Each fall semester, as my Christian Manhood classes come to the end of the discussion of Josef Pieper’s The Christian Idea of Man and it’s look at the virtues, especially the four cardinal virtues, it is apparent that the students are drawn to the ethical approach of people like Pieper, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and, of course, Jesus.
It is certainly possible to assume that, because of the title of the class, the course would look to something like the Ten Commandments as the benchmark for the behavior of a Christian man. Or, it might be assumed that when a class focuses on ethics or moral philosophy that there would be a great emphasis on the consequences of our actions. Unfortunately, those who travel the ethical paths of rule-following (known in philosophical circles as deontology and associated with Immanuel Kant) or ends-following (utilitarianism and John Stuart Mill), are most likely to be disappointed by their personal results.
The problem with these two systems - the most employed systems in the Western world - is that their focus is not in line with the goals of people like Pieper, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and, of course, Jesus. To follow rules is not a bad thing, and to be concerned about the effect of actions is a necessary component of decision-making, but neither of these get to the heart of the purpose of ethical or moral behavior. But the most important element is missing, and, to quote the title of a book by Pope St. John Paul II, that element is the acting person.
If the end or purpose of ethical behavior is the following of rules, then deontology should be the system of choice. And so with utilitarianism if the purpose of our actions is their outcome or consequences. But what if the purpose of moral activity is to turn us into the type of people who, as Pieper says, worry less about what they ought to do and more about who they ought to be. The Greek word that best applies here is telos or “end, purpose” - what is my purpose, not just in this particular action, but what is my purpose as a human being?
In a world where both individuals and societies have lost the sense of telos, it is easy to see why there is so little agreement on what it means to work for the “common good”. One person’s action in behalf of the “common good” is easily seen by others either as a breaking of the rules or as a lack of concern for negative consequences. If there is a shared understanding of what the “common good” is, then the questions of rules and utility fade into the background and virtue takes center stage.
In the eyes of many, this year’s midterm elections were about whether or not democracy would survive. With so many different visions of what “democracy” means - and history is littered with them - maybe it would be better for us to focus on the telos of a democracy. For Aristotle, the purpose of a democracy was to enable people of arete to achieve eudaimonia - for people of great virtue to flourish. The assumptions inherent in this vision are clear: the telos of the state was secondary to the telos of the individual, and only a person of arete could achieve eudaimonia - only a virtuous person has the ability to work towards true happiness.
In Democracy in America, the most famous work of French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville, it is observed that America is great because Americans are good, and America shall remain great as long as Americans are good. Under any normal understanding of the words “good” and “great” it appears that de Tocqueville is saying that as long as Americans are virtuous, then their democracy will continue to flourish and people will have the opportunity for natural fulfillment. So by this logic a focus on virtue ethics will help democracy to not only survive, but to flourish. And thus, without saying it (and, at least in part not knowing it), our French friend was agreeing with Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Josef Pieper, and, of course, Jesus.