Sunday, August 14, 2011

Virtue Ethics and Jonathan Myrick Daniels

The feast day for Jonathan Myrick Daniels in the Episcopal Church is August 14. My GOE (General Ordination Exam) Ethics question was about him and the concept of virtue ethics and I've decided to share it on this blog. What follows is the question and my response (from January of 2009).

QuestionHow does a virtue ethics approach in moral theology provide a way to interpret and understand an example like that of Jonathan Daniels?

     Jonathan Daniels was a Episcopalian seminarian and a worker for civil rights.  He died saving the life of a fellow picketer during the struggle in the 1960s for the right to vote for African-Americans.  He is remembered with a feast day in Lesser Fasts and Feasts.  By exploring the concept of virtue ethics, we can come to a greater understanding of the exemplary life and death of Jonathan Daniels.

     Virtue ethics is one of three major systems of moral theology or ethics.  The other two are deontology and utilitarianism (also known as consequentalism).  Deontological ethics emphasize duties and rules, whereas utilitarian ethics focus on the ends or consequences.  Both deontology and utilitarianism focus on right action and ask the question “What should I do?”, while virtue ethics differs from both by emphasizing right character and virtue and asks the question “What person shall I be?”

     A practical example might serve to help to differentiate the three systems of moral theology more clearly.  A person tells the truth about a matter and does not lie.  A utilitarian would tell the truth because the consequences of lying would be harmful, or the consequences of telling the truth would be beneficial.  The greater good is the goal here.  A deontological person would tell the truth because it is their duty, they would be obeying a moral rule that says that telling a lie is wrong and telling the truth is essentially good.  A virtues ethical person would tell the truth because they have an honest character.  It is not so much the action of truth-telling that is important (either acting in duty or for the greater good) as the virtue of being truthful in nature (they are fundamentally an honest person at heart). 

     The founders of virtue ethics are Plato and Aristotle.  The key concepts of virtue ethics are from ancient Greek philosophy, and include arete (virtue or excellence), phronesis (practical or moral wisdom) and eudaimonia (flourishing, happiness, or well-being) (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  Aristotle describes virtues as being twofold, “partly intellectual and partly moral” (Aristotle 395).  Intellectual virtue is “originated and fostered mainly by teaching; it demands therefore experience and time” whereas moral virtue “is the outcome of habit” (Aristotle 395).  Ethical behavior is not innate, it must be taught and more importantly it must be lived.  Aristotle wrote that “it is by doing just acts that we become just, by doing temperate acts that we become temperate, by doing brace acts that we become brave” (Aristotle 395).  A virtuous character is not in-born, it has to be developed over a period of time and maintained. 

     Aristotle believed that the “good” that all people aim towards is eudaimonia or happiness (Cooper 40).  He thought that in order “to achieve a state of well-being or happiness, proper social institutions are necessary” (Pojman 388).  Aristotle focused on the importance of the state as the highest form of social institution.  He believed that “the moral person cannot exist in isolation from a flourishing political community that enables the person to develop the necessary virtues for the good life” (Pojman 388).  Virtues cannot be developed in isolation, because virtues are developed by being taught and by being enacted.  A person is taught what is right by others, and a person either acts morally or unjust in relation to others.  A community is essential for the development of virtues in that it is the primary source of education and experience.

     For a Christian, the “proper social institution” or “flourishing political community” would be the church.  Dr. Sedgwick, an Episcopalian professor of ethics, writes that “as a matter of practical piety, Christian convictions are expressed in Anglicanism more in terms of relationships than as matters of belief about God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit” (Sedgwick 27).  I deem belief in the Triune God as being fundamentally important to Christianity, but I understand Dr. Sedgwick to be saying that it is the actual relationship that we have with God and with others that is the true foundation of an Anglican way of life.  He says that “the life formed in faith is never individual.  It is always a life formed in community in order to become a holy people” (Sedgwick 28).  Although not a Christian, I think that Aristotle would sympathize with this view of community because he thought that moral persons could not live in isolation either.  Intellectual virtues are taught in a community, and moral virtues are lived out in a community.  A community also tells the stories of saints and heroes.

     Lesser Feasts and Fasts is an Episcopalian resource that contains lessons, psalms, and collects associated with men and women whose lives are commemorated in the church.  “What we celebrate in the lives of the saints is the presence of Christ expressing itself in and through particular lives lived in the midst of specific historical circumstances” (Lesser Feasts and Fasts V).  Jonathan Myrick Daniels is one of many people whose life we commemorate and honor in the Episcopal Church.  He is remembered because he was killed as a witness for civil rights.  By exploring virtue ethics, we may come to a greater understanding of his life and death.

     Jonathan Daniels was formed by his membership in certain communities of faith.  What strikes me about his story is that all of the instances of his life that turned him towards ministry and service were experiences in community.  He followed his calling to ordained ministry after the experience on Easter Sunday during a worship service at the Church of the Advent in Boston.  His calling was further strengthened by an incident in the course of singing of the Magnificat during Evening prayer.  He was a seminarian at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and no doubt shaped by the life of formation of study, prayer, and fellowship that seminaries are known for.  Daniels was inspired to work for civil rights by another person (a speech of Martin Luther King, Jr.).  In working for civil rights, he did not work alone, but rather was sponsored by the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity and had associates in Selma that he picketed with.  Jonathan Daniels lived in community, was transformed by community, and worked in community.  His focus on relationship with others is part of the Anglican view of a life of faith.

     As an active member of various Christian communities and relationships, Jonathan Daniels was able to develop a virtuous character.  Virtue ethics holds that community is essential for this development to occur.  Churches and seminaries teach intellectual virtues, and also encourage the growth of virtuous habits in the life of the community.  Jonathan Daniels was strengthened by the communion of the saints, both living and dead (Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mary).  He was able to grow in ways that allowed him to live into his Baptismal Covenant, especially the vow to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305).

     One of the lessons for the feast day of Jonathan Daniels is Galatians 3:22-28.  Part of Paul’s letter to the Galatians states: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”  Jonathan Daniels was “clothed with Christ.”  Daniels did not merely act like Christ, but became like Christ when he took the bullet that was meant for sixteen-year-old Ruby Sales.  In one of his letters, Daniels wrote  that he knew “in his bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection…with them, the black men and white men, with all life” (Lesser Fasts and Feasts 334).   Baptized into Christ, clothed with Christ, formed by Christian community and fellowship, Jonathan Daniels developed a true Christian character of love, service, and sacrifice.  When Daniels saw that a girl was about to be shot, he did not stop to ask “Is it my duty to intervene?” or “What action might achieve the greater good?”  He simply pushed Ruby Sales aside and walked in the line of fire.  He acted in this way because it was within his Christian character. 

Works Cited

Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics found in Moral Life, An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature, Louis P. Pojman ed. (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Book of Common Prayer, 1979.

Cooper, J. M. “Aristotelian Ethics” The Westminister Dictionary of Christian Ethics James F. Childress and John Macquarrie eds. (Westminister Press 1986).

Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2003

NRSV Bible

Pojman, Louis P. ed. The Moral Life, An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “Virtue Ethics”

Sedgwick, Timothy F. The Christian Moral Life