So far I have argued all of us in leadership positions should make decisions based on transcendent, objective, absolute principles. Important as this is, it is not enough. There is a second way we can ensure we make wise decisions every day.
The problem with only relying on the first system of ethical decision-making (Deontology) is that rules alone don’t always provide adequate motivation to do the right thing. It is very easy to know the right thing to do, and still choose not to do it. Something else is needed. That something else is a second way to approach ethical decisions: developing as a virtuous person.
Virtue Ethics: Being The Right Type of Person
This approach says ethics is not just about doing the right thing, but even more so about being the right type of person (a virtuous, or morally good person). Virtue ethics has a long history, being first developed by Aristotle. It has enjoyed a revival as of late, and for good reason.
Virtue ethics says that to live and lead well a person must first ask and answer the question“Who should I be?” rather than “What should I do?” The focus is on good character traits—honesty, fairness, courage, wisdom, self-control, love, etc. When a person regularly lives this way, he or she has developed “habits of excellence” or virtues, which naturally lead to making good, right, wise and just decisions.
This is easier than it sounds. Our natural “end” defines what it means to be a fully mature person. It is what we all strive for and the type of person we naturally hope to become. It is the mark of an excellent life—a life well lived. So when a person lives this way she or he is being most fully human.
This is the type of life Jesus describes as those who are “blessed” in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5. They are the marks of the well-lived life identified in Proverbs. And they are the “Fruit of the Spirit” identified in Galatians 5:22-23. Conversely, He condemns the Pharisees for not having these virtues, but only their outward appearances (Matt. 23:27-28).
How To Become a Virtuous Person
So how can a person become virtuous? The first way is very simple: by being around other virtuous people! We need to see flesh-and-blood examples of these virtues lived out by others so we can follow their example.
This is why we like to read biographies. We are “inspired” by seeing these virtues in them. It helps us understand how the “theory” plays out in real life. For instance, I just finished reading Eric Metaxas’ 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness and was very inspired by the virtuous lives of George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinsion, Pope John Paull II and Chuck Colson. For this reason we also love movies about virtuous men and women (as I discussed here).
But hearing stories is not enough. We need to be around these type people for the virtues to really “rub off.” As I often say to my kids, “You become like those you hang out with.” We need to see others in our context, with our challenges, problems and limitations, living a good (virtuous) life. This is why Jesus gathered twelve disciples and lived with them day and night. Instead of just teaching them “What would Jesus do?” He showed them—they got front row seats to see how it is done.
This is one reason that Deontology alone is inadequate. It over-emphasizes our independence and autonomy, assuming we can arrive at the right decision, and follow through in action, by our own reason and will alone. No, we need others to help us know what is right, and have the strength to do it.
The second way to develop virtues is through practice. Simple, not very glamorous, yet effective. When we see someone who is virtuous, we are seeing the result of many hours spent practicing making virtuous decisions in small ways. This is much like the baseball player who has a high batting average. He has spent many hours in the batting cage, learning to react in the correct way to various pitches. Therefore, when the pitch is thrown in the game he naturally knows how to react correctly (how to swing the bat successfully).
Similarly, we are in the “batting cage” every day, faced with small choices that shape our character. By practicing making right, good, wise and just decisions in these small things, we are becoming better and better at it—we are becoming more and more virtuous.
Three Objections to Virtue Ethics
The first objection some raise to Virtue Ethics is that there is no agreement on the virtues, and so no way to know what it is to be virtuous. In response, this is a variation of the relativistic objection to any objective moral value. I responded to this objection here.
A second objection is that Virtue Ethics doesn’t provide enough detail to help us make the specific moral decisions we face. It is too theoretical, without enough “content.” I agree, when Virtue Ethics is the only ethical system one is using. This is why it must be paired with Deontology. Either system alone is inadequate, but together they are just what a leader needs to make good decisions. “Rules without virtues are not motivational, but virtues without rules are blind.”
A third objection is that it is impossible to determine who the virtuous person is in the first place, so we can’t even get started. Again, the response is “Yes, but…” Yes, if Virtue Ethics is the only system one uses. But paired with Deontology the virtuous person is easily identified—she is an expert at living the transcendent principles out in daily life—she is wise, just, honest, etc.
So How We Do This?
So we should surround ourselves with virtuous people we can learn from. As Proverbs 11:14 says, “For lack of guidance a nation fails, but victory is won through many advisors.” We should also learn to practice being virtuous daily in ways that form and develop these virtues deep within our characters.
There is a third way we can work to make good, right, wise and just decisions–by not making decisions based on the third ethical system. I’ll discuss this next week.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading, I suggest Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics by Scott Rae