In my occasional columns examining ways in which we discern right and wrong I have looked at deontology, which sets out by “rule” that certain actions are permitted, and others forbidden, and utilitarianism, which is judged on the consequences of an action. Here I want to look at an approach which I find most attractive: virtue ethics.
The focus of deontology and utilitarianism is on acts – are they right or wrong? The focus of virtue ethics is on the actor: what sort of person is he and what sort of person should he strive to become? Most of the discussion and argument about moral matters centres on specific decisions: we can easily forget that our first duty is to be moral people. In fact the whole emphasis of Jesus’ message is that we focus on our faith in him, and work to become as perfect as his father. We not only have to be virtuous, we are required, as our constant vocation, to develop virtue.
St Thomas said that all moral issues can be reduced to the consideration of virtues. If we are virtuous, we do virtuous things, and doing virtuous things strengthens our state of virtue. Virtues might be described as deep habitual dispositions which are expressed in how we lead our lives. As the Catechism puts it: “The virtuous man is he who freely practises the good.” (See 1803 ff. for a description of the virtues.) This approach is natural and acceptable to us, because good parents use it to bring up their children well. We are less concerned with children’s immediate actions in themselves but rather because they enable us to watch and guide what sort of people they are growing up to be.
A virtue of particular interest is practical moral judgment. We sometimes call it prudence (a somewhat misleading word). It is known as the “charioteer” of the virtues because it addresses our judgment in the practice of virtue in general and particular circumstances. It enables us to recognise the salient moral aspects of a situation, and to achieve the best balance in both the short and long term. Aristotle (whose writings on the virtues have been, and remain, highly influential) tells us that it can only be fully developed through experience. So we do not expect it to be well-developed in children or even in adolescents. And, interestingly, we now know that, irrespective of levels of IQ, the adolescent brain has not yet developed its full capacity for emotional control, mature judgment and sensitivity to the long term consequences of actions.
The outcome of the development of virtue was known to Aristotle as eudaimonia, best translated as “flourishing”. It cannot properly be described as happiness because happiness is ephemeral or may result from unworthy causes – giving rise to unworthy actions. Rather it means living up to the full nature of a human being, as a human being. Similarly an elephant has its own eudaimonia when it is fulfilling itself according to its elephant nature.
In our terms eudaimonia is achieved through living our lives according to human nature as God created and redeemed it, body and soul. And our flourishing grows as we grow in virtue.
While virtue ethics has recently grown in importance in the eyes of both Christian and agnostic philosophers, it also has opponents. Some suggest that it is selfish because it concentrates on the self. But this has little merit because it is clear that the practice of virtue leads to a spread of benefits. A basic aspect of human nature is that we are social people, and so our virtues lead us to respect others through such qualities as care, or truthfulness or keeping promises. This is of course explicit in the concept of loving our neighbour as ourselves.
A more substantial objection is that it does not deal with moral decisions or address the dilemmas in which we have to deal with conflicting courses of action. It may prepare us for this, but it offers no solutions.
I leave aside the thought that, in general, neither deontology nor utilitarianism have been notably successful here either. Instead I would refer to my column of 29 August 2008 in which I summarised the Pope’s view (as cardinal in 1991) on true conscience. He tells us that the starting point is our recollection of the moral truth inside all of us – but which we often stifle so that we can cling to the opinions which happen to suit us – and then claim conscience as our defence. He presents the moral law as taught by the Church not as a command but as an invitation. We are not being required to do things because the Church says so, but because, after listening to the Church, we may be ready to say so. (See Holding out for a hero, 28 August 08)
The connection with virtue ethics is clear. Our development in virtue prepares us to respond freely to this invitation. It enables us to see more deeply and clearly how the moral law relates to us as, we may hope, virtuous people. And the growth in our practical and moral judgment (prudence) not only guides us towards respecting the wisdom of the Church in its moral authority, but also to see how it may apply to the decisions we have to make. It is only the imprudent person who neglects to consider what the Church invites. And our autonomy remains unimpugned because, to repeat myself, all moral issues can be reduced to the consideration of virtues. Thus: “The virtuous man is he who freely practises the good.”
In your comments on this you might like to think whether virtue ethics really works as a guide to the moral life. Is it enough, as Juliana suggested in one comment, to ask ourselves: what would Jesus have done? How would it solve the exchange Malteser and I have had on the question of condoms and HIV? (The Pope was right, 26 March 09) Does it throw too much weight on our fallible consciences and not enough on the Church’s authority with regard to moral law? Can obedience ever cease to be a virtue and become a vice? Plenty of meat here.