While an understanding of the moral field is essential for having a thoroughly theological ethics, it is not sufficient. After all, the individual is the subject of his actions. It is the individual who is “the consummate moral reality which his acts declare.”
But the one cannot replace the other. Agent-oriented ethics complements, not substitutes for, act-oriented ethics. Their relation is exceptionally difficult, but any satisfactory account will have to make to stipulations: “(a) the subject’s character must not be reduced to a function of his acts; (b) the subject’s acts must be allowed to disclose his character, which will make itself known only through them.”
In other words, our acts do not define our character, and yet we shall be known by our fruits. As O’Donovan puts it, “Character is hidden from public view, while acts are open to it; but the shrewd observer will be able to read the character from the tell-tale act. For acts cannot be made entirely plausible on their own, without a character to support them.”
With respect to the first stipulation, O’Donovan points out that modern ethics—extending, in fact, back to Aquinas!—is substantially “act-ethics.” Any dispositions of character are simply reduced to the repetitiveness of that person’s actions. So, for instance, we say that if “John is talkative,” we point to a series of acts where John behaved talkatively. While this is a plausible approach to take, O’Donovan contends that it “distorts certain elements of the moral reality it pretends to interpret.” There are, it seems, certain dispositions of character that are not easily reduced into acts, such as “maturity,” “even-temperedness,” or “lack of initiative.”
On the other hand, O’Donovan points to the second stipulation: the “epistemological priority of act over character.” The heart is “hidden, from man’s eyes until deeds and words declare it.” While knowing a person’s character may be helpful in understanding their action in light of their whole narrative, it is only helpful retrospectively. That is, it contributes to “evaluative moral thought only because that kind of moral reflection supposes a closed narrative of actions from which the character has already emerged clearly into view, so that each element in the narrative can be interpreted in light of the whole.” In moral deliberation, however, the end of the story is still open—our character is not yet fixed, and hence should not play a role in our deliberations.
O’Donovan, realizing that this is controversial, anticipates the objection from the the neo-Aristotelians, namely that we can never know the moral status of an act unless we know the agent’s intentions. In determining what he intends, an agent draws upon his history in order to inform his decisions. Thus, the neo-Aristotelians subsume character under “intention.”
O’Donovan’s response is twofold: First, a moral agent who does not approach each decision as a brand new decision not only cuts himself off from the possibility of repentance, but closes himself “against the corrective influence of this situation upon our pre-formed moral inclinations.”
Second, “Having once determined that the agent legitimately imposes his own interpretative matrix upon the situation into which he must act, it must go on to maintain the possibility of many different interpretive matrixes corresponding to many agents’ different life-intentions, all equally valid.” In other words, there is no external criterion to dictate which life-intentions a subject should choose. In other words, relativism. There is, “in principle, no rational resolution available to our deliberations: the choice between the alternatives must be nothing more than a bare choice, a raw exercise of the will.”
That is not to say that everyone’s characters are the same. Rather, the upshot of O’Donovan’s argument is that character is a category for moral evaluation¸ rather than moral deliberation. Christianity has always understood the variety of gifts and vocations, and behind that the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (one Lord, one faith, one baptism). The particularity of vocation and gift is “a window through which the universal character of all Christian life may appear.” As Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 13, “Love is the unitary orientation that lies behind all the uniquely varied responses to the generic variety of the created order.”
Yet one significant question still remains: what is the function of a strictly evaluative ethic of character?
For one, it places moral deliberation in its soteriological context. Ethics, in other words, is about “saving one’s soul” in addition to doing the right thing. The question of our character is a question of the eventual salvation—or damnation—of our soul: “That is why the Catholic tradition of moral theology has been right to retain it. But it does not answer [the soteriological question] sufficiently; that is why the Protestant tradition has been right to suspect its possible pretensions. We shall not learn how to save our souls by talking about the formation of virtuous characters.”
Not only that, but evaluation plays a central role in repentance. As we reflect upon our own character, “we can form judgments (partial, no doubt, but not valueless) on what kind of character our history has disclosed, and these, rather than judgments on particular acts, are what will make us feel most acutely the need for salvation.”
Thirdly, we make provisional judgments on ourselves and others. We observe others’ virtues and vices, which teaches us love. But our judgments must be provisional—“judge not”—holding both favourable and unfavourable judgments on ourselves and others tentatively in light of the unknown. As O’Donovan closes the chapter, “Thus, Solon’s warning, to call no man happy until he is dead, is less cautious than Jesus’ warning. Even of the dead we do not know what hidden work of God may yet be shown us on the last day.”
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.