How Aristotle Can Help Christian Morality, Part 3

Author Brett Kunkle Published on 06/01/2017

Christian ethics ought to appropriate Aristotle’s eudaimonistic resources into its ethical project (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series). With C.S. Lewis as our guide, let’s explore what this might look like.

First, eudaimonism (i.e., the classical view of happiness) can help us return to the positive biblical vision of human flourishing grounded in God Himself. Lewis explains our contemporary problem in the opening lines of his essay “The Weight of Glory”:

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive.... The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.1

Happiness, as commonly construed today, is highly counter-intuitive to Christian ethics. The insights of ethical eudiamonism can help in returning to a biblical view of happiness. As Lewis states, “If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith” (emphasis mine).2

Secondly, eudaimonism can counter-balance an overemphasis on deontological ethical theory. Christianity has been influenced by modern moral philosophy (Kant in particular) with its emphasis on actions and rules and little importance given to virtue. Much of the motivation for Christian ethics can be summed up by that impervious Christian bumper sticker which boldly proclaims, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Thus, the focus is almost entirely on doing the right thing instead of being a good person.

However, Lewis counters such thought, stating, “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.”3 By and large, Christians have lost an understanding of what virtue is and how it is attained. Yet, this is central to ethical eudaimonism. According to Lewis, “right actions done for the wrong reason do not help to build the internal quality or character called a ‘virtue,’ and it is this quality or character that really matters.”4 Eudaimonism, with its emphasis on virtue and character, can assist Christian ethics in reasserting the spiritual disciplines to a place of prominence in order to cultivate good people.

For these reasons, Christian ethics ought to appropriate eudaimonistic resources into its ethical project. In doing so, Christians will be able to offer a more compelling vision of the moral life that is also more faithful to the biblical witness. And the church can cultivate men and women with such rich character, whose very lives point powerfully to the source of all goodness, God Himself.