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Between Athens and Jerusalem: Aristotle for Adventists

Recent developments in philosophical ethics (to be distinguished from applied ethics), have lead to the articulation of a distinct third approach to moral reasoning. This development, called “virtue ethics”, is actually the rediscovery of an ethical position put forth by Aristotle. In this post, I want to revisit the basics of Aristotle’s ethical theory and to draw out some important implications it has for Christian ethical thinking.

Before this rediscovery, there were two dominant schools of thought when it came to ethics; either you were a consequentialist or affirmed a categorical approach. Consequentialists argue that what makes a certain action or rule right or wrong is the ultimate outcome or result, i.e. “the utility”, of that action or rule. This is to be distinguished from egoism, as the outcome is the general outcome for everyone, not just the individual. As Bentham describes it, the point of ethical reasoning is to produce “the greatest good for the greatest number.”[i] Another consequentalist, Mill, explains that “the happiness that forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned.”[ii] Many contemporary arguments about the ethical obligation we have toward protecting the environment or eating green and local take this form; it’s wrong for someone to pollute the earth or eat certain things because it has negative effects globally.

Contrast this to the categorical approach to ethics. This approach argues that what makes an action right or wrong are the ethical or moral principles the action exemplifies or violates, regardless of the consequences. There are certain acts that are always wrong or never permissible.

Some people think that a divine command approach to ethics is a distinctive third alternative to these two options. However, if by divine command, one means that congruity with God’s commands is what makes an action right or wrong, this is just another form of categorical thinking. (It is, however, distinct from another kind of categorical ethics, i.e. a Kantian or deontological one, but the form is the same.) Furthermore, there’s the classic question of why God commands what God commands explored in Plato’s Euthyphro. Mill argues that God is a consequentalist! God commands what he commands because following his commands, generally, will lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest amount of people.[iii]

On both traditional models of ethical reasoning what matters is the action, and the rightness or wrongness of it is determined by its consequences, or harmony with a particular principle or rule. How is an Aristotelian approach any different?

Aristotle’s succinct definition of virtue in The Nicomachean Ethics is helpful:

Virtue…is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. a mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.[iv]

Let’s examine this statement more closely. From it we learn, first, that virtue ethics focuses on the excellences, i.e. virtues, of character of the individual performing the action, instead of the action itself. Virtue encompasses both how and what is done. A virtuous person in doing what she does feels certain emotions “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, toward the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way.”[v]

Who or what determines what a virtue is? Aristotle did it empirically. Unlike Plato, his teacher, Aristotle was not interested in recollecting the Form of the Good. Goodness was something that could be observed in the world. He observed society and looked for examples of flourishing individuals, i.e. “the man of practical wisdom”, mentioned above. He thought these lives all exemplified certain common characteristics—courage, temperance, generosity, a proper sense of pride, a proper sense of ambition, friendliness, truthfulness, and wittiness.

These traits, we learn, were thought to be the mean between two extremes. For example, Aristotle maintains that pride is the mean between excessive vanity or hubris and servile humility. On the latter, Aristotle explains, “the unduly humble man, being worthy of good things, robs himself of what he deserves, and seems to have something bad about him from the fact that he does not think himself worthy of good things.”[vi]

Furthermore, this mean is relative to individuals, what is temperate for you, may not be temperate for me. An athlete in training can and should eat more than someone who is sedentary.

So what makes an Aristotelian approach to ethics stand out from the two approaches mentioned earlier? From what we’ve explored so far, two distinctive characteristics stand out. Right action is not a product of calculation, i.e. utility, distinguishing a virtue approach from consequentialism; nor is bound by adherence to principles, distinguishing it from a categorical approach. In fact, the virtuous person may, at times, violate certain moral principles, not because doing so would result in negative practical consequences, but because to adhere to it dogmatically is incongruent with being a virtuous person.

Arguably, one might interpret Jesus’ healings on the Sabbath this way (Luke 6:6-11; 13:10-17). Some charged him of wrong-doing for violating the principle of not working on the Sabbath. Jesus, aware of the principle, but seeing the man with the crippled hand (or the crippled woman), felt compassion for him (her), and healed him (her) anyway. It was the compassionate, or virtuous thing, to do. In other words, on this interpretation, virtue takes precedent over a moral precept and actions are subsumed under character, not vice versa. In other words, the actions are not thought to be right or wrong, in violation of a principle, but virtuous or non-virtuous for being congruent or incongruent to certain modes of being.[vii]

The way one attains a virtuous character is through repeated virtuous actions. Aristotle makes an comparison to the arts: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”[viii] In other words, practice makes perfect.

A virtue approach to ethics is not one that is foreign to Christian thought historically. In the medieval ages, when Aristotle was discovered in the Latin West, there were many debates about the relationship between Aristotle’s ethical theory and Christian teaching. The obvious points of tension were with Aristotle’s list of virtues and his account of how one attains them. Some of the virtues, and in contrast, vices, listed by Aristotle seemed to contradict Jesus’ teachings. For example, contra Aristotle, isn’t pride a vice, and humility a virtue? Aristotle also thought that generosity was a virtue, and that to be generous, one needed to be wealthy. Did this make those serving in the mendicant orders vicious? Furthermore, the idea that one became virtuous through their own efforts seemed to contradict the idea that changes to one’s nature comes through an infusion of supernatural grace.

I won’t attempt to answer these thorny questions here, leaving the discussion of them our discussion below. In short, however, these questions were wrestled with and eventually the virtue tradition was incorporated into Christian thought. For example, in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis distinguishes between the cardinal (Chapter 12) and theological virtues (Chapters 9-12). The cardinal virtues are virtues commonly recognized by non-religious thinkers (like Aristotle)—prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude. These traits can be attained by religious and non-religious people alike through a good upbringing, training, and personal effort. The theological virtues, however—faith, hope, and love—cannot be attained through human effort; they are the product and evidence of grace.

What’s the significance of this rediscovery of Aristotle in ethics when it comes to Christian thought and practice? I believe it recalibrates the way we think about ethics generally, changing the way we read Scripture. Since the Enlightenment, ethical thinking has been reduced to the calculation of utility, the derivation of a principle, or the practical application of either. We think ethics is primarily about what we do. Aristotle, along with the ancients, challenges us to think about the kind of people we are.

Lewis states it succinctly: “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.”[ix]

Adopting the two dominant modes of ethical reasoning in our culture, many Christians interpret the commands of God as being ultimately about right or wrong actions. Others will argue, in consequentialist style, that obeying God wilI lead to the best kind of life, individually and communally. In general, many in our (Adventist) community have taken a categorical approach to ethics. Hermeneutics is the distillation of moral principles from Scripture and ethical reasoning is the application of God’s commands to contemporary contexts.

This mode of thinking becomes evident in our debates about perfection and holiness. “God wants me to be perfect. Perfection is keeping the law. To be perfect, I must perfectly obey or keep the law.” Then we proceed to debate what the law says.

Is this the best way to understand perfection, however?

Yes, trust leads to obedience. There’s no denying this relationship. But there’s also a distinction between perfect trust and perfect obedience. As John Wesley points out, one can perfectly love, but still make errors in application.[x] (To this, I’d add interpretation.) According to Wesley, Christian perfection does not entail perfect performance. Along this line, I’d like to suggest, in agreement with Lewis, that God is concerned more about who we are, than what we do.

Of course, I don’t think the two are unrelated, i.e. our actions and our character. But ultimately, I believe, God wants people that are full of faith, hope, and love. These three virtues are intimately related. It is trust, i.e. faith, in what God has done through Christ that fuels our hope for the future, instead of filling us with cynicism and despair. Faith and hope, in turn, free us to truly love others in the present instead of being consumed with worries about our personal life and needs.

Or as Paul state it, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).


Zane Yi is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University. He lives in Atlanta, GA and is working on being (and praying to be) a more virtuous, and less vicious, person.

[i] An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

[ii] Utilitarianism

[iii] “[A] utilitarian who believes in the perfect goodness and wisdom of God, necessarily believes that whatever God has thought fit to reveal on the subject of morals, must fulfill the requirements of utility in a supreme degree.” Mill also claims the following in the same work: “In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazereth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility.” (Utilitarianism, Chapter 2)

[iv] The Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 6.

[v] The Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 6.

[vi] The Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, 4.

[vii] It’s interesting to note that the religious leaders of Jesus’ time eventually respond to his actions with a fine example of consequentialist reasoning: “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50).

[viii] The Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1.

[ix] Mere Christianity, Chapter 12.

[x] A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Wesley makes a helpful distinction between perfection and sinless perfection (PA 396). Wesley clarifies, “Sinless perfection is a phrase I never use” (PA 396). Perfect love and perfect knowledge is not the same thing. “Scripture perfection is, pure love filling the heart, and governing all the words and actions,” he explains (PA 401). However, perfection does not mean perfect cognitive abilities. Wesley notes, “A man may be filled with pure love, and still be liable to mistake…A mistake in judgment may possibly occasion a mistake in practice” (PA 394, 428). In other words, one can have a pure love for God but be misinformed or make a mistake in judgment, leading to wrongful action. “Yet,” Wesley explains, “where every word and action springs from love, such a mistake is not properly a sin” (PA 395).

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