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What can Aquinas teach us about Virtue?

If you want to end a conversation with someone at a party tell them you study the virtue ethics of Thomas Aquinas. What possible reason could there be for doing this?

My goal in this article is to answer this question. I want to show why virtue ethics matters, and why Thomas Aquinas is a good theological guide for understanding it. Virtue ethics matters because we need to pay attention to what sort of people we are becoming and that we make deliberate choices about who we want to become. We are neither hopelessly stuck nor free to be whatever we choose to be at any given moment. We are stewards or gardeners of our character and our bodies by the grace and power of God. Virtue ethics helps us to think well about how we participate in our formation. Virtue ethics matters because we need to pay attention to what sort of people we are becoming. Click To Tweet

Why Virtue Ethics? Evangelicals and their debt to modern ethical theories

I’ve taught on virtue ethics at a graduate level several times. These courses are arranged by ethical theories and ethical issues. The goal of these courses is typically to answer the big pressing cultural questions. Is this wrong? Is that right? Typically, virtue ethics fits alongside the other major modern ethical theories, deontology and consequentialism (especially Kant and Mill).

As I teach these approaches—virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism, I can’t help hearing in my head the old Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things is not the same.” The problem is that modern ethics is obsessed with the question how do we know what is a right action versus a wrong one?

By contrast virtue ethics is moral psychology embedded in a political philosophy. It answers the question, what is a good human person? How do I become good? And, how is society related to human goodness and formation? 

My big problem in teaching virtue ethics to evangelical students is convincing them that their default mode in answering ethical questions is too narrow. They smuggle in all sorts of unhelpful assumptions from enlightenment moral philosophy. They focus primarily on what is right or wrong and whether or not they can find appropriate biblical texts to prove whether an action is right or wrong. They tend not to think very deeply about formation. Evangelicals smuggle in all sorts of unhelpful assumptions from enlightenment moral philosophy. Click To Tweet

Because of this default mode, Christians have also been regrettably obtuse about the formation of emotional states and mental health problems. We tend to focus on whether emotional states like anxiety are right or wrong as if they are sinful acts. On this view, anxiety is wrong in the same way that slapping someone might be wrong. And if being anxious is a sin, then we ought not to do it. In the immortal words of Bob Newhart’s Dr. Switzer, “STOP IT.”

This narrow view of my students does not account for how a person might gradually become more or less anxious as a longstanding quality of their whole person. It does not account for a process by which anxiety might be overcome. Within the virtue ethics tradition, the term for a negative psychological quality is vice. Vice is a habit (quality) of my powers that hinders them from working well. A vicious person (someone characterized by vice) might be overly fearful easily angered, or passionately lustful. Vice involves excess, both too much and too little. Courage has an appropriate amount of resolve in the face of danger, neither cowardly or reckless. But virtue might be put on through wisdom and practice; a cowardly person might become bolder while a reckless person might become more prudent.

These are the sorts of issues that moral psychology addresses. How do I make good use of my capacities for thought, choice, intuition, and feeling? What is wisdom? How do my choices form me? How should my emotional states be regulated? How do I become virtuous? How is God involved? Without a moral psychology, the answers to these questions are not obvious. And this is precisely what virtue ethics gives us, a moral psychology. Moral psychology is the study of moral capacities, moral identity, and especially the development of character. Evangelicals focus primarily on whether they can find a biblical texts to prove whether an action is right or wrong. They tend not to think very deeply about formation. Click To Tweet

The narrow view of my students has an underdeveloped moral psychology where people are thinking and choosing beings held responsible for their beliefs (true or false) and the choices (or emotions) that these beliefs produce. The relevant question is whether these choices or emotions are right or wrong. If they are wrong, then we need to think better about it. The goal of ethics is to tell us what is right or wrong and compel us to choose right. Modern ethics has little to no place for gradually cultivating psychological habits.

Virtue Ethics of Thomas Aquinas

A more satisfying view is present in the theological moral psychology of Thomas Aquinas. Moral psychology was at the center (literally) of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Mark Jordan writes, “I believe that Thomas wrote the Summa for the sake of the second part—that is, in order to situate the moral component of theology within a properly ordered account of the whole.”[1]

The Summa is structured according to an exitus-reditus theme (going out and coming back); the moral theology of part two is the crucial hinge.[2] Part 2-1 describes the final end of humanity (beatitude in comprehending God) and how to arrive at it. Aquinas describes our actions and passions, the nature of habit, and then specifically the virtues and vices, the habits that dispose us toward beatitude or away from it. Part 2-2 gets into the particulars of the four cardinal virtues, the three theological virtues, and the gifts of the Spirit. Of the 512 questions in the Summa, Aquinas’ moral theology accounts for 303 of them.

So, the core Summa is an exploration of moral psychology, what it means to be human, the human capacity for formation, and the nature of that formation. I want to highlight four features of Aquinas’ view that help us pay attention to our formation, what sort of people we are becoming and to make deliberate choices that, by the power of Spirit, cultivate renewed human agency. The four features are dualistic holism of body and soul, dual process psychology, formation as habit, and theological integration.

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[1] Mark D. Jordan “Ideals of Scientia moralis and the Invention of the Summa Theologiae,” in Aquinas’s Moral Theory: Essays in Honor of Norman Kretzmann, ed. Scott MacDonald and Eleonore Stump (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 97.

[2] Alexander Pope, “Overview of the Ethics of Thomas Aquinas,” in The Ethics of Aquinas, ed. Alexander Pope (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 30.

Matthew L. LaPine

Matthew LaPine (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is the Christian Education Director at Citylight Omaha. He writes on theology, emotion, and mental health.

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