The Virtues/Character Debate

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  • April 23, 2016 at 11:03 am #716

    Hello Alcuin Fellowship,

    How delightful to see this beautiful site up and running.

    I’m venturing a post to see how all this works, and I hope this is the appropriate format for raising this topic.

    Over the past several months I’ve been learning there is much academic debate on several levels, both inside and outside Christian circles, surrounding the topic of virtue ethics, character formation, moral education.

    For example, I’ve come across a number of arguments why virtuous exemplars shouldn’t be held up as exemplary models to imitate (only to admire–and the difference is key). Augustine for one seems to lean in this direction. I’ll share a quote from Oliver O’Donovan at the bottom of this post that exemplifies one perspective on this topic.

    Since character/virtue/moral/affective formation is a chief concern of ours, I wondered if the Alcuins might want to spend some time listening to and understanding the nuances of the discussion around virtue, or if it would be helpful to put together a reading list and a summary of the questions about virtue education?

    Is this a topic anyone else has been wondering about?

    Here’s the O’Donovan excerpt (from a New College Lecture titled “Admiring” in 2007)

    ‘Virtues are not a law, not an “ideal,” they are not any form of deliberative norm. They are not direct commands. What we should be or do is not shown to us in what our neighbour has been given to be or do. To treat our neighbour’s virtue wrongly is to make a tyrant out of it every bit as oppressive as an uninstructed conscience. And so the virtuous are not to be imitated, but simply to be loved for what they are, and to be taken as material for understanding what kinds of things God accomplishes in human action and lives. R.M. Adams has observed wisely: ‘virtue is best understood as a kind of goodness rather than rightness.’ But precisely as we recognise the context of the grace of God common to them and to us, other people’s moral acheivements lead us to faith. Virtues are our neighbours’ service to us, communicating the promise of a perfection we know we lack. From there on it will be the task for faith, which grasps the reality of things unseen, to see the possibilities open to our own lives and circumstances.’

    All best wishes,


    June 7, 2016 at 11:31 pm #737

    Thanks for posting this.
    O’Donovan’s distinction strikes me as, in some sense, correct; however, I worry that his notion of “imitation” is assuming a rather wooden high-modern caricature of what “imitation” involves, rather than a more subtle and flexible Aristotelian notion of imitation as involving a general similitude susceptible of recognition (and allowing for differences). The point is not a matter of hair splitting, but goes to key assumptions regarding the moral-formation rationale for studying literature. At one level, O’Donovan is clearly correct–and the same point is made most vividly by Dante–the purpose of virtuous exempla is not merely a direct implication to “go and do likewise”; rather, the main benefit is to re-orient the affections that are integral to true virtue. However, I would hesitate to draw a sharp distinction between imitation and admiration because of the central place of “following” Christ in Christian formation. 1 John is helpful on this point: Christian “following” involves not only obedience but also presumes the capacity to recognize how Christ’s example of self-giving love is to be practiced in one’s own life. The assumption that self-giving can take a variety of forms rather assumes that the “imitation” of Christ a far more subtle affair than O’Donovan’s use implies and necessarily requires some role for imaginative interpretation and discernment (rather than a direct one-to-one correspondence, as though literal crucifixion were the only acceptable mode of Christian fidelity). Of course, O’Donovan knows this, but by rejecting the mere caricature of “imitation” he risks missing the necessary role for literary formation in moral formation–the growth in the capacity to discern what similitudes do and do not apply in comparing two human actions (verbally rendered or otherwise).

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