When Jeff asked if I could do a piece on values and virtues, I knew it would not be a short piece, and I was right. In order to get to a working distinction between these two terms, I had to begin with the negative work of differentiating morality from Christian ethics, and then I had to situate the Christian virtues in a larger Christian theology and proclamation. Now I can proceed to discuss modern and postmodern “values” as a defective, consumerist basis for ethics.
Manliness Doesn’t Have to Stink
The word virtue derives from the Latin vir, man. It served to translate the Greek word arete, most fully explicated in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and also present in Philippians 4:8. Plato’s take on virtue is that certain dispositions are proper to a good citizen, a good king, or a good soldier. Such things as courage, justice, self-discipline, and wisdom were for the ancients both gifts that one person might exhibit in greater intensity and consistency than another and subject to development so that one might increase in courage by living courageously or diminish in wisdom by spending one’s days doing things that make fools.
To those four virtues (articulated in their classic form in Plato’s Republic) the medievals added Paul’s faith, hope, and love. Such an addition is no accident: justice and wisdom for Plato mean the government of the appetites by reason with the assistance of passions, an orderly relationship among natural human faculties. For Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, love is the organizing principle by which supernatural human faculties such as speech in tongues of men and angels, prophecy, and martyrdom. For Plato courage means the proper ordering of natural fears, the preference of death before bad deeds. For Hebrews (influenced by Paul even if not his letter), faith means the supernatural orientation of one’s life, a preference for unseen treasure over visible pleasure. For Plato self-discipline was the willingness to allow one’s appetites to be governed by natural reason, and for Paul in Romans 8 hope is the supernatural willingness to allow patiently for God to save.
All of these virtues have some things in common. Most notably, they all assume that their operations happen in relationship; whether between living people, between the living and the dead and those yet to come, or between humans and God. In addition they all precede and determine the shape of a good life; virtues have to do with character, the mark made by traditions for Plato and for Spirit-informed traditions for Paul. The sum of these characteristics is that people neither invent nor elect what shall be virtues, and nobody expresses or fails to express virtues alone. They come before us, and we either do them well or do not.
Values: Character for Sale
Virtues are prior to the particular person; the consumer values what values the consumer values. Such a distinction neither condemns one nor commends the other absolutely, but it should give us Christians pause as we consider our common life in the world.
By contrast to virtues, those dispositions of a person particularly fitted for some service to and some relationship with others, values all lie on the table, ready to be selected or not. Sometimes that table has ballots for political candidates, and other times that table has a poll on which one checks boxes that indicates whether one is “in favor” of a way of life or not. In any case, nothing in the selector’s past has any real determining power over the momentary choice: one could decide to value “free markets” one day and “education” the next, and the action of checking a box remains the same.
Values describe what a person would choose in the moment; virtues are those dispositions developed by a lifetime of discipline. Although personality tests might ask someone whether or not she considers herself courageous, real courage is not a function of self-evaluation but of real, visible participation in a community when that community faces danger. An online quiz might tell someone what kind of lover he is, but real Christian love happens as days and years pass, and nothing solely inside the individual can make it happen; as Paul notes, the first two things to be said about love is that it is patient and kind, that it bears with other people and lives as kin to other people.
Values are not ultimately valueless; they do serve as helpful cognitive tools, categories with which we can investigate what we really think. But they ultimately do not mean the same as who we really are as we live with other people. Virtues, or lack of virtues, tell that story. Consider the phrase “family values.” They stand handy when politicians want to measure how people imagine themselves, but when one actually lives in a family, one must wisely administer time and money, must exhibit self-discipline lest one vocalize every moment of anger and make life miserable for others in the family. No poll can measure the latter pair; virtue is life.
The confusion between the two happens because both of these can mark people off in ways that a common morality cannot. Morality might say that one ought not to murder. Such is hard to dispute from strictly moral grounds, but when family values on one hand and Christian ethics come to the question of murder, each sets people off in quite different ways. Values might answer a poll question to the effect that they “value” life in all its forms; a Christian community properly living the virtues of hospitality and generosity might run a crisis pregnancy home. Values might “support” the invasion of a country; a Christian community properly living the virtues of courage and hope will pray for those in danger even as they analyze, deploying those intellectual virtues that Christians have so often in history deployed, the situation from the perspective of the time-between-the-times.
Perhaps I set up a strawman here. In the interest of avoiding such, let me reiterate that values do indeed have value, and let me add that values and virtues do not necessarily exclude one another. But lest I sell all I own for a pearl of no great price, let me say that as a Christian thinker, values in their own right do not much impress me. If we Christians are simply more consumers with our own niche “values,” we are but clanging cymbals. If we Christians “support” the right things but do not live together in ways that herald the coming-and-present Reign of God, we are little better than the nations. If we Christians fail to live those virtues that make for genuinely and supernaturally good common life, then our call is not to vote but to repent.