Why Virtue?

Why Virtue?

Why virtue?

Now that we have a working definition of virtue as a good habit, a habit being a stable disposition to act in a certain way, why is virtue so important in the moral life? After all, ideas about virtue and character may seem rather outdated. When was the last time you heard voices of cultural significance speak about the importance of virtue for individual and societal flourishing? Is virtue promoted in contemporary TV shows, movies, or songs?

Without being too pessimistic, it is fair to say that there are many problems with our modern age. One error pertinent to our discussion of virtue is inspired by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He thinks of the good man, the moral man (if such a man exists at all) as one who acts out of or from duty. There is a real place for duty or obligation in the Christian life, of course, and in the Christian idea of the good man. However, Kant puts forward a very tenuous relationship between man and the good.

Recall that last time I said that virtue makes doing the good easy, prompt, and joyful. To expound on this a bit, virtue “connaturalizes” you to the good, it makes doing the good “second nature” to you. And this fulfills us as human beings, since we are meant for the good, and ultimately for God who is Goodness itself. However hyperbolic the accounts may (or may not) be, the American mind identifies honesty with Abraham Lincoln, hence the name “Honest Abe.” Being honest was part of who he was, part of what it meant to be Abraham Lincoln.The honest man weds himself to the truth; the truth becomes his constant companion and friend.

Kant vs. Aquinas

Notice how different this is from the Kantian account. For Kant, the good seems like a distant and quite alien reality, something “out there” that may bind us but never unite itself to us. It is otherwise with the traditional account. For St. Thomas, for example, virtue is a habit that disposes us to perform our proper operations. Thus virtue, in conforming us ever closer to the good, works to fulfill us, to mold us into the persons we are meant to be.

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If I were to ask you to imagine a good man, a moral person, what would he be like? What would be his characteristic actions? The good man, you might imagine, is the one who, through his blood, sweat, and tears, accomplishes the good. The good man does the good even when it is grueling, when it is difficult, when it takes everything he’s got. But what if I told you that this is not what the Christian imagination should conjure up? Sure, the man I described should be imitated in some things, but certainly not in others. This is yet another instance of Kant’s legacy rearing its ugly head. The man I described above is still on the way to perfect virtue. The truly virtuous man is at home in the true and the good; following God’s law is not burdensome for him but light, joyful.

Worthy of Imitation

If the virtuous man seems desirable or worthy of imitation, I should note that there is yet another moral option on the table. Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, we can already see what the vicious man must be like. He is “connaturalized” to wickedness. The liar, say, distorts the truth with ease, promptly, and takes a certain perverse joy in doing so. The beautiful soul of the just man is juxtaposed to the ugly, disordered soul of the vicious man.

So far we have been speaking in general terms, laying out the principles and parts of the moral life. This is how St. Thomas proceeds in his Summa theologiae. We will gradually get more specific, going from a consideration of cardinal virtues and theological virtues in general, for instance, to a consideration of specific virtues.

By Dr. Aaron Henderson

Dr. Henderson graduated from Ave Maria University and is a theologian, husband, and father.

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