Spirituality and Ethics
Virtue Ethics

By Fr. Max Oliva, S.J.

“Nurses Need to Think Ethically,” is the title of an article written by Paul Harasim of the Las Vegas Review Journal (July 28, 2014). The author points out that more than 100 disciplinary actions have been taken against nurses by the Nevada State Board of Nursing since February. Thirteen cases involved drug abuse. Harasim quotes Debra Scott, the executive director of the State Board of Nursing, “We can never lose sight of the fact that our primary mission is to protect our patients.” In an editorial in the Nevada State Board of Nursing News, Scott argues for a return to the oldest type of ethical theory in Western philosophy – virtue-based ethics.

What is virtue ethics? To answer this question, I go to two insightful ethnicians: Bill Spohn and Fr. James F. Keenan, SJ. First of all, virtues are attitudes and character traits that enable us to be and act with our highest potential. Spohn quotes Lee H. Yearly who puts it this way: “A virtue is a disposition to act, desire, and feel that involves the exercise of judgment…” Virtue ethics asks three basic questions:

Who am I?    Who am I called to become?    How do I get there?

The first question goes to identity. Is my identity based in how many possessions I can accumulate in my lifetime or is it how can I best use my gifts to benefit others?

The second question goes to character. Character attends to the whole person, seen in a person’s “habits of the heart,” like kindness, fairness, compassion, integrity, honesty, forgiveness, and so forth.

The third question goes to means, like having an informed conscience as to what is right and what is wrong; prayer; an openness to conversion; and practice – living the virtue consistently.

For Christians, the life of Jesus forms the basic norm and pattern for virtue ethics. His story shapes our own. He is the way that leads to life and to true interior freedom, freedom from whatever ails us morally speaking – an addiction, a propensity to some sin, a destructive way of acting.

Jesus’ call goes out to all men and women to a change of heart and a change of life. We are to be faithful to Jesus’ story yet creative in how we apply it according to our circumstances. We look to him for guidance, inspiration, affirmation, and challenge. The virtues that were prominent in the life of Jesus ought to be evident in his followers.

1. William C. Spohn, “Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics” - Especially see Chapter 2.
2. Father James F. Keenan, S.J., “Moral Wisdom” – pages 96-97.

(September 2014)


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