Thursday, September 25, 2008

In search of a guiding virtue

This is an interesting piece comparing the primary virtues of McCain and Obama (honour and empathy), analysing their limits and pondering their implications for foreign policy. H/T Sam.*

This piece illustrates an interesting feature of ethics: the interdependence of the virtues. Is it possible for one virtue to interpret all the others? The article argues that honour and empathy are both insufficient as guiding principles in a complex world and each could lead to bad decisions as president. What then is a sufficient principle? Is there a better virtue than honour, a greater one than empathy?

"Love binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Colossians 3.14). Here is a candidate for the position of guiding principle. Yet might it not also face a similar critique to those levelled against honour and empathy? Might love be but a partial grasping of the picture that obscures as it reveals?

It all depends how we understand the "binding" to which the verse refers. Importantly, the context is one rich with all kinds of ethical language - honesty, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance and forgiveness all appearing in quick succession. Apparently this is not the kind of binding that destroys all distinction, such that no more needs to be said than the imperative "love!". There is still a place for reflection upon the relation of honesty to kindness, or of compassion to forbearance. Yet it is love that prevents these discussions from becoming wars of attrition in which the champions of truth seek to dominate the defenders of mercy or vice versa. The primacy of love does not consist of demanding that we prefer being loving to being truthful or being meek. It consists in the faith that these demands are not ultimately in conflict. "Ultimately", since the unification of the moral life in love is not simply revelation of what is, but a promise of what is to come.
*NB Sam has also posted a link to a good little piece introducing virtue ethics for those unfamiliar with the phrase.
Twelve points for picking the location of this Sydney shot.

12 comments:

Megan said...

My father's PhD was on Paul's virtues compared to the virtues of his time. Big difference between them. If virtues gain prominence again, what virtues would our society honour? I agree on the primacy of love.

Megan said...

Primacy - I mean biblically that is, not necessarily in our society

Sam Norton said...

I'm glad you liked that article, it set off a lot of thoughts in me. One is that McCain might be precisely the wrong person for the US at this time because the US is so weak. I can see him having a Suez moment, ie attacking Iran, China dumping the dollar, and then being too honour-driven to accept defeat - which way lies madness.

byron smith said...

Megan - ah, a NT project or an ethics project?

Sam - Honour is virtuous insofar as it is more or less a synonym of "integrity", but when it comes to the need to save face (to defend one's honour), then I wonder whether it becomes a vice. Is this what you're getting at with the comment about being "honour-driven"?

Megan said...

NT - Dad lectures in New Testament at Morling (though a long time ago he lectured in theology)

byron smith said...

Ah - what's his name?

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Rozelle...at Callan Park?

byron smith said...

Sorry, incorrect.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Centennial Park?

byron smith said...

Nope.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

The Botanical Gardnes?

byron smith said...

Yep. Twelve points.