Every person makes ethical choices, and they do so using an ethical model they have either intentionally chosen or thoughtlessly inherited. Here, we are not speaking about the standard of right and wrong, but rather how that standard is applied to a difficult choice. Are we expected to assess the amount of good in every choice’s consequence and choose the least evil outcome (utilitarian ethics)? Are we to look for a divine command which addresses our specific situation or else reinterpret divine commands about other situations to fit our own (deontological ethics)? Or are we to look to moral exemplars who model good choices for us, asking ourselves, “Which choice will make me more like them?"
This last kind of ethical model is called virtue ethics, or aretaic ethics (from arete, the Greek term for virtue and excellence). The idea is very ancient, though it has enjoyed a more recent revival. The idea is that human civilization has given us models for conduct. These moral heroes have demonstrated how to walk in the virtues, excellent characteristics that lie in the mean between extremes.
Aristotle would explain it as follows:
"Virtue is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us which is determined by a rational principle. The man of practical wisdom determines things according to that principle. Now it is a mean between two vices, that depends on excess and on defect. Again, it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate." (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 2.6)
Like a work of art, virtue is attained when nothing can be added or taken away without diminishing the result. Courage, for example, is the perfect balance between being foolhardy on the one side and being cowardly on the other. It is this type of thinking to which Solomon alludes in his enigmatic quip in Ecclesiastes:
"In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them." (Ecclesiastes 7:15-18)
If “righteousness” simply means “good” in this text, it seems silly to worry about being too good. I, for one, have never had the problem of being "too good." However, if instead “righteousness” means the virtue of justice, as it often does, then the text points toward the mean. A person can pursue justice to an extreme, an unhealthy end of merciless vengeance. This person might have the appearance of wisdom in knowing all the answers to every riddle, but they would lack the ability to sympathize with another person in their faults. Likewise, a person may ignore justice, an extreme here called wickedness and foolishness. Solomon instructs us to grasp the virtue in the center, true justice, capable of mercy, rather than the extreme, “for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.” This is precisely the kind of justice described in Psalm 72, where a king can both be just (v. 1-3) and show pity to the needy (v. 12-14).
More importantly, these virtues are characteristics, not merely choices. While no decision is insignificant, virtue ethics remembers that the goal is to become something good, not simply to choose good on an occasion. As Aquinas states, “a virtue is a habit by which we work well” (Aquinas, Summa II.56.1). Rather than asking if a choice is right in one instance, we ask, what would we become if our lives were shaped by doing this? The question is essential because the premise is true. We are indeed shaped over time by our conduct and choices. A picture is being painted, and virtue ethics asks us to consider what is being rendered before we evaluate individual brushstrokes.
The Cardinal & Christian Virtues
So what are these virtues? While vices are many, virtues are few. Aristotle claims there are many ways to be bad, but only one way to be good. Still, how characteristics can be discussed is lengthy, prompting the ancient philosophers to narrow the list to four cardinal virtues by which all others are guided. Plato has Socrates listing them as being “wise, brave, sober, and just” (Plato, Republic 427e). In the apocryphal Book of Wisdom, we see a Jewish author endorsing the ethical model and also giving a similar list: “And if anyone loves righteousness, her labours are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for mortals than these” (8:7).
However, with the rise of Christianity came a reevaluation of the virtue model. Rather than a culturally constructed “good man” handed down through the ages, Christianity set forward Jesus of Nazareth as the perfect man sent by God. While modeling virtue was not his chief concern as savior and lord, his life is certainly the ideal of human goodness and worthy of imitation.
Augustine notably takes the teachings of Christ and shows how they illuminate the virtues through the doctrine of love.
“As to virtue leading us to a happy life, I hold virtue to be nothing else than the perfect love of God. For the fourfold division of virtue, I regard it as taken from four forms of love. For these four virtues (would that all felt their influence in their minds as they have their names in their mouths!), I should have no hesitation in defining them: that temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it. The object of this love is not anything, but only God, the chief good, the highest wisdom, the perfect harmony. So we may express the definition thus: that temperance is love keeping itself entire and incorrupt for God; fortitude is love bearing everything readily for the sake of God; justice is love serving God only, and therefore ruling well all else, as subject to man; prudence is love making a right distinction between what helps it towards God and what might hinder it.” (Augustine, De Moribus Ecclesiae, XV)
Thomas Aquinas will go a bit further, adding that Christianity has given us three additional virtues, which bring the list of four to a perfect seven. He believed that the four cardinal virtues were human virtues, but that the person and teachings of Christ and his Church brought humanity to know something more, divine virtues which shaped us not as merely the best of humans, but also fully into the image of God. “Faith, hope, and charity are superhuman virtues: for they are virtues of man as sharing in the grace of God” (Aquinas, Summa II.58.3). C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity would much later pick up on this point, “The ‘Cardinal’ ones are those which all civilized people recognize: the ‘Theological’ are those which, as a rule, only Christians know about."
Why Virtues Must Be Taught
There is absolutely nothing wrong (and quite a lot right) with looking for a commandment from God to answer a moral dilemma. The problem that God himself knew full well is that no book could ever contain a list of rules sufficiently long to answer every murky ethical plight into which humans would stumble. God has supplied us with a book that is primarily unencumbered by rules and instead inundated with stories and principles to guide and shape a person. The New Testament offers us four Gospels as a living Torah, the man Christ Jesus, who could, in addition to being savior and lord, be the perfect man, the model of virtue.
In our rapidly changing age, we desperately need to return to this method of teaching character to our youth. Topical and issue-driven teaching is outdated as soon as the ink dries. The moral mess of our children’s future is beyond imagination. Just as a moral teacher a few decades ago could not have anticipated the gender confusion of our current era, we cannot predict where the next crisis will emerge. Even setting that aside, we cannot know how these broader social battles will play out in the life of one individual trying to live a moral life.
All we can know for sure is that the virtues of Jesus of Nazareth create the image of God in any age and any person. Teaching Him is preparing the heart and mind to respond to whatever lies ahead.
Ben Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.