The Character Approach
The two main approaches to decision-making that Wayne has made use of for analyzing his car-dealing dilemma so far — commands and consequences — concern themselves with the morality of the action/choice itself. 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 mold 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 recognizes 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.
Previously we’ve thought through the ways in which understanding God’s character might shape how we make our decisions. (We’ve especially looked at God’s love, justice and holiness.) The aim was to see how we might use those characteristics as a grid through which to determine right decisions. That fell under the command approach because we were trying to follow God’s character, not to form it! In the character approach, we ask how our actions will form or shape our characters. To do so, let’s subtly change the emphasis. Let’s look at how God’s character is shaping our characters. As Christians, our aim is to become more holy, just and loving people, so that these characteristics becoming ingrained in us as default settings.
To repeat, this is not just about the character of God anymore. Now the emphasis is on our characters.
There are several reasons why this is so important. Firstly, the way we have been talking about ethical dilemmas so far suggests a rather idealized decision making process, where we have both the time and the ability to reason our way through complex issues towards our decision. And sometimes we do. But most of our decisions are 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. It would be much more effective if we could depend on ingrained character traits or virtues to lead us instinctively to right decisions and actions.
Secondly, could it be that many of our ethical choices are already substantially decided before we make the decision? In other words, our characters automatically shape much of what we decide to do. Even when we do have time to think through a decision carefully, our decisions tend to be strongly influenced by our habits and characters, for better or worse. 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. Iris Murdoch has said, “At crucial moments of choice, most of the business of choosing is already over.”
Thirdly, the character-based approach makes it easier to take into account the role of the community in ethical formation and decisions. Although we often perceive ourselves as individuals freely making personal decisions, our decisions can be shaped significantly by our communities. As we shall see, the character-based approach is often more effective at making use of the ethical resources our communities can offer.
For these reasons, some people believe that rather than focusing on good decision-making, we would do better to concentrate on developing good character. They claim that when virtue and goodness are grown in our lives, good decisions will automatically follow.
Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge, 1970) 37.
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, said that these were implicit in the Bible, but also added another three specifically biblical (or “theological”) virtues — faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13). As far back as the sixth century, Pope 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.”
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 answer to this, and 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 modeled 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 behaviors he especially values. Poverty of spirit, mercy, a thirst and hunger for justice, meekness/humility, peacemaking, compassion (Matthew 5:1-12) — 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).
The early church was quick to pick up on the importance of imitating Jesus. Take 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). 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).
Christ then is our example and model. It is his character that we are called to develop. These references reflect the overwhelming emphasis the New Testament places on growing the character of Jesus.
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.
Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.
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.
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.
For example, the dominant story in American culture for many years has been the self-directed individual who breaks free from the oppression of social conformity. From Frank Sinatra singing, “My Way” to the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean” (to name just one — since most Hollywood movies are variations on this story) to the popularity of Babe Ruth, the dominant story is the triumph of the individual’s inner personality over the crushing burden of social expectations. It can be interesting to read the newspaper and trace how the event and the paper’s reporting of it are related to this dominant story, whether for worse or for better.
Clearly, for Christians the Bible provides our primary narrative. It is also a story of the triumph of an individual — Jesus — over the oppression of society. But Jesus repeatedly denies being self-directed. Instead he says his direction comes from outside, namely from God (e.g., John 12:49-50). And we are to become like Jesus (1 John 3:2). The story of Scripture reminds us of the people we are created by God to become and how God’s perspectives and values should shape our life in the world. It’s 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 of 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, and where the story of self-directed triumph is accepted 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 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.
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Benjamin Farley, In Praise of Virtue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 100.
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.
If you came here from the Systematic Presentation article on ethics and would like to return to where you left, click here to return to the Systematic Presentation. Otherwise, keep reading below.