Ethics I: The Efficacy of Christian Virtue Ethics in a Postmodern Culture

“…man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.”

-Mythopoeia, J.R.R. Tolkien

For Americans living in the 21st century, especially for those born in or just prior to it, it has become increasingly difficult to disentangle the idea of Christianity from the bastions of its Evangelical, Catholic, and even Orthodox proponents, from whom it has borne too much hypocrisy for many to reconcile with their personal moral systems.

For example,

  • Historical justification of genocide (Massacre of the Latins, the Crusades, etc.)
  • Historical justification of slavery (primarily U.S.-centric; up to the dissolution of slavery in 1865)
  • Historical justification of bigotry (segregation, Jim Crow, misogyny, Islamaphobia, homophobia, transphobia, etc.)
  • The corrupt covering of innumerable sins for personal benefit (sexual misconduct of priests & pastors, Evangelical backing of President Trump, etc.)

I will state here, foremost and unequivocally, that these are grave sins for which there remains and will remain deep regret. Those who appropriate the Church for misdeed, most especially violence against the innocent, should be treated with great scorn. Those of them which rest in such unconfessed enmity with God will face the due price for their iniquities in this life or the next.

However, knowledge, as idea rather than as conscious actor, cannot by its own capabilities prevent its misuse, and the failures of its practitioners cannot be utilized as evidence of its falsity. To that end, religious ethical theories must be weighed on the same scale as their opposition: one of merit.

It must first be stated that every moral schema demands a frame of reference by which it may be metaphysically grounded, some immutable precept to which it can appeal to validate its every exercise.

For the virtue ethics of the ancient Greek Academy, first espoused in its fullest form by Socrates, his pupil Plato, and his pupil Aristotle, the virtues as we know them, like all objects and ideas, find their bases in the eternal metaphysical plane of Forms. To explain further via a popular example, take a tree. When you interact with an individual tree, you are not experiencing the objective reality of that tree but only the impressions its “treeness" makes upon your senses. Similarly, though in no mortal man can we discern full moral perfection, we can bear witness to his subjective actualization of objective virtue.

Christian ethicists thusly draw upon this principle and specialize it, attributing primacy to those virtues espoused by and congruent with the faith. This act cannot merely be seen as a reflection of personal agency or of the effect of these virtues upon the communal good; just as much as virtuous action flows from a virtuous person, so too does that very virtue, to which a person can ascribe, flow directly from its primordiality, God.

Currently, the greatest, and most well-established, opponent to virtue ethics is consequentialism, typically discussed in terms of one of its more prominent subgroups, utilitarianism. The ideology of utilitarianism argues that an action is right if and only if it improves the overall happiness of the majority.

In light of this claim, I find it prudent to raise several questions of objection.

  1. To what extent should happiness be equated with good, and vice versa? How ought we define happiness, and how can it be quantified?
  2. If the happiness of the many prevails by tyranny through the subjugation of the few, then what recourse is available to the minority? Is their happiness less important?
  3. As consequences may not be immediately calculable, must we judge the goodness of actions simply by the tendency of positive result?
  4. If ethical methodologies are to remain consistent across time and space even as science and society evolve, an appeal must be made to some form of moral impulse. Is this not in and of itself an admission of an objective virtue?

These are questions of considerable difficulty with which many utilitarians have struggled over time. Many resolutions have been proposed over time, with varying degrees of success, but valid criticism remains. In an attempt to play devil’s advocate (and because I do not find utilitarianism completely incompatible with virtue ethicism), I will do my best to answer these questions, with which I will include the further criticism of those answers, and so on and so forth. For these same purposes, I do not wish to perpetuate a false dichotomy between virtue ethicism and utilitarianism, as if they are the only options, nor do I wish to misconstrue Christianity as a naturally evident logical leap from virtue ethicism (I’ll cover that in more detail later). As well, there is scholarly disagreement on into which category of ethical theory Aristotle ought to be placed, for some utilitarians draw on his work for support.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you in Part II!