Virtue ethics is one of the theories of normative ethics. Normative ethics is the study of what makes an action morally right or wrong. There are several other theories of normative ethics. Deontology teaches that the morality of actions depends on if those actions obey established rules or laws. Consequentialism takes into account the end result of the action and says an act can only be moral if the real or intended result of the act is good. In Pragmatism, cultural influences must be taken into account as well as the latest in scientific discovery. Virtue ethics bills itself as a separate and older theory—originating in Aristotle—but careful consideration will show it embodies the basics of all of the other three secular theories.
In virtue ethics, the morality of actions is based on the character of the person; a virtuous person will naturally act ethically. It is not enough to do an act that benefits another or to act with altruistic purposes. The act must come from a good and righteous character. And a good and righteous character comes from the deliberate practice of three core virtues.
Arête - excellence or virtue
Virtue ethics teaches that the very character of a person can be virtuous. Not that the acting agent has a habit of not lying, but that his core disposition is to be honest. His emotions, honest reactions, preferences, values, wishes, and intents are characterized by virtue. His actions are informed by his complete nature; he can be honest and kind, generous and responsible, have high expectations of others but still be forgiving of shortfalls. And to be fully virtuous is to act on all these good characteristics readily, willingly, and with a good attitude.
Arête parallels moral absolutism in that they both teach that the cosmos contains actions that are absolutely right and wrong. The major difference is that virtue ethics actually lists those virtues. Arête includes justice, self-control, and honesty. It is dependent on the manifestation of excellence in the nature of something; arête of a man and arête of a dog are different. In that regard, it is very similar to natural law. And, like Kantian deontology, virtue ethics emphasizes that the morality of the action has as much to do with the intent of the agent as with the action itself.
Phronesis - moral or practical wisdom
A person can be compassionate, giving, and courageous and still not be fully virtuous. True virtue requires knowing how to use good qualities to their best effect. Someone with practical wisdom will know what is needed, how to most effectively meet those needs, and what end result is best for all involved. It goes beyond good intentions and into a working knowledge of how to get things done. This wisdom is usually gained only with experience and the ability to prioritize needs, wants, and desired results.
This is similar to pragmatic relativism. Pragmatism teaches that an action can be good in one circumstance and harmful in another. Only careful consideration of the culture, the situation, and the latest scientific discoveries can really reveal the right course of action. Knowing what is good is not enough if we do not know how to apply that good to a given situation.
Eudaimonia - happiness, flourishing, well-being Eudaimonia is what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said, "…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It does not mean gluttonous pleasure. It is not a subjective or a self-determined quality. Eudaimonia is the good life, a life that is characterized by virtue because virtue is necessary for a truly good life. But while eudaimonia is dependent on a virtuous and wise nature, it can be thwarted by bad luck or circumstances outside the control of the acting agent.
Of course, eudaimonia is similar to consequentialism; the morality of a virtuous act, performed appropriately, is called into question if the results are harmful or wrong. But where eudaimonia explains specifically that a moral act contributes to happiness, flourishing, and well-being, consequentialism says that a moral act results in "good" and then argues over what "good" means.
The Bible agrees with virtue ethics for the most part. We are not only called to act rightly (1 Peter 1:15), we are called to be sanctified, body, soul, and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Proverbs is an entire book dedicated to the value of phronesis in daily life. And Psalm 119:1 speaks directly of the connection between morality and well-being: "Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!"
The strongest correlation between virtue ethics and Christian ethics can be found in Luke 6:43-45: "For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks." But we have to remember that we are still influenced by our fallen nature (Romans 7:20) so we cannot completely rely on a good character to tell us how to act; we must also depend on God's Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
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