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Steve Wilkens’ Christian Ethics: Four Views, “Virtue Ethics” by Kallenberg

Summary by Jeff Dickson

What is virtue Ethics?

According to Kallenberg, virtue ethics considers deeds in relation to the telos of human life and what Kallenberg calls “thick descriptions” thereof—i.e. those descriptions that take into account all three components of ethical behavior: agents, actions, and outcomes. That said, virtue ethics, more than other moral theories, seeks to understand and appreciate the first of these components—agents. As a result, Kallenberg distills the goal of human living as follows: “doing the right thing for the right reason and having your friends never be surprised.” Such a system is employed in the Christian worldview to advance Jesus’ story on both a personal and corporate level. Ultimately, Kallenberg concludes that virtue ethics in general and Christian virtue ethics in particular is most concerned about understanding what kind of people we ought to be and then becoming just that so that Jesus’ story can progress.

Who are the “We?”

To rightly delineate this theory, one must come to terms with what is meant by “we” in the “we ought to be” statement. For Kallenberg, we, like Christ, are a sophisticated body that is learning, developing, and growing into a certain type of person by means of personal habits and subsequent character formation. This process, according to the author, is primarily biological and is fleshed out by means of practical reasoning. Unlike animals, humans endorse this practical reasoning and obedience toward second nature compliance through an intentional program of meditation (properly understood as “thinking about the real world with an eye to acting”) and real-life rehearsal/practice. Such behaviors and resulting habituation are being formed against the friction of pervasive physical and spiritual entropy. Thankfully, Kallenberg reveals that individuals and communities are assisted during this process by God’s grace, allowing them to progress, as Jesus did, toward becoming obedient moral agents.

What is “Ought?”

Obedient to what? Obedient to what one “ought” to do. Kallenberg believes, along with the other moral theories represented later in this volume, that this “ought” or “telos….is given, not chosen.” However, obtaining a clear understanding of the telos is difficult inasmuch as many remain morally untutored and, as a result, lack proper “moral eyesight.” Thankfully, the Savior provides his example and grace that clears this vision and allows for proper moral training to commence. Such training toward proper “oughts” comes by means of the following: 1) specific practices that, if endorsed, aid in moral maturation, 2) tradition that, if remembered, helps the Christian become conversant with appropriate “identity-constituting practices,” and 3) narrative that, if studied, helps the believer join the right story.

To illustrate his findings, Kallenberg applies his virtue ethic to the phenomenon of smartphones which are, in his estimation, tools that have unfortunately imbued the polis with a host of unethical implications. Everything from how they are manufactured to how they manipulate users into distracted pleasure-seekers suggests that these devices have changed the moral fabric of society. To combat these secular vices, Kallenberg offers a piece of ancient advice—fasting—inasmuch as fasting (both as a practice and tradition) aides people in general and Christians in particular in the rediscovery of the right set of virtues.


Natural Law Response

Natural law ethicist Claire Brown Peterson “defends the heart” of Kallenberg’s virtue ethic and recognizes that both of their views endorse the following: 1) an emphasis on both individual and corporate dimensions of morality, 2) “thick descriptions” of moral activities, and 3) references to the incarnation as support for a more robust understanding of the good. That said, Peterson believes that natural law theory provides the deeper explanatory context that virtue ethics is missing—context that explains “what makes a particular trait a virtue” and “how to flesh out specific virtues.” Without a robust context that can answer these inquiries, virtue ethics runs the risk of grounding moral behavior in what is pleasurable (Hume) or that which produces more good (Driver) and undermining certain Christian virtues like humility (Aristotle). Therefore, while Peterson agrees with many of Kallenberg’s points, she argues that virtue ethics is most successful when it is grounded in natural law.

Divine Command Theory Response

John Hare criticizes Kallenberg’s presentation on three major fronts. First, while Kallenberg argues that skilled moral judgment is developed by gradual bodily training, Hare reveals that often the kind of training or habituation that is required in such a pursuit is not bodily, but mental and/or spiritual. Second, though Kallenberg intimates that what one ought to do often goes against one’s inclinations, Hare reveals that this is not always the case. After all, on occasion, even the irreligious want to do something that they ought to do. Finally, while Kallenberg’s theory involves the pursuit of the human telos, Hare wonders if there is not also an individual telos or, to put it another way, if there are “different good ways to be human.” On a related note, though Kallenberg speaks of a single Christian tradition, Hare wonders if this is appropriate inasmuch as a plethora of appropriate Christian traditions exist for same purpose.

Prophetic Ethics Response

In his own response, Peter Goodwin Heltzel is appreciative of Kallenberg’s attention to habit-forming practices, his argument that virtues are best formed in the context of Christian community, and his identification of tradition’s impact on the ethical enterprise. However, Heltzel is alarmed by Kallenberg’s failure to acknowledge justice as a foundational ethical pillar. Heltzel also draws attention to Kallenberg’s failure to identify which virtues Christians are called upon to cultivate. Finally, in response to Kallenberg’s illustration of fasting, Heltzel would have appreciated a greater emphasis on how fasting (or any other ethical/moral pursuit) is connected to “liberating love and community-restoring justice.”

Image: Saverio Autellitano – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

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