Virtue Ethics (Seeking the Mystery, Chp. 5 Excerpt)

As promised, an excerpt from Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologiesnow available in both e-book and paperback editions.


Excerpt from Chapter Five: Ethics and Justice

Neglected Virtues

Brendan Myers’ The Other Side of Virtue attempts to recontextualize some of the virtues that were valued by pre-Christian societies for contemporary Pagans. His work draws on Greek, Celtic, and Northern European cultures to recover traditional systems of ethics and their virtues. For example, in heroic literature, honor is defined as an inherently social quality. An honorable person is one who exhibits loyalty, honesty, reliability, and trustworthiness in his relationships with others. In Northern European traditions, the word for honor is “troth,” which is related to the English word “truth.” To be honorable suggests that one demonstrates integrity in all of one’s dealings. According to Myers, however, honor is something that is given to an honorable person, not a virtue that can be cultivated in a vacuum. It is tied up with reputation and with community respect.[i] In our highly individualistic Western culture, this virtue is rarely recognized, let alone cultivated. Busy, harried schedules lead many of us to routinely break commitments to friends, and the dependable structures of relationship that are necessary for sustainable community are slow to form. Our relative isolation from each other and narrow focus on our individual households means we have few opportunities to gain honor—and yet this virtue is central to many of the myths that contemporary Pagans value. How to cultivate such virtues within a wider culture that does not support them is one of the ongoing struggles of contemporary Paganism.

The contrast between Pagan values and mainstream Western values is particularly noticeable around issues of sexuality and the body. A person who is passionately physical and delights in loving sexuality can be seen as expressing important human qualities. Yet the words that were once used to positively describe this virtue—such as “lusty”—have a negative connotation in modern English. At times, neglected virtues can be reclaimed. The older meaning of “pride,” for example, has recently been revived by pride movements such as Gay Pride and Pagan Pride. In Western culture, “pride” is often synonymous with “hubris,” the arrogance that precedes a disastrous fall. But pride is more properly understood as the state of owning one’s self and identity without apology or shame. Although community is not as essential for the cultivation of pride as it is for honor, gathering with like-minded others makes taking pride in oneself a far easier task—and sustainable pride requires choosing friends who treat each other with respect.

Contemporary Pagan ethics are inherently pluralistic. Not all virtues can be expressed at the same time, and different virtues may even suggest different courses of action. Many Pagans are polytheists, and their gods express diverse strengths and virtues. The cultivation of these virtues can support multiple ways of being ethical. For example, a practitioner might cultivate creativity and fierce compassion in honor of Brighid, poet and healer, or clear thinking and communication in honor of Hermes, patron of orators and inventors. In some cases, Pagans seek to hold paradox by cultivating the capacity for virtues that superficially contradict. In Wicca’s “Charge of the Goddess,” the Goddess calls witches to have “beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.”[ii] According to the Charge, a virtuous person must be capable of a variety of qualities depending on context. A successful group leader, for example, sees his leadership as service to the group; he puts his own agenda partially aside in order to create a harmonious atmosphere and empower individuals to work together effectively. Good leadership requires humility. However, a good group leader also has a backbone, and he is willing to use the respect the group gives him to protect it when he must. A group member who becomes disruptive or even abusive must be held accountable for that behavior by the leader, who is supported by the group as a whole. A good leader must accept that power and be willing to use the authority he has been granted. Finding the balance between virtues—for every virtue also has a shadow side—is one of the challenges of virtue ethics. Unbalanced humility can become subservience; unbalanced power can become egotism and tyranny.

Virtue-based ethics make for a highly flexible ethical system. Based on principles rather than rules, virtue ethics can easily adjust to the particularities of situations: people, places, and times. To those who were raised in a rule-based system, where ethical decisions are often framed in black and white terms, virtue ethics can appear to lack a foundation, almost like having no ethics at all. If there are many ways of being ethical, how can a person choose between them? Even worse, isn’t it possible to mistake a vice for a virtue and end up tolerating destructive behavior? Yet virtue ethics are not entirely subjective or relativistic. Ultimately, all virtues are properly cultivated in community. Healthy religious communities have elders and ancestors who embody the virtues that they value. Virtuous behavior is modeled on the actions of these role models, and the virtuous behavior of members of the community is acknowledged and praised by other members. Life experience and time-tested community traditions help young people learn virtuous behavior.

It is nevertheless possible for both individuals and communities to hold up a “virtue” that is destructive. In our own culture, for example, the ability to accumulate individual wealth is often admired as a virtue, regardless of whether that wealth is used for the good of the community. Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle differentiated false virtues from true with the concept of eudaimonia.[iii] Sometimes this term is translated as happiness, but a more accurate translation is “flourishing.” A thoroughly virtuous person can be recognized by the fact that they are flourishing on many levels. The term is an expression of spiritual, mental, and physical health, not simply of a passing emotion. (Some ancient philosophers believed that that spiritual health necessarily correlates with physical health and prosperity, but I disagree. It is certainly possible to actively choose poverty out of a spiritual calling and find that poverty freeing. A spiritually healthy poverty is part of a stable lifestyle, however; it does not involve racking up credit card bills that one cannot pay. Additionally, although poor physical health can have psychological or spiritual roots, illness is a natural part of human life. A spiritually healthy person may struggle with poor physical health, but she is able to face her health crises with compassion, grace, and humor. More than outward signs of material wealth or physical health, “flourishing” is best expressed by the joy and engaged sense of presence that a spiritually healthy person brings to her community.)

In contrast to this flourishing, the pursuit of false virtues brings only a shallow and passing happiness. According to virtue ethicists, the pursuit of material wealth or worldly power for reasons other than the health of the community does not result in flourishing, but rather a persistent sense of emptiness and a lifetime of regrets. The possession of personal virtue, however, is thought to foster alignment with the divine, peace of mind, and satisfaction regardless of whether virtuous behavior is consistently acknowledged by others or results in a clearly good outcome. When greed is held up as a virtue in community, the soul sickness and social injustice that result are signs that the community has lost its way. As we know from our own society, this sickness can be difficult to correct, particularly when those embracing the false virtue have gained positions of power and are no longer accountable to those around them. Virtue ethics function most effectively in small communities with a high degree of social accountability, as well as in the presence of experienced elders whose advice and wisdom are taken seriously. As contemporary Paganism moves through its adolescence as a religious movement, the need for fair-minded elders to stabilize scattered religious communities and help to ensure accountability grows ever greater.



[i] Brendan Myers, The Other Side of Virtue (Hants, UK: O Books, 2008), 44-50.

[ii] Doreen Valiente, “The Charge of the Goddess,” The Doreen Valiente Foundation. Available at http://doreenvaliente.org/2009/06/poem-the-charge-of-the-goddess/.

[iii] “Ethics,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Available at http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/34560/Aristotle/254721/Ethics#toc254722.

About Christine Kraemer

Christine Hoff Kraemer is Managing Editor of the Pagan Channel at Patheos.com. Christine holds a PhD in Religious and Theological Studies from Boston University. She has published widely on literature, popular culture, and Paganism and is the author of Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies (Patheos Press, 2012) as well as Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective (Routledge, 2013). Christine is also an instructor at Cherry Hill Seminary, where she served for two years as chair of the Theology and Religious History department.


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