Lifesong Ethics: Virtue + Faith

I’m passionate about trying to help others. For many reasons; not least of all because I’ve had so much of it myself, and most times without earning or deserving it. Without it being “fair.” I am motivated to help children especially, and orphans or the abused even more so. Maybe there’s as simple a reason for that as children needing help the most. There is undoubtedly more to it, but we will let that logic suffice for now. Perhaps accordingly, the main reason for my being here at Bucknell is to figure out how to “Help” and I have a strong interest and focus in the non-profit sector, and how it functions, how it can function more effectively, etc. Orphanages, the foster system, childhood development and the economic development that can prop those structures up is a large focus for me right now, so I wanted to write this upcoming paper with that as a focus in some way (I suppose you could say that would be, in a broad way, the policy issue that I want this paper to tackle).

So, with that in mind, I began to consider ethical theories to analyze some organization in this area with. I thought about Rawls a good bit. I liked his perspective on how to address the moral and fairness dilemmas created by capitalism, and thought that he would consider the non-profit sector, adoption, and fostering, a somewhat viable (although often flawed) way of attaining fairness despite unequal distribution of wealth. I began searching things like “Social contract theory, Rawls” and the more that I browsed the more that it appeared to me that Rawls and his Justice theories may not quite cut it for me on this. Most, including one of his most famous students, Samuel Freeman, interpreted his work in the context of politics. I probably should have expected that, considering the way I just described him, but anyway I began to reconsider my ethical theories – I wasn’t looking to evaluate the politics of non-profits. This helped narrow it down, what did I want to evaluate. The answer to that, as of now, is that I want to examine what makes people want to do this kind of work? What type of person does this, and why do the ones who get it right get it right? Why do others get it wrong? What ethics are taught to the children themselves? Not just didactically, but through the events, situations, and fates they find themselves in? What do they need? And finally, what part do religion and the high concentration of faith-based organizations play in all of this? Why are they so prevalent?

After searching things like “The ethics of foster homes” “Ethics and Orphans” and others I saw an article Entitled something like “Aristotle on Orphans,” and tried to access it, but alas, it was of the kind that you have to buy, and I abandoned it to search elsewhere in this track of Aristotle’s virtue ethics in the journal database JSTOR. Eventually, I found an article, “Saint John of the Cross and Virtue Ethics.” Seemed  promising, considering what I wanted to know. The article concerns this figure, Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591) and his writings as they relate, and add, to virtue ethics. Most of this writing on ethics is taken from his writings, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, III, where he talks about “Moral goods,” defining them as “virtues and their habits (los habitos) insofar as they are moral; the exercise of any of the virtues; the practice of the works of mercy.” The author of this article, Daniel Dombrowski, points to a few of St. John’s ideas as useful additions to the discourse on virtue ethics, interpreting them and incorporating them. The main ideas that Dombrowski emphasizes are (1) that virtue is it’s own reward, (2) virtue ethics is agent centered (i.e. the focus is not, “What should I do?” but rather, “How should I act?”) and (3) that this agent-centeredness can lead to being “Virtuous” out of self-interest, or vanity. Dombrowski evaluates how Saint John has come to this realization, and how addresses it.

As I read through this article, I was thinking of why we adopt, why we donate, why we sponsor children, and how much of that “Why” becomes corrupt as a result of this agent-centeredness. Religion and virtue ethics are by no means incompatible, and I would think that many people of faith, myself included, follow this line of ethics in practice fairly often (the divine command theory of ethics is an incomplete picture of the ethics of faith, I believe, since interpretation of religious texts or commands is driven by different preferences and preset ethics in each person). The last major point from Dombrowski’s article that I wanted to apply to my organization is how he points to Saint John’s faith and additions to virtue ethics as a way to ignore the vain and self-serving reasoning or inclinations of virtue ethics, by association of the “glory” and “virtue” with higher power. Does this “work” for those giving to orphans, adopting, serving, running charities? Are they able to separate holier-than-thou and selfish ideas and motivations from virtuous actions and good outcomes? How? Is this a part of why FBO’s are so common in this field? How would we be able to identify if they succeed or not, and how does it affect the children in these organizations or homes? What virtues come forth in these organizations?

Clearly, these will not be easy questions to answer, but they are questions that I am passionate about finding answer to. In order to start doing that, obviously I needed an organization to examine. After some quick searching on Google I found an organization called Lifesong for Orphans, which is a fairly new organization but a thriving one, seemingly. I am hoping to gather most of my information from online sources, including their website, but I would like to be able to talk with a representative at some time as well with some of my questions. Regardless, of whether I am able to actually contact a human to answer them, it would be helpful to have my questions well-crafted so that the answers are addressing the issues that I am focused on. Any thoughts or ideas on how to craft these, or advice on the direction of my analysis is certainly welcome, and indeed, requested.



4 thoughts on “Lifesong Ethics: Virtue + Faith

  1. Very rarely (1 in 50? 1 in 75) do I have someone tackle this from the ethics side first.

    Your main ethical question is something like this? How do employees or leaders of child-focused organizations maintain an ethical approach to doing ethical work? How do they balance self-interest and an ethic of caring?

    I never thought of virtue ethics and Christian ethics together, but as I see it, if the formula of virtue ethics is “what would the intent of a virtuous member of this moral community be?” then St. John was changing this to “how would a virtuous member of the Godly (or Christly) community act? With what intent?” The division between outcomes and intent is also a major axis of Protestant-Catholic differences with Catholics being more concerned with acts and Protestant with intent.

    One way to approach this is to examine whether FBO versus secular organizations systematically act more ethically. Maybe that can be your white paper. I suspect it is researched, though it will also be a political hot potato as FBOs will want to see themselves vindicated while secular, professionalize child services may want to police a church-state boundary.

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  2. As to this organization, newer ones are always trickier to research.

    It’s claim that 100% of donations go to services is nice, but an unrealistic standard. Imagine if Coke said that 100% of revenue went to production (nothing to advertising, management, etc). It can only exist, Lifesong, either through other organizations, Churches?, absorbing infrastructure costs and/or unpaid, donated labor.

    I don’t know what it means by saying it’s mission is “the Church.” This must mean something in its own context as there are, of course, many churches.

    I am still unsure why this organization. Why does it stand out to you? What is interesting about it?


  3. “Your main ethical question is something like this? How do employees or leaders of child-focused organizations maintain an ethical approach to doing ethical work? How do they balance self-interest and an ethic of caring?” Roughly, yes. Probably also the the dilemma of the agent-centeredness of virtue ethics, how it affects intent, and how what St. John is saying addresses that.

    The organization has a couple of unique little branch operations of sustainable business like strawberry farms (Here’s the link, to enable other care-centers and foster parents to make a living – it’s an interesting little aside, and with my major I thought it was interesting. Also, they’re functioning not as a church or affiliated with any specific church, but are operating on faith-based ideas, which I also thought was interesting. (When they referrer to “the church” it’s sort of Christian-speak for the entire body of Christians). I guess I just find it interesting all-around. I see what you mean about it being harder to research though.


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