Virtue, spirituality and the possibility of spiritual virtues

Traditionally, moral or other virtues have been considered aspirations to personal excellence: to have cultivated a virtue – albeit imperfectly – is to have attained some higher human state. While regarding virtue and the virtuous in this normatively exalted way, however, it has also been common to esteem people for their so-called ‘spirituality’ or spiritual qualities.

It may therefore be wondered whether there is much or any connection between virtue and spirituality: perhaps, more precisely, whether there might be human qualities meriting consideration as virtues of spirituality or spiritual virtues.

Like the terminology of virtue and virtues, that of spirituality and the spiritual is prone to fast and loose popular application to various states of feeling, appreciation, attitude, value, character, and so on. However, less like virtue talk, a problem with the received discourse of spirituality is that it has strong traditional connotations of religion and religiosity – which are clearly uncongenial to modern secular sensibilities.

That said, there have been interesting recent attempts – not least in British educational policy making – to reclaim or rehabilitate ideas of spirituality and the spiritual in order to retain something of the ‘higher’ aspirational sense of these terms, in the prevailing secular context of contemporary British schooling.

Still, there seem to be at least two problems with such efforts. The first it that it seems difficult to decouple notions of spirituality and the spiritual from what seems to be their natural home in traditional religious contexts. On this view, the task of finding a meaningful secular sense of the spiritual may be just as hopeless as that indicated by the late Elizabeth Anscombe of making modern philosophical sense of a moral sense of ‘ought’ in conditions of no widespread belief in God as divine lawgiver. In the present view, however, the main difficulty with recent attempts to rehabilitate the notion of spirituality is that they have failed to identify a distinctive sense of the term that does not reduce to such more familiar notions of subjective well-being, moral association and/or aesthetic appreciation.

That said, there may yet be another place to seek a secular analogue or model of spirituality, the spiritual and even spiritual virtues, in the so-called theological or ‘infused’ virtues of scholastic theology. For these, notwithstanding their evident Pauline Christian roots, appear to identify certain virtues that are distinct from, additional to or ‘transcendent’ of the more familiar virtues of personal and social flourishing – principally, temperance, courage, justice and wisdom – of classical Greek virtue ethics.

On the one hand, of course, the trouble – for secular purposes – with the key theological virtues of faith, hope and love or charity is that they do seem firmly tethered to a very specific theistic perspective. From this viewpoint, it may seem difficult to see how faith and hope could generally count as virtues apart from the kind of other-wordly grounds for such faith and hope provided by something like traditonal Christian theology.

On the other hand, however, it may not be impossible to see how the Christian notion of love or charity – not, of course, the love of personal or erotic attachment, but of something more like disinterested general concern for others or other causes that precisely transcends the personal attachments of self – might not be thought a genuine virtue in secular or non-religious contexts.

Moreover, it is arguable that some such personal transcendence is required to make substantial sense of a range of self-effacing virtues such as forgiveness, humility and altruism that are also not clearly reducible to the cardinal virtues of Greek antiquity. To be sure, the modern British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch clearly regarded such self-transcendent love for others, via liberation from what she called ‘the fat relentless ego’ – as lying at the very root of all proper human morality.

Still, whether this fairly strong claim is sustainable, such personal transcendence clearly identifies a moral motivation that seems qualitatively distinct from the largely instrumentalist – and ultimately self-interesed – moralities of social contract and tit-for-tat reciprocity of much modern moral philosophy. Moreover, as already indicated, it seems to identify a moral motivation that cannot either be easily accommodated in the basically naturalistic terms of Aristotelian virtue ethics – which, when all is said and done, also locates the roots of morality in personal and social interest and flourishing.

That said, for your hardened secularist, this may also be what makes any of such talk of self or ego-transcendence impossible to swallow. For how, in the absence of God or a transcendent reality upon which the empirically conditioned human struggles and cares of this world are ultimately dependent for their real meaning and value, might any such notion of un-self-interested agency make much sense?

These are large questions that I leave it to readers to ponder.

David Carr, Professor of Ethics and Education, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues


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