Virtue Ethics In Our Culture

Do the right thing

Virtue ethics can be thought of as an ethics of doing the right thing (See previous post) In the Encyclopedia of Philosophy we find the following:

Most virtue ethics theories take their inspiration from Aristotle who declared that a virtuous person is someone who has ideal character traits. These traits derive from natural internal tendencies, but need to be nurtured; however, once established, they will become stable. For example,  a virtuous person is someone who is kind across many situations over a lifetime because that is her character and not because she wants to maximize utility or gain favors or simply do her duty.   

To Have a Noble Character

The ideal character traits are the focus of virtue ethics.  These traits have the effect of others looking upon one as a person of noble character.

It is interesting to me how often the concept of virtue and the ethics which follow upon the pursuit of virtue are central to the stories we find intriguing.  Will the (dark) Empire overthrow the Rebellion? Will the good and virtuous Snow White survive the evil intentions of the wicked Queen? The conflict of the good and the bad, the virtuous and the evil informs the story lines of most stories. It is by means of our engagement in these themes that we form our own ideas of what is right or wrong.  We are, normally, going to identify with law enforcement over against the bank robbers. We want the NCIS teams to triumph over the bad guys who are trying to disrupt society or who have murdered someone to hide their own evil acts.

Bennett’s Books on Virtue Ethics

Bill Bennett's Book of Virtues

When we read children’s literature, we often hope that the story will subtly (or pointedly) promote good and hold it up as something to be pursued. In addition, however, children need to have adults in their lives who are good.  William J. Bennett the former Secretary of Education for the USA put it this way: “For children to take morality seriously they must be in the presence of adults who take morality seriously. And with their own eyes they must see adults take morality seriously.”
Read more at:

Virtue ethics, then, are a way for adults to shape the moral sensitivity of children.  By acting virtuously they will be handing on the traditions of what is good and morally right.

Is Artemis Fowl a Virtue Ethicist?

At times, however, there is a conflict which arises in our perceptions of what is good.  For example, in the series of young adult novels about Artemis Fowl, we are drawn into admiring and rooting for a young man who is a criminal genius. For all his evil intentions, young Artemis finds himself doing what is right and virtuous because of how his mother would want him to live.

book Cover of Artemis Fowl

He is further influenced by his fairy companion, Holly Short, toward acting for the good. The novels all are filled with the conflicted sense in Artemis that what he is doing is wrong, while at the same time hiding it from his mother who would be very disappointed in him if he were to be found doing things which would end up on the evil side of the moral ledger. And finally, in the final book, he acts for the good without thought of great personal gain.

Some Proponents

When we evaluate the actions of others, we often use the virtue ethics of Aristotle or his philosophical heirs of our day. Those heirs include these who are named in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Anscombe, G.E. M., “Modern Moral Philosophy”, Philosophy, 33 (1958).  This article is the original call for a return to Aristotelian ethics.

MacIntyre, A., After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1985). In this book MacIntyre provides us with the first outline of his account of the virtues.

Murdoch, I., The Sovereignty of Good (London: Ark, 1985)

Williams, B., Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana, 1985).

As we can readily see, these were written in the latter part of the 20th century, with the exception of Anscombe who published his call for virtue ethics in 1958. The virtue ethicists have had a significant influence because the idea of doing the right thing is deeply embedded in our (western) cultural consciousness by means of literature, television, and movies.  

What do you think? Should a Christian approach to ethics follow the line of moral reasoning that the virtue ethicists do? Or is our call to morality something else? Join the discussion!

Virtue Ethics

What is virtue ethics is the subject of this blog entry.

Aristotle has influenced people down to our very day. He lived about 2500 years ago in Greece. His works on ethics have been used to challenge people over the centuries to discover the virtuous life. His approach is called the ethics of virtue.  In virtue ethics the goal is not so much to follow one’s duties as given by God – the deontological ethic.  Nor to examine the teleological effects or the outcomes of various actions as the basis for deciding the best course of action today – the teleological ethic. Virtue ethics are something different.

So we take a look today at the concept of virtue based ethics. The ancient

Greek philosopher Aristotle was a proponent of a life of virtue. He taught that a virtuous person was the one who could best live a life of happiness. The excellent person was the person of virtue. Aristotle wanted his students to come to the understanding that the man of virtue was a person who did the right thing, at the right time, and in the right way.

I’m sure that many of you have heard, or possibly used, the phrase, “You have to do the right thing.” has this quote from an American politician, “We need to have a purpose in this life. I’m pleading with you, I’m begging with you to do the right thing. And do it not for the sake of how it will impact your own lives, but only for the sake of doing the right thing.”  James McGreevey

Virtue Ethics — Do the Right Thing

Do you notice this person is pleading with us to do the right thing? He gives us the reason for doing the right thing.  It is to do the right thing.  The

Image result for do the right thing ethics

biggest ethical problem that people face in our world today, I think, is knowing what might possibly constitute the right thing.  How can I know if I am doing the right thing? Will the right thing change from day to day? If my conclusion as to what the right thing is conflicts with yours, how do we decide what is the right thing? Is there such a concept as a virtuous action that is right for me, but wrong for you? Here is a quote from a person writing about corporate ethics, “Indeed, much of what is considered moral through the lens of duty ethics looks decidedly immoral through the lens of virtue ethics.”Peter Tunjic

As you can tell, this can go around and around.  But it need not be so. The aim of ethical decision-making is to become a person who lives with excellence. Aristotle teaches excellence as a concept that means I will control my bodily appetites so that I live in moderation. I will work hard at physical toil. AND I will also take time for my mind and my intellect to flourish. It seems to me that Aristotle would look at our Western culture today and remind us that doing the right thing is not all there is. I think he would mourn the empty souls inside of so many of us.

For further study

We need to look at this more.  Because the lives we live before the face of God are lives that (hopefully) model virtue. And our lives will model a soul satisfying dedication to God. We will discover that to live out the words of Jesus just might be a virtuous way of life. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Therefore, both the vertical and the horizontal are needed to get life right and to do the right thing. Check in again for more later. Better yet, write up a response and join in our dialogue!

Faith and Doubt

The title of this blog is only three words long. But the two nouns, faith and doubt, are among the most misunderstood in the English language. The biggest misunderstanding takes them to be opposites that cancel one another.

Let’s start with Faith.

Faith is the term commonly used today to name a state of mind. That state can be found lurking between being sure of something and outright rejecting it. The faith state of mind is that of partly believing and hoping that a promise will be kept – or something close to a promise. Faith is belief in a sports analysis of our favorite sports team that picks them to win the championship this year. The partly believing and hoping is counterbalanced, in the popular idea of faith, with a measure of uncertainty and doubt.

Faith usually has a more serious meaning when we use it for the trust we place in a person. In these cases, it’s not a stated or implied promise we bank on, but another human in whom we place our confidence to do the right thing at the right time. Even when used of persons, though, it still includes an element of uncertainty. We trust the guy, and we hope he’ll succeed, but we’re not sure he will.

Confusion Arises Here

The most confusing thing about these usual senses of “faith” is that they are not what the New Testament means when it speaks of belief in God as Faith! The fact is, New Testament writers such as Paul, and John, and James, gave the term a brand-new meaning. Previously in the Greek language, Faith had not carried this new meaning. When using it of belief in God’s reality, they spoke of faith as certainty derived from experience. This why we find them saying, “the gospel is something in which we have faith.” Their usage also includes a new sense of “certainty by experience” that we call “know-for-sure.”

Faith or Doubt in God’s Promises

Of course, they also at times use “faith” to refer to trusting in God to keep his promises. This is one of our usual meanings of “faith.” So one looks at the context in which the word is used to be sure what is meant. When it concerns God’s reality, it means that we know it for sure. When it concerns God’s promises, it means we should trust him because he has been faithful to his promises in the past. But since we have not yet seen the promise kept, it is trust that is less than knowing-for-sure.

Faith and Doubt

So how does doubt fit into all this? Is doubt the opposite of faith? Is doubt a sin?

First, with respect to belief in God’s reality, sincere believers who have experienced God’s reality for sure can still be assailed by doubt. The theologian, John Calvin, wrote that a believer’s life is a constant struggle with doubt. But he also noticed that doubt and genuine belief often exist in the same person at the same time. There is nothing impossible about that. The opposite of fully trusting a promise or person is not doubt, it’s disbelief. Which is why being sure of a belief or person doesn’t require lacking doubt, but means being certain beyond any reasonable disbelief.

Another Meaning

There is another sense of doubt, however, that doesn’t concern God’s reality. Rather, it focuses on our reliance on his promises. In this matter, too, doubt often assails believers. But these instances are more serious, according to the New Testament. That’s because these are occasions when people are quite confident that God is real. Nevertheless, they fail to trust God to take care of them. In reality, temptation comes in the form of doubt. And they (we) really doubt him.

I think that’s what James is talking about when he says that believers should ask God to take care of their needs. James instructs believers to “ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” He goes on to add: “a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” Such a person “ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord.”

So it turns out

So it turns out that simply being assailed by doubts that God is real is a common experience of believers. And that experience can take place while still holding fast to his reality in full faith-confidence. But the more insidious and dangerous doubt feeds on a genuine anomaly of belief. This doubt infects the belief that God is real with the doubt that he cares for his people and will do what he’s promised. We call that double-mindedness. And double-mindedness undermines a person’s walk with God.

 Roy Clouser

decision circle

Public Ethics

Public ethics in court
I swear to tell the truth…

Public Ethics in Question

One of the deepest issues of our culture today is determining which ethical principles apply to our lives and our conduct with one another.  We call these public ethics. This is especially true when we attempt to find an ethical pathway in a landscape which seems to be filled with hidden pitfalls and changing rules.  For example, Nancy Gibbs writing in a recent Time magazine article states,

 We all learned back on the playground that whoever makes the rules of the game stands a better chance of winning it. It’s an uncomfortable lesson, one that requires us to accept that norms are fluid, that expectations shift, that people’s actions are not only judged as right or wrong, but are also measured against the depravity or valor of their peers.

The Fluidity of the Rules

Notice that she does not say that the rules are a given. No, these days the rules are “fluid.”  People’s actions are not only judged or evaluated to determine if those actions are right or wrong. We judge a person’s actions by the depravity or valor of peers. Unfortunately, she gives no definition of either term. An online dictionary gives us a succinct definition of depravity. Depravity goes beyond mere bad behavior — it is a total lack of morals, values, and even regard for other living things.” The same dictionary defines valor as “honor plus dignity. It is gallant bravery and strength. Especially on the battlefield or in the face of danger.”    Just to round out this group of definitions we should note that the word “norms” is given a singular form when defined. “A statistical average is called the norm.”

Public ethics decision circle
Decision Circle

So, we discover that it is the statistical average that dictates the norms for behavior. In a culture of habitual liars, a person who tells the truth is outside the norm. But does that make the truth teller  a morally suspect person?  If the norms are fluid and are determined by someone else’s depravity and still another’s valor, then there is very little that can be called good.

Public Ethics is Fraught With Pitfalls

I define our topic as follows. “Ethics is the motivation to do what is good.” I read a story today of another newsworthy example of this ethical quandary. Google recently set up a public ethics  advisory board of people from outside their company. This board’s task was to give advice on ethics in Artificial Intelligence. Google ran into a stunning event. Thousands of their employees (actually about 2-3 %) decried the membership on the board of a person known to be a “conservative.” The woman engaged in “hate” speech toward some members of society (allegedly). See the article at the link  So Google hastily disbanded the ethics advisory board. Google hopes that this puts the mistake behind.

Public ethics questions

 This blog entry demonstrates how important the subject of ethics, justice, mercy and moral reasoning has become.  We, as a culture, are unable to even agree on the rules that we attempt to live by.  And as Nancy Gibbs says, the rules are changing and those who make the rules often do well because they made the rules. (Emphasis added) How shall we as a culture interact with each other? Which statistician will come up with the averages accepted as the norm? Whose rules will we agree to live by? More discussion will come!

destination: ethics

Why Ponder Ethics?

Why Ponder Ethics?

Suppose that I am working in an academic area that most of us believe doesn’t really involve ethics.  Why ponder ethics in my field of endeavor?Let’s say that area is computer science.  Who is to decide what constitutes ethical actions when programming a computer?

Do justice love mercy walk humbly

Don’t most of us simply assume that ethics does not apply when we are talking about programming a website?  Or programming a robot? Or developing the artificial intelligence that will drive a car? Ethical thinking needs to be, I believe, a part of how any of us approach these efforts.

Ethical Training in Higher Education

Here is a quote from an article about the ethical training that Harvard is embedding in its computer courses.

“Stand alone courses [on ethics]can be great, but they can send the message that ethics is something that you think about after you’ve done your ‘real’ computer science work,” … “We want to send the message that ethical reasoning is part of what you do as a computer scientist.”

In our world which is so dependent on computer programs and algorithms to make our work easier and more efficient, we need to think about the implications of what we are creating. That is where one finds the ethical thinker. Even as I write this, it seems as though it is a teleological ethics that might come to bear here.  What will be the consequences of creating a machine which is able to “live” independently of a human being?  We may very well also ask, “What might a deontological ethics say when thinking of artificial intelligence? Has God said anything about these things?”

God Has Something to Say?

Of course, one might scoff and say that God has nothing to do with nor to say to computer science. After all, the computer has just been invented as far as the grand arc of human history is concerned. But we need only read Mary Shelly’s book entitled Frankenstein to give us pause in our eagerness to avoid the duty to ponder ethics in our work of invention and creation. For example,

 In the novel, Frankenstein’s creation is identified by words such as “creature”, “monster”, “daemon”, “wretch”, “abortion”, “fiend” and “it”. Speaking to Victor Frankenstein, the monster says “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel” 

Humanity’s hubris will always discount the social responsibility we have to others. The admonition from the prophet, “What does God require of you? To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Quote from Peter Kreeft

It’s the humble part that is so dismaying. While doing justice or loving mercy is not so bad, being humble is not a strong suit for anyone.

The reason that doing justice is not so bad is our penchant for writing our own definition of justice and then we follow that. To love mercy is not so bad since we very easily join with the ancients in identifying a very limited group to whom we “ought to” show mercy.

Justice and Mercy

[I]f we simply use the term “mercy” to refer to certain of the demands of justice (e.g., the demand for individuation), then mercy ceases to be an autonomous virtue and instead becomes a part of … justice. It thus becomes obligatory, and all the talk about gifts, acts of grace, supererogation, and compassion becomes quite beside the point. If, on the other hand, mercy is totally different from justice and actually requires (or permits) that justice sometimes be set aside, it then counsels injustice. In short, mercy is either a vice (injustice) or redundant (a part of justice).

See Forgiveness and Mercy

It is the subtle interplay between justice and mercy which forms the thinking of a humble ethical person. That interplay is how we ponder ethics. We will examine that further in a future post.