Virtue Ethics

Do we try to do what is moral because it is useful? Because it is the rule? Or because it is the kind of person we want to be?

With all the threads that seem to me obsessed with the “mortality” of masterbation it also seemed to me that a point is being missed. Wisdom traditions East and West talk about that close relationship between wisdom and virtue. They each grow the other and are expressions of the other. It seems much better to me to base our actions and decisions on virtuous habits rather than rules or even practical usefulness though they will often be in harmony.

Both are important…commandments and virtues…and the most important is charity (agape).

Augustine said, “Love, and do as you please.” That instruction, of course, needs to be tempered by a knowledge of what (or who!) love truly is. But I think that an obsession with “whether X is wrong” – for oneself or others – is a sign that we want to do the least possible to get to heaven.

A desire to be virtuous, for its own sake, is an antidote to this sort of nonsense.

According to Catholic teaching a moral act or decision has three aspects…

  1. The moral quality of the act itself
  2. The circumstances surrounding the act or decision
  3. The motives of the agent involved

If you think about it, those three facets relate directly to the three questions in the OP.

**Do we try to do what is moral because it is useful? **

In other words, how does the act relate to the larger question of ‘good’ as a desired end, within which, ‘useful’ is one consideration. This would be seen in context of 2) the circumstances.

**Because it is the rule? **

This relates to 1) the goodness or badness of the act itself

Or because it is the kind of person we want to be?

  1. The motives of an individual pertain to considerations of agency. What would a good or bad person be motivated to do?

There is no reason that only one of these questions should enter into the decision when all of them are important.

I have been studying Chinese wisdom lately. It all comes down to virtues just as in Greek philosophy and Biblical books of Wisdom. I like this idea that in order to make wise decisions it is not so much about knowing all the rules (though that is invovled) or doing what is most useful (that helps also) but develping a virtuous character that will lean the right direction when the rules are not at all clear and the utility not very obvious.

We find ourselves in these situations quite often. Many times they are not dramatic but with family, at work, even in our parish community we are confronted with moments that put us on the spot.

Have you read Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics?

No. Only references to it.

I believe that this is what Pope Francis was addressing when he said…

“The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology, …and ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid.

“And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.”

“The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people,… But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh?”

He said Christian ideology was the result of a lack of true prayer.


In my view, Aristotle was the first to provide an extensive explication of virtue ethics and set the groundwork for others.

A brief summary of Aristotle’s ethics by Jacques Maritain is here:

Downloadable copies in various formats can be freely obtained here:


Thanks for al lthe links, everybody.

Anyone read Stanley Hauerwas’s book, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic?

Some other sources: The Virtues by Pope Benedict XVI (Oct 18, 2010) OSV

And this Encylicals on Love and Hope and the one on Faith issued by Pope Francis this last year (Pope Benedict and he both worked on it).

The Four Cardinal Virtues by Josef Pieper


Various works by Romanus Cessario OP such as “The Moral Virtues and Theological Ethics”

Romanus Cessario OP also has a work called “Introduction to Moral Theology” where he gets in to such…

The practice of wisdom is a virtue. Wisdom is also a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Prudence is allied to wisdom. It is knowing WHEN to be wise!

In other words, sometimes it’s better to keep our mouths shut than to open them and seem the fool.

That is about as concise as it can get.

If you want to be wise, be viruous.

A good person fulfills the law and goes beyond it.

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