What is an Ethics of Virtue?
It should be obvious that religious ethics are rarely totally deontological or totally teleological.  Rather, laws and consequences are usually interconnected. In fact, sacred reality can simultaneously provide both the source and the goal for ethical actions. Yet is there more to religious ethics than simply laws and goals?

Some have suggested that there is yet another norm for religious ethics that can be called an ethics of virtue. The ethics of virtue does not seek to extrapolate laws and guidelines for living; nor does it focus exclusively on the goal or consequences of one's actions.  Rather, focusing on the original meaning of ethics ("character") the ethics of virtue seeks to imitate the ideal moral character. Recently, a number of ethicist (both religious and secular) have suggested that ethics has focused too narrowly on how people should act, but has neglected a more important issue: what people should be. In their opinion, the fundamental question of ethics is not "What should I do?" but "What kind of person should I be?"

Those who argue for a virtue ethics contend that there are certain ideals toward which we should strive and which will allow the full development of our human potential. "Virtues" are attitudes, dispositions, or character traits that enable us to be and to act in ways that develop this potential. They enable us to pursue the ideals we have adopted. Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues.

Through learning and practice virtues become a habit and part of a person's character.  For example, a person who has developed the virtue of compassion is known as a "compassionate person" because he/she is consistently compassionate in all circumstances. The ethics of virtue thus focuses on  the motives and inner disposition  of individuals based on the belief that virtuous action derives merit from virtuous motives - not from the simple performance of virtuous deeds.  

One should not think that the ethics of virtue is isolated from the norms of law or consequences.  For example, Islamic law certainly is an example of an ethics of law. The Islamic law, however, is based on both the Divine Command in the form of the Qur'an and the example of the prophet Muhammad.   Shortly after the prophet's death, his followers began to collect his sayings and stories about his life. Collectively, these traditions about the prophet are known as the hadithThe traditions  of the prophet, like the Qur'an were considered divinely inspired, although they were not necessarily given the status of scriptures. The point is that Muhammad's life and sayings serve as an example of virtuous actions derived from virtuous motives.  Thus, Muhammad's life and ways are to be imitated as one fulfills the obligations of Islam. 

The same ethics of virtue is present in Christianity. To live according to the teachings of Jesus one must follow the example of Jesus. Believers are encouraged to "imitate Christ" or to "have within you the mind of Christ."   Paul often encouraged his readers, "become imitators of me."  Christianity basically teaches ethics through the examples of Jesus, the saints and other outstanding men and women of faith. 

    In Buddhism - especially the Mahayana school, the example of virtue that one is to follow is the bodhisattva or “being of wisdom”  (from the Sanskrit – Bhodi – “enlightenment” and sattva – “being”).  While Theravada Buddhism  emphasized liberating oneself through enlightenment,  Mahayana Buddhism, which emerged around the 1st Century CE,  emphasized obtaining enlightenment and then working to lead others to enlightenment.  In other words, individuals could decide that even if they achieved enlightenment, they would postpone entering Nirvana for the sake of others.  A wealth of stories emerged about these enlightened beings – the bodhisattvas and their heroic feats of compassion for the sake of others.  Many of these bodhisattvas were celestial/heavenly beings who heard the cries of human beings for help and mercy.  The most important was one by the name of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of mercy.  This same celestial being appears in Chinese Buddhism as Kuan-yin and in Japanese traditions as Kannon. 
            The important thing to note is that these bodhisattvas were not only types of gods/goddesses who could help mortals; they were moral examples.  Anyone could follow  their examples and take a vow to become a bodhisattva.

In this case it seems we have a combination of a teleological approach along with an ethics of virtue.  The best way to achieve one's goal of obtaining enlightenment and reaching nirvana is through following the example of the bodhisattvas.

Religion and the Ethics of Virtue
   
   
There are some who would argue that religious ethics are above all an ethics of virtue. Whether or not one accepts that argument at least two observations can be made about the ethics of virtue and religion: 
 (1) The ethics of virtue has a close connection to the idea of community.  A person's virtues and character are developed within and by the communities to which that person belongs.  Obviously, sacred communities in their rituals, worship, sacred stories and understanding of the sacred are very much involved in the instilling in its members certain virtues. Thus, many of the components of religion that we have already studied can be understood in light of how they teach an ethics of virtue. 
(2) One of the primary ways that religious traditions seek to instill character is through role models who provide examples of the kind of person the community believes one should be.  Early in the course, we studied the concept of sacred persons. Often the sacred person functions as a moral example for the members of a religious tradition.  Certainly one of the motivations for the collection of stories about great religious leaders is to present them as role models that can shape one's character and thus one's actions.
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Muhammad:

As we have seen, Muhammad fits into the category of a prophetic sacred person. Yet, in Islam Muhammad is considered to be a moral example.  Even though only a few persons may fulfill a prophetic role similar to Muhammad's, all persons can imitate the virtues of Muhammad.   Shortly after the prophet's death, his followers began to collect his sayings and stories about his life. Collectively, these traditions about the prophet are known as the hadithThe traditions  of the prophet, like the Qur'an were considered divinely inspired, although they were not necessarily given the status of scriptures. In fact, the traditions about the prophet are second only to the Qur'an in determining Islamic law. The point is that Muhammad's life and sayings serve as an example of virtuous actions derived from virtuous motives.  Thus, Muhammad provides a role model that a Muslim can follow in developing their own character.

Jesus:  
   
The  ethics of virtue is present in Christianity. Jesus is clearly an example of a sacred person that fits the incarnation pattern. Yet, from the first, he was also seen as a model who could shape character. To live according to the teachings of Jesus one must follow the example of Jesus. Jesus himself called individuals to follow him and become disciples.  Implicit in this call is the notion that character is shaped by "following" - watching and imitating. Christian believers are encouraged to imitate Christ. In the New Testament admonished readers to "have within you the mind of Christ." In other words,  following Jesus involves virtuous deeds growing out of what can be called virtuous motives. This radical reshaping of one's character is expressed in terms of one becoming a "new creation." 

 

Buddha:
 
The Buddha along with other bodhisattvas can be understood as example of the mystical pattern of sacred persons. The Buddha himself become the primary example for all Buddhists who seek enlightenment.  In addition, the numerous bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism are not only types of gods/goddesses who could help mortals; they were moral examples.  Their examples helped to shape the virtue of compassion within the lives of others.

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Concluding Observations

In this unit we have attempted to survey the major approaches to ethics.  Although these approaches are not necessarily confined to religion, they are inherent in many religious traditions. Whenever the authority for determining the basis for action is rooted in an understanding of sacred reality we are dealing with religious ethics. Sacred reality may provide the source for an action (Divine Command or Natural Law) or it may provide the goal of the action by defining what is good.  Often times sacred reality provides both the source and the goal for ethical actions.
In contrast to ethics defined in terms of actions, the ethics of virtue focuses on the character of the individual. The virtues to be followed are those ideals held by the religious community as exemplified in the sacred persons revered by the community.