Thursday, April 11, 2013

Cardinal virtues


During Lent, Ethical Musings featured a series on the seven deadly sins (anger, sloth, lust and gluttony, envy, greed, and pride). During Easter, Ethical Musings will explore, along with other topics, the four cardinal virtues of courage, prudence, justice, and temperance. The seven deadly sins are undesirable character traits; the cardinal virtues are the opposite, desirable character traits conducive to living abundantly and human flourishing.

The cardinal virtues have their roots in Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle. Plato considered prudence (also called practical wisdom) the greatest of the virtues; Aristotle thought that justice represented the sum of all the virtues but that courage is the most important.

When Aquinas appropriated and reinterpreted Plato and Aristotle for the Christian tradition, he incorporated the cardinal virtues, giving them a prominent place in his ethics.

After the Reformation, virtue ethics lost prominence and, apart from Roman Catholicism, were often ignored. Only in the last few decades has interest in virtue ethics begun to attract a considerable following. Notably, arguably the foremost Christian ethicist today, Stanley Hauerwas, who teaches at Duke Divinity School and worships in an Episcopal Church, is a virtue ethicist.

When facing an ethical choice, something that most of us do multiple times per day, individuals generally act out of habit without stopping to recognize the ethical issue they face. After acknowledging the issue, few identify alternatives and the pertinent ethical principles before determining the right course of action (this scenario applies if the person is a deontologist, a person who wants to do her or his duty by adhering to ethical principles). Alternatively, the person may enumerate the various costs and benefits associated with each of the possible alternatives and their probable outcomes, then calculate the option that will result in the least harm and most good (this scenario applies if the person is a utilitarian or consequentialist). Yet other persons may seek God's will through prayer, scripture, and other spiritual discernment techniques (this scenario applies if the person subscribes to a divine command approach to ethics).

Instead, we are generally minimally aware or even oblivious to most of the ethical choices that we face. For better or worse, we act out of habit.

Virtue ethics encourages people to cultivate habits (or patterns or practices) in their lives that accord with the best of human flourishing or living abundantly. This Ethical Musings series on the four cardinal virtues will explore four of those virtues – courage, prudence, justice, and temperance – and how people can cultivate each. These posts are in addition to my previous posts on courage and prudential wisdom.

An important underlying premise for this series is that salvation, resurrection, and new life are neither theological abstractions nor eschatological concepts. Instead, God intends salvation in the present. A critical measure of the value of a spiritual journey, perhaps the critical measure, is whether that journey leads to transformation in the present, bringing a more abundant, more fulfilling, and more liberated life. All of the world's major religions share a common concern and aim to produce this effect, in addition to whatever other, if any claimed benefits, salvation may bring.

The old adage if you don't where you are going any road will get you there applies to the spiritual life. Cultivating the virtues offers a set of signposts that one can use to help to chart a spiritual journey that leads to new and more splendid life.

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