Some thoughts on Deontology and Virtue Ethics

I was just thinking about the early modern agenda to mathematize the whole enterprise of knowledge, including medicine. The early moderns managed, to their credit, to mathematize the field of physics, but though this is often hailed as their greatest contribution to science, technology and the knowledge enterprise in general, it was considered by them to be a rather trivial accomplishment (in part because they thought of physics very differently from how do we today). They had always aimed to mathematize medicine, something which even today remains to be done, as medicine is not yet ‘an exact science’. In fact, we only think medicine could possibly be an exact science one day because we have confidence in our ability to mathematize physics, and we think that medicine is, at bottom, reducible to nothing but physics (we like tidy answers). It was in thinking about this that it came to me – what Kant was doing with his work on ethics was precisely an attempt to ‘mathematize’ ethics, insofar as he made ethics out to be an entirely dialectical enterprise.


I have been taking two ethics courses this semester (Christian Ethics, and Bioethics) and a third class has dealt in depth with Aristotle’s virtue ethics in the Nicomachean Ethics, so naturally I have been thinking a great deal about ethical theories. I used to think that Christians had to be deontologists in a rather strict, practically Kantian sense. Having thought this through a little further, I no longer think that’s quite right.

I think Christianity supports a kind of dialectical deontology, but that deontological framework cannot be used to assess moral culpability or laudability. In other words, Christianity is deontological only insofar as it stipulates that the world is objectively comprised of moral facts in just as real a sense as it is comprised of physical facts. However, one’s moral responsibility cannot be assessed merely with a view to deontological principles. I think one might be able to derive the categorical imperative from Natural Law theory in Ethics, as I believe Natural Law theory is, at bottom, correct. However, somebody is not necessarily guilty of having violated the categorical imperative if their conscience is so malformed that they do not have the moral instinct to know that it is right.

Virtue Ethics, therefore, is the correct ethical framework to adopt when asking questions of subjective moral responsibility. Thus, though it is objectively wrong always and everywhere to lie to anybody for any reason, Rahab (Joshua 2:3-5) may still have done what was morally right insofar as a Virtue-Ethical model reveals that the act of lying was, for her, a virtuous act which her conscience demanded of her. This Virtue-Ethical model works very well to explain the moral trajectory of Israel and the Catholic Church. Consider for instance the objection against the Catholic Church that if slavery was objectively wrong, then why did it take so long for Christians to liberate entire civilizations from that institutionalized evil? The answer seems obvious: because no civilization in Christendom had yet developed a social moral conscience which led to a proto-liberation theology, and therefore no civilization was ever in the position of being able to recognize the abolition of slavery as a virtuous action.

Similarly, consider the slaughter of the Canaanites: the Israelite soldiers (and the whole of Israel), simply were not in a position to see their actions as being morally wrong or even dubious. Rather, to suggest that a culture in the ancient near east could have recognized Herem war (Jewish Jihad) as inexcusable is naïvely utopic. Finally, of course, God can have been morally justified in view of his quasi-middle knowledge (that is, knowledge of what counterfactuals hold at all the nearest logically possible worlds, which is sufficient for moral certainty) in having the Canaanites killed, having already given them gratuitous chances to repent. I think God could also have been justified, in light of his knowledge of Israel’s social conscience, in acting in judgment against the Canaanites not through any natural disaster, but through his people, and this, moreover, was to be an eschatologically typical event in salvation history, signifying the victory of the people of God and the judgment of the damned who do not repent. God was not commanding any Israelite soldier to violate his conscience, anymore than he had asked Abraham to violate his conscience, precisely because he knew that, Virtue-Ethically speaking, they had not developed their moral consciences to the point of recognizing what was being demanded of them as morally problematic.

Notice finally that whereas there is objectively (deontologically) nothing wrong with the Canaanites dying, nor with Israel killing them in a military capacity, Rahab’s lie was wrong, but God did not command Rahab to lie, and God only recognized that Rahab’s action was virtuous to the extent that Rahab acted as best she could given the maturity of her moral conscience.

This also solves the problem of somebody asking: if we as Christians were sent back in time to the Canaanite massacre, would we also be obliged to ‘dash the children upon the rocks’? The answer is obviously not precisely because this would violate our conscience, and God never demands that we violate our conscience, since our conscience is, as the Catechism puts it, the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ” (CCC 1778).


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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One Response to Some thoughts on Deontology and Virtue Ethics

  1. mattd4488 says:

    Woohoo! Virtue ethics for the win!

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