Philosophy for Theology: Virtue and Duty Ethics

This is the second piece in a four part series inspired by a course I took last year called Philosophy for Theology. This piece is on the difference between Virtue Ethicsand Duty Ethics.

Plato_Silanion_Musei_Capitolini_MC1377There are typically three different philosophies about ethics: virtue ethics, duty ethics (deontology), and pragmatic ethics (consequentialism). Pragmatic ethics is the idea that the ethical validity of a position or action is based on the outcome of such an action. The maxim which most captures this idea is, “the end justifies the means.” This ethical system is largely a modernist conception and has little grounding in theistic approaches to ethics so it will not be considered here. Virtue ethics and duty ethics, on the other hand, both have long histories and can be consistent with a theistic approach.

Virtue ethics has its roots dating back to Plato and Aristotle. The essential question of philosophy for classical philosophers was about how to be happy and for Plato a virtuous soul is what makes one happy. The philosophical life is important for developing happiness because in the classical conception the development of virtue goes hand in hand with the development of knowledge. So, being a philosopher has a direct causal relationship to happiness. Further, for both Aristotle and Plato, virtue is public not private. In Christian and more contemporary ideas about virtue, we tend to focus on an individual’s personal private virtue. However, for Plato and Aristotle, virtue was public and directed toward the city-state rather than the individual.  As a result, the virtuous person was a good citizen. For more modern thinkers, virtue likely does have a secondary relationship with citizenship but it is primarily individualistic.

One way to distinguish between virtue and duty ethics is that virtue ethics is about being and duty ethics is about doing. This means that virtue is an issue of character rather than purely action. From a Christian perspective, this distinction can be approached via the following question: “Does God demand something because it is good or is it good because God demands it?” So, for proponents of virtue ethics the laws and commandments of scripture are in no way arbitrary. They are reflections of the character of God. And while we should follow those rules, the real issue at hand is what we are not what we do. It is the character of an individual which is important. So while someone adhering to a duty ethic may argue that lying is always wrong, a virtue ethicist will not just look at what the person does but why they do it. What is truly moral is a moral character.

There are however differences between how Plato and Aristotle approach virtue ethics. Plato believed that virtue is an end in itself something that through cultivation inherently helps a person’s happiness. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that virtue was important because it protected human relationships and through that promoted happiness.

There are some modern conceptions of virtue ethics found with philosophers such as Hume and an influence of virtue ethics can be seen in the American founding fathers with concepts like inalienable rights. But, for the most part duty ethics ascended to primacy during the modern period.

One of the problems for virtue ethics is how to determine what the virtues are. As a result, Plato and Aristotle would have a different idea of the functional virtues than would a Christian philosopher. Likewise, Hume who was a philosophical naturalist would also find different virtues important.

Within duty ethics, there are two main explanations as to what is the cause of the duty: Divine Command and Moral Absolutes. The stoics are an early example of a philosophical system which followed duty ethics. In the stoic system, the moral absolutes could be determined through reason to determine what virtues were in line with nature. These virtues were absolutes that were constituted by the very nature of the universe and as such the good Stoic was obligated, out of duty, to follow those moral absolutes.

During the Reformation, duty ethics found a home within the Reformed tradition of John Calvin and his intellectual heirs. Calvin focused primarily on the sovereignty of God. While it is true that Calvin believed God to be good, in his system our obligation to obey God was less tied to the goodness of God than His sovereignty. For example, within the Reformed tradition, attempts to reconcile the genocides on the people of Canaan with the goodness of God rely largely on defining goodness in a way that does not contradict the character of God. That is to say, what God says is good is good. There is no objective understanding of good outside of the character of God.  So while the genocides may seem morally problematic to many they are often very simply handled within the Reformed tradition by appealing to God’s sovereignty. Therefore, if God is sovereign over the world it is His prerogative to do with this world what He sees fit. If then He commands something to be done then it is moral and good to do, simply because He commanded it. By applying that to the killing of Canaanite women and children, those killings then become not only not sin but morally just and good because it was the will of the sovereign to do as He pleased. This applies equally to issues such as predestination. Some of the more strident camps within the Reformed tradition will adhere to “double predestination” which argues that not only did God elect the individuals who are to go to heaven He by His failure to choose others elected for them to go to hell. In this system, God’s behavior is good because his behavior and character define good. So, it is good, by definition, that God elected some to eternal damnation. This conception of duty ethic is by divine command. It is not some moral absolute that made the killing of babies good. In most cases such an activity would, in fact, be considered evil. But, since it was done in accordance with God’s divine command it is good.

During the enlightenment Kant, like most other figures, held to varying forms of a duty ethic. Kant’s conception of a duty ethic relies on moral absolutes. For Kant, goodness was not determined by divine revelation but by human reason. It is this reason that is our basis for belief in God. Kant’s philosophical system revolved around human autonomy not metaphysical realities. Kant arrived at metaphysical conclusions through a priori knowledge. It is this same a priori approach that Kant believed lead to an understanding of goodness. Kant further believed that only good will was truly good and good will was not determined by the result of the action but by the intent. But, Kant also only believed that something was only truly good will when it was done out of respect for the moral law which can be determined a priori.

Søren Kierkegaard is an interesting person to discuss in terms of duty verses virtue ethics. One would think due to Kierkegaard’s focus on inwardness and his insistence that Christianity is about the ‘how’ not the ‘what’ would tend to lead one to suspect that he believed in a form of virtue ethics. This is complicated, however, when Kierkegaard discussed the ethical issue of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. For Kierkegaard, there is something called the teleological suspension of the ethical which came into play during the Abraham story. Because of Abraham’s duty to God he had to suspend what is normally considered ethical to obey God. Abraham’s duty to God was the greater good. This indicates that while for Keirkegaard it is the moral character of a person that matters (i.e. inwardness) the teleological suspension of the ethical moved Kierkegaard’s ultimate ethical category into the realm of duty ethics.

There are ways to problematize both duty ethics and virtue ethics and throughout history insightful thinkers have fallen on both sides. While the question “Does God demand something because it is good or is it good because God demands it?” seems simple it is something which great minds have had great difficulty agreeing upon.


Rondall Reynoso is a NY educated artist, art historian, aesthetician, and speaker. He is a college professor and academic who is pursuing his PhD in Art and Religion in Berkeley, CA. Rondall has shown his work extensively in over 70 exhibitions.

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  • marc

    Good conversation piece…