Ethical Thinking in the Liberal Arts


PHI-305 Topic 4 Overview

TOPIC: Virtue Ethics and Natural Law


Virtue or character ethics is concerned not with what one should do, but with what one ought to be. Virtue may be understood as “the inner and distinctive core of a person from which moral discernment, decisions, and actions spring. It is an enduring configuration of the intentions, feeling, dispositions, and perceptions of any particular self” (Hollinger, 2002, p. 46).

The philosophies of Augustine and Aquinas, two of the most important figures in the history of Western thought, came to influence the medieval world in profound ways and continue to shape much thinking today. While virtue ethics could be said to be associated with the classical or ancient era, such as Plato and Aristotle as well as these thinkers, virtue ethics also has enjoyed renewed interest amongst today's ethicists. This topic also surveys natural law theory, often associated with Thomas Aquinas.


Aristotle focuses his ethical thinking on the telos, the end or purpose of being, with virtues existing as natural human inclinations. He theorizes that acting in accordance with complete virtue is happiness: the natural end of life. Repetition and habit are key, with the virtues being states of character. He declares in his "Doctrine of the Mean" virtue as a mean between two vices. For example, Aristotle would say that courage is a virtue, but rashness is an "excess" of the virtue, while cowardice is a "defect" of the virtue. Being modest is a virtue, while bashfulness is an excess of modesty and shamelessness a defect. The virtue of courage or modesty is found in the middle of the two extremes, known as “the mean.” Both Plato and Aristotle also emphasize the importance of moral education, particularly the training of character. Noted contemporary proponents of virtue theory include Carol Gilligan, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Linda Zagzebski. Two other influential thinkers in history are known particularly for their emphasis on virtue ethics: Augustine of Hippo and Thomas of Aquin or Aquinas.


Perhaps the foremost thinker of the early Christian era was St. Augustine of Hippo (354−430). The famous North African is noted not only for his theological and philosophical insights in works such as Confessions and City of God but also for his dramatic conversion story. The son of a pagan father and Christian mother, Augustine famously converted to Christianity after a lengthy search of other philosophies and dealing with his own "carnal corruptions."

In his works, Augustine highlights several issues of importance regarding ethics. Most

commentators agree that Augustine remains indebted to a worldview formed by Platonism. For Augustine, Plato's Forms do exist, but they are eternal thoughts in the mind of God. Therefore, attachment to "worldly" things is unwise. Augustine famously laments his grief over the death of his close friend (Confessions, Book IV). In his thought, his love for his friend exceeded his love for God, the only proper object of human love.

Augustine highlights that human beings, though made in the image of God, are also sinful beings. Through the fall of humanity, described in the book of Genesis in the Bible, God's image has been distorted so that human beings always seek moral independence from God. Augustine sees this desire for moral autonomy as the source of our separation from God. As a result, those things that are typically considered positive qualities, such as the classical virtues of temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice, may actually be vices. These virtues must flow from a desire to love and honor God to truly be "virtuous," otherwise Augustine considers them ultimately "self-seeking".

Thomas Aquinas

Another important thinker in the Christian tradition is Thomas Aquinas. Sometimes simply referred to as "Thomas," Aquinas lived in the thirteenth-century, over eight-hundred years after Augustine. Aquinas is often considered the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages. Unlike Augustine's reliance on Platonism, Aquinas was influenced by the thought of Aristotle. Aristotle's more "earthy" philosophy is reflected in the way Aquinas understands human nature and ethics.

Though Aquinas recognizes that ultimate human fulfillment can only take place through the "beatific vision," a vision of God in the world to come, a limited fulfillment can nevertheless be achieved in this life by all people. Aquinas makes a distinction between the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. The cardinal virtues can be known by the proper use of human reason; they are natural. The theological virtues, however, are only known by revelation, typically through Scripture. The upshot of this is that though humans are fallen and cannot know or love God without supernatural assistance, people can know what is "good" simply by using their reason well. This "natural law" of analyzing human nature to know what is good means that theoretically all people can agree on certain moral standards if they are reasoning well.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics can be defined as a moral theory "that emphasizes moral character in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions" (Hursthouse, 2012, para. 1). A virtue is a positive character trait, something that makes someone "good." One typically thinks of honesty, kindness, and courage as virtues. As an ethical theory, virtue ethics is less concerned about one's actions and more concerned with one's character. Certainly what one does is often a result of one’s character, but the point of virtue ethics is that an individual should be concerned with developing certain kinds of moral traits in order to live a

fulfilling life.

The New Testament notably advocates the development of virtue. In the Gospels, Jesus severely criticizes the religious leaders of his day for only paying attention to outward actions and not developing the proper inward dispositions. He famously describes his adversaries as "whitewashed tombs" (Matt. 23: 27 NIV) for their hypocrisy and lack of inner character.

Though the strengths of virtue ethics are obvious, there are a number of questions that ought to be asked. Wilkens asks if virtue ethics ultimately can help one to know what to do in a given situation (2011, pp. 141-142). One might also ask if a person with a virtuous character could actually perform an action that is considered evil based on those virtues. For example, might a terrorist act out of care for his community and courage, traits that would otherwise be considered good? Finally, the question of which character traits are actually virtuous has been a long-standing problem. Many of the Greeks considered humility a vice, while many Christians would point to humility as the most important virtue to be developed in the believer.

Natural Law

Natural law can be defined as a moral theory in which "the moral standards that govern human behavior are, in some sense, objectively derived from the nature of human beings and the nature of the world" (Himma, 2005, para. 1). In other words, what comes "naturally" is what is good. The common desires of human nature are an indication of ethical direction. As Thomas Aquinas states, "All those things to which man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as being good" (Summa Theologica, ii.1). The foundation of natural law is that good should be done and evil avoided. By natural, Aquinas has in mind when something functions the way it was designed to work.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to natural law ethical theory involves clarity (Wilkens, 2011, pp. 193-194). What is considered natural, and therefore right, to one person or group might be unnatural, and therefore wrong, to another. Debates that transpire in American society about euthanasia, birth control, and same-sex marriage are often debates about what is "natural." Since there is often significant disagreement on these questions, one can ask if natural law is an entirely helpful approach to ethics.


Virtue ethics points to the importance of character for thinking and living rightly; motives, intentions, and disposition matter. Natural law seeks governing objective moral laws in nature and/or human nature for good and proper moral functioning. While these ethical theories may assist some individuals and/or communities to grow in virtuous and behavioral ways, lack of consensus as to what comprise universal virtues and natural morality has led many to consider alternative ethical theories. It can be argued that only by means of an authoritative and trustworthy source and framework can human beings

gain true insight and power for authentic, faithful, and ethical thinking and living. Thus, by embracing a distinctly Christian worldview and ethic, which entails receiving the grace and love of the one good, right, and true God, one is empowered for upward journey of ethical reflection and virtuous living.


Clark, K. J., & Poortenga, A. (2003).The story of ethics: Fulfilling our human nature. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Himma, K. E. (2005). "Natural Law." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from

Hollinger, D. P. (2002). Choosing the good: Christian ethics in a complex world. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Hursthouse, R. (2012). "Virtue Ethics." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from

Pojman, L., & Fieser, J. (2012). Ethics: Discovering right and wrong (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Wilkens, S. (2011).Beyond bumper sticker ethics: An introduction to theories of right and wrong(2nded.). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press. © 2019. Grand Canyon University. All Rights Reserved.