Christian Virtue Theory
I previously wrote about Aristotelian virtue ethics, a brilliant secular moral and ethical theory that I think has been tragically left behind in the wake of The Enlightenment and the hyper-individualism and universalism that came with it. But, as a Christian, I am inherently unsatisfied with secular morality and ethics — I see the value in Aristotelian theory and I have deep respect for how its application could benefit humankind, but ultimately his answers don’t satisfy the spiritual and metaphysical longing in me.
In short, I want the Aristotelian conception of virtue but I need the centricity of Christ and the involvement of The Church. Thank God for Christian virtue theory.
The textbook definition of Christian virtue ethics states that virtue is achieved through following Christ and you must reflect Jesus’s character in order to live virtuously. To understand how that conclusion is arrived at (and what it means), I want to go back briefly to Classical Greek virtue.
*I stated this in my last piece on virtue, but want to reiterate it here: I realize that virtue ethics can be found in many different cultures and religions. Greek virtue theory is just the one I am most familiar with, and the one that has had the most obvious impact on and interaction with Christian social teachings and theology.
Classical Virtue to Christian Virtue
Greek philosophers were some of the first to try and understand what it meant to be virtuous. Plato and Aristotle especially agreed that the human telos, the ultimate goal, of human existence is to flourish. According to these Greek philosophers, having virtue leads ourselves and our communities to the telos of flourishing. Our ultimate purpose in life is to flourish and the only way to flourish is to have virtue.
Now, in this Greek classical era, the four cardinal (or main) virtues were: wisdom (theoretical and practical, book-smarts and street-smarts); courage (being confident but not reckless); temperance (self-control regarding pleasure and pain); and justice (treating yourself and others fairly). Often in Greek society, these virtues were taught with stories of people behaving virtuously. Through learning how others had virtue, they would learn how to have it themselves. These models of virtue were called exemplars. These stories were all about the actual application of virtue, so we can see right away that virtue theory is a very narrative and practical ethical system.
Centuries later, Christianity has started to spread across the Greco-Roman world and Christian thinkers, theologians, and philosophers came into contact with Greek virtue theory. St. Thomas Aquinas is probably the most well-known of the Christian virtue theorists. Many of them recognized the truth and value in this secular theory and essentially modified it in order to center it away from Aristotle’s idea of metaphysical biology and towards the life and teachings of Jesus. Along they way, they added and modified cardinal virtues to make this new hybrid system less pagan and more Judeo-Christian. Virtues become much closer aligned to the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount and the fruits of the spirit.
The Aristotelian idea of exemplars aligns perfectly with Christianity as well — not just well or good, but perfectly. For Christians, the person of Jesus Christ is the ultimate moral exemplar; our entire religion is literally founded on living like Christ lived. Jesus is the greatest exemplar of what the Christian telos is. Beyond Christ, the Christian tradition is full of lesser exemplars (especially for Catholics, with their long list of Popes and Saints). The very notion of Christian discipleship is itself based around the same actions of observing, learning, and modeling that Aristotle theorized about in his thinking on exemplars.
Perhaps one of the greatest modifications made to virtue theory by Christian thought is that in Christian virtue theory, the goal is not simply to flourish but to be closer to God. The telos of human life is still to flourish, and flourishing is still achieved by being virtuous, but the entire purpose of flourishing is that as you truly flourish you will become inevitably closer to God and as community flourishes, the Kingdom of God grows on Earth. In Greek theory, you sought to flourish for flourishing’s sake; in Christian theory, you sought to flourish for the sake of salvation and God’s Kingdom.
The Fall of Christian Virtue Theory & The Enlightenment
Christian virtue theory was highly regarded by many Christians throughout the Medieval period. In many areas of Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa, it was the predominant form of Christian ethical teaching. All that came crashing down with The Enlightenment however.
One consequence of the The Enlightenment was to effectively push virtue ethics (secular and Christian) out of popularity, out of modernity; Aristotelian and Thomist (Aquinas) ideas were relegated to primitive, unsophisticated relics of the Dark Ages. After all, you don’t need theology or metaphysical reasoning if there are universal morals and ethics discovered through reason alone. Enlightenment theories based on reason had a simple sales pitch: if people use reason, they get the right answer — and the same answer — every time, theology and tradition be damned.
Since the start of The Enlightenment in the 17th century all the way to the present day, virtue theory has largely been shunned from mainstream Christian thinking, especially Protestant denominations and American Catholicism. Starting the late 1970s and 80s though, some prominent Christian theologians and philosophers began something of a small comeback for Christian virtue theory, a comeback that has persevered all the way to today. These virtual-revival thinkers include such figures as Alasdair MacIntyre, Mortimer Adler, and Stanley Hauerwas. These thinkers argued that it was nonsense for Christians to divorce rationality and theology from ethics and morality (as Enlightenment ideas of consequentialism and deontology do).
As I just mentioned, there were two main ethical roads that emerged from The Enlightenment to deal with this question: consequentialism and deontology. The Consequentialist — whether they are an egoist or a utilitarian — will strive to find the best outcome for the largest amount of people. The deontologist — whether a Kantian or Divine Command Theorist — is going to strive to do the “right” thing based on a sense of universal duty. On the other hand, the new Christian virtue theorists said that the choices offered by The Enlightenment were false dichotomies; the Enlightenment approaches were fundamentally lacking because they deal with the surface issue of how decisions are made, while avoiding the deeper issue of human teleology (the end goal, the purpose of being human).
This may be the most significant distinction between Christian virtue theory and Christian forms of Enlightenment theories: virtue theory demands a change from modern epistemology (the theory of the nature of truth, knowledge, and justification). Virtue theory is not just about making moral decisions, it dives into how we think about making decisions as well. From a Christian perspective, at least, this is vital and it’s a tragedy that it’s been so neglected in the Western Church.
The Expert & The Painter
To summarize Christian virtue theory, it teaches Christians to be ethical people with Christ viewed as God and as our telos, with the end goal of flourishing and closeness with God inseparable. This system is not just about making moral decisions, it’s about being at your core a moral person.
Think of an art student who has dedicated years to studying painting, a true expert. Then, think of a painter. The expert knows all about paintings: how painting is done, what a painting looks like, what makes a painting good. But the painter actually paints; they don’t just know it, they do it. The painter may not know the technical terms for their brushstrokes or the historical development of style, but they are a painter. The expert may know all about what the painter does, but they can’t pick up a brush and create anything worthwhile.
Christian virtue theory essentially says that this is what Enlightenment moral thinking is: it has made us into “moral experts”, people who can think about how ethical decisions are made but lack the ability to make those decisions ourselves. Virtue theory, on the hand, makes us into people who can pick up the brush, turn to a canvas, and create a beautiful moral life of flourishing and evermore-closeness to God.