At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture


Thinking About Virtue

posted by Jack Kerwick

Ours is a generation obsessed with “principles.”  That the morality of the age is centered in principles accounts for why we tend to characterize the morally admirable person as a man or woman of principle.  Principles are critical to any morality, for sure, but it is just as critical for us to recognize that these aren’t the only terms in which morality can be understood. 

There is another conception of morality that, while conceding both the impossibility and undesirability of dispensing with principles, nevertheless attaches primary importance to virtue.  From this perspective, goodness is basically (though not exclusively) a matter of the person one is—not the actions one performs. The key question, in other words, is not “Which principles should I observe?” but “Who do I want to be?”

Virtue, like its contrary, vice, is a character disposition.  The difference, of course, is that virtues are excellences of character while vices are character defects.  But any moral scheme the central categories of which are virtue and vice is decidedly eons apart from those schemes that focus on principles.  Principles are conceived as being universal and abstract.  These features in turn are invariably read as calling upon all human beings at all times and places to observe them.  Virtues, in stark contrast, are the products of habit.  If it isn’t synonymous with tradition (and it may very well be), at the very least, habit is impossible in the absence of tradition.  But traditions, far from being universal and abstract, are always culturally particular.  

On a virtue-centered approach to morality, if you want to be a good human being, you must do good deeds.  But—and this is crucial—it isn’t enough that you just engage in good actions.  You must do so habitually.  To put it another way, just because a person occasionally acts virtuously doesn’t mean that he is virtuous.  What distinguishes the genuinely virtuous person from the person who episodically acts virtuously is that for the former, his virtue is his habit.

On its face, it appears that a morality of virtue throws up an insuperable paradox: How does a person lacking in virtue learn to become virtuous? 

This problem, however, is only apparent, for the proponent of a virtue-centered morality has a reply ready at hand: we learn to become virtuous in the same way that we learn everything else in life—by doing.  And to the objection that we can’t know what to do if we are not yet virtuous, his answer is similarly simple: we learn what to do by imitating those who already know what to do.  

In short, if one wants to become a virtuous person, then one must imitate someone who already is virtuous. 

In spite of the dominance of the language of principles when it comes to moral theory and political rhetoric, just a moment’s reflection on how we actually live our lives discloses in no time that a virtue-centered ethic is a more accurate statement of the moral experience than the principles-based alternative.  In other words, we know that morality consists of habits and habits are inspired by the example set by others.  This explains, for instance, why those of us who are parents are as cautious as we are regarding the influences to which our children are exposed.  It explains as well why, whether we are parents or lawyers, preachers or politicians, artists or journalists, we go to pain staking lengths to embed our messages to others within attention-arresting narratives, stories consisting of identifiable characters whose actions are rendered intelligible by their location within the context of a familiar tradition.        

Christianity, I believe, is best understood in light of this virtue-oriented model of morality.  A good Christian is not one who observes certain principles; a good Christian is one who has acquired those intellectual and moral habits imparted to him by other good Christians, from Jesus and the Apostles to philosophers and mystics, from clergy members to the laity.

Indeed, there is much virtue in thinking long and hard about virtue.   

      



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