What is Virtue and What Does It Have to Do with Me? — Q&A with Kevin Brown

q-and-a-with-kevin-brownHendrickson has the exciting opportunity to interview Kevin Brown, the author of Designed for Good.

Designed for Good is a study of classical virtue ethics from a Christian perspective. This book shows Christians that their faith contains resources to help them recover the idea of virtue in the face of our modern moral bewilderment.

1. What first interested you in the philosophy of virtue?

Virtue, in its most general sense, takes an “agency-based” approach to morality. In other words, it does not focus so much on the right action, but rather, the emphasis is on being the right kind of person.

The world is filled with complex moral and ethical dilemmas—and our (over)emphasis on determining the right answer to a given dilemma does little, sometimes, to sort out that complexity. This has made me wonder: Are we asking the right question? Perhaps a better way of thinking about a thorny ethical scenario is not “What should I do?” but “Who should I be?” This latter question is taken up in the virtue tradition.

2. What inspired you to write a book concerning virtue and ethics from a Christian perspective?

I have taught ethics for several years. The various texts I have utilized all attempt to answer a basic question: Why should I be ethical? Answers tend to appeal to some pragmatic, desirable outcome. For example, why should a business manager be ethical? Well, according to an array of different authors, they should be ethical because such behavior tends to produce desirable business outcomes. A similar argument is made on a personal level. That is, when a person is good they are said to profit in a variety of ways. One can begin to see a formula emerge. Virtuous behavior = good consequences.

I see two problems with this that should be of concern to the person of faith. First, while virtuous behavior might produce good consequences—so does vice. A considerable body of recent research suggests that narcissism, overconfidence, ruthlessness, egocentrism, and a lack of sympathy (among others) tend to correlate with success. Second, even if virtuous behaviors did indeed lead to success—and were thus adopted by the masses—that does not necessarily make us virtuous. At best, this would reflect what I refer to as shadow virtue (behaviors we mimic because they produce better consequences).

These common answers fall short of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Virtue is better understood as a disposition; character traits that are deeply woven into the fabric of human agency (not actions that are mimicked). We should not simply seek virtue and “the good” as a means to an end; it is an end in itself. A virtuous life is our best life. Moreover, I think the person of faith has a much better narrative to offer when it comes to defending our motivation for virtuous activity. In other words, we have a uniquely rich and compelling story to tell. This is the narrative I wanted to spell out in Designed for Good.

3. How can we encounter the “good life” that Jesus calls us to through virtue?

Not long ago I had the pleasure of watching a Chris Thile concert. For those unfamiliar with Thile, many consider the former Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers member to be the best mandolin player in the world. For two hours, my wife and I were mesmerized as we watched and listened as Thile unleashed an assemblage of notes and chords all banded together to produce a musical experience unlike anything I have ever encountered.

“The music was in him,” my wife commented after the concert, “and it came out through the mandolin.”

Thile has been honing his musical talent well before he was even potty-trained. He has committed himself to a disciplined regiment of mandolin playing for years and years, hours upon hours; it is as if the instrument were an appendage to his body. But there is something in him as well. As my wife commented, there was a well of musical genius inside of him that flowed out in his performance.

In many ways, I think this is a fitting metaphor for Christian virtue. We are called to practices, disciplines, and habits of virtue; training ourselves to discern good from evil (Hebrews 5:14). Moreover, we are told in Ephesians that we were created for good works as a way of life (Ephesians 2:10). But while habits are deeply associated with being a disciple, it is the work of the spirit—the spirit in us—that will flow out into our everyday lives. So, while what we do will influence who we are, who we are (spirit-filled disciples) will influence what we do (virtuous practice).

4. What do you think helps people make the transition from ethics into virtue?

The terms “ethics” and “virtue” are often used interchangeably—and the relationship between them is easily muddled. In the book I distinguish between “ethics” as a cognitive exercise necessary to determine what is right and wrong and “virtue” as a capacity and a desire for right action. So you might say that field of ethics is about discerning the right choice to make, and virtue is about becoming the right kind of person; the person I was meant to become.

Much can be said here, but I think it is very important to recognize that we are all becoming something. There is no neutral ground in moral development. One of the key quotes from Designed for Good comes from C.S. Lewis, who argues that every time you make a choice, you are turning a part of yourself into something a little different from what it was before. He says, “Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”

Given this, the question is: Who, or what, are we becoming? Moreover, if we were indeed designed by a deliberate designer, are we being shaped into what we were designed to be? Are we fulfilling our intended purpose? Are we participating in our created form?

As soon as we seriously consider these questions, we find ourselves reflecting on virtue. In other words, this is no intellectual exercise. These questions are actually of great practical importance since they ultimately consider what it means to live a good, fulfilling, meaningful, fruitful existence; or in Scriptural terms, deliberating about what it means to “take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:19).

5. What was the turning point in your life when you realized “I am not good”?

Most of us have examples in our lives that point to the fact that we are not inherently good. For me, my late high-school and early college years were constituted by “trying really hard” as it related to being an upright and moral person. In other words, I thought being a good person was about commitment, certitude, resolve, and grit. This all amounted to a kind of personal, self-manufactured transformation. Of course, self-manufactured transformations aren’t, ultimately, very transformative.

This period of my life led me to realize that not only was I insufficient, in myself, for deep-rooted moral change—I did not even have the constitution for it. I was not wired properly. I was not undertaking something difficult; more accurately, I was attempting the impossible. I needed to be re-wired.

Now, to be clear, I think a virtuous life consists of a suite of choices, habits, and practices that are aimed toward the good, the right, and the true. But, as I make clear in the book, I am insufficient to pick myself up by my own moral bootstraps. I fully believe that being a follower of Jesus is about living a whole life—what God does for us. That is, I may be insufficient to transform myself, but God is more than sufficient. By committing my life to him, I can be re-wired—enabled to do what I was created to do. As I often say, this is the great irony of the Christian faith: It is when we empty ourselves that we become whole.

Designed for Good by Kevin Brown

Kevin Brown is an associate professor of business at Asbury University and also serves as the lead editor of the Christian Business Academy Review. His formal education spans the areas of theology, philosophy, and economics—and his writing seeks to explore the interplay between these fields. He resides with his wife and children in Wilmore, Kentucky.

For more information about this book, visit our website.

One thought on “What is Virtue and What Does It Have to Do with Me? — Q&A with Kevin Brown

  1. Pingback: Which Self Should We Be True To? | Hendrickson Publishers Blog

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.