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What is virtue ethics?

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Virtue ethics is one of the main categories of normative ethics. It teaches that moral behavior is directly linked to a virtuous life. An act cannot be ethical if it is performed by a corrupt character, and a virtuous person will naturally perform virtuous acts.

Unlike other secular schools of thought, virtue ethics explains exactly what is needed to perform a morally upright act. To be virtuous, a person will develop three specific characteristics, named using three Greek words. Arête is excellence in character that naturally exemplifies goodness, honesty, self-control, and other virtues. Phronesis is moral or practical wisdom that knows the right course to take in any circumstance. Eudaimonia is a bit different. It isn’t an internal characteristic, but a good, flourishing life. Virtue ethics teaches that, by careful living, a person can develop all three qualities, thus embodying a character that is naturally moral, although external forces may damage or destroy eudaimonia.

The Bible certainly promotes the development of an excellent, virtuous character. We have the example of Noah, “a righteous man, blameless in his time” (Genesis 6:9). Job 1:1 describes Job as “blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil.” And Luke 1:6 says Zacharias and Elizabeth were “both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.” But the Bible also teaches that no one is perfect. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And we cannot rely on ourselves to act properly, “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

The entire book of Proverbs is dedicated to the acquiring of phronesis. Proverbs 8:11 says, “For wisdom is better than jewels; and all desirable things cannot compare with her.” However, wisdom is not something we can develop on our own. Wisdom is a gift from the Lord (Proverbs 2:6) and actually begins with reverence for the Lord (1:7).

Secular theories of ethics place a great amount of importance on happiness. Not giddy joy, but well-being and a fulfilled life. The pursuit of eudaimonia implies that the good life is necessary for a virtuous character. The Bible says otherwise. Romans 5:3–5 says, “We also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” In other words, trials develop virtue. Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33), and maybe that’s a good thing, if the hard times are what God uses to build our character. We can never be completely virtuous, and we cannot develop a virtuous character on our own (Hebrews 10:10). But virtue ethics is not far off when it says ethical behavior flows from a virtuous character. As Luke 6:43–45 says,

For there is no good tree which produces bad fruit, nor, on the other hand, a bad tree which produces good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they pick grapes from a briar bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022