Summary of Second Half of Chapter 3, C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations

In the latter half of this chapter, Evans explores whether divine command theories of obligation are consistent with virtue ethics. Virtue ethics (or theory—thus VT), understood broadly, is an ethical theory that emphasizes the central role played in ethics by long-term dispositional states of character of moral agents. Evans points out that it’s easy to answer the question of consistency if he’s right to have argued that DCT is consistent with a natural law ethic, since the greatest natural law theorist, Thomas Aquinas, was himself also a virtue ethicist. If A is consistent with B, and A entails C, then B must also be consistent with C. If a natural law ethic is consistent with a DCT, and a natural law ethic logically requires a virtue ethic, then DCT is consistent with virtue theory.

Of course there are some versions of VT that clash with DCT. Hursthouse, for example, describes VT as an alternative to ethical theories that emphasize moral rules or principles and ones that emphasize consequences. In some cases it’s not clear whether a particular thinker sees VT as an alternative to an ethic of duty—like Stanley Hauerwas. Arguably, though Hauerwas has focused almost exclusively on issues of character, his target is not the existence of moral obligations, but the claim that an ethic of obligation by itself captures all that is important in the ethical life.

What kind of VT constitutes a genuine alternative to the kind of DCT Evans is defending? One such variant of VT would deny the importance of moral duties, as prescribing or forbidding types of actions, altogether. Such a view is linked to some versions of “moral particularism.” Moral particularism emphasizes the idea that moral judgments are a response to the particular features of a situation, rather than being derived from general principles, and it comes in different forms. A strong form of moral particularism would be one that claims that there are no true moral duties that are general in form; at best a principle that we regard as expressing our moral duty gives us only a general guide or rule of thumb. But we can never deduce what we should do in an actual situation from such a general rule. This comports well with VT idea that correct moral judgments will be those made by virtuous people, people who possess “practical wisdom.”

Evans thinks this view is mistaken. It’s one thing to maintain that good judgment is required to apply moral principles correctly; quite another to assert that moral judgments do not rely on principles at all.

But there are weaker versions of moral particularism that are much more plausible. For example, one might suggest there are some moral situations in which moral principles do not determine any unique right answer, and there are some moral situations in which it may be unclear how to apply our moral principles and thus difficult to apply them. Both situations would imply that there are some particular judgments that can’t simply be deduced from general principles. DCT can admit this. Some situations do fall outside the scope of the principles of duty, and sometimes moral principles are hard to interpret and apply. In any case, VT need not be committed to the strong version of moral particularism. Aquinas, for example, doesn’t seem to have been committed to it. Only the strong version conflicts with DCT.

The second way a virtue ethic could come into conflict with DCT is by claiming that moral obligations can be adequately explained in terms of the virtues, thus making any appeal to God’s commands unnecessary. Michael Slote, for example, has defended a VT that he calls “agent-based,” as opposed to being simply “agent-focused,” which is the kind of view associated with Aristotelian-type virtue ethics. According to an “agent-based” ethic, it is the fact that a virtuous agent would act in a particular way x that makes it true that x is actually the correct way to behave. Slote pretty  much leaves reference to moral duties out of his theory altogether, preferring talk of “caring” instead.

Linda Zagzebski appears to argue that our moral duties are simply those types of acts which a virtuous agent would feel guilt or shame for not doing. The type of VT that Slote and Zagzebski defend is one in which the virtuous agent is the “truth-maker” for normative truths. Evans thinks this inverts the way things actually are. We don’t regard courage as a good thing because it is the kind of trait we find in virtuous people. Rather, we believe courage is a good thing, and so when we find someone who is courageous we have a reason to think that this person is virtuous, at least in that respect.

Another possible version of VT offers an epistemic relation between duties and virtuous persons. On this view, it’s by looking to exemplars that we come to know what our duties are—epistemically speaking. So far as Evans sees it, though, a proponent of DCT could affirm this.

So, on Evans’ view, giving an account of moral duties and giving an account of the characteristics of virtuous people are both important but they are answering different questions about different aspects of our ethical lives. Yet there remain vital links between them. First, our moral duties may include duties to cultivate various virtues. Many of God’s commands are commands to acquire or cultivate particular virtues, such as the command to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Indeed, it is arguable that the fundamental commands of God are, at least in part, commands to acquire virtues—loving God with all our hearts, souls, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. From the other side, an account of the virtues may be valuable in giving us an understanding of what motivates moral agents to live in accordance with their duties. If DCT is right, fulfilling our moral duties can be at the same time an expression of devotion to God, thus linking the life of duty to such “theological virtues” as hope and faith. To live morally is not to be done with gritting of teeth, but joyously. This is a recurring biblical theme—and tied to the recurring biblical motif of blessings that accompany loving God.

Finally, the deepest link between virtues and duty requires us to reflect on the telos of duty. Kant thought that duties apply to human beings but not God, because God has a “holy will,” and thus there’s no possibility that God will ever follow any principles that are wrong. But Evans pushes this point to suggest that the more perfected a saint becomes, the smaller a role duties play. Moral duties might have as part of their function the goal of assisting us to become such persons, or at least to move in this direction. Kierkegaard seems to suggest this in his Works of Love. After spending a lot of his time focusing on the moral law rooted in God’s authority, he discusses the command to love, nothing that eventually it’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t need to be commanded, once someone becomes at one with the commandment. Love is the fulfillment of the law—which is far beyond doing duty for duty’s sake. It is radical transformation—the goal of the moral life. So Slote’s right in a sense—there is a life that goes beyond duty. But he’s wrong to think we can go straight there without a process of transformation first, that may well require obedience to duty. Kierkegaard saw duty as a “schoolmaster” helping us to be changed and transformed. But we’re still in need of this transformation at this point, rendering leaving duties behind too quickly a mistake.