Chapter 4: Character Counts When Making Decisions
“At crucial moments of choice, most of the business of choosing is already over.”
The two main approaches to decision-making we have looked at so far, and that Wayne has made use of for analysing his car-dealing dilemma, are concerned with the morality of the action/choice.
However, there is another way of considering ethical choices – one that doesn’t focus on the action but rather on the person making the decision. This is often called “virtue” or “character” ethics, because its chief concern is the character of the person performing the action.
Rather than asking, “What is right?” or “What will produce the best results?” the virtue approach asks, “What type of person should I become?” The assumption is that if you mould your character more and more on God’s character, this will increasingly lead to doing the right/good thing. For this reason, it is more an ethics of being than of doing.
It also recognises a flaw in the process that all of us are only too aware of. Knowing what the right thing is doesn’t ensure that the right thing is done! This is because it takes character to do the right thing.
In previous chapters we’ve thought through the ways in which understanding God’s character might shape how we make our decisions. (We’ve especially looked at his love, justice and holiness.) The aim was to see how we might use those characteristics as a grid through which to determine right decisions. Let’s now subtly change the emphasis. Let’s look at how God’s character is shaping our character. As Christians our aim is to become more holy, just and loving people. So are these characteristics becoming ingrained in us as “default settings”?
Notice: this is not just about the character of God any more. Now the emphasis is on whether these attributes also describe us.
There are several reasons why this is so important. First, the way we have been talking about ethical dilemmas so far suggests a rather idealized world – a world where we have both the time and the ability to reason our way through complex issues towards our decision. And sometimes we do. But what about all the other occasions? Are not most of our decisions made in a split second while we are on the run? How we respond to a complaint from our boss, or sort out a misunderstanding with a customer, or advise an inexperienced shopper, or motivate an underperforming team – these steps are often taken without much thinking at all.
Second, could it be that many of our ethical choices are already substantially decided before we make the decision? In other words, our character automatically shapes much of what we decide to do. Because of this, our ethical decisions are largely determined by who we are (the type of character and values we’ve embodied), rather than what decision-making process we employ.
Third, are we really just individuals freely making personal decisions, or are the decisions significantly shaped by the communities we are part of? We’d like to suggest that character and community and values are intertwined inseparably when it comes to talking about ethics.
For these reasons, some people believe that rather than focusing on good decision-making, we would be better to concentrate on developing good character. They claim that when virtue and goodness are grown in our lives, good decisions will automatically follow.
The truth is, says David Cook, we rarely make moral decisions. Most times we don’t think about the moral dilemma but simply respond to it. If this is the case and our reactions are mostly instinctive, then developing godly character is even more critical, because we are making so many of our ethical choices automatically. “Good” people have a greater chance of making “good” choices.
If developing character and virtue are so important, then there are several key questions we have to grapple with. They are:
- How do we define a virtue?
- Who actually determines what is virtuous?
- How do virtues actually develop?
The first of these questions is probably the easiest to answer. The Oxford Dictionary defines “virtue” as “a quality considered morally good or desirable”. Every culture values certain qualities highly. In their context they are considered virtuous.
But the second question regarding who exactly determines what particular qualities are good, is a little more complex. Over the years many philosophers, theologians and thinkers have attempted to list and define virtues.
For example, Aristotle emphasized the classical Greek virtues of justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance. Ambrose (339-397), an early Christian leader, agreed that these were implicit in the Bible, but also added another three specifically biblical virtues – faith, hope and love.
As far back as the sixth century, Gregory the Great contrasted these seven virtues with corresponding vices – the ones we now know as the “seven deadly sins”.
It is only recently that Protestant theologians have begun to seriously explore virtues. Glen Stassen and David Gushee suggest that, “virtues are character traits that enable us to contribute (positively) to community.” One inference of this is that it’s the society we’re a part of that ultimately determines what particular attitudes and behaviour are virtuous. It figures then that what is virtuous is significantly governed by the values and worldview of our surrounding culture.
So what does this mean for those of us who follow Jesus? Who or what should determine for us what is virtuous?
Clearly the Bible is the short answer to this. However, within the Scriptures, we suggest that the focal point for determining Christian virtues should be the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus is our most visible expression of God’s character. So if we want to know what virtues to develop, observing the qualities Jesus modelled and talked about is our best starting point. We agree with Stassen and Gushee who note that:
The Bible is not flat; Christ is its peak and its center. No moral issue should be addressed apart from consideration of the meaning of Jesus Christ for reflection on that issue.
The largest body of Jesus’ ethical teaching is contained in the Sermon on the Mount. This is a good place to start if we are seeking to consider what specific virtues followers of Jesus should aspire to.
To be even more focused, it’s in the Beatitudes that Jesus shines the spotlight on key virtues – the qualities and behaviours he especially values. Poverty of spirit, mercy, a thirst and hunger for justice, meekness/humility, peacemaking, compassion – these, it seems, should be our prime goals.
Repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus links our actions directly to our character – to our core attitudes and motives. Other comments by Jesus throughout the Gospels reinforce this connection. For example, “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice…” (Mark 7:21-22 NRSV).
The early church was quick to pick up on the importance of imitating Jesus. Take for example, the writings of Paul, where we find a significant emphasis on character development. For example, he exhorts the Galatians not to gratify the desires of “the flesh” but rather to allow the Spirit to grow “fruit” such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5: 16-25 NRSV.) To the Philippians Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves … Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:3-5 NRSV.)
Christ then is our example and model. It is his character we are called to develop. These references reflect the overwhelming emphasis the New Testament places on growing the character of Jesus.
All this talk about virtues has got Wayne a little confused. It’s hard to evaluate how your own character is developing. In fact, true character is probably more accurately measured by the observation of others than from our own analysis.
However, Wayne has been aware all through his decision-making process of a significant reaction. Rather than finding it easy to resist the customer’s complaint about the car and the request to fix it, his heart has gone out to the customer. Wayne genuinely wants to respond in a way that expresses care and concern. In fact, looking back over the slow but real development of Christian character through his lifetime, he especially recognizes (and values) a growth in compassion, kindness and generosity.
The result is he finds himself wanting to respond positively to the customer’s request in a way that many others might not. So, when Wayne begins to calculate the consequences, it is more about how far he can afford to go in providing assistance rather than how he can resist the customer’s request. It seems that his default setting has already been defined by values that are shaping his character.
The third key question to consider when thinking about virtues is, “How do they actually develop?”
We all know people whose lives exude character. The way they work in the marketplace seems to have integrity or consistency with the rest of their lives. But just exactly how have they become people of such character?
In our highly individualistic culture it’s easy to presume that this has largely occurred as a result of the person’s strong commitment to Christ, a rigorous discipline and piety, and a desire to grow the character of Jesus in his or her life.
However, while these elements are clearly important, and the Holy Spirit certainly does transform us in deeply personal ways, such change rarely occurs outside of a wider context. Both MacIntyre and Hauerwas (two recent advocates of virtue ethics) emphasize the huge role that community plays in shaping and embodying the virtuous life. In fact, they suggest that the telling of stories (narratives) of a particular community is a primary shaper of a group’s character. Stories engage our imaginations and get us involved in ways that are often self-revealing. They have power to help develop both character and community.
Clearly for Christians the Bible provides our primary narrative. The story of Scripture reminds us of the people we are intended to become and the perspectives and values that should shape our life in the world. It’s also a story that we can find ourselves within, and one that invites responses from us with profound moral implications.
For Hauerwas, Stassen and Gushee, the specific story most critical to Christians is the story of Jesus, whose character and virtues are what we are called to emulate.
But the gospel narrative does not reach us in sharp focus. Despite ourselves we absorb it through a filter – the filter of our culture and of our faith community. The way we retell this story, what virtues we emphasize, what failures we highlight, and how we encourage one another to nurture the habits and practices it describes – all these have a significant impact on how we grow in virtue.
In fact, we need to be acutely aware of the tendency of all faith communities to “reframe” Jesus in ways that are less challenging to their own lifestyle and worldview. Making Jesus into our own image is a temptation we all face. Western churches of today live in a society where wealth and affluence are widespread, to a degree unknown ever before in history. The danger we face is to unconsciously filter out the enormous social, economic, political and environmental implications of Jesus’ life and teachings. When that happens, as it sadly often does, all we are left with in our faith-community narratives is a Jesus who limits himself to addressing a small range of personal moral issues.
This is not the Jesus of the Gospels. For Jesus models and teaches, as Jim Wallis would say, a “consistent ethic of life”, not one severely truncated and restricted to issues of sexual conduct and personal honesty – however important those might be. The ethics of Jesus encompass so much more.
So godly character does not just occur as a result of individual transformation. It is in the context of community that such character is primarily nurtured and developed. And that community must find ways to expose the inevitable blind spots of its “take” on Jesus. As Benjamin Farley writes:
…the New Testament, in concert with the Hebrew Bible, emphasizes the indispensable context of the believing community, which, in this instance, is the church, the ekklesia. It is within this nurturing context of faith, hope and love…that the Christian life, as a process, unfolds. It is never a matter of the individual alone, pitted against an alien and hostile culture, that constitutes the epicenter of Christian moral action. 
A good example of how our community’s story can shape character is the inspiring account of a village called Le Chambon, in France. During the Nazi occupation in the Second World War, the people of this relatively small community rescued thousands of Jewish children by taking them into their homes, hiding them from the authorities, and guiding many across the dangerous countryside to safety in neutral Switzerland. This rescue mission was “led” by Andre and Magda Trocme – the pastors of the Huguenot Protestant church in the village.
However, the terms “led” or “organized” are really too strong to describe what actually happened. Philip Hallie conducted interviews with surviving villagers some thirty years after the war. One of the intriguing aspects he uncovered is how naturally the acts of hospitality and refuge occurred. There did not seem to be anything particularly premeditated, nor highly organized, about the decision to rescue – at least, not initially. And the villagers did not consider themselves particularly virtuous for acting in such a way.
In fact, they were doing no more than acting out of their character and values – not just as individuals, but as a community. Most villagers were descendants of the Huguenots, a heavily persecuted Protestant sect who for centuries had been hounded across Europe. They understood what it was like to be persecuted and to be refugees, not wanted wherever they went. This was part of their story – and indeed they held an annual ceremony to commemorate their Huguenot ancestors. The virtues of mercy, compassion, hospitality and non-violence which their community embodied were surely no accident. They had grown and shaped them through the regular retelling of their story, along with their immersion in the wider gospel narratives.
With the Trocmes leading by example, it was hardly surprising that the residents of Le Chambon would embrace such a risky rescue mission with little thought as to whether it was the right or even the wisest thing to do. These character traits had become part of them. As a result the “decision” to respond to such a situation was largely instinctive and automatic.
And of course, the more they chose to extend care to these children, the more this habitual practice continued to shape and reinforce their character.
Virtue ethics has important lessons to teach us:
Making ethical decisions in the marketplace is much more than developing a good decision-making process. It’s even more than agreeing to a “Code of Ethics”. Who we are becoming will substantially shape our ethical choices.
We cannot develop God’s character alone. We need others. When we are committed to a community seeking to retell, understand, embrace and live out the gospel story, we are much more likely to become people of virtue. And the world of business certainly needs people of character.
Such communities must find ways of discovering a clearer picture of the character of Jesus, of asking the hard and uncomfortable questions that help us confront our limited view of the virtuous life. When this happens we are less likely to duplicate the many sad examples of Christians doing business in a thoroughly sub-Christian manner.
1. Make a list of virtues/qualities that the New Testament identifies as being Christ-like. Some passages (several of which we’ve mentioned in this chapter) that might guide your study could be:
Matthew, chapters 5,6,7
I Corinthians, chapter 13
Galatians, chapter 5
Philippians, chapter 2
2. In what ways is God’s character actively growing in your life?
3. Who have been the significant role models (those followers of Jesus who embody and reflect something of the character of Jesus) in your life?
In what contexts have you been able to observe these men and/or women?
Which of your role models are extensively involved in the marketplace (business, politics, education, etc.)?
In what ways has observing them in work contexts helped you to understand more clearly how it might look to live like Jesus in the marketplace?
4. What context/s of Christian community are you currently a part of? Do you feel these contexts are helping you grow into the image of Jesus? In what ways is this happening? Could it happen better?
5. Do you currently meet regularly with any other Jesus-followers, with the specific intention of helping each other learn how to let your faith shape your behaviour at work, and/or to assist one another to discuss specific ethical issues? Are there others you can think of who might share your readiness to do this?
5. The role of a community is obviously not the only significant factor in growing character in our lives. What are other key stimuli to developing virtue and becoming like Jesus?
David Cook, The Moral Maze: a way of exploring Christian ethics (London: SPCK, 1983), 78.
The history of the word “virtue” demonstrates this cultural leaning. Our English word comes from the Latin virtus, which itself comes from the word vir meaning “man, male”. The Romans during the early, formative years of their nation needed to survive in a world of invading conquerors. The result is that their word virtus can be translated either “virtue” or “courage”. So virtue to those early Romans was manliness and the willingness to defend their families and homes.
Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IVP, 2003).
Benjamin Farley, In Praise of Virtue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 100.
Philip Hallie’s book is entitled, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and how Goodness Happened There (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).