Neither Virtuous Nor Vicious: A Critique of Contemporary Virtue Ethics

Contemporary theologians love the virtues, those “specific skills required to live faithful to the moral project [e.g., discipleship] in which its adherents participate,” as Stanley Hauerwas has described them.[1] There are readings of St. Paul’s letters or the Sermon on the Mount as instances of virtue-theory,[2] and calls for a “politics of virtue.”[3] There are proliferating treatments, not only of the cardinal and theological virtues, but of farther-flung virtues such as gratitude or honesty, compassion, or tolerance. I contributed a pebble to the mountain myself, with a recent study of “accountability” as a forward-looking virtue.[4]

At minimum, the virtues are normative and regulative concepts within an ideal depiction of a flourishing life. The virtues involve beliefs as well as habits—they are a deliberate orientation toward the good, not merely a matter of operant conditioning. And they are an orientation toward the good, not merely, e.g., a calculated strategy to burnish one’s reputation.[5] Crucially important is the idea that the virtues impart a high degree of cross-situational consistency to one’s actions: if I am honest only when threatened with penalties for dishonesty, then I do not possess the virtue of honesty.

But the normative uses of virtue-talk have no implications for a second and (to my mind) neglected question, namely, “How widely distributed are the virtues?” After all, the set of true triangles is empty (at least, outside the divine intellect), but the concept is none the worse for that. Nonetheless, we might suppose that Christians in particular should expect the virtues to be quite widely distributed. After all, it is something of a commonplace that Christianity “democratized” the virtues. Justin Martyr boasted in the second century,

No one believed in Socrates so as to die for [his] dogma, but in Christ . . . not only philosophers and philologists believed, but also craftsmen and the altogether uneducated, scorning both glory and fear and death; since he is the power of the ineffable Father, not a vessel of human reason.[6]

There is an important half-truth in this intuition. Christianity was remarkable in the ancient world for its insistence that anyone—slaves and women as much as free-born men—could embody lives of extraordinary virtue, though perhaps no more remarkable in this regard than, for example, ancient Stoicism.[7] Both insisted that the virtues were equally possible for one “on the throne or in chains.”[8] But that insistence says nothing in itself about how many people actually possess them—the existence of Epictetus to complement Marcus Aurelius is perfectly consistent with most people lacking virtue or vice alike. In what follows, I draw on two converging lines of evidence, from contemporary psychology and from the long Western theological tradition, which strongly indicate that both virtue and vice are quite rare.

The “Situationist” Case for the Rarity of Virtue and Vice

First, the empirical evidence. A diverse body of social scientific findings, many of them well-established, suggests that virtues (and vices), in full and proper sense given them above, are rather rare. Rather, the experimental and observational evidence suggests that most people’s propensities for fairness, gentleness, generosity, are surprisingly sensitive to variations in the situations or environments in which they find themselves.

In consequence, this broad approach has come to be known as “situationism” in psychology. This literature is vast and varied; I will present it here primarily as it appears in the work of the philosopher Christian Miller (see: his Character and Moral Psychology and The Character Gap).[9] While psychological situationism has generated an enormous philosophical literature, both pro and contra,[10] theologians in particular, as Miller noted in 2016, have been much slower to take stock of its import for their own appeals to the virtues.[11]

Some situationist findings are apt to produce a chuckle, and others, a horrified gasp. On the more amusing end, one randomized trial found that people were almost 100 percent more likely (80% vs. 45%) to help a stranger if they had just emerged from a bathroom than if they were walking down a hallway,[12] while another found that people were much more likely (88% vs. 4%) to help a stranger if they had just found a dime in a phone booth than if they had not.[13] Both of these experiments (or close approximations to them) have been replicated, and the underlying mechanisms seem plausible: we overcompensate for the embarrassment we associate with the bathroom by being extra accommodating, while a bit of good luck seems to make us eager to “pay it forward.”[14]

Others findings are less amusing. As Miller notes, substantial majorities of college students (60-80% depending on the survey) admit to cheating at least a little on assignments when they have the chance, and these figures are corroborated by experimental findings.[15] Nonetheless, a range of situational factors, from forcing the test-taker to sign a copy of the honor code just beforehand, or even just seating him in front of a mirror, have been shown to reduce cheating by as much as 90%.[16] (Again, if I fail to cheat principally because I happened to be sitting in front of a mirror during my test, my behavior is probably not due to the exercise of the virtue of honesty in anything like the standard sense.) Some of the darkest of the “situationist” experiments were conducted in the 1960s by Stanley Milgram, who found that virtually all of his test subjects could be pressured by a white-coated “supervisor” into administering what they (wrongly) believed to be painful electric shocks to a total stranger (in fact an actor bellowing convincing howls of agony and pleas for mercy), and that 65% were even willing to administer a deadly, 450-volt shock.[17]

The news is not all bad, however. As Miller emphasizes, these experimental findings also suggest that very few people are thoroughly dishonest or cruel, for instance. Students cheat with alarming frequency, it is true, but they typically cheat substantially less than they could have gotten away with.[18] (Perhaps this spoonful of restraint helps the immorality go down easier.) Likewise, though participants in Milgram’s experiments could be pressured into cruel behavior, hardly any embraced it with verve—in other versions of Milgram’s experiment in which no pressure was applied to administer shocks, hardly anyone did so.[19] Miller suggests that these findings indicate that most of us are neither virtuous nor vicious, but rather possess what he calls “mixed traits,” which incline us to, e.g., honesty in some highly specified situations, and to dishonesty in others.

To my mind, the findings of situationism do not so much show that we are at the mercy of our environment as that we often act out of unconscious beliefs and desires, many of them, alas, less than creditable. As Miller puts it, situational factors seem to activate “surprising dispositions” in each of us, such as a disposition to “harm others in order to obey the instructions of a legitimate authority” (activated in the Milgram experiments) or to help others in order to alleviate embarrassment (activated in the bathroom experiment).[20] These dispositions are “surprising” precisely because most of us do not recognize that we possess them unless we catch ourselves acting them out—and even this modest self-knowledge is often a moral achievement in itself.

The Rarity of Virtue and Vice in the Christian Theological Tradition

The findings of situationism are counter-intuitive—most of us are doubtless eager to take full, conscious credit for our good actions in particular—but they are not particularly surprising from the standpoint of either the classical philosophical tradition or some important strands of Christian theology.[21] As Miller rightly notes, Aristotle took for granted that the virtues are rare, insisting that “the many . . . do not abstain from bad acts because of their baseness but through fear of punishment.”[22] In Aristotle on the Virtues, Howard Curzer comments that, for Aristotle, “the category of ‘the many’ includes not only children, but also the majority of adults, for [in Aristotle’s view] these adults are morally childish.”[23]

Moreover, as Miller suggests, “The Christian can consistently hold—for various reasons such as personal sin, original sin, the fall, the Devil and his minions, or a variety of other explanatory stories—that most people, including most Christians, do not live up to the standards of being even weakly virtuous.”[24] Indeed, as we will shortly see, Miller’s observations about the rarity of virtue (and vice) were shared by some of the most important Christian thinkers of the past two millenia, who held that most people are deeply inconstant in their actions, and have either directly endorsed or strongly implied the view that the virtues in particular (and perhaps also the vices) are quite rare.

I will not attempt to offer a full itinerary of Christian moral pessimism, but it will be worthwhile to highlight four significant figures from within the Christian tradition who clearly endorsed one or both of these ideas: St. Paul, Augustine of Hippo, Dante Alighieri, and Blaise Pascal. This apparently eclectic crew—consisting of a Second-Temple apocalyptic Jewish missionary, a late-ancient bishop, a medieval poet, and an early-modern polymath—turn out to be strikingly united in their convictions about the rarity of true virtue and even true vice.

St. Paul on the Weakness of the Will

For a start, St. Paul was quite adamant about humanity’s general moral impotence. This comes through most clearly in the sustained indictment of Romans 1:18-3:19, which first highlights pagan idolatry and lasciviousness (1:18-32), then turns to the impotence of Torah-observance to restrain those evils (2:1-29), and finally concludes with a catena of biblical quotations about the gravity and universality of sin (3:1-19), leading to the definitive judgment: “There is none righteous, no, not one” (3:10).

Of course, these condemnations are principally aimed at the unbaptized, but Paul elsewhere dramatizes the ongoing moral confusion that reigns even in the regenerate. Writing to the Galatians, he cautions that his converts should expect to find that “weakness of will” (akrasia) persists even after baptism: “the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that you cannot do the things that you would” (Gal 5:17). Paul did exhort his converts to intense moral striving: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Nonetheless, he was realistic about the limits of these exertions: “If any man's work is burned up [on the Day of the Lord], he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15). This passage has traditionally and rightly been read as an allusion to humanity’s widespread need for post-mortem purgation.[25]

Augustine on Christian Mediocrity

From Paul, we skip ahead a few centuries to the dour doctor gratiae. In the late fourth and early fifth centuries, Augustine placed the rarity of virtue at the center of two of his most important controversies, first with the Donatists and then later with the Pelagians. As Robert Markus noted, Augustine saw both groups as linked by their “belief in a pure Church, ‘without spot or wrinkle,’”[26] though the Donatists were communitarian, stressing that the Church’s sacraments could not be performed by priests who had betrayed the faith under persecution, while Pelagius and his circle (including Caelestius and later Julian of Eclanum) insisted that the gifts of our free will and intellect, Scripture’s divine teaching, and the grace imparted in baptism put perfect sanctification within everyone’s grasp.[27] For Augustine, by contrast, “the Church cannot be an elite in the world; it is necessarily holy and worldly at the same time,” a field of mingled wheat and tares, to “be purified only at the end.”[28] In Markus’s remarkable formulation, Augustine’s response to the Donatists and Pelagians alike took the form of “a vindication of Christian mediocrity.”[29]

In his Against the Two Epistles of the Pelagians, for instance, Augustine vividly dramatized the mediocre Christian whose salvation he sought to defend:

He sustains his incontinence in the honorable state of marriage, repaying and demanding the carnal, conjugal debt, and not indeed solely for the sake of propagation, but also because of lust, although he lies only with his wife . . . He does not receive injuries as patiently [as some], but, enraged, is carried off by the lust for revenge, but, when asked how he can say, “as we forgive our debtors,” he pardons them. He possesses some property, from which he gives alms, though not so generously as others . . . In short, he seems to be inferior to other in his morals, but because of his upright faith in God, by which he lives . . . rendering ignominy to himself and glory to God . . . he departs as one who is to be liberated from this life and received into the company of those who reign with Christ.[30]

The portrait here is of a man of decidedly mixed character, and one who, though faithful in prayer, seems not to make much progress in holiness. He is a figure marked, as Markus puts it, by “mediocrity, unresolved tensions,” neither particularly virtuous nor vicious, but drifting in between the two.[31]

Particularly interesting is Augustine’s comment about how the ordinary Christian oscillates between anger and forgiveness, giving in to anger in the face of an immediate wrong, but then embracing forgiveness at the prompting of the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer seems to serve as a “God-prime,” as Joseph Henrich calls them: there is a great deal of evidence that religious believers (but not unbelievers) behave more morally when confronted with even subtle reminders (“primes”) of their religious commitments. For instance, Muslims give more to charity while the call to prayer is sounding than at other times; Christians give more to charity on Sunday than other days; and in experimental settings, “God-primes” made religious believers more honest, generous, and cooperative than those in control groups.[32] It should go without saying that it is better to be disposed to forgive in the face of a God-prime than not to be, but that disposition is hardly the full-fledged virtue of forgiveness.

Dante’s “Neutrals”

Once again leaping the centuries, we can turn, for our third endorsement of the rarity thesis, to Dante Alighieri, who had of course drunk deeply at Augustinian wells alongside his reading in later scholasticism. In a way, Dante’s Divine Comedy is a sustained dramatization of the rarity of virtue in particular (q.v., Inferno & Purgatorio, passim), but a relatively neglected early canto underscores that this is equally true of vice. In Inferno 3, immediately after passing through Hell’s gate, Dante encounters “so long a file of people” that (he remarks), “I never could have believed that death had undone so many” (Inf. 3.55-57).

Virgil explains that “this miserable way / is taken by the sorry souls of those / who lived without infamy and without praise (sanza 'nfamia e sanza lodo)” (Inf. 3.34-36). “The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened, have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them – / even the wicked cannot glory in them” (Inf. 3.40-42). In their moral lukewarmness, Hell itself spits out those who acted “with meanness (per viltade),” which is the opposite of that nobility of spiri—“noble (nobile),” Dante observes in the Convivio, “comes from ‘non-vile (non vile)’”—which can make either a great saint or a great sinner.[33]

Pascal’s Proto-Situationist Psychology

Let’s now add a fourth and final character to our cast of proto-situationist theologians. Blaise Pascal (the great mathematical genius turned religious adept) clearly endorses the rarity thesis, which emerges within his account of human nature as spread across three “orders”: “The infinite distance of body from mind gives one a sense of the distance, infinitely more infinite, of minds from charity, for it is supernatural . . .These three orders are different in kind.”[34] Pascal had enormous respect for “the order of the mind,” inhabited by “great geniuses” such as “Archimedes,” and was in awe at the saints, whose “least movement of charity” infinitely exceeds the capacities of “all bodies and all minds together.”[35] Nonetheless, he took it that most people, most of the time, inhabited another order, that “of the flesh,” in which “concupiscence and force are the source of all our actions; concupiscence brings about the voluntary, force, the involuntary.”[36]

Pascal not only endorsed the rarity thesis, however; he also arguably went beyond even Augustine in adumbrating something like a situationist account of human action as highly (and often laughably) context-dependent. In his unfinished masterwork, the Pensées, Pascal described “the condition of man” as one of “inconstancy, ennui, disquiet,”[37] and remarked, “Don’t be surprised if a man doesn’t reason well at the moment that a fly is buzzing in his ear . . . that animal which holds his reason at bay and troubles that powerful intelligence that governs cities and kingdoms.”[38]

He even considers a clear case of what psychologists now call “the halo effect”:

Do not say that that magistrate, whose venerable age demands respect from all the people, is himself governed by a pure and sublime reason, and that he judges things by their nature without tarrying over those vain circumstances which only injure the imagination of the weak. See him enter to hear a sermon, to which he bears an entirely devout zeal, reinforcing the solidity of his reason by the ardor of his charity; look, he’s ready to listen with an exemplary respect. Let the preacher now appear—if nature has given him a hoarse voice and a bizarre visage, and let his barber have shaved him badly, and if chance has further besmirched him, let him proclaim whatever grand truths he likes—I wager that our grand senator will lose his gravity.[39]

The venerable senator entered the church prepared to act within the order of the mind (the alert, reasoning consciousness), but he found his efforts quickly if unwittingly derailed by impish antics of the order of the flesh (the intuitive and affective unconscious). Intellectually, he knows that the pastor’s appearance has nothing much to do with the content of his sermon. Nonetheless, he instinctively and unconsciously resorts to the heuristic that what is superficially unattractive is probably not worth his time.

Moral Exoskeletons for the Mediocre Many

Every religion produces virtuosos of the holy life—the saints keep company with the tsaddiqim and boddhisattvas. These virtuosos achieve genuine virtue in many domains. They do the right things in the right way and for the right reasons. But they are perhaps as rare and as astonishing as the fastest sprinters or the highest-flying gymnasts. It makes perfect sense for reflection on the normative ideal of the Christian life to center on the saints and their full, paradigmatic virtues. Alas, though, most religious believers are not yet even approaching sanctity.

In spite of this, religious communities have found ways to profoundly shape the behavior even of us mediocre many for the better. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt nicely puts it, religious participation offers us “moral exoskeletons. If you live in a religious community,” he notes, “you are enmeshed in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work primarily on the [unconscious] to influence your behavior.”[40] “Moral exoskeletons” puts the point precisely: perhaps stratagems such as “God-primes” or norms of communal accountability do not primarily build up the moral muscle of the virtues, but rather offer sturdy external supports for our relatively puny characters.

In its enthusiasm for the full virtues, theological virtue ethics risks overlooking the importance of these more modest and indirect measures for shaping our behavior. The discipline would be greatly enriched if more of its practitioners diverted some of their attention away from the virtuosos’ virtues and toward these moral exoskeletons for the mediocre many.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, “The Virtues and Our Communities (1983), 115, quoted in Jennifer Herdt, “Hauerwas among the Virtues,” 211.

[2] Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (Baker Academic, 2017); Daniel Harrington, S.J. and James Keenan, S.J., Paul and Virtue Ethics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).

[3] John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, The Politics of Virtue: Post-liberalism and the Human Future (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

[4] Brendan Case, The Accountable Animal: Justice, Justification, and Judgment (T&T Clark, 2021).

[5] For this and other complications, cf. the helpful introductory discussion in R. Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics” (esp. Sect. 1.1) in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2003).

[6] Justin Martyr, Apologia II Pro Christianis (Patrologiae Graecae, vol. 6; ed. J.-P. Migne; Paris: Thibaut, 1865), §10 (my translation).

[7] “He, whom you call your slave, was born from the same seeds [as you], to enjoy the same heaven, equally to breathe, equally to live, equally to die” (Seneca, Ep. 47.10). As Fitzgerald remarks, “Stoics completely rejected the Aristotelian notion of natural slavery [cf. Politics 1.1], both as an idea and as a defense of the institution” (“Stoics and Early Christians on the Treatment of Slaves,” 265).

[8] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit §199.

[9] Miller distances himself from the “situationist” movement as a whole, because some of its most prominent members interpret situationist findings in a behaviorist, Skinnerian sense, as implying that personality traits play no role in human behavior (cf. Character and Moral Psychology, 100).

[10] On the pro side, cf. John Doris (cf. esp. his Lack of Character) and Gilbert Harman (cf. esp. “Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology: Virtues Ethics and the Fundamental Attribution Error”). An interesting but ultimately quite modest defense of the widespread possession of the virtues in the face of situationism is given by Robert Adams, A Theory of Virtue. He maintains that we can continue to think of the virtues as a common possession, if we accept the existence of virtues which are “frail and fragmentary.” I think this is a defensible position, but it concedes a great deal of ground to the situationist challenge, which is focused on traits that are operative across situations, rather than “fragmentary” traits operative only in highly-specified situations.

[11] Christian Miller, “Should Christians Be Worried about Situationist Claims in Psychology?” Faith and Philosophy 33 (1):48-73 (2016).

[12] Ibid., 48.

[13] Idem, Character and Moral Psychology, 98.

[14] Writing about the phone booth study, Miller notes, “There were replication problems with this study, but there are many other studies on the effect of mood on helping which found a similar pattern” (

[15] The Character Gap, 125-30.

[16] Ibid., 130-33.

[17] Ibid., 90-95. As Miller notes, somewhat more ethical variations on Milgram’s experiments, assessing the human propensity to harm others at the behest of authority figures, have been replicated many times (ibid., 82-84).

[18] Ibid., 128-31.

[19] Ibid., 97.

[20] “Should Christians Be Worried?”, 61. Cf. also Character and Moral Psychology, 103.

[21] This habit of over-estimating the influence of one’s character rather than one’s situation on (esp. morally good) behavior is the so-called “fundamental attribution error” dear to situationist philosophers. 

[22] Nicomachean Ethics 1179b7–13.

[23] Aristotle on the Virtues, 333.

[24] “Should Christians Be Worried?”, 54.

[25] For an extended defense of an ecumenically-oriented doctrine of purgatory, and of 1 Cor. 3:15 in particular as warranting it, cf. my The Accountable Animal: Justice, Justification, and Judgment (T&T Clark, 2021), ch. 5.

[26] The End of Ancient Christianity, 51.

[27] Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity, 52-54, cf. also Augustine’s On the Spirit and the Letter and the discussion in Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 340-52.

[28] Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity, 53.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Contra 2 Ep. Pel. 3.5.14 (my translation); cf. the discussion of this passage in Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity, 55.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Cf. Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World, 123-28.

[33] Convivio 4.16.6, quoted in Hollander’s notes to his Inferno translation (60).

[34] In Oeuvres Completes, 540a, my translation.

[35] Ibid., 540b.

[36] Ibid., 511a. For further discussion of this theme in Pascal, cf. Paul J. Griffiths, Why Read Pascal? (CUA 2021), 54-58.

[37] Ibid., 503a.  

[38] Ibid., 506a.

[39] Ibid., 504b.

[40] The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics (Random House, 2012), 313.

Featured Image: Dosso Dossi, Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue, 1524; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Brendan Case

Brendan Case is Associate Director for Research in The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University.

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