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: https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/william_bennett

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.” Brainyquote.com 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!

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 https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/4/4/18295933/google-cancels-ai-ethics-board  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.

Ethical Thinking

Three Types of Ethical Thinking

When one is faced with the task of making decisions, it is important to have some grasp of the basis for making that decision. In the tradition of ethical thinking, there are several main approaches to this question.  The three most prominent have been deontological theories of ethics, teleological theories of ethics, and virtue based theories of ethics.

My ethical checklist

  Deontological Ethics

Deontological theories begin with the idea that there is a law-giver to whose will we as individuals must conform if we are to live justly. “When God speaks, people are to listen” is one way we could over-simplify this position. Therefore, the basis for living the life that is ethically good is the laws and duties which are laid out in God’s revealed will. There follows from this that justice is when we live according to the mandates of God in our relationships with other people and the world which God created. In this model, I teach and train a youth to discern God’s will and to follow that in making decisions.

Teleological Ethics

What will my decision result in?

Teleological theories ask us to look at the consequences of an action we are about to undertake.  If I am to live justly, I need to be aware of the effects of my decision making on the future.  A common form of this appears in any story which features time-travel. If I were to go back in time, I should not interfere in what is going to happen in the future.  It follows that I could mess up the trajectory of history by doing the wrong thing when visiting the past. 

The Back to the Future movie is a good example of how delicate is the trajectory of history and how my decisions always affect what is going to happen in the future. Teleological theories of ethics require that I think of the ultimate trajectory of history that will result from my actions today. In this model, youths are trained to think of what is going to happen if you do this or that. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime!”

Virtue Ethics

A mishmash of virtues which form the basis for ethical decisions

Virtue ethics are based on the idea of a person pursuing  what is virtuous in one’s decision-making. For example, the decision maker is to pursue being kind and compassionate and consciously avoid being mean and greedy. Therefore, my ethical choices focus on being a good and virtuous person. It is up to the community in which we find ourselves to educate and train a youth in the pursuit of virtue, which includes, of course, deciding what is virtuous for this society.

My Starting Point

As we continue to ponder these types of ethical thinking, I will be focusing on the deontological type.  I believe that God has spoken.  Therefore, I am to carefully consider  my decisions based on his will. 

I will conclude with this excerpt from a website that is based at Brown University. It is from the school of science and technology. Take a look:

The Divine Command Approach
As its name suggests, this approach sees what is right as the same as what God commands, and ethical standards are the creation of God’s will. Following God’s will is seen as the very definition what is ethical. Because God is seen as omnipotent and possessed of free will, God could change what is now considered ethical, and God is not bound by any standard of right or wrong short of logical contradiction. The Medieval Christian philosopher William of Ockham (1285-1349) was one of the most influential thinkers in this tradition, and his writings served as a guide for Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Jean Calvin (1509-1564). The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), in praising the biblical Patriarch Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac at God’s command, claimed that truly right action must ultimately go beyond everyday morality to what he called the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” ……

Hmm. The teleological suspension of the ethical. We will need to be thinking further on this.