Staying Virtuous: Faith’s Negation of Agent-Centrism in Virtue Ethics

In the 16th century, a monk, mystic and thinker by the name of Saint John of the Cross penned his thoughts on what would now be considered the subject of Virtue Ethics. Recently, Daniel Dombrowski proposed that these musing be introduced into the discussions and evaluations of Virtue Ethics as the study of this ethical theory makes a reassurance in modern times. This blog focuses on the viability of this suggestion from Dombrowski, and is an evaluation of how Saint John’s ideas on virtue ethics play out “on the ground” in the non-profit faith-based organization Lifesong for Orphans.

Often times it is said, or perhaps implied, that the ethical theory on which people of faith operate is the Divine Command Theory. This seems to make intuitive sense. This theory, having no definite origin or figurehead or any specific, universally agreed-upon iteration, is commonly seen as counter to rationality, however. Those who ascribe to a theory of divine command seemingly forego rational thought in favor of outsourcing morality to the divine, and therefore those who hold with such moral thought are lumped in with Euthyphro, a Grecian religious expert who Plato verbally thrashes as they sit outside a courthouse, as blindly following a theory of morality that is implausible and irrational (Wierenga, 387). Despite the seeming ease of morality driven by divine command (all one must do, after all, is obey the commands) this model is more diverse and complex than many believe, exist along a weak-to-strong divinity continuum, and is fraught with its own challenges and hiccups in a similar way to other ethical theories (Austin, 2).

Image 1: Plato and EuthyphroJAF4361

Rather than argue the merits, downfalls, and versions of divine command theory in the lives of people of faith today, however, one can see also see it this way – divine commands, must be, and are, understood within one’s own personal framework or theory of morality in order to be translated into action. This is especially true of commands from religious texts, and as this paper will address specifically, with Christianity. As Professor John Penniman of Bucknell University once said, “Every reading of a religious text is its own interpretation.” There can be no obedience to such a text without individual understanding, and processing, of that text. One way in which this can be stated is that God’s words in the Bible are interpreted by Christians using ethical theories and frameworks of their own, and for many Christians, these frameworks bear a striking resemblance to those of Virtue Ethics.

Christian adoption of Plato and Aristotle’s concept of morality may seem unlikely, but the name and design of a framework need not be identical to place emphasis on the same ideas. Christian certainly could not be said to agree with the worldview of either Greek philosopher, but today few secular ethicists would either – it is the emphasis of the theory that we are concerned with and in this there is a clear similarity to Christian Ethics (Hursthouse). Virtue ethics places the impetus on the individual and their moral state, their character, so to speak, rather than duty or greatest good. Rosalind Hursthouse states that Virtue Ethics “Address[es] itself to the question ‘What sort of person should I be?’ rather than to the question, ’What sort of action should I do?’. In a similar way, Christianity places emphasis on Orthodoxy, or “right belief” over Orthopraxy, or “right practice” (Prothero). This can be seen clearly in the letters of Paul of Tarsus in the New Testament, and is laid out nicely in Romans 3:27-8, 31 “Where, then is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather we uphold the law.” This bold statement essentially means that right actions are not sufficient, for we eventually break whatever laws we set time and time again. Rather, Paul suggests, an understanding and right belief of who we are, and of men and women’s character as sons and daughters of God, leads to actions that are in line with moral law, not for obedience sake, but rather as a consequence of knowing our identity and nature as related to God. With a clear picture then, of the similarities between Christian Ethics and Virtue Ethics, on can proceed in an evaluation of the statements of Saint John of the Cross, and their interpretation by Dombrowski.

John of the Cross was a monk and Spanish mystic who lived in the 16th century, producing many influential writings such as Ascent of Mount Carmel, and Dark Night of the Soul. St. John muses on ethics by categorizing different “Goods,” such as spiritual goods, natural goods, sensory goods, moral goods, etc (Dombrowski, 2-3). It is St. John’s thoughts on this category of “moral goods” that Dombrowski finds of interest to ethicist today. He states that one purpose of his article is “to indicate how John of the Cross could inform current thought in the area of virtue ethics.” Since it has been posited above that individual Christian Ethics are similar in ways to Virtue Ethics, it stands to reason that those who use similar frameworks would also inherent the one flaw that has been proposed in Virtue Ethics, namely, that it is agent-centered (Hursthouse, 17). This may seem obvious, as the theory is not focused on action, but rather the actor, which does not seem to pose obvious problems at first. However, Virtue is said to be both instrumentally good (meaning that it will lead to societal, physical, and additional goods), and intrinsically good (meaning that the peace and tranquility that virtue brings is reward in and of itself), and of the intrinsic goodness Dombrowski has this to say:

The joy that is the realization that virtue is its own reward is also an occasion for vanity (vanidad) and self-interest. The etymological root in Latin of the word “vanity/’ it should be noted, is related to the concept of emptiness. John of the Cross’s fear seems to be that once we appreciate the consummatory or intrinsic good of the practice of virtue, rather than its instrumentality, we will be tempted by vainglory and presumption (vanagloria y presuncion). Further, once we are pharisaically puffed up with our own supposed superior moral status, we are likely to see others as inferior. The insight here seems to be that (excessive) self esteem breeds a morally empty contempt for others or envy regarding others (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, III, 27.4-5; 28.1-3). In this regard, John of the Cross may be seen as anticipating (with fear and disgust) the morality of the strong found in Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand (Hursthouse 1999,253-256).

In order to address this agent-centeredness, Dombrowski points to St. John’s concepts of separation of detachment from the benefits of virtue that make the actor virtuous. “For virtue ethicists who are also religious believers (i.e., theocentrists rather than anthropocentrists or egocentrists), the agent in “agent-centered ethics” fades into relative insignificance. John of the Cross helps us to understand why this is the case.” Dombrowski says. Although this detachment and separation addresses the same issues as good-old-fashioned modesty, and at the extreme, self-abnegation, it seems that Saint John encourages the use of a distinctly theological and faith-based tool for addressing agent-centeredness. This tool is, to use Christian terminology, the ability to give “all glory to God.” Since the bible says that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” and that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” people of faith are able to remove themselves from the equation – the virtue exhibited by Christians is not of their own making or to their own credit, but rather by his making, and to his credit (James 1:17, Romans 3:13). This is the heart of Domrowski’s argument for the inclusion of St. Johns ideas into discourse on Virtue Ethics. With this understanding then, one can speculate two things about the Role of Virtue Ethics in organizations:

  1. Virtue Ethics and Christian Ethics share an emphasis on character and the actor, rather than the actions. Therefore, one should see frameworks of morality and ethics based on virtues with in faith-based organizations
  2. Since the issues of agent-centeredness will be present in virtue-based ethical frameworks, one might observe that FBOs and those who work their employ this God-centric morality in order to detach from vanity and selfish goodness.

Lifesong for Orphans is a non-profit faith-based organization dedicated to facilitating adoptions and foster care for children internationally.


Image 2: Lifesong for Orphans advertisement photo

The mission of the organization is “Bringing joy and Purpose to Orphans,” adding that their method is that they “seek to mobilize the Church, His body, where each member can provide a unique and special service: some to adopt, some to care, some to give.” The services that they provide include grants and loans for prospective parent’s adoption fees, financial management assistance for adoptive parents, education opportunities, micro-business loans and start-up assistance, and subsidized sustainable business models for orphan caregivers, as well as networking and providing connections between orphans and adoptive parents, and more. The organization gives the following statistics on its website: “5,656 children blessed through orphan care. 153 jobs created through sustainable business. 881 staff and volunteers caring for children.” Countries in which Lifesong operates include Bolivia, Zambia, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, Ethiopia, Liberia, Tanzania, Uganda, Cambodia, India, Ukraine, and the U.S.

One can clearly see, with the nature of the work being done, the low-salaries and volunteerism which enable the organization to function, and the results, that organizations such as this are based on virtuous motives. There is little ambiguity in the question of whether dedicating one’s life to advantaging orphaned children is moral and ethical – the answer is yes, it is. What is less clear, however, is whether or not the ethical framework or theory of the organization itself (if an organization can indeed possess its own ethical framework or theory, which I believe is possible), and the staff, are virtue-based, rather than deontological or consequentialist. The organization operates on Christian principles, which is stated in its pledge:

“Our Children” will have: No want for food, clothing, medical care, or shelter. Fundamental Christian training and discipleship. A quality education to provide a foundation for the future. Continued love and support as they transition into adult living.

Therefore, according to the  we should see and emphasis on character rather than action, faith rather than legalism, and focus on the question: “What kind of person (or in this case, Christian) ought I to be?” Or alternatively, “What would a Christian do in my situation?” Since the organization deals with education and discipleship as well, it would also be necessary to ask if these same ethics are being passed on to the children themselves. The question of intent and motivation is hard enough to answer in any situation, and all the more so when attempting to do so over a computer screen. To assist in this, and e-mail questionnaire was sent to Kory Kaeb, Lifesong’s Vice President of Operations, containing the following questions:

-What values are implied in your mission?

-Why are you motivated to do the work that you do?

-What values are conveyed or nurtured in your staff?

-What values are conveyed or nurtured in the children and beneficiaries that 

Lifesong serves?

-Do you feel that your work is virtuous?

-Do you feel that you are a virtuous person?

-What is the role of God in this organization?

-How do you, as an individual, keep from becoming prideful, vain, self-interested or self-righteous due to the inherent virtue of your work?

This questionnaire is in the process of being completed at the time of this blog post, but an update will be posted in the comments as soon as the results are available. In order to evaluate whether the organization is virtue-based in its ethics, one can turn to the time being to the personal testimonies of the founders, Gary and Marla Ringger.

In her narrative on the history of the organization, Marla Ringger states that, “We prayed about the direction and within a short time we felt a conviction to help orphans. We knew that helping orphans was God’s definition of pure religion (James 1:27).” Explaining that they intended to merely use their current business to assist families, through grants, with the high fees of international adoption, Mrs. Ringer said that “Our concept was that this would be a family ministry. We had no interest in asking others to help us fund the ministry. God, however, seemed to have a different plan.” As time progressed, Mrs. Ringger described a time that her and her husband were trying to navigate a new path with their current business and their orphan’s grants. “In a sense, Gary felt like he was in repentance. It was as though God was saying, “You have spiritual pride about your family foundation. It’s not about your family, it’s about MY family. This ministry is not yours. It’s mine.” she said. Finally, in describing the current state of Lifesong and their lives as individuals, Ringger says that she and her husband “continue to be amazed at the doors God is opening for us in this journey. We have learned that He uses both struggles and blessings to get our attention and to do the work He has called us to do.”

Within this anecdotal story of the founding of Lifesong, there seem to be direct confirmations of Dombrowski and St. John’s argument that faith can nullify the agent-centrism f virtue ethics, or in this case, Christian ethics that focus on virtues. The statement about Gary Ringger’s “Spiritual pride” poignantly emphasizes the virtue ethics focus on being meek and humble, rather than prideful and vain, regardless of how “good” his actions were at the time. This description of prayer, with it being impressed upon Ringger that “It’s not about your family, it’s about MY family. This ministry is not yours. It’s mine.” also illustrates the negation of the self that St. John emphasizes. We can therefore return to our two earlier speculations:

  1. Virtue Ethics and Christian Ethics share an emphasis on character and the actor, rather than the actions. Therefore, one should see frameworks of morality and ethics based on virtues with in faith-based organizations
  2. Since the issues of agent-centeredness will be present in virtue-based ethical frameworks, one might observe that FBOs and those who work their employ this God-centric morality in order to detach from vanity and selfish goodness.

I believe that a reasonable argument can be made, from the information above, that both of these speculations, according to information from the Lifesong website, and anecdotal information form the founders, that these speculations are valid, and that those of faith and religion, in the form of FBOs in particular, operate on more than cut and dried obedience of divine command. Ethical theories such as Virtue Ethics can, and should, be applied to faith-based people and organizations in order to have a better understanding of how decisions are made, and why, in these organizations, with the modifiers such as the detachment and selflessness proposed by St. John of the Cross. Additionally, Dombrowski’s argument that St. Johns thoughts on detachment should be included in the discussion of Virtue Ethics today should perhaps be given consideration, having clearly seen this detachment applied in the lives of the Ringgers.

Clearly, this information is limited, and we cannot extrapolate the ethics and motivation of two founders to the whole organization – what we are provided with, rather, is a small insight as to how virtue ethics plays out in the lives of two Christians, in an organizational context, and how the writings St. John of the Cross can be applied. Questions are certainly raised by such applications, perhaps more than are answered even. One wonders whether St. John’s writings account for the paradox that negation of self-centered virtuousness, is itself seen as virtuous and humble, and therefore one might selfishly be “selfless,” and exclaim “Glory to God” for the purpose of gaining it themselves. The question of the relative benefit of a selfless vs an agent-centric assistance of orphans is also raised – are the orphans better off because of the self-lessness of the Ringgers? Comparative analysis of the care, the education, the ethics, and the psychological, emotional, and physical state of orphans assisted by Lifesong as compared to other care providers might yield insights to this, but even then would leave us with questions. Some might also question, the ethics of FBOs as a whole, or in particular the policy of Lifesong regarding religious education and adoption into religious homes, and whether this, or their other operations such as sustainable strawberry or chicken farming, are truly based on virtue ethics. These questions, however, are beyond the scope of this paper, and will remain in for the reader to decide.




Austin, Michael. “Divine Command Theory”  file:///C:/Users/josia/Downloads/Divine%20Command%20Theory.pdf

Dombrowski, Daniel. “Saint John of the Cross and Virtue Ethics” Mystics Quarterly, Vol. 30, (March/June 2004): 7-14 Web. 2016

Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics. OUP Oxford (1999). Web. 2016

Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: the Eight Rival Religions that Rule the World. Harper Collins (2010) Print.

Wierenga, Edward. “A Defensible Divine Command Theory”. Noûs 17.3 (1983): 387–407. Web. 2016

New International Version Bible. Web. 2016


One thought on “Staying Virtuous: Faith’s Negation of Agent-Centrism in Virtue Ethics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s