What is virtue ethics, and why should it matter to a college student?

Virtue ethics is a way of thinking about the being and doing of a person that focuses not on a particular norm or list of directives, but on striving to be and do what it is that a person is designed to be and do. In other words, the idea of virtue ethics is that people should be shaped to live their lives in light of the human end, goal, or objective, or what the ancient Greeks called a thing’s telos. An ethic of virtue is at least as old as Aristotle who recognized that a thing or person is “right” when that thing is functioning fully as it was intended to operate. Thus, virtue ethics is less interested in sorting out difficult moral quandaries or finding a rule for every situation, and more interested in forming and shaping a person to be the person he is supposed to be at all times. Virtues are the particular skills, behaviors, and ways of operating that together comprise the human telos. For a college student, a focus on virtues provides a persistent reminder that life is not about checking boxes that delineate good behavior, achieving the approval of peers or those in authority, or attaining a state of self-actualization. Rather a life rightly lived is determined by the degree of conformity to the human telos established by humanity’s Creator.

For the Christian, Jesus is the enfleshed reality of humanity’s telos. Jesus is the perfect human—all that God intended man to be when the world was created. Jesus is fully human. So it is, that when Christians follow Jesus in their own daily lives by dying to self, taking up the cross of self-sacrifice, and living wholly for the other, they are, by definition, striving to achieve and practice the virtues that attend a life lived in light of the human telos. This must be the core of a virtue ethics that is shaped in light of Christian confession.

Joel D. Biermann, Ph.D. is the Waldemar A. and June Schuette Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

For Professor Biermann's full treatment of this question:

Biermann, Joel, A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics