Kindness. Courage. Justice. Integrity. Fidelity.
Extolled by philosophers ranging from Aristotle in the West to Mencius in the East, the above values form the basis of virtue ethics, a form of moral universalism that is seeing a resurgence among contemporary philosophers. This moral theory differs from deontology and consequentialism — contemporary philosophy’s other two moral theories — in that it focuses on right character rather than right action. In other words, virtue ethics implores one not (only) to “do the right thing,” but to “be the right person.”
In popular culture, virtue ethics, and virtue in general, is usually associated with theistic religion, especially Christianity. To be fair, the Judeo-Christian religious tradition does have a long history of virtue ethics, and most people and organizations (outside of academia) today advocating for virtue ethics and character education are conservative theists. However, there is nothing essentially theistic or religious about virtue ethics, and in fact, I’d argue that the virtues become more philosophically coherent and personally meaningful in the absence of gods.
Theists almost universally claim that morality is somehow rooted in God — either in her/his/its nature, character, commands, or some combination of the three. This is problematic for several reasons.
First, if morality is simply grounded in the commands of God, what room is there for virtue? After all, virtue is about an inward orientation rather than an outward action. A theist may conform her actions to God’s commands, but she is simply following orders, not developing virtue. Divine commands are deontological, not virtuous — they are simply rules, not character traits. Some believers may respond that God’s commands flow from her/his/its essentially moral nature, and that one should attempt to mold his character to fit God’s nature. This line of reasoning is also problematic, because gods are said to be personal beings, and all personal beings have subjective natures and characters. This raises the question: what, exactly, makes God’s character “virtuous?” The classic Euthyphro dilemma illustrates the problem in this line of thinking.
Still, theists often assert that objective morality, and, by extension, the virtues, cannot exist without God, and that atheism, lacking an ontological base for morals, necessarily leads to moral nihilism. However, this criticism falls apart, at least for virtue ethicists. Consider this:
In the absence of gods, how are the virtues any less virtuous? Does kindness become less kind? Does justice become less just? Does courage become less courageous? Do these qualities suddenly become meaningless on a naturalistic account of reality? Of course not! Although different philosophers provide different accounts of what virtue is — those in the Aristotelian tradition define it as ‘fulfilling one’s function’ (which, for humans, is to reason and behave ethically), while others, such as many contemporary feminist scholars, define it non-foundationally, as something not grounded in external reality, but as something that one must presuppose.
Regardless of the specifics, the virtues are good in and of themselves, they don’t require a theistic being to ground them. Yes, we can be virtuous without gods — we can certainly recognize these values and conform our thoughts, patterns, and characters to fit them. We can promote kindness, equality, and justice without abandoning naturalism. We can promote family values and character education without appealing to religion. The virtues are relevant, active, and available to all human beings, regardless of religious status.