The Heart of the Matter II: Those good ol’ fashioned values

I’ve decided to modify my approach and defer “I/Thou” to Part III since I think a more basic issue needs to be discussed first.  In Part I, I mentioned that forgiveness is a virtue–however it occurred to me that although many have a vague understanding of  “virtue” its technical or more nuanced form remains unexplained and so unknown.  For this reason I present a brief sketch of virtue theory.

Broadly speaking there are two types of ethical theories–theories of obligation such as utilitarianism (i.e. we ought to do what causes the most happiness) and virtue theory.  In contrast to theories of obligation, virtue theory assesses morality on the grounds of character.  There are two types of character traits:  virtue and vice.  Virtue are those character traits which allow one to fulfill their function in a society and are often found between two opposing destructive character traits called vices.

In the case at hand forgiveness can be seen as the trait which falls between being a “push over” and holding a grudge.  It is this type of thinking that leads to pop-philosophy like “everything in moderation”.

Because virtues are seen as character traits they are things to be practiced habitually.  Thus the virtuous person is the one who consistently models positive character traits as often as the situation calls for it.  Forgiveness is therefore not a one and done action but a habit practiced so often that it becomes a part of a person’s character.

Traditionally another significant component of virtue theory is what in the “olden days” was called telos.  Telos is a Greek word which refers to the purpose of life.  In the context of virtue theory this means that virtues are those character traits which when practiced allow the individual or group to fulfill their function/purpose in society.  Christians identify their telos as bringing reconciliation (forgiveness) to all spheres of life:  with God, other people, and with the physical environment.  Forgiveness is therefore an intrinsic and signficant virtue in the Christian life.

One of the more troubling points of Virtue Theory is the role of the community.  Because it is so rooted in fulfilling function, Virtue Theory requires people to view themselves as existing as a part of a whole rather than as an isolated individual free to do as they please.  This point will be addressed in more detail in part III

Community dovetails nicely into another aspect of virtue theory:  narrative.  Narratives are stories which a community (family, country, church, religion, etc) tells which shape life goals, attitudes, priorities, etc.  What one sees as virtuous thus largely depends on the type of story being told.  From a Christian perspective the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection causes forgiveness to be seen as one of the supreme virtues.

A final significant aspect of Virtue theory is its emphasis on the particular.  Unlike obligatory theories which stress a more or less cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach, virtue theory has much greater flexibility.  Although virtue theory maintains that the virtues should be practiced constantly, the form they take changes greatly depending on the situation.  For example we can imagine how practicing the virtue of generosity can look differently depending on your class/age/situation:  as a child you may share a toy, as a student your time, and as a wealthy person you may share your riches.  In each situation the act is different but the virtue remains the same.  With forgiveness this is also true.  We can imagine, for example, how forgiving someone for cutting us off on the road may look different from more extreme situations like forgiving someone of physical abuse.



  1. miscellaneoussoapbox · May 7, 2010

    I was once a student of ethics . . . .
    I enjoyed your entry here. When I was actually working on my dissertation in philosophy, my topic was fitting forgiveness and mercy into Aristotle’s notion of virtue in general and justice in particular.
    It was a tough job.
    Not having access to your reference list, I will recommend a book if it hasn’t come to your attention: Murphy, Jeffrie and Jean Hampton. 1988. Forgiveness and Mercy. Even after leaving academic life behind, I find it a good read.

    • travisbarbour · May 11, 2010

      I appreciate the recomendation, I am always looking for additional material. Your dissertation subject seems very interesting to me…I would be very interested to hear about your conclusions…

  2. miscellaneoussoapbox · May 13, 2010

    Sometime after our imminent trip (leaving tomorrow) I’ll dig out my dissertation proposal, which has the major arguments and a limited bibliography, and send it to you. I can’t vouch for it’s quality–I haven’t touched it since 2004. I’m glad you’re expending the effort to write an intellectually stimulating but transparent blog.

    • travisbarbour · May 13, 2010

      Excellent, enjoy your trip and I look forward to taking a look at your work!

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