On Virtue and Values – I

I’ll be coming back to Friendship shortly…
In the meantime I have a commission to write a briefing on the operation of ‘Virtue’ and ‘Values’ within Christian corporate ethics. I’m interested in some feedback.


Anzac Memorial Sydney - Unknown Soldier

“When virtue has slept, it will arise all the more vigorous.”

Ah Friedrich!

Darkly funny,
Cuttingly Accurate,
… and horribly disturbing if it is taken to be a normative statement.

Also, profoundly unhelpful as a starting point from which to seek any positive appraisal of the concept of ‘Virtue’.
The virtue that sleeps is not virtuous.

Let’s ignore him…

The term virtue has etymological roots in the Latin vir meaning ‘man’. Virtue originally carried with it connotations of manliness and virility. As with all things Latin, a great deal of the philosophical underpinnings of Virtue, were borrowed from Greece. Particularly the Greek philosophical notion of ‘ἀρετη’ – (moral) excellence.

Certainly, if you read the bearded moralists of antiquity, you get a strong sense that when they talk about ‘moral excellence’ they envisage a Man, ten feet tall and able to grind walnuts into flour with his pectoral muscles.
If he has any weakness, it will be in the ankle region – the Spectre of the godlike Achilles flits around the outside of every Greek ethical symposium.
Greeks love Heroes.

However camp it may have been in practice, Greek ethical reasoning bequeathed to us (via Christianity) a framework for thinking about morality and ‘the good’ in terms of qualities of the individual. This has had important consequences for later ethical thought.
Certainly, Nietzsche gets some of his oomph from drawing on these roots. (He’s hard to ignore)

Virtues are generally thought of as, ‘objective goods’. Although ‘wisdom’, or ‘courage’ are qualities of the individual person – ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Courage’ are complex, objective patterns of behaviour to which the individual conforms. All wise people, and all courageous people share a likeness, in that they are particular examples of Wisdom, or Courage. Simply put, the individual doesn’t decide what makes up ‘Being Virtuous’.

Virtues are objectively determined – in Platonic thought through a hierarchy of generality ascending to that which is simply ‘The Good’. Yet, even without buying into a Platonic theory of universals, an ethical theory based on Virtue will generally regard ethical ‘goods’ as qualities of an individual while agreeing that these ‘goods’ are (to various degrees) defined independently of the individual.

The focus on individual qualities tends to move the focus of ethical reasoning from ‘action’ to ‘character’. Rather than asking, ‘is clubbing baby fur seals right or wrong?’ one is led to consider, ‘is this an activity of a Virtuous Man?’

This does not mean that Virtue is unconcerned with relationship, or has no corporate dimension. In fact, it may be that Virtue may include the quality of living in rightly ordered relations with God and other people. However, even in this context, our ethical interest is still in the character of the individual person.

In modern usage, talking about ‘Virtue’ sounds weird. It’s rare terminology outside universities and theological colleges. However, some of the concepts have carried over into our popular modern language about ethics. In particular, we are familiar with discussing someone’s ‘character’ or ‘character traits’. What we mean by ‘character’ can vary according to whether we adopt a psychological, sociological, spiritual framework, but the core sense of ‘qualities of a person’ remains.

Coming Up:
The Virtues of Virtue:
What good do we get out of using Virtue as a paradigm for our ethics?
… is that a cheeky question?