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!

2 replies
  1. Mechelle Allen
    Mechelle Allen says:

    If a virtuous character was in us at birth we not have needed a savior. Aristotle of course would not have believed that.

    Reply
    • Bob Zomermaand
      Bob Zomermaand says:

      Hi Mechelle, thanks for your comment. You are on track to say that if all we needed was a virtuous character, what would be the need for Jesus. It is a gift of God, I think, that those who did not know our Creator could still see that His world would be best served by humans living in a way that reflected God’s will for humanity. That concern is still with us, even though there are many who are amoral and who find that ethics is a waste of time.

      Reply

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