he who is in need of a kindness” (The Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. John Nicholas Lenker, 7 vol. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983 ) V.26-27.

[16] Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John 1-40, trans. Boniface Ramsay (New York: New City Press, 2008), VII.8.


Jeff Biebighauser

Jeff Olsen Biebighauser is a high school teacher and a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.