Virtue ethics stresses the need to develop human character instead of striving to define ‘goodness and rightness’ (Porter 2005). The highest goal of virtue ethics is to promote human happiness. As Aristotle noted, we can only attain virtue through habits and inculcating moral and intellectual virtue. The concept of natural law relates closely to virtue ethics due to its grounds in nature itself.
Natural law binds all human beings due to its norm for ethical behaviour. Natural law should act as a form of control to all humans. This is because it promotes a common good and allows people to be morally responsible for their own deeds.
Thus, natural law relates to concepts of ethics, human rights, religious morality, and politics. The issue becomes complex if we focus on proportionalism. This justifies “a bad action as morally good but not morally right” (Kaczor 2002).
This essay focuses on strengths and or, weaknesses of trying to propose moral goods for a society based on human rights, universal natural law, and claims of Christian faith.
Notion of human rights
Virtue ethics looks at how people can achieve a given fulfilment if they follow certain attitudes. George Robert looks at promoting virtue as the way to enhance and protect human rights in a contemporary society. This is because some scholars believe that the “law cannot promote morality” (George 1995).
According George, the law can only work where it is legitimate. However, the issue arises on how far the law may reach in controlling individual autonomy. From this view, we can note that George based his argument on the principle of natural law.
Liberal thinkers believe that the current legal systems impinge on fundamental rights of individuals. The law ought to guard human rights and promote moral order. According to Patrick Devlin, society can decide to promote collective morality necessary for its members (Devlin 1965). In this regard, the law becomes fundamental in safeguarding human rights so long as such individual rights do not interfere with society.
Thus, individuals may be rational in their decisions, but the good for society comes first. This is because a society cannot allow what it disapproves to continue even if it impinges individuals’ rights e.g. the decision to be homosexual.
Universal natural law
The law should promote virtue in society even if it means coercing individual to become virtuous. To this end, the idea of virtue jurisprudence should focus on promoting good judgment. We can promote moral good through judicial virtues, which have normative significance and can provide basic explanatory to issues.
Western philosophers use virtue jurisprudence to relate the law and virtue. However, we must note that virtue and law may differ depending on various schools of thoughts. For instance, Confucius argued that there is no need for “judges, rules, or jurisprudence in a society where people are virtuous” (Porter 2005). This is because individuals can solve their own problems independently. In this case, virtue and law oppose each other.
Using moral good to enhance universal law in the contemporary society can be challenging because of inherent disagreements. This is because individuals may have different views about the use of law. This happens in cases where people feel that their interests are at risk. The traditional Chinese society may view people as selfless and not selfish.
In this context, individual may not consider their self-interests first, but rather the interest of society. However, this idea cannot be practical in any society since a man is naturally self-centred animal. Therefore, a moral good cannot restrain people from committing corruption, mistakes or other vices. In addition, the law and those who propagate it cannot deal with imperfect people in a defective society.
We may argue that we make laws because the society lacks virtue. If we adopt Confucianism argument, then we may observe that laws cannot inculcate virtue or morality in a man. Confucius held the view that education was the key to instilling morals in people. In addition, morality should originate from introspect within an individual.
Moral principles guide legislative processes. Thus, laws are useful in enforcing moral principles against perceived crimes. The law can address both moral and immoral issues. However, a challenge can arise in the universal context where the concept of morality varies.
This is because morality from Christian teaching differs significantly from Islamic teaching. Still, some people may not believe contents of religious doctrines. This implies that such sources of morality cannot be sources of effective laws for everyone. Thus, society must look for other sources on which to base its laws.
The claims of Christian faith
Christians have continued to stress the fundamental importance of virtue in individuals’ lives. From history, we can see this in works of Plato on cardinal rules of theological virtues like “wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice” (Finnis 1998).
Augustine also based his views on New Testament teachings like hope, faith, and charity to show theological virtues to humans. Aquinas’ views show that if people acquire perfect virtue, then people can engage in rightful behaviours without self conflict and do the right thing based on reasons.
Christians depend on interpretations of individuals’ behaviours based on the Bible. These interpretations may be subjective based assumptions of good or bad, and evil or holy. This leaves people to decide what actions are wrong or right. These views may also be under the influence of Western philosophies about ethics. Thus, they may influence what is ethical or unethical based on various interpretations.
The Bible remains to be the main source moral and ethical teachings for Christians. This is because they believe that God inspired its writers. Therefore, it remains the only book of determining what is right or wrong among Christians. Christians have based their interpretations of ethics on analyses of characters in the Bible.
This has been a source of problems because the Bible does not categorically state what is ethical or not. Thus, interpretations may be subjective and propagate individuals’ ideologies about moral good (Grisez 1983).
From Christian faith perspective, people can find great benefit in promoting what is right. Thus, Christian teachings have influenced laws of various nations. We can also see the influence of natural law in Roman Catholic.
The church may encourage other approaches, but official functions still conform to the concept of natural law. Christians rely on deontological approaches for guiding their actions. Confusions emerge based on teachings of Aquinas or Augustine, but Christians still follow such rules.
Using virtue ethics and natural law to promote moral good in society have both strength and weaknesses. We can look at virtue from writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Confucius. These scholars provided explanations of what we may consider virtuous based on the natural and moral values. Their ideas aimed at promoting moral good in society. They try to show how people should live virtuously.
However, contemporary world has changed and offered various definitions of what is morally good. As a result, there is no consensus regarding a right or wrong action. This is because people are free to decide on what is ethical or unethical. Thus, there is no universal and a united way of defining ethics. Any approach to moral good such as freedom or happiness may have limited ethical contents.
This is because individuals’ freedom can allow them engage in what make them happy. However, the society does not provide guidance on how people can achieve such happiness. Thus, the law may impinge on such notions of personal right or freedom if the society does not approve certain actions for its members.
Moral good can control human excessiveness in human actions so as to promote an individual’s growth. Excessive behaviours may be spontaneous. However, they require practice and education to control.
Contemporary virtue ethics attempts to address issues of fragmentation in ethics that face society. It attempts to reinstate classical views that promote virtue. This is the only way to develop individual character. Virtue ethics also aims at fostering Christian ethics. Based on the teachings of the Bible, Christians can shape their ethical actions.
Thus, Christians rely on churches for learning ethical concerns based on the church’s interpretation of the Bible. Christians can read the Bible and make their own choices on moral goods. However, Christians depend on interpreters for meanings. This may subject them to bias on moral issues like homosexuality.
These issues can have significant effects on people in relation to promoting moral good. However, issues of individualism may influence the effectiveness of virtue ethics in promoting moral good.
Devlin, Patrick. The Enforcement of Morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965.
Finnis, John. Aquinas: Moral, Political, and Legal Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
George, Robert P. Making Men Moral. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Grisez, Germain. The Way of the Lord Jesus, Volume I: Christian Moral Principles. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983.
Kaczor, Christopher. Proportionalism and the Natural Law Tradition. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2002.
Porter, Jean. Nature as Reason: A Thomistic Theory of the Natural Law. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.