The fundamental difference between values and virtue is a matter of where they originate. God defines virtue, called fruits of the Spirit in Paul. People choose values that may be good or bad. Virtue is always good. Christians are always to choose what is good. They are always to choose virtue. Our values should always conform to what is good, right, and true.
The cardinal virtues that derive from classical philosophy are justice, temperance (self-control), prudence, and courage. The theological virtues are faith, hope, and love, derived from Saint Paul. Moral guidance in the Christian tradition includes the virtues. Other aspects of moral guidance are God’s commandments, Christ’s teachings and example, and a form of ethical evaluation that is critical of utility and personal advantage at the expense of the right. Something that may be regarded as useful is a flimsy criterion for morality.
The utilitarian idea of the greatest good for the greatest number is rejected. Utilitarian views exclude a concern for the minority and the weaker members of society. Moreover, determining the greatest good for the greatest number may lead to highly immoral conclusions. The ends do not justify the means. For example, it could be determined that the greatest good for the greatest number justifies mass murder, e.g. the holocaust. Admittedly, this is an extreme example; but, hopefully, it drives home the point. Attempts to base ethical decision-making on the consequences of an action are based on their indeterminate quality and ignores the duty that we have in any given situation. Situation ethics, made popular by Joseph Fletcher in the 1960’s, is nothing but utilitarianism. Love becomes what I feel is right without any other moral guidance and looks toward the uncertain ends. Love is to be determined by what the Lord teaches, not what I feel at any given moment. Our duty is informed by God’s commandments, biblical moral admonition, Christ’s teachings, and the virtues. Deontological ethical reasoning, based upon our Christian duty in any particular situation, conforms to a Christian view. It is a form of reasoning that rejects utilitarianism.
Despite this ethical richness, moral reasoning is required, especially in complicated ethical situations. Social issues, for example, may require some difficult and demanding thought to come to the most satisfactory conclusion. This reasoning is dependent on the criteria one uses to make an ethical decision.
For Christians to support abortion, the gay lifestyle, euthanasia, and any number of other cultural favorites is simply to ignore the moral authority embedded in our tradition. One may value a certain cultural view and live accordingly, but it may not conform to authoritative Christian ethics.
We must evaluate what we think is true and right in relationship to the virtues and other criteria to obtains a Christian ethical perspective. Anything less does not hit the mark. Church leaders must defend our moral views and, where things are murky, help guide us to Christian moral conclusions. Anything else is unfaithful to the Office Christ has given them.
Always remember that even in virtue ethics, the source of empowerment to do the right comes from the Holy Spirit. In Galatians Paul calls certain virtues the fruit of the Spirit. They are joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5). No manner of works righteousness has a place in Christian ethical thinking.
When you hear in the media about what people value, beware. What they value may not be virtuous. American culture stands far from any sort of Christian moral thinking. When we witness and defend the faith, we are also showing forth the Christian way of life that has much to do with ethics and moral thinking and action.
Michael G. Tavella
March 5, 2020