Virtue Ethics: An Introduction

[1] Here’s a story I tell my students. “So there I was in the grocery store, waiting to check out. Just when it’s my turn, some guy cuts into the line. He puts his stuff on the belt, and says “Get out of the way, lady. I’m in a hurry.” I’m about to give him a piece of my mind when I notice-“Hey, that’s the Dalai Lama!” My students express skepticism, and I say “OK, OK, so it’s not true. How do you know that?” After a few false starts, somebody always says, “He’s just not that kind of person.”

[2] Most of the time, when we think of ethics, we think of judging actions right or wrong. Virtue ethics starts instead with the insight that our actions, by and large, are not isolated decisions that we make, but arise from our character, the deeper complement of typical patterns of behavior that we exhibit, and the values that we hold. These character traits are not static, but are shaped and re-shaped continually by the actions we choose, and our reflection on those actions and their meaning in our lives. In an ethics of virtue, questions about actions find their moral valence in light of their effect on character.

[3] Virtues are good habits of character that are conducive to human flourishing, individually and communally, and out of those good habits we tend by and large to do morally right actions, and thereby become better, more virtuous people overall. Vices, by contrast, are traits of character that are harmful to us and to our communities, and they tend to be manifested in wrong acts, by which our character gets worse overall. As we grow in virtue, doing right actions becomes easier and feels more natural to us, because the virtue has become more deeply rooted in our character. The Dalai Lama just isn’t the kind of person who would cut the line in the grocery store, and he probably wouldn’t feel strongly tempted to do so, because, to all appearances he is a patient and considerate person, not the kind of jerk who thoughtlessly shoves people out of the way.

[4] Most contemporary versions of virtue ethics trace their lineage back to Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle posits that clearly whenever human beings do things intentionally, they have a goal in mind. A runner sets out in the morning to run her usual morning route. But goals have goals behind them, as well. The runner runs in order to become fit, and she desires to become fit in order to enjoy good health and (she hopes) long life as a result. Like a young child who keeps asking “But why?” over and over, Aristotle seeks to discern a goal behind all other goals in human life, something we seek only for itself and not for any other purpose, like the runner who covers 5 miles to become fit, so she will be healthy, so that… That goal behind all other goals, he decides, which we seek only for its own sake, is happiness, eudaimonia in Greek.

[5] But Aristotle’s concept of happiness isn’t merely the everyday pleasure we take in chatting with friends, enjoying a good meal, running 5 miles or seeing our team win. True eudaimonia cuts far deeper, and means something closer to what we might call fulfillment, which for Aristotle means being our most excellent selves, being, in the words of the old Army recruiting ads, “all that we can be.” The telos, the end or goal of human life generally, is to achieve the perfection of our natural capacities. Those perfections of natural human capacities are virtues. To live a life of virtue, then, is not a matter of denying or repressing natural inclinations, but, on the contrary, to live the best life in accord with our human nature.

[6] Living a virtuous life, then, is not a means to happiness, as though happiness were a quality superadded to human life like frosting to a cake, nor is it a reward like a merit badge. Rather, a life of eudaimonia consists in living virtuously-the happiest person, in Aristotle’s resonant sense of the term, is the most virtuous person. Consider the runner again. Because of her virtuous 5 miles a day, she isn’t rewarded merely with stamina. Rather, she enjoys the aspect of happiness that comes from good physical condition as a quality of her life overall, walking, running, and resting.

[7] One of the most significant strands of contemporary Christian virtue ethics employs the methodology developed by the 13th century Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas. In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas adopted Aristotle’s framework for doing virtue ethics to the strongly Augustinian Christian theology of the time in a grand synthesis of earlier theological and philosophical traditions. From Plato (via Gregory the Great,) Thomas took as cardinal virtues Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude. Each of these virtues perfects a basic human capacity: Prudence perfects the practical intellect, Justice the will, Temperance the concupiscible appetite (the appetite for things that are good in themselves, like food, drink and sex, and other goods) and Fortitude the irascible appetite (the appetite that helps us overcome obstacles between us and some proper good.) The cardinal virtues thus are a backhand moral anthropology-each principal part of the acting person must have its proper perfection, and therefore a cardinal virtue. Other virtues are seen to fit into the schema of cardinal virtues. For example, humility, since it restrains the appetite for honor and advancement, is annexed to the cardinal virtue of temperance.

[8] In contrast to Aristotle, Thomas recognized a two-fold human telos. For Aristotle, the perfection of the human person was a process of fulfilling nature, while Thomas posited for human beings both a natural telos and a supernatural destiny. That supernatural destiny is the beatific vision, to be in the presence of God eternally. So in addition to the cardinal virtues that perfect human nature, Thomas adds the three theological virtues of St. Paul: faith, hope and charity. These seven virtues together constitute the perfection of the human person in both nature and supernature.

[9] The theological virtues work by different rules than the natural virtues in that the theological virtues are solely the product of God’s grace in the human person, while the natural virtues are acquired chiefly by human effort. In juxtaposing the theological and moral virtues, Thomas affirmed Augustine’s insistence that we do not earn grace, but receive it. At the same time, Thomas affirmed the full dignity of the free and self-determining human person to flower in the acquisition of moral virtues by practice. Grace, manifested in the theological virtues, is what saves us. But there is a proper natural perfection of the human person.

[10] For Thomas there can be no ultimate contradiction between our natural and supernatural teloi. Grace perfects nature, and even though our natural inclinations may need perfecting by assiduous practice of virtue, they do not, indeed cannot, separate us from God. This is a striking shift from Augustine’s position on virtues-for Augustine, the virtues of pagans were vices in disguise, because they might lead to an illusory sense of our own goodness apart from the grace of God in Christ. But for Thomas, even pagans like Aristotle have important and true things to say about the good life for human beings from which Christians can gain true insight and moral benefit.

[11] For the remainder of this essay, I will point to four aspects of Thomistic virtue ethics that are especially significant: first the process of how we acquire virtues tends to emphasize ordinary action over “crisis moments” in our lives. Second, that the goal or end of virtues is always personal, that is, the seen in the context of the telos of the individual agent’s life. Third, that we look to heroes, saints, and the community in forming a conception of the virtues. Fourth, that virtue ethics is a powerful mode of building bridges between different ways of thinking, of which I’ll indicate three: between Christian and non-Christian ethical thought, between ethics and spirituality, and between ethics and the insights of the human sciences.

1. The ethical is ordinary
[12] Following Aristotle, Thomas asserted that virtues are stable habits of character that we acquire by practice. With practice, we act more and more easily and naturally in virtuous ways. The beginning runner may need to struggle mightily to force herself to leave the house for that daily run, while with time and persistence, running becomes a habit, an ordinary part of the day not unlike brushing her teeth. Indeed, it is only because she runs habitually that she can be called really a runner at all-her practice has become second nature to her and her character is shaped as a result. Virtue ethics, then, is intrinsically concerned with the practices we cultivate in our lives.

[13] One effect of this is to see that ethical decisions are not paradigmatically, and not even usually, the kinds of decisions we make in crises. Since character and habits are formed in the usual everyday events of our lives, it is the daily cultivation of small good habits that counts chiefly. The opportunities for small acts of kindness, of generosity, of justice, of humility etc. are found in abundance in daily living. And surely, when crisis moments arise, our response to them is the result of a habit of reflex right acts where the stakes are smaller. The person who habitually seeks to act compassionately toward others is more likely to be the one who dashes into a burning building to save a child than the person who never troubles himself for other people.

2. The ethical is personal
[14] Virtues are perfections of human capacities, and so we all have the same basic capacity to become just, courageous, and the like. But how each of us grows in virtue will depend on our innate starting-point for a given virtue, and will reach its perfection in ways that are not universal, but personal. Consider a person who seems to have to struggle mightily to stand up for himself in difficult situations. He is just too mild-mannered by nature, but he also realizes that courage invites him to greater self-assertion when he believes strongly that he must. For such a person, any small act of sticking to his guns–“Excuse me, but I really don’t like it when you tell racist jokes, and I’d appreciate it if you’d stop,”–requires a significant effort. So virtue ethics focuses on growth toward perfection, and invites us to be kind with ourselves as we work to better our habits. We are also reminded that what looks like a small achievement for one person may be an act of moral heroism for another.

[15] The perfection toward which we strive is personal, reflecting our inborn talents and weaknesses, our particular way of life, and the circumstances we find ourselves in. For example, what counts as moderation with respect to food is a very individual matter: a professional athlete and a sedentary accountant have different needs with respect to quantity and kind of food, even though each is aiming for dietary perfection. Virtues are always reasonable means between extremes, and because of differences between people, what is reasonable for each person is individual. A pro athlete who ate like an accountant would starve, and an accountant who ate like an athlete would soon balloon to 500 lbs. Other virtues work the same way: the level and the forms of courage required by a soldier are quite different from those of a pre-school teacher, though both are called to cultivate courage in their lives, according to what is reasonable for each of them.

3. The ethical is communal
[16] How do we know what counts as virtue? In other words, how do we know what virtues we ought to cultivate, and what vices we are to avoid? Here virtue ethics offers good news and bad news. We tend to develop our sense of what is virtuous based on the values of the communities in which we find ourselves. Americans, by and large, tend to value individual achievement very highly, and we have a “get-it-done” spirit that moves very quickly from identifying a problem to figuring out a way to solve it. Because of these traits, we also tend then to devalue a slower, more contemplative or process-oriented approach to challenges that might serve to build stronger bonds between us as we work together to solve common problems. And the tendency of Americans to consumerism is legendary. We imbibe these traits with our mother’s milk, and even to be aware of them can be a challenge.

[17] But virtue isn’t just a fancy term for whatever my group or culture thinks is good. What saves virtue ethics, at least in its Thomistic/Aristotelian forms, from this kind of communal relativism is the notion that we share a common human nature with all people. So while we do in fact grow up with values and disvalues of our communities presented to us as virtues, the process of reflection on the good life, and the good for our communities may help us to see how we might balance the individual with the social, and resist consumerism for the trap that it is.

[18] Who will show us such countercultural virtues? In virtue ethics, we get our sense of virtues from our communities, but also by following the lead of moral models in our lives. To ponder the life of Bonhoeffer, for example, is to challenge ourselves in our deepest convictions about where we stand ultimately in a time of inhuman injustice and rampant evil. We look to heroes and saints to show us a better way to live, and to show us the kind of character we want to develop. For Christians, of course the paradigm is Jesus, and the long tradition of Imitatio Christi as a path to holiness echoes this basic tenet of virtue ethics. The imitation of Christ is not merely a repeating of what he did, but an intention to acquire the kind of character that Jesus displayed to the world. For Christians, virtue ethics invites us to reflective and imitative discipleship so that we might incarnate the virtues of Christ in our own times and places.

4. The ethical is communicative
[19] If virtues reflect a common human nature, then it must be possible for us to speak at some level to those who do not share our culture or religion. Virtue ethics, then, invites true dialogue to seek what is true and good in other places, religions, cultures and times, so that we might better grasp the full content of human eudaimonia. Since virtues are reasonable means between extremes, we can also employ this method to critique injustice and evil in the world based in our shared humanity and reason. This critique takes the form of engaged encounter, not isolated or distant condemnation. In this way, virtue ethics builds bridges between moral communities. For example, a virtue approach to the plague of urban gang violence might start by understanding the social, political and personal forces that lead young people to such a self-defeating way of life. The recognition that many of the kids in gangs are not the worst or slowest kids in the neighborhood, but the brightest and most motivated, might lead us then to focus on providing urban youth with real and viable positive alternatives to gang life, instead of consigning them to the soul-destroying world of violence, imprisonment and early death.

[20] Virtue ethics builds bridges in other ways as well. Because it is built on a holistic and maximalistic vision of human flourishing, virtue ethics communicates easily in the language of spirituality and prayer. The holistic nature of virtue ethics invites us to expand our sense of what is reasonable to include all human ways of knowing, not simple abstract reason. So in the service of a Christian virtue ethics of discipleship, the imagination, emotions, touch, and all other human resources are seen as conducive to a life of virtue. Also, because virtue ethics celebrates the deep coherence of the natural and the supernatural in human life, virtue ethics invites us to mine the human sciences for their insights into human moral development, sociology, biology, etc., as tools for developing a more and more true picture of human capabilities and how we achieve the best we can. As a bridge-building methodology, virtue ethics strives to make the best use of all the resources for moral life that God has blessed us with.

[21] Like any methodology, virtue ethics has strengths and weaknesses. There can be a risk of moral narcissism in virtue ethics: “yes, I will work for justice, but principally because being just will make ME an even more wonderful person!” It seems to me that a virtue ethics that takes the virtues of humility, justice and compassion seriously can avoid this pitfall, however. A second challenge to virtue ethics is to find ways to employ this method rigorously to particular moral issues. While virtue ethics is excellent at envisioning and inciting individuals to moral growth, it can be harder to find a clear direction on contentious issues in this method. At risk here is that a virtue ethic might lead us to downplay serious structural and social injustices so long as we’re striving for personal moral growth, leading to a moral individualism or collectivism that forgets the larger common good. Here again, justice becomes a salient feature of a self-critical virtue ethics. And a final challenge for virtue ethics in this Thomistic/Aristotelian voice is to wrestle meaningfully with the fact and effects of human sinfulness. Virtue ethics needs to recognize that beyond mere failure to strive for excellence (which is the root of sin in this framework,) lies perhaps a greater danger of self-satisfaction and unexamined biases in interpretation than is evident from this rather optimistic virtue anthropology. In this, and in other ways as well, virtue ethics will do well to listen carefully to the voice of Martin Luther as well as the voices of Aristotle and Aquinas in imagining the means to the end of human eudaimonia.