The Character Approach
Rather than asking how to decide “What are the rules?” or “What will produce the best results?” in each particular situation, the virtue approach asks, “What type of person should I become?” The assumption is that if a person develops good character, he or she is more likely to do the right/good thing throughout a lifetime of situations. For this reason, it is more an ethics of becoming than of doing.
It also recognizes that knowing what the right thing is — by employing consequential or command ethics — doesn’t ensure you will actually do the right thing. Doing the right thing takes character. Character ethics is developing the habit of doing the right thing along with the ability to know the right thing. It is about how the character of God is shaping our own characters — about whether we are becoming more holy, just and loving people, to name three prominent character traits in the Bible. These are no longer just principles to guide us in our decision-making. These are character attributes that are becoming ingrained in us as default settings. There are several reasons why this is so important.
Firstly, because the way we have been talking about ethical dilemmas until now suggests that we have both the time and the ability to reason our way through some complex issues towards making the right decision. And sometimes we do. But what about most of the time? Are not most of our decisions made in a split second while we are on the run? How do we relate to this person, or sort out that problem, or advise a customer, or motivate an underperforming individual or team?
Secondly, could it be that many of the ethical choices we make are already substantially decided before we make the decision? That our character automatically shapes much of what we decide to do? And 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.
Thirdly, are we really individuals freely making personal decisions, or are our decisions largely shaped by the communities we are part of? Are character and community intertwined with our values in ways that are inseparable when it comes to talking about ethics?
David Cook argues that we rarely make conscious 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 substantially instinctive, then the importance of developing Godly character is strengthened, because we are making so many of our ethical choices automatically. Good people have a greater chance of making good choices.
David Cook, The Moral Maze: A Way of Exploring Christian Ethics (London: SPCK, 1983) 78.
Just as the command and consequence approaches have to determine which commands and consequences are truly good, the character approach has to determine which virtues are good. Aristotle emphasized the classical Greek virtues of justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance. St. Ambrose (339-397) agreed that these were implicit in the Bible, but also added another three specifically “theological” virtues from the Bible — faith, hope and love. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas went on to contrast these virtues with corresponding vices — the ones we know as the seven deadly sins.
Virtue ethics has remained prominent in Catholic thought, but only recently have Protestant theologians started to enthusiastically explore the character approach. Mostly they have looked to the Bible as the source of virtues. We have seen that Alexander Hill identified the biblical virtues of holiness, justice and love as God’s chief virtues. Nonetheless, even he subordinates the virtue approach to the rule approach. He doesn’t say that humans should develop virtues in themselves. Instead, he says people should develop rules in accordance with God’s virtues.
Those Protestant theologians who have tried to identify Christian virtues that humans should cultivate have tended to focus specifically on the life and teaching of Jesus. Stassen and Gushee note:
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.
For Stassen and Gushee, the obvious starting place to consider what specific virtues followers of Jesus should aspire to is the Sermon on the Mount and in particular the Beatitudes. Poverty of spirit, mercy, a thirst/hunger for justice, meekness/humility, peacemaking, compassion — these are some of the key qualities to be nurtured. For Jesus, our actions and behavior are a manifestation of much more fundamental core attitudes, motives and character qualities (Mark 7:21-22). The apostle Paul also emphasizes the importance of character development. For example, in Galatians, Paul exhorts those who belong to Jesus 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).
Jesus is our model. It is his example we are called to imitate. It is his character we are called to develop through the working of his Spirit. These references reflect the overwhelming emphasis the New Testament places on growing the character of Jesus.
Click here for an in-depth discussion of practical applications of the character approach to ethics. After reading it, you will find a link to return here. (Links to the section “How does character develop and grow in our lives?” of the case study.)
Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003) 97.
As Christians, we seek to become like Jesus (1 John 3:2). So we must be acutely aware of the danger we face of “reframing” Jesus’ commandments, desired consequences and character in ways that are less challenging to our own lifestyle and worldview. Remaking Jesus in our own image is a temptation we all face. It is easy, particularly in communities of relative affluence, to unconsciously filter out the enormous social, economic, political and environmental implications of Jesus’ life and teachings, so that all we’re left with is a Jesus who limits himself to addressing a small range of “personal” moral issues. “What Would Jesus Do?” can easily become trivialized. Research suggests that most regular churchgoers only exhibit ethical understandings distinctive from the rest of the population as this relates to a few issues of sexual conduct, personal honesty and the accumulation of wealth. In most other respects, we are shaped more by the values of our culture than the ethics of Jesus.
The encouraging thing about this research is that it does demonstrate clearly that churchgoing does make a difference to our ethical understanding. But sadly, only in a very limited way, because those ethical concerns that are regularly addressed in church exclude most workplace and business ethics issues. Surely the fact that the CEOs of Enron and WorldCom could profess to be devout Christian men with the support of their churches suggests a few blind spots? We must work harder to address more marketplace issues in the way we tell and celebrate and explore the Christian story.
Christian character does not develop just as a result of individual transformation. It is in the context of community that such character is primarily nurtured. As Benjamin Farley writes:
The New Testament, in concert with the Hebrew Bible, emphasizes the indispensable context of the believing community….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.
We are much more likely to become people of virtue when we are committed to a community that seeks to retell, understand, embrace and live out the gospel story - especially where these communities are themselves committed to discovering a clearer picture of the character of Jesus, and asking the hard and uncomfortable questions that help us to 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 un-Christian ways.
These are the conclusions of Robin Gill in his book, Churchgoing and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) and are also supported by comparisons with New Zealand Values Surveys according to Alistair Mackenzie, “Evangelicals and Business Ethics: The Church” in Stimulus, Vol. 14, No.1 (February 2006) 2-9.
Benjamin Farley, In Praise of Virtue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 100.