Saturday, June 2, 2012

Virtue and Vice

When I did Intro to Philosophy at university, the moral system which appealed to me the most was virtue ethics: the idea that you should make decisions that exemplify the various virtues. Recently I was thinking about virtue theory again, and about how it seems much less wholesome only eighteen months later.

The virtues as patterns of behaviour - love, loyalty, courage, and so on - are not in themselves good. Virtues must be directed towards good objects to be good. Love of something which does not deserve or return love may be in some ways good, but it will not produce good. Loyalty to an untrustworthy or wicked cause can be the source of great evil. In fact, these classical virtues are integral to the functioning of systems of evil. No systematic evil larger than the basic conspiracy can perpetrate evil without virtues being involved. Criminal organisations are built upon fear, but also loyalty and trust. War, just or unjust, requires vast depths of courage, loyalty and love on the part of the aggressor as well as the defender.

Cultivating virtues does not create a good individual. It is the prevailing attitude - at least in Australia - that a person who does good things is a good person. You would never think of saying "That Felicity, she's brave and loving and courageous - and evil!" Not seriously, at any rate. But the truth is that virtuous people can do terrible things because of their virtues rather than despite them. People may be intelligent and loving and courageous, and quite wrong. Evil is not the absence of virtue but the absence of a worthy object.

I take comfort in the unquestionable worth of the object of my virtues, Jesus Christ. I am loving and faithful and courageous in service to him - in fact, I model my practice of those virtues upon his. Humanity was created to be virtuous, and to exercise those virtues in the magnification of God's glory. Fulfilling that purpose is the ultimate, and only, good.

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