Cardinal virtues and the Covid-19 pandemic|

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas famously promoted four cardinal virtues: courage, justice, prudence and temperance in his Summa Theologica.

Aquinas borrowed those four virtues from Plato and then “baptized” them by interpreting them from a Christian perspective. Aquinas’ moves were possible because Christianity, after a long hiatus, again found Greek philosophy a rich source for understanding the Christian faith. Greek philosophical influence is readily apparent in parts of the New Testament, e.g., John’s Gospel and Paul’s letters. Then followed centuries in which Christians avoided any dialogue with Greek philosophy for fear of corrupting Christian thinking.

One of Aquinas’ major influences on the Christian tradition was to push Christian ethics toward virtue and away from rules. Virtue ethics presumes that character (who a person is) shapes behavior more than rules do. People generally act without carefully analyzing a situation to determine which rule(s) apply. And once a person has determined the relevant rule(s), no assurance exists that the person will actually follow those rule(s).  Furthermore, no set of rules, regardless of how extensive and comprehensive, can foresee every possible contingency.

Virtue ethics remains central to Christian ethics. Prominent Christian virtue ethicists include Stanley Hauerwas and Sam Wells. The Roman Catholic Church heavily promotes a virtue-based approach to ethics (give us the child and we will have the adult).

Consider the importance of each cardinal virtues during the Covid-19 pandemic:

  • Prudence (practical wisdom) connotes relying upon science and not rumor or unfounded opinion for information on which to base decisions. Developing evidence-based data and theories about Covid-19 requires time. New information may cause scientists to revise their theories. Even so, evidence-based data and theories are far more likely to be helpful than are rumors and opinions that lack any factual foundation. Prudence entails acting appropriately with respect to available information and theories.
  • Courage connotes having the fortitude to over any reluctance, hesitation or suspicion that would prompt one to act in a way contrary to the dictates of prudence. Past history of unethical medical dealings with people of color, unknown long-term effects of the vaccines and other evidence-based factors may require courage to overcome emotional barriers to acting prudentially when those barriers lack a factual foundation.
  • Temperance connotes limiting one’s own freedoms by wearing a mask, socially distancing and following other medical or governmental protocols for the good of the larger community. People acting intemperately have repeatedly cause “hot spots,” spreading the virus in avoidable ways.
  • Justice, like temperance, requires consideration of others as well as of self. The just person will not prioritize self-care over the well-being of others. Instead, the just person tries to equitably balance the well-being of all. Illustratively, a retired person who lives prudentially and temperately may defer vaccination in favor of essential workers or younger persons with medical conditions that leave them especially vulnerable to the virus.

Living during the COvid-19 pandemic does not require Christians to develop a new ethic. Instead, Christians must simply continue their efforts to fully embody the cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, temperance and justice.


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