Thursday, March 25, 2010

Theoretical Musing

[Warning! Ethical Methodological Material Ahead! Beware of Soporific Content!]

In virtue ethics, we talk a lot about virtues as perfections of human capacities. Virtues perfect our character the same way exercise perfects our muscles--they tone and strengthen us for specific contexts. A virtue ethics generally speaking focuses on the cardinal virtues (classically: Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Courage, or, in one contemporary spin, Prudence, Justice, Fidelity and Self-care.) All other virtues "fit" into one of the cardinal virtues, which are like a sorting system for the general way virtues function. (E.g., temperance classically restrains us from grabbing too much of something that's good.The opposite vice, which Thomas calls "insensibility," happens, but is much less common than the urge to have too much of a good thing. Humility fits into the temperance category, since we're to be restrained from grabbing too much honor.) To have lots of various virtues is not to be super-human, it's to be excellent as a human being, to be living in tune with one's nature. It's "being all you can be," morally fit like an elite athlete is physically fit.

But particular endeavors like the practice of medicine or ministry, have particular virtues attributed to them, in light of the goal or end or telos of the activity. Doctors are to work on physical or psychological well-being, so what is required of them includes all the regular virtues, but also "professional" spins on each of them. For a doctor, e.g., fidelity to patients requires a devotion to their thriving, (as the Kaiser-Permanente people say.) So a plastic surgeon who's in it just for the bucks is failing in fidelity, while a plastic surgeon who looks to the patient's well-being overall is being professionally virtuous. (Somewhere along the line, some plastic surgeon should have said "no" to Michael Jackson. Maybe not at first, perhaps, but somewhere along the line.) I add to the cardinal virtues for professionals the virtue of trustworthiness. Trustworthiness includes things like being assiduous about your work. Ministers whose theological education ends with seminary are not being trustworthy. Courage for a lawyer might include defending a notorious client in the face of public outrage--consider the ACLU defending white supremacist speech, e.g.

To become a professional is to be formed in the work and ideals of the profession. It is to engage oneself in the process of acquiring the virtues specific to the work. This also involves dealing with profession-specific temptations--MD's are scheduled for appointments every 15 or 20 minutes, yet are expected to deal thoroughly with each patient. The temptation is to keep the schedule, while sometimes you need to stop and listen more deeply. K. Lebacqz (I think--sorry no citation) has written movingly about this. Sometimes what a patient needs more than medicine is to be listened to.

The Casa speaks of "planting seeds," helping people become "their best selves." Of course, the seeds they seek to plant include virtues like compassion, trust, devotion. They don't want to encourage avarice, hard-heartedness, etc. So there's an implicit anthropology at work--what makes a "best self"?

They aren't seeking to form professionals, but to help each person grow in the cardinal virtues. Each of us can be said to start with a certain baseline level of a given virtue. Some people are naturally bold, others naturally more temperate than others. Each of us develops our virtues (or not) toward an ideal that is universal yet personal, just as fingerprints or DNA are universal yet unique. They resist speaking of "formation," perhaps, because that term implies formation for a particular role or profession. They want to help people be just, compassionate accountants, or whatever they do.

Traditional religious formation engages, on a good day, both. A young Benedictine learns the routines of the monastery, finds out that whatever work they're doing stops when the bell rings for prayer. Prayer is the "opus Dei," the proper works of monks. The floor that needs sweeping can wait until after lauds. Priorities indicate meaning. Yet insofar as religious formation is engaged with service of God who desires our flourishing, in the infinite variety in which we're created, a person who seeks to subsume his or her humanity, or ANY aspect of it, in the "mold" of a monk, is making a fundamental error. (Some have suggested that the reason there seem to be more pedophiles in the Roman Catholic priesthood than the rest of the male population is that some pedophiles--not all of them--entered priesthood seeking to escape their sexuality through celibacy. As the newspapers show, it doesn't work that way.) A Benedictine monk is to be his or her "best self" as a Benedictine. If the life doesn't complement and enhance his or her ability to "praise, love and serve" God and neighbor, then the monk doesn't have a vocation to that life. Complicating this statement is the fact that one can grow into a vocation--but not always.

Professional formation these days, in all three professions, tends to downplay "human" formation in the cardinal virtues in favor of formation in the practices and techniques of the profession. Partly that's appropriate, partly not.

Sometimes the virtues of a profession are attended to, but too often not. But absent formation in the professional virtues, medicine, law and ministry are just careers, not professions. When Roman Catholic priestly formation documents speak of "human" formation, they tend to mean formation in celibacy. Too bad--the category is much broader than that, and needs attention for all professionals. We all arrive in the process of becoming "our best selves." Training for professions changes our image of our best selves.

I argue that the process of integrating the "best self" of the cardinal virtues and the professional virtues is more significant for ministers than for doctors or lawyers because of the nature of the work as involving spiritual growth--but that's another topic.


  1. Very helpful! And I think you get at the difference between germinal or gestational virtues and formational or professional virtues.

    I think Karen Lebacqz's work is very helpful here. She lays out the professional virtues in her classic book on professional ethics for pastors, "Professional Ethics: Power and Paradox" (Abingdon, 1985), her specific counsel to pastors, chaplains, and spiritual directors, "Ethics and Spiritual Care" (Abingdon, 2000), and a much more specific treatment of gender issues in pastoral ministry, "Sex in the Parish" (Westminster/John Knox, 1991). All brilliant!

    p.s. what's in the photo?

  2. Very interesting. As I know nothing of this, I would like to know more.