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Understanding ethical systems: Virtue ethics

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March 2, 2021

In the final three articles in this series, we’re comparing and contrasting the most dominant ethical systems—deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics—to the standard of biblical ethics. In the first article we defined biblical ethics as the process of assigning moral praise or blame, and  considering moral events in terms of conduct (that is, the what), character (the who), and goals (the why). As we’ll see, the problem with each of these other approaches is not that they are necessarily wrong, but that they are incomplete. 

A concise, though admittedly simplistic formulation, would be that deontology is concerned with the “what,” virtue ethics with the “who,” and consequentialism with the “why.” Because all three of these elements—the what, who, and why—are essential to biblical ethics, we can learn from each of these ethical systems. But while they have much to offer, we should always keep in mind that on their own they are incomplete.

What is virtue ethics?

Virtue ethics is a broad term for ethical theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in moral decision-making rather than putting the primary focus on moral rules (as in deontology) or good consequences (as in consequentialism). Such theories require an understanding of what virtue is (or at least what virtues should be advocated for) and an idea of how to promote such virtues within an individual or society. Because of this focus, virtue ethics tends to consider a different, broader set of questions than other ethical theories. For instance, instead of asking “What is the moral thing to do in this particular situation?” a virtue ethicist would ask “How should I live?”

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More