What is a Virtue?

One of the difficult pleasures of thinking through writing is reading back over what you have written.
It’s pleasurable, in that I can see the way in which ideas have coalesced and materialised on the page.
It’s difficult in that I go too far, say too much, and end up disagreeing with myself.

So I’m taking a couple of steps back with our discussion of virtue and values. Not because I disagree with where I was heading, but because I need to go more carefully and clearly.

I’ve been asked to help clarify the meaning of the terms ‘virtue’ and ‘values’ within a corporate ethical environment.
How are these terms distinguished?
How or when would someone apply ‘virtues’ over ‘values’?
What are appropriate virtues or values for a Christian organisation?

These questions lead naturally to the need to formulate a thoroughgoing Christian corporate ethical framework, which is itself part of an overarching explanation of ethical being in a theologically centred world.

I don’t want those dizzying heights to overawe the relatively simple questions I have in front of me. And yet, I do want to get out the ol’ ice-pick and have a swing at Mt Everest.

For now, I’m going back to the beginning. I’m trying to clearly distinguish ‘virtues’ from ‘values’.
Starting with virtues.

Distinguishing Virtues and Values:
The terms ‘virtue’ and ‘value’ represent broadly differing ethical traditions within Western culture. The use of the term ‘virtue’ in ethical judgement predates ‘value’ by at least two millennia, yet the roots of the concept represented by our idea of ‘value’ are almost certainly equally ancient.

The concept of ‘virtue’ within ethics traces its lineage back to the classical Greek philosophy of Aristotle. Through the influence of Greek thought upon early and medieval Christian theologians virtue became the dominant way of talking about ethical behaviour within Christian societies. It is still quite common for people to connect ‘virtue’ with a specifically Christian morality. In contrast, the Bible itself rarely speaks of Christian ethical behaviour using ‘virtue’ language.
The rise of Modernism throughout Europe and its satellite societies brought with it influential alternatives to the ethical concept of ‘virtue’. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, ‘virtue’ fell into disuse outside specifically Christian (and more often Catholic) circles. However, ‘Virtue Ethics’ has experienced a significant revival since the 1950’s, particularly in the work of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his work, After Virtue.

What is ‘Virtue’?
Virtue Ethics primarily focusses on the character of the individual – what we call the ‘Ethical Subject’. This is in noted contrast with other ethical theories which tend to focus on either the nature of the action being performed, or the goal to which the action is directed. For Virtue Ethics, an act is virtuous if it follows the pattern of behaviour expected of a Virtuous person. GrowingAlthough that might sound circular, the intent is to place the Ethical Subject at the forefront of our consideration.
Even with this united concern for the Ethical Subject, the question of how virtues themselves are determined has been answered differently by different thinkers. Aristotle set the course of the discussion by observing that every being has a finished form towards which it moves – like an acorn developing into an Oak tree. He argued that Humans are like acorns, in that we too have a finished form towards which we move. Aristotle observed that we grow and develop in understanding of the world and our ability to control ourselves and the environment, and from this he reasoned that the final form of the human must be something very like a Philosopher – capable of reasoning, apprehending the truth, and controlling him or her self (it’s been remarked that this sounds a little self-serving).

For Aristotle then, a Virtue was a way of acting in accordance with our finished form. It is a way of acting in the direction toward which we are growing. It is a virtue of acorns to spread out leaves and put down roots, an acorn that doesn’t get around to doing this isn’t much good. Likewise for people, it is virtuous to use our reason, to control ourselves, to understand our environment, and so on.

Other Virtue Ethicists have broadly adopted Aristotle’s approach, while moving away from his biological determinism. Someone like MacIntyre would argue that the finished form of a human being isn’t written into our DNA but is decided by the cultural community in which we participate. The notion of a ‘virtuous person’ is a product of our complex beliefs, hopes, and dreams about what makes a person complete and truly human. This model of the virtuous person is the ideal toward which we seek to move, and when we act in a way that takes us toward that ideal or is consistent with that ideal, we are being virtuous.

What then is ‘Virtue’? Virtue is a quality of a person’s being. When we speak about virtue we are generally concerned with a particular quality or aspect of Being. When we apply this to a person, we generally mean something about his or her ‘character’, his or her moral mode of being in the world.
For now, let’s envisage virtue as being something akin to ‘good character traits’.

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One thought on “What is a Virtue?

  1. Hey Dan – thanks for your insight. Did I understand you right as saying that the Christian calling (e.g. Eph 4:1-16) is a virtue in the Aristotelian sense?

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