In the book (and musical, and movie) Les Misérables, former prisoner Jean Valjean finds himself released from prison in Southern France, given a yellow passport marking him as a convict, and ordered to report to Pontarlier for his parole. After a long day’s journey, he attempts to find a place to stay for the night, but is turned down by all the hotels in the area, and even the jail and dog kennel refuses to provide him lodging.
Finally, he finds himself at the door of a bishop’s house, where he pleads his case earnestly and begs for mercy. The bishop has compassion and takes him in, but at midnight, a conflicted Valjean steals the bishops silverware, and disappears. The following day, Valjean is accosted by the police, the silverware is discovered on him, and he is brought back to the bishop, expecting condemnation and a return to the galleys. But the bishop’s response surprises him.
"Ah! here you are!" he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. "I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?"
Valjean stares at him, eyes wide and mouth agape, shocked at the mercy shown him. He is released, trembling, the bishop gives him the candlesticks and, as the police depart, leaves him with a solemn word.
"Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God."
A Virtuous Approach to Ethics
When I read this section of Les Misérables, I’m struck with the humble, sacrificial character of the bishop. His mercy and grace, paired with his devotion to God, give a vivid picture of moral living that formal theories of ethics can never capture.
Virtue ethics, first pioneered by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, are different from other ethics in that they focus on who we are instead of what we do. Virtue ethicists focus on studying the character traits that make people moral, that is, they study habits of moral living that are cultivated over time, and talk about how to implement these habits in our daily lives. Virtue ethics are based on imitation- they require someone before to exemplify the moral virtue that is to be studied.
Virtue ethics shows a vital break from other ethical theories. Where other ethical theories talk a lot about calculating the optimific action, or appealing to inviolable moral laws, virtue ethicists simply argue that virtuous actions will flow out of a virtuous person. As a person becomes more accustomed to living rightly, he no longer has to pay scrupulous attention to all the rules of morality that are placed on him. Following them comes naturally.
A perfect example of this is the growth of a child. When he’s young, his parents place him under all sorts of “dos” and “don’ts” and punishments and rewards. But by the time he becomes a young man, he has become used to practicing these habits and does them naturally without regard to the punishment and rewards, and he gains satisfaction by knowing that he is living justly.
Christianity and Virtue Ethics
In a sense, this seems a lot like the flow of the law and the Gospel in Christian theology. In the Old Testament, we find the law given to us, a strong moral code with harsh punishments held for us to follow. But in the New Testament, we are shown that the law is our guardian, meant to keep us until the coming of Christ.
“So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” (Galatians 3:24-26)
In Christ, we find the perfect role model to emulate -- Christ himself. We find a shift in emphasis from rules to character, as Christ comes to fulfill the law. Now that Christ has come to show us virtue, we can walk as mature Christians, free from the law and all its condemnation and punishments. The law is not abolished, but rather fulfilled, much like the rules and regulations that the small child is put under are fulfilled by the young man who walks uprightly.
A Flexible Moral Law?
All right, so, in my typical fashion, let’s toss some controversy out there and get a discussion going! In the story of Jean Valjean, amidst my admiration of the bishop for his merciful and gracious actions, I’m sure some of you are thinking something along the lines of “but he’s LYING, by golly!”
So I’ll toss a theory out there for debate.
With young kids, you’ve got to set up some pretty harsh “do not violate” rules of behavior. If you give kids nothing but the underlying principle to work with, then they’re going to do something… unintelligent. Take bedtime for example. If you’re dealing with a 4-year-old, you make a law along the lines of “thou shalt go to bed at 8 pm,” because a 4-year-old is not going to know how to apply the principle “get a reasonable amount of sleep” on his own. Is there a similar connection between “thou shalt not lie” and the underlying principle of honesty? Or put another way, when virtues of mercy and honesty conflict, which wins out?
All righty guys, let’s get some comments going! I’m watching the hit counters, and I know you’re reading this, now I want to hear your thoughts!
By Nick Barden
By Nick Barden