Moral theologians argue about which system of morality is best. When it comes to the Catholic Faith, we may take either a deontological approach or a virtue ethics approach.
Deontology is about following rules out of a sense of duty and obedience. The questions deontologists ask when it comes to making moral choices are, ‘What does the law say? What is my moral obligation?’. The major thinker who advocated for this system was an 18th century German, Emmanuel Kant. That is why deontology is sometimes called ‘Kantian Ethics’. Kant famously said, “It is not necessary that while I live I live happily; but it is necessary that so long as I live I should live honorably”. There is no room for subjective, relativism or feelings based morality. It's all objective, black and white and requires little if any waivering or deliberation.
Virtue Ethics, as a moral system, is about reaching the goal of becoming a virtuous person. It asks the questions, “What kind of person am I becoming? What kind of person should I be?’. The major thinker who advocated for virtue ethics was the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. This is why it is sometimes called, ‘Aristotelian Ethics’. One way of thinking about Virtue Ethics is to remember an old maxim: ‘Our thoughts become our words, our words become our actions, our actions become our habits, our habits become our character and our character becomes our destiny’. Aristotle thought that if we could focus on developing good moral habits, then we could eventually find it easy to make good moral choices. The habituation of virtue is how one becomes a virtuous person. The saints are seen as models of virtue and the standard by which we measure our progress.
As a Catholic I find that both systems are useful and necessary. It’s possible to be concerned with following the moral laws that come to us through Divine Revelation and through the teachings of the Church and also try to develop good habits, inclusing detachment and ask, “What kind of person does God want me to be?’. This would bring us more spiritual freedom. It would also require a balance between the two approaches.
If we focus only on Deontology (duty and obedience), we may lapse into one of the two extremes of a bad conscience. On the one hand we may develop a pharisaical obsession with following the law and being obedient to the point where we become scrupulous. A scrupulous conscience tells us that we must be harsh on ourselves and that we must never make a mistake. It sees sin when there is no sin and mortal sin when our thoughts, words or actions may just be a venial sin or something less serious. On the other hand deontologists may go the other way and develop a lax conscience. Like the Pharisees who knew the law and the rules, they may find ways to obey the letter but ignore the spirit. They may do the bare minimum so long as they are officially following the rules. I know Catholics who struggle with both laxity and scrupulosity. They fail to be balanced; they haven’t balanced their deontology with virtue ethics.
When it comes to Virtue Ethics, there is another kind of balance needed. We desire to grow in virtue and we practice good habits to achieve a goal of perfection. When we recognize in ourselves some character defect or some area where we are prone to sin. In order to target this area we may go too far. Instead of restoring a balance or achieving a balance, we create a new imbalance. The appropriate balance is called the Golden Mean, a middle ground between two extremes.
For example, if we notice that we lack courage we try to eradicate all fear in our life and become reckless and take unnecessary risks. We fail to find the Golden Mean, a middle ground between recklessness and cowardice. When we see that, in an effort to be generous, we have given too much of our money away and can no longer provide for our family, it would be the vice called, prodigality (wasteful spending). On the other hand we may become miserly and so tight with our money to the point where we lack generosity. Again we can see that there is a Golden Mean or a balance between two extremes.
So virtues like courage and generosity require that we get the balance right. Having a concern for following the rules like a good deontologist and paying attention to what God is asking of us in any given situation would help resolve the virtue ethics’ problem of missing the Golden Mean through the extremes.
Deontology and Virtue Ethics complement each other. As Catholics we should find a way to adopt a balance of both systems. We must also be balanced in our attitude between scrupulosity and laxity. Finally, balance is found in acheiving the Golden mean rather than excessive vice in the practice of the virtues. When it comes to Catholic morality, it's all about balance.
I am a life-long Catholic, husband, dad, teacher and former football coach. I've been teaching the Catholic Faith to young men, religious educators and catechists since 1998. My academic background, MA is in Theology and Catechetics. I am the creator of www.apexcatechetics.com, the home of high quality catechetical resources for those who teach the Catholic Faith.