Copyright 2012 Doing the Right Thing
Renewing Virtue, Part 2: The Theological Virtues
Exploring roots and implications of values
By: John S. Ehrett|Published: June 12, 2012 1:43 PM
Last week, I wrote about the four cardinal virtues – courage, prudence, temperance, and justice – and their persistence across ancient, isolated civilizations.
An important question, however, remains unanswered: where do these virtues come from?
Some skeptics of religion point to evolutionary psychology, claiming these sentiments developed from “pre-moral” notions of altruism and reciprocity. This may offer a solution to the where, but leaves the more important question unanswered: why should one behave according to these virtues?
In order to function in organized society, all individuals must at some point make “ought”-statements: that it is one’s duty to engage or not engage in a certain behavior. For instance, most rational individuals would agree with the statement: “One ought not to rob a bank.” The fundamental question, for an ethicist operating on a purely naturalistic level, must be “why ought not an individual to rob a bank?”
In the opening pages of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes, “Everyone has heard people quarrelling…they say things like this: ‘How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?’ ‘That’s my seat, I was there first.’ ‘Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm.’ ‘Why should you shove in first?’ ‘Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine.’ ‘Come on, you promised.’” He goes on to explain that “the man who makes [these remarks] is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about.”
Critics often claim that the moral evil in the world disproves the existence of a benevolent God – yet the very notion of “moral evil” presumes that objective standards of right and wrong exist. Purely naturalistic philosophy cannot account for the existence of this standard – a normative, universalizing ethical framework that transcends cultures. Morality, then, is the bringing of one’s behavior into conformity with this external standard.
Christian thinkers were swift to affirm this external standard as the character of God Himself, revealed through Scripture. This led to the incorporation of the theological virtues found in 1 Corinthians 3:13 – faith, hope, and love – into the framework of Christian ethics.
Traditional Catholic thought distinguishes these theological virtues from the four cardinal virtues; whereas the cardinal virtues may be practiced by anyone, the theological virtues are directly infused by an act of divine grace. While all ultimately stem from God, the theological virtues require a uniquely personal relationship with the Creator – “God known by faith, God hoped in and loved for his own sake” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 1840).
Immanuel Kant, in his attempt to pioneer an ethical system independent of Christianity, approximated a similar concept. For Kant, moral conduct was found in doing the right thing for the right reason – the motive behind a given action was the paramount consideration. For the Christian, the theological virtues provide this motive: one’s faith in, hope of, and love for God are the catalysts for practicing the cardinal virtues. The one naturally builds upon the other.
Naturally, the theological virtues are the first to be jettisoned by ethical relativists. Faith, hope, and love require specific accountability to a Higher Power, a Power that is the very epitome of morality. But apart from this accountability, the cardinal virtues offer imperatives without a clear foundation.
When taken to its logical conclusion, this has striking ethical implications. A Mafia faction may require its members to serve fearlessly (courage), make decisions carefully by seeking wise counsel (prudence), abstain from licentious conduct (temperance) and avenge dishonor (justice)…yet few would praise the “morality” of such a cabal. Viewed in isolation, the cardinal virtues are instrumental values – good only insofar as they are directed toward an upright end. A consistent standard of moral righteousness may only be grasped via the theological virtues (terminal values, values that are good in themselves).
Cross-cultural myths and traditions may highlight the universality of the cardinal virtues, but ultimately such inquiries offer an incomplete understanding of ethical behavior. A true justification for morality is only derivable from the theological virtues…which in turn call for a transcendent Creator.
That, for much of society, is an unpalatable conclusion. But if history is any indication, the consequences of abandoning such a view are far nastier indeed.