Christianity, Deontology, and Virtue Ethics

A word of explanation. I teach a course at SMU|Guildhall on Ethics and Video Games. It is by no means a Christian course and has no explicitly Christian content. But some of the students tell me that they’re Christian. Since Christian ethics is an interest of mine, I’m keen to interact with these individuals at a deeper level about their efforts to integrate biblical ideas with a holistic view of ethics. I’m keen to interact with any student of whatever persuasion to help them more fully integrate their own ideas, beliefs, and intuitions. But since I actually have some training in Christian theology, I can see further down that path than I can see down the philosophical path that other students are on.

A Christian student recently told me that they saw both deontological (duty-based ethics) and virtue ethical elements in Christianity. I wanted to respond to that intuition with a little closer analysis of Christianity’s relationship to ethical systems. Here’s what I said.

The Christian ethical system is thoroughly virtue ethical. This is surprising to many people (Christian and otherwise), because we tend to associate Christianity with strict morality—rules that you should follow. Be nice. Don’t watch dirty movies. Don’t drink. Don’t cuss. Don’t make violent video games. Christianity can seem like a rule-based religion.

The association between Christianity and rules comes partly from biblical content like The Ten Commandments, which seem to be duty-oriented (deontological) in nature. It also comes from the fact that many Christians and non-Christians learned about Christianity during childhood. Children normally view ethics through a deontological lens. They associate “doing good” with obeying parental commandments. They fear breaking the rules because of the danger of getting in trouble. For children, ethics is following the rules, so Christianity looks deontological to them. So for both personal reasons and for reasons of biblical content, we tend to imagine that Christianity is at least largely, if not primarily or wholly, deontological.

If pressed, many Christians would say that the Bible has both deontological and virtue ethical content. Pressed again, they would probably admit that the divide between the “lawful” part of Christianity and the “virtuous” part of Christianity falls between the Testaments. The Old Testament seems to be heavily rule-based—after all, it’s called “the Law and the Prophets”—and so seems ethically deontological. The New Testament is more clearly “rule skeptical”, if you will, and so seems more virtue ethical. The truth, however, is that both the New Testament and the Old Testament are thoroughly virtue ethical, and one of the great theological errors—it is the error of Pharisaism to be exact—is to see either or both of them as deontological.

The New Testament’s virtue ethical core comes through pretty clearly in a wide variety of passages. The Sermon on the Mount, for example (Matt 5–7), is a powerful description of and argument for virtue ethics. Consider Matt 7:15–20, which makes the point that a certain kind of plant necessarily produces a matching kind of fruit. The kind of plant determines the kind of fruit, necessarily and inevitably. In virtue ethical terms: it is people who are fundamentally good or evil; their actions—both right and wrong—are merely the byproducts. This thought underpins the whole sermon.

Paul’s epistle to the Romans, of course, is the coup de grace against a deontological view of Christian ethics. If laws were so effective at making people good, Paul argues, then why do they constantly fail to do so? Why, in fact, do laws seem to actually aggravate the evil in people—inspiring evil people to bear yet more evil fruit? Laws don’t make people good or evil—rather they show the kind of heart that the person has. Paul’s focus on the human “heart”—that is, ethical tendency or will—over and above regulated behavior, is a strong virtue ethical statement.

So the NT is strongly virtue ethical. But what about the OT? What about the Ten Commandments and the endless pages of (often frankly tedious) laws in Exodus through Deuteronomy? Isn’t the OT basically deontological?

Paul’s answer, as I just mentioned, is No. Even the Old Testament Law, he says, wasn’t given to create good behavior but to expose wicked hearts. The Law holds up a yardstick but it doesn’t make people taller. Paul’s interpretation adjusts our view of OT Law.

But wait! Perhaps Paul is participating in historical revisionism. Is he merely forcing a truly deontological OT into a later virtue ethical framework?

No, he is not. The OT bears its own marks of a virtue ethical core. In fact, the Ten Commandments themselves show that the Law is concerned with the person more than the behavior.

Consider the tenth commandment: You shall not covet what your neighbor has. And what is coveting? Is it stealing? No. Is it reaching out for? No. In fact, coveting is no outward action that you could ever hope to observe. You cannot assign a police office to catch people coveting, because coveting is not an outward behavior.

Rather, coveting is desire: You shall not want what your neighbor has. Well, desiring is an inner, mental state. It is an aspect of the person, a reflection of virtue or vice. The tenth commandment, at least, is dealing with inner virtue, not outward behavior. This is a hint to the intention of all the Law.

Or take the “Greatest Commandment”: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Again, an “inner” commandment, not primarily behavioral. The second resembles it: “Love your neighbor….” A virtue ethical “commandment.”

Micah 6:7–8 famously weighs in on this issue: What action of sacrifice does the Lord want from you? No action of sacrifice. Rather, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Again, not outward action alone, but inner virtue springing forth into outward action, is the key biblical ethic.

So the OT, like the NT, values the “good” person above the “good” action. The good action is a result of the good person. That’s virtue ethical.

For the Christian, this is not just a philosophical point. There is great freedom in this insight. It means that the image of God as a clipboard-toting legalist must be dashed to the ground along with all the other false images. God is clearly concerned about behavior, but he sees it as a mere expression of the person. Give God a good person and he is content; give him good actions alone and he spews you out like lukewarm water. Christ even coined a term for people whose actions seemed good but whose core was wicked. Hypocrite. This is the accusation of a virtue ethicist against a deontologist, the condemnation of someone who wants to be good against someone who merely wants to act good.

Therefore our task as Christians isn’t to “crank out good actions” or “suppress evil actions.” Rather, our task is to actually become good—good to the core.

Of course, it’s impossible for an evil person to make himself good, just as it’s impossible for a spent coal to ignite itself or a festering corpse to revive itself. Help, if it is to come, must come from the outside.”Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

This leads directly to the core of the gospel: God makes evil people into good people by working in and through them by his Spirit. This incredible relationship—freely available to everyone—is enabled by Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection, and is enacted by faith. Thus Paul’s summary statement at the beginning of Romans: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.'” This is not a righteousness merely in the sense of “conformance to duty”—the deontological approach. This is core righteousness, a total and complete inner virtue such that you and I—anyone!—can now participate in God’s own righteousness.

Once we recognize the thoroughly virtue ethical heart of Christianity, then Christ’s horrifying command, “Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect,” becomes not a call to impossible duty and endless effort but a promise of what God is freely doing for those who simply trust.

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