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Virtue ethics and the New Testament

Which matter most: virtues or duties? Bob Harrison thinks the early Christians had the answer.

For some time, now, moral philosophers have been scratching their heads over an intriguing problem. This has been going on for something like half a century, and it will no doubt keep us perplexed until well into the new millennium, if not beyond. The really curious thing is, though, that the first generation of Christians, who included only a few who would call themselves philosophers, found, if not the solution, at least a solution to the puzzle. And, not being philosophers, they weren’t even aware of what they had done.

The story begins with Aristotle. His idea of ethics was in an important respect different from ours. Heirs as we are to Kant’s idea of duty – there is a right thing that one ought to do, as rational beings who respect other persons – and to Mill’s idea of utility – the right thing to do is that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number – we see ethics as concerned with actions. The function of ethics is to help me see what I ought to do in a given situation. Aristotle’s approach was different. His ethic is not so much concerned about helping me to see what I ought to do, as about what sort of person I ought to be.

Aristotle was concerned with character, and with the things that go to make up good and bad character; virtues and vices. His sort of ethic does not look at my action to see if it fulfils my duty, or produces a certain outcome, such as the greatest good of the greatest number, and therefore merits approval. Instead, it looks at me; at the character behind the actions, to see whether I merit approval.

Comparing Aristotle with more modern philosophers such as Kant and Mill, we are able to divide ethical theories into two kinds; act-centred theories and agent-centred theories. Kant’s and Mill’s approaches are act centred, because they concern themselves with our actions, whilst Aristotle’s is agent centred because it concerns itself with ourselves, and the character dispositions that prompt our actions.

Both approaches have ardent present-day advocates, and so both are alive and well. Aristotle’s supporters are dissatisfied with the answers ‘modern’ act-centred philosophy offers, and look for a more flexible, person-centred approach that takes more account of the subtle varieties of human motivation. These ‘virtue ethicists’ see ethics as being about people – moral agents – rather than merely about actions. Of course, your actions matter. But, for Aristotle and his present day advocates alike, they matter as expressions of the kind of person you are. They indicate such qualities as kindness, fairness, compassion, and so on, and it is these qualities and their corresponding vices that it is the business of ethics to approve or disapprove.

All this seems simple and uncontroversial; there are two ways of looking at an action to evaluate it morally. You can take the action in isolation and judge it, or take the agent and judge him or her. The complication is that the advocates of each approach tend to see their way as the right way (not an entirely unprecedented situation in philosophy, politics, cookery or chrysanthemum growing…). The present day virtue ethicists are sometimes especially uncompromising. In a seminal paper on virtue ethics, entitled ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’1, G E M Anscombe writes:

‘… the concepts of obligation, and duty – moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say – and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of ‘ought’, ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible.’

and goes on to recommend that we jettison substantial chunks of the moral theories of Butler, Hume, Kant, Bentham and Mill, and adopt in preference a more Aristotelian approach to ethics.

Why should there be such rivalry? Why not a sort of pluralism, where you use one or the other approach as seems appropriate? The problem goes something like this. Virtue ethicists argue that act-centred ethics are narrow and bloodless. What is needed is a richer moral vocabulary than just ‘right and wrong’. There are subtle but important differences between actions that are good because they are kind and those that are good because they are generous, and those that are good because they are just. Likewise, there are subtle but important differences between actions that are bad because they are selfish and those that are bad because they are cruel and those that are bad because they are unfair. These, and many other, distinctions are lost when we talk simply about doing one’s duty, or promoting utility. Questions of motive and of character are lost, in these asceptic terms. Modern Moral Philosophy, in the pejorative sense in which Anscombe uses the term, won’t do: it is cold, technical and insensitive to the many kinds and degrees of value expressed in human actions.

On the other hand, Moderns argue that it is all very well saying that the important thing is to be a kind person, but we are only too familiar with occasions when two people will have very different ideas of what is the kind thing or the generous or fair thing to do in the situation. Virtue ethics and its warm human dimension, they could say, is all very well as an added quality on top of ethics, but you need cool ethical reasoning to determine the right thing to do: perhaps virtue ethics can point to the sensitive way to go about doing it, but there will always need to be something more precise, some less subjective guideline, to determine the right action.

How, then, do we reconcile the two positions? Do we let the philosophers fight it out until one side wins? (Wins? That would be an unprecedented outcome in philosophy…) Or is there some way of making effective use of the two insights in some kind of teamwork?

This is where the early Christians stumble in; stumble, because they were not setting themselves a philosophical exercise; merely trying to express the ethical implications of their spiritual experience.

The world of the early Christians already had virtue philosophy. Although for many centuries the writings of Aristotle were lost to us, his ideas were current in the Hellenistic world – part of the cultural legacy of old Greece in the Roman Empire.

The first Christians, however, were by birth heirs to an actcentred ethic, for they were Jews. The Ten Commandments and much more of the same ilk were their ethical environment. At first sight this was a Divine Command ethic, and in a sense it was. But it was not a Divine Command ethic if by that we mean something arbitrary; thrown out of the mind of God like something drawn out of a hat, so that he could have drawn out commands that endorsed adultery and murder as readily as commands that prohibited them. For one thing, there was the belief that God was essentially benevolent; he loved his creation and his every intention was for its good. Further, there is a clear strand of what today we could call respect for persons in, for example, the Ten Commandments. The prohibitions against murder, theft, adultery, and so forth can all be understood in such a light. Even the religious commandments – against idolatry, and enjoining religious duties – become clearly related to respect for persons when we bear in mind that to the Jew God was a person, and a unique person worthy of a unique kind of respect.

I mention all this, not because the respect for persons interpretation of the Old Testament is at all central to this discussion, but because I want to point out that the Jewish people did have, not a mere collection of randomly-generated divine fiats, but a coherent act-centred ethic. This was the ethic the Christians inherited.

But the ethic the Christians developed and passed on was different. When Jesus said ‘Blessed are the meek… the merciful’, he was not commenting on the value of certain specified acts. He was urging us to be a certain kind of person, exhibiting certain character dispositions. His ethic was agent centred; a virtue ethic.

One example of the way in which this ethic differs from, say, a Kantian act-centred ethic is the way in which we might expect a Kantian and a Christian to approach the question of cruelty to animals. The Kantian would most likely argue that one should not be cruel to animals, since doing so reinforces character dispositions that would make the agent more likely to be cruel to human beings. (‘A child who enjoys torturing small animals had better not be left alone with the baby’2) Although the animal, not being a rational agent, does not have rights, the outcome of ill-treating it might indirectly be cruelty to humans who, as rational agents, do have rights. The Christian, on the other hand, might not address the question of rights at all, but argue instead that we should not act cruelly to the animal, simply because it is wrong to be cruel, and good to be kind. The reasoning of the Christian in this case would be more direct than that of the Kantian, but in any case quite a different kind of argument; one concerned at at least as much with being as with doing.

There were both similarities and differences between Aristotle and Jesus. For Aristotle, the character dispositions, or virtues, were partly cultivated by oneself and this would be the major part, which would bring glory to the agent, for having cultivated them as well as practising them. They were also partly contributed from the outside, in the form of parental teaching, the example of respected peers, and so on. For Jesus, the contribution from outside was of paramount importance. It was the divinely-given religious experience of New Birth, which would bring glory to God, and which had profound life-changing implications for its recipient, whilst the self-cultivation aspect consisted in simply co-operating with the Holy Spirit in the working out of these implications.

St Paul developed these ideas. The relative importance of the active role of God, qua Holy Spirit, is reflected in Paul’s insistent doctrine of Justification by Faith. It is not our good works that save us, he says, but the work of the Holy Spirit, making of us new creatures. Our role in this is to believe, and accept new creation as God’s gift. What is especially interesting to us here, is what Paul does in handling the relationship between the Born Again person’s role in cultivating the virtues and the work of the Spirit. The initiative and the glory are both shifted away from the human agent, and (s)he becomes the recipient of a divine activity. The Christian equivalent of a list of virtues, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, is described as ‘fruits of the spirit’. This expression, which seems pretty easy to understand at first reading is notoriously difficult on closer inspection, owing to the ambiguity of the word ‘spirit’, which could mean either God as Holy Spirit or the ‘spirit in which we act’. On either interpretation, I take the expression to mean the results of a work of God’s grace in a person’s life.

This, then, is the New Testament virtue-ethic; an agentcentred ethic: what matters is not merely fulfilling certain commandments, but being a certain kind of person, the person that you can only be with the help of a particular Godgiven religious experience, namely the New Birth.

But how does this solve the problem of reconciling an actcentred ethic with an agent-centred one? As I’ve already intimated, we must not look for a philosophical solution. The Biblical writers didn’t sit down and do a self-consciously philosophical exercise, for this was not what they were concerned with. They were concerned to give practical instruction to disciples of the new Faith. Instead of a breakthrough in philosophy, they sought, and seem to have found, a solution to the question: How do I balance the claims of a historic law whose moral principles I still believe in, against the invitation to live a liberated life whose motivating force will be not a code of rules, but an inner spiritual experience?

This essentially practical project led them to two courses of action. One was to live the new path of virtue, whilst using the standards dictated by the Old Law as reference points by which to check out their progress. A life of virtue would achieve results much the same as if one had succeeded, against all human weakness, in keeping the precepts of the old law.

An example of the way Paul uses the Old Testament to illuminate the New in this way is found in his letter to the Ephesians.3 Urging his readers to ‘be made new in the attitude of your minds’ and ‘put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness’, all of which being good agent-centred stuff, he looks to the old rules for examples of what the new self’s behaviour will be like. The new self will eschew falsehood, and will not steal. (S)he will, indeed, go further than the old law demands. For example, where it demands that we abstain from taking God’s name in vain, the renewed person’s speech will be occupied with “what is helpful for building others up according to their needs.” It was expected, then, that the Christian would have an inner experience that would make a new person of him/her. But to check out whether it was the real thing, you could compare the results with the standards of behaviour expected by the old law. It should at least come up to those standards, since it was aiming at the same objective; a life pleasing to God.

The other course of action was to see the New Testament religious experience as the means to fulfil the objectives of the Old Testament law, in a way that conscious attempts to observe the law itself could not. The Christians saw the old rule-observing way as arduous, painful and ultimately selfdefeating. It was much less painful – and was ultimately more effective – to let your religious experience transform you so that you lived, in effect, the kind of life that the old law had aimed at. The Old Testament law had required obedience to the letter, which we, in our human frailty, could not achieve. The Christian’s new life, on the other hand, offered the opportunity to fulfil God’s moral objectives in spirit. ‘The letter kills’, says Paul, ‘but the spirit gives life.’4 And it gives life by attaining the objectives we sought vainly in legalism. ‘The commandments… are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself”.’ Love does no harm to its neighbour, therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.5

Their solution, then, consisted in raising a creative tension between the two approaches. The Old Testament act-centred approach says: Do certain acts and abstain from certain other acts and you will qualify as righteous in God’s sight, but it leaves the problem: How can we mere mortals live up to this exacting standard? The Christian’s answer is: by letting God work an inward transformation, a gradual renewal that can effect more than unaided human effort could. The New Testament agent-centred approach says: ‘Act in the way that exhibits the virtues which the Holy Spirit develops in you, the way of love, and you will find yourself fulfilling the ideals of the Old Testament.’ and in answer to the question: ‘What do I do if I don’t know what that entails?”, it says: “You can always flash back to the (Old Testament) Scriptures, with their guidelines.’6

In short, they found a place for both approaches. This is something we are not averse to ourselves. At the level of normative ethics, i.e. trying to decide on whether to unplug the life-support machine, on what is the right way to treat our employees and colleagues, on how I should treat my spouse in a certain situation, or perhaps a mere million or so other practical questions, we balance and trade off duty, utility and considerations of virtue, fairness and so forth. If we are philosophers we arrive at this mix at least partly by a process of philosophical enquiry. The early Christians arrived at a similar mix, but from their particular religious experience.

© Bob Harrison 1998

Bob Harrison is a former Pentecostal minister with a philosophy degree from Edinburgh University.

1 Philosophy, January 1958
2 Mary-Anne Warren, Moral Status (OUP 1997) p.51
3 Ephesians 4.22ff
4 II Corinthians 3.6
5 Romans 13.9,10
6 II Timothy 3.16,17


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