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A Biblical Case for Virtue Ethics; or, Why Virtues Supercede Principles

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How easy it is to latch on to those Biblical quotes that make us feel good about ourselves or to see the shortcomings of others. How much more difficult to attune our minds and souls to those more difficult passages that ask of us an accounting for our own character.

When Leviticus 19.2b says, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” these words pass in and out of our consciousness with deft rapidity. If we studied what this passage means we’d come to understand that God is not speaking about being religiously pious in observing certain rituals in worship, but rather is stating how we are to exhibit the same character traits and virtues in daily living that we attribute to God. In verses 9-18 and 32-37, there is a list of precepts and virtues that we need to cultivate in our lives. They are the same ones that put us in right relationship with God and also in right relationship with others. The essence of these prescriptions is to remind us to be just, peaceful, loving, and compassionate. These are the virtues and attitudes which will bring about harmony in society.

One phrase that keeps being repeated is, “I am the Lord your God.” It is not that God is feeling the need to remind us of God’s presence or authority, but rather to remind us who we are to be if we are to be like God. We all say we want to be more like God, but sometimes we need to be reminded who God is in character and what God wants from us. When it says we are to provide for the poor, the foreigner, and the animals of the earth by not reaping the edges of the field or gleaning the harvest, it is not some arbitrary decree about farm practices. Rather it is an ethic about how to be compassionate toward those less fortunate than oneself. God is compassionate. If we want to be like God, we need to be compassionate.

There is much commentary that we can make about each of these laws of respect and fairness. Economic relations seem to be front and center here as in so many other places in the Bible – much more so than the few obscure references to sexuality that so many conservative Christians latch on to. When it says not to deal falsely, lie, swear falsely, defraud, keep worker’s wages longer than necessary, render unjust judgments, and such, it is clear that God sees our practices of justice as key to being in good relationship with God and with each other. This is how God, time after time, describes God’s own self – as one who is always fair, just, merciful, and never one who will take advantage of the poor and oppressed. If God is this way, we need to be this way too if we are to reflect God’s own image within us.

Peace needs to be maintained not only among one’s own close-knit groups, but also with those outside our groups. The aged, the poor, the alien, the deaf, the blind, and even the traveler is to be treated as one’s own family; indeed, as oneself. Hospitality, mercy, and a lack of any prejudice are necessary for peaceful relations to flourish. We know this to be true by how others treat us. If they treat us like one of their own family members, we are deeply grateful. If on the other hand, they revile us, cheat us, or otherwise make things difficult for us, we are unlikely to be drawn to them with positive feelings.

The essence of all these laws is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (vs. 18). Love is not a set of actions or even principles in which we are to abide. Rather love is a way of life, a way of being in the world. If it is not indelibly written on our character, then it is not love but a cheap substitute. To love another truly, it has to come from a character devoted to loving others. In speaking of treating those outside one’s own group with the same behaviors we’d exhibit towards ourselves and our family members, it is not merely extending an ethical principle to be more inclusive. It is instead advocating for the idea that love that comes from one’s character must be applied always to all in every circumstance. If it is a part of our ethical make-up, who we are in our inner core, then we can do nothing other than to be loving to all. To draw distinctions would turn our virtue (i.e., that which is engrained in our character) into a principle (i.e., that which we follow because we are obeying rules imposed upon us by others rather than by virtues which we cannot help but act in accordance to).

Jesus, like the Greeks before him, was a virtue ethicist. His morality was not a set of principles he felt obligated to obey, but rather a spirit/attitude/disposition/character in which made him who he was. We act by our virtues, once they’re cultivated in our character, “naturally” and fluidly. There is no need to debate where the principles might disagree or to what extent and to whom the principles need to be applied as in deontological or utilitarian ethics that have been predominant in our post-enlightenment world. One will “instinctively” do what would be most compassionate, loving, peaceful, and just if they come from character.

Where the listing of rules and laws in Leviticus and other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures often come off, I think incorrectly, as being legalistic and principle-based, Jesus makes clear that he is breaking with this traditional “interpretation” of the law by explaining what the law was really designed to do – viz., to make us virtuous, rather than principled, people. To be virtuous is to live by the “spirit” of the law, whereas to be principled is to live by the “letter” of the law.

Jesus’ words, while they sounded odd at times to people in his own times, sound even more objectionable to people living in our own times. “Do not resist an evildoer,” seems patently false and counter-intuitive to our principle-based society. To not resist an evildoer would, we say, only enable the evildoer to keep on practicing evil. But such an assessment on our part is to miss Jesus’ point.

It should be made clear that Jesus, in his ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ and particularly in Matthew 5.39-42 is not trying to construct a legal or penal system for his society. He is instead speaking to those poor and oppressed in his society, and is trying to give them a spirituality by which they can respond to the injustice heaped upon them by their enemies. He is not saying don’t nonviolently resist those who are oppressive. He would concur with Leviticus 19.17b&c where it says: “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.” We are not to treat anyone with violence or forcible resistance. Nonviolent resistance is necessary, but we are in no way to engage in a battle of who is physically mightier than the other. This will only breed further conflict, resentment, and hatred. Jesus himself reproved those who acted unjustly, or who were acting in wrong relationship with others. Yet he still loved them in doing so.

In reproving the neighbor, one must also do what Leviticus 19.17a says: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone….” Reproving to help your neighbor become a better person is to look out for their spiritual welfare. Reproving to injure or tear them down in the eyes of others is evidence of hatred. It is a fine line at times what our motives might be, and we all must be diligent in evaluating whether our thoughts, emotions, and intentions are pure and holy like God’s or corrupted by self-interest.

Jesus, in trying to make this point, may perhaps confuse us with his hyperbole when he says to turn the other cheek when someone hits us on the right cheek and to voluntarily give our cloak also to anyone who is so conscienceless to sue us for our coat. This sounds abominably unjust to our modern ears, but the people of Jesus day would have understood the sarcasm of Jesus’ words and the shame that would be placed upon anyone who would be willing to strike us on the left cheek after striking us on the right one and the dishonor exhibited by anyone so greedy as to accept the offer of our cloak after suing us, quite reprehensibly, for our coat. Refusing to fight in the first instance and giving up all one has in the second puts upon one’s enemy a challenge to their character. To turn the other cheek or offer one’s cloak also is in effect saying that the person has already acted disrespectfully, and would show a complete lack of character by accepting either the offer to hit one again on the left cheek or to go ahead and take one’s cloak too, thus leaving one naked with no clothing. This would be beyond shameful to strike one again, this time with the dishonor of using one’s backhand to hit, or to reduce another being to having no protection from the elements and from the eyes of women and children. Such action would reflect much more harshly on the character of the aggressor than on the one, no matter what was done, of the victimized.

Jesus’ ethic, of course, is one of love and compassion. Someone who followed his virtues would neither strike another even once nor would sue one in a way that would take away necessities for their livelihood, such as a coat. These would not be loving or compassionate actions.

Moreover, Jesus’ virtue ethic is extraordinarily egalitarian – again, because it has to be if one is to develop virtues in one’s character. To be compassionate as a person is to be compassionate perpetually, toward everyone and everything, and in all circumstances. It is who one is. Ethical principles will lead one to discriminate between who is deserving of our kindness and mercy and who is not. Virtues do not discriminate – in any way. When Jesus used the analogy that the sun shines, and the rain falls, on the evil and good, the unrighteous and righteous, this is what he is trying to reveal: the egalitarian nature of God, who lives by a character filled with virtues rather than by principles that discriminate between various peoples. Since God is holy in this way, we also are to be.

We are prone to draw distinctions between those we regard as good and those we regard as evil. We treat the former by one set of principles, and the latter by another. Jesus makes it obvious that we are to treat them all the same. The fulfillment of the law (i.e., of a principle-based ethic) is to adopt a more rigorous ethic of virtues and character. Earlier in his Sermon on the Mount, virtues superseded principles when he said not only to not murder but not to be angry, not only to not commit adultery but not even to lust, not only to not swear falsely but not to swear at all. The former are specific rules or principles that apply to our outward behavior, but the latter are virtues that apply to our inner spirit and attitudes. God cares more about the spirit of the rules than the rules themselves.

Of course, some of the Biblical texts are in disagreement on whether God is a God of virtue or principles. God is portrayed both ways in both the Old and New Testaments. But Jesus wants to make clear which way we need to interpret who God is and the ethical make-up of God. Jesus portrays God as one who is led by virtues and not principles.

Virtues are all-inclusive, whole, and complete – which is essentially the meaning of the Greek word that has been translated in our text as “perfect.” They affect “all” of our thoughts, emotions, actions, motives, etc. When it says we are to be perfect even as God is perfect, this is its meaning – that we are to be filled with virtues rather than principles…that we are to naturally and instinctively will the good for all at all times.

His lead-in to this conclusion is: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” It is easy to love those who love you, but it takes real character, not just principle, to love those for whom it is hard to love. He makes obvious that his ethic is not that of interpreters of the law who think we need to love our neighbors, but hate our enemies. This would be making distinctions. It would be discriminating. This is not what a virtuous person would ever do, since you must always treat all others compassionately or else forfeit your own virtue.

Principled people are good at making all kinds of justifications for why they can treat some people differently than others, but those who are led by a character of virtue must by necessity act in accordance with who they are at their very essence: viz., loving, just, compassionate, and peaceful – cardinal virtues of the ancient world.

What kind of person do you want to be: a principled person, or a virtuous one? How do you envision God and God’s character: as virtuous, or principled? Which you choose makes all the difference with regard to the degree of your faithfulness.

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