Glossary – Virtue Ethics
Glossary – Virtue Ethics: A Primer
James K.A. Smith, Senior Fellow
November 9th, 2011
The Colossian Forum emphasizes that before Christians can engage in a constructive, life-giving conversation about faith and science, we first need to acquire the requisite virtues to be able to have such a conversation. Before we can grapple with contentious issues, we need to be a people who reflect the virtues of Christ: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Col. 3:12). We describe these as “virtues” for a specific reason. A “virtue” approach is an ancient Christian heritage that reframes our approach to these issues. This brief essay provides an introduction to the basic elements of virtue ethics. Think of it as “Virtue Ethics for…well, not Dummies—for Newbies!”
Asking the Right Question
Virtue ethics is a way of approaching Christian ethics and related matters of morality and sanctification. Virtue theory differs from other approaches to Christian ethics that tend to focus on laws, rules, and moral decisions. These other approaches are sometimes described as “deontological” approaches because they focus on matters of obligation and duty (the Greek word deon means duty or obligation).
You can think of the difference this way: deontological approaches generally ask, “What should I do?” A virtue approach instead asks: “What kind of a person should I be?” Whereas deontological approaches fixate on identifying the relevant rules and laws, a virtue approach focuses on character. Deontological approaches tend to emphasize the external role of laws and rules, requiring the ethical agent to make a decision in accordance with the law. Virtue ethics emphasizes the formation of people who have an internal disposition that propels them toward the good, growing out of their character.
Thomas Aquinas, one of the great doctors of the church, actually suggested that external “law” is necessary only to the extent that a people lacks internal character. So there is a kind of inverse proportion between law and virtue: the less virtuous a people (or person) is, the more the external force of law is necessary. The more virtuous a people (or person is), the less the “stick” of law is needed to get them to do what is right. Anyone who has raised children will immediately understand this point!
At the heart of virtue theory is a notion of “habits.” These are not unthinking or merely mechanical habits like brushing your teeth a certain way, or a baseball player’s routine in the batter’s box. Instead, virtue theory is concerned with habits that are rooted in our character, the fabric of who we are. Habits, in this sense, are internal dispositions that incline us in a certain direction—toward a certain end. Our action often grows out of these dispositions that we have. Depending on the sorts of habits we’ve acquired, we’ll tend to lean in a certain direction. “Good” habits are called virtues; “bad” habits are called vices. Aristotle would describe these habits as “second nature.” They are not hard-wired; instead, they are acquired dispositions that are formed in us. (We’ll address this further below).
So the virtuous person is someone whose character has been shaped in such a way that she has acquired good habits—these have gradually become part of her “second nature” so that she is now the kind of person who tends to “naturally” act in that direction, toward “the good.” So in an important sense, the virtuous person doesn’t have to “think through” every ethical decision; doing the right thing grows out of her character. For example, the person who is compassionate—who has acquired the virtue of compassion—doesn’t have to constantly assess every situation and decide whether or not she will be compassionate. In some sense, if she has really begun to acquire the virtue of compassion, she will be the kind of person who can’t help but be compassionate. It flows out of her heart and character. That’s who she is.
In contrast, the vicious person is someone whose (mal)formation has made him the kind of person who is inclined toward vice—his internal dispositions make him lean away from the good and toward evil. He is the sort of person who is inclined to “miss the mark” (the Greek term for sin, harmartia, has this sense of missing the mark). Greed or violence or strife is something woven into his character: he acts this way without having to think about it. It comes “naturally.” This is why formation in virtue requires re-formation and counter-formation: to acquire good habits requires undoing our bad habits.
Excellence: Action toward a Telos
We can see, then, that what counts as a “virtue” is relative to a goal or an end that is envisioned. The Greek term for this goal is a telos (which is why virtue theory is sometimes described as a “teleological” account of ethics). The point is simply this: if a habit is a disposition toward a certain telos, an inclination to act in a certain “direction,” then we need to determine the telos in order to be able to determine whether a habit is a virtue or a vice.
This is why virtue is bound up with a sense of “excellence”: a virtue is a disposition that inclines us to achieve the good for which we are made. Or, in other words, a virtue is a good habit that inclines us toward the telos that is best for us. Not unless we specify that end can we know whether something or someone is functioning well. Take a non-moral example: Let’s say I have a flute and I’m using it to roast marshmallows over a campfire (it’s a long story—don’t ask). As you can imagine, it doesn’t work out very well, and I throw down the instrument in frustration: “This is a terrible flute!” Well, no, not really: that’s not what the flute was made for. Roasting marshmallows is not the proper telos for a flute.
You can see how deep disagreements about the telos of humanity could generate radically different accounts of what is virtuous and what is vicious. This is because different narratives (different “worldviews,” we might say) envision very different ends for humanity. For example, a narrative or worldview that values power and domination and violence will see Christ’s meekness and humility as a vice; in contrast, Christians see Christ as the very exemplar of virtue, and so we evaluate his meekness and humility as virtues to which we aspire.
Indeed, the telos for Christians is Christ: Jesus Christ is the very embodiment of what we’re made for, of the end to which we are called. This is just another way of saying that love (or “charity” in some medieval accounts) is that which ultimately orders all of the other virtues. This is why Paul’s exhortation to “put on love” (Col. 3:14) is equivalent to the exhortation to “put on Christ” (Romans 13:14).
Imitation and Practice
All of this raises an important question: How do I acquire the virtues? Historically, virtue theory has emphasized two principal means for habit formation—both of which resonate with biblical wisdom.
First, we follow the model and example of the virtuous person. In other words, we imitate exemplars. We follow the example of those who exemplify the virtues. This framework gives us a new way to appreciate Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthian 11:1: “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”
Second, we acquire virtue and re-form our habits by immersing ourselves in practices that train our hearts on the telos of Christ and his kingdom. In other words, acquiring virtues takes practice. It is through our immersion in rhythms and routines that are primed toward the telos that we become the sort of people who are inclined in that direction. So if we are going be the sort of people who “put on” Christ’s virtues (Col. 3:12-15), Paul says, we’ll need to immerse ourselves in the sorts of practices that inscribe those habits in us. And for Paul, those practices especially include the practices of worship (Col. 3:16).
For further reading:
Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (NavPress, 2002).
Brad Kallenberg, “The Master Argument of MacIntyre’s After Virtue” in Virtues and Practices in the Christian Tradition (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 7-29.
Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Nature of the Virtues” in After Virtue, 3rd ed. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 181-203.
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, “Resistance to the Demands of Love: On Sloth” in Glittering Vices (Brazos, 2009), ch. 4.
The Character Project, Wake Forest University
James K.A. Smith is a Senior Fellow of The Colossian Forum and professor of philosophy at Calvin College.