I’ve been talking about virtue ethics in my bioethics class. This is, in part, the view that what matters in developing an ethical framework is to focus on developing good character, rather than constructing either rules of conduct honored by a sense of duty to God or reason, or in attempting to achieve good outcomes for the majority of the people. Virtue ethics was first articulated by Aristotle as part of his view that to live a flourishing human life is to achieve an excellence of virtues.
Aristotle listed many of these virtues: Things like gratitude, munificence, friendship, and a number of others. I would like to focus on two. The first is generosity. That ability to give abundantly to others. For Aristotle, every virtue was centered between extremes. For example, generosity is situated between miserliness, in which you hold back giving to maintain resources for your own purposes, and at the other extreme is being a spendthrift, in which you throw your resources into lavish gifts that you can neither afford and that the recipient does not need. Generosity walks a middle path that recognizes when to give good gifts and who should receive them.
Americans used to be known as a generous people. Is it still true? There are reasons for discouragement. As Marilynne Robinson laments in her essay Value in her recent collection ,
I had always thought that the one thing I could assume about my country was that it was generous. Instinctively and reflexively generous.
She points to some reasons this might be so, then continues,
I hate even to admit that I fear this might have begun to change. I do believe that we stand at a threshold, as Bonhoeffer did, and that the example of his life obligates me to speak about the gravity of our historical moment as I see it, in the knowledge that no society is at any time immune to moral catastrophe.
Moral catastrophe sounds serious. It is. I see what she sees.
Which brings me to Aristotle’s grounding virtue. Grounding because all other virtues require its presence in order to emerge. That virtue is courage.
When I think of courage, I think of Malala Yousafzai. The young woman shot by a Taliban gunman because she believed that girls should be given an education. Since that time she has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and voices. She was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for her efforts. She continues despite great personal risk. She epitomizes bravery.
What is courage? Is it even still a virtue? Evidence suggests that at least in America the answer is no. There are courageous people certainly, and I know many who have faced dangers, disease, combat, sorrow, rejection, hatred, a host of prejudices in the form of many -isms, and many other ills with unwavering bravery—sometimes in the face of great odds, challenges, and danger.
I think of the Syrian refugees facing angry seas and hostile governments (among them mine) to free their families from the terror of ISIS and the terrible Syrian civil war (What would you do?). I see courage. And stories of bravery that take my breath away.
Aristotle had much to say on courage and bravery. By his lights it was the foundational virtue and the framing requirement for living a noble and excellent life. He writes, 1115b 11-14
Now the brave man is as dauntless as man may be. Therefore, while will fear even the things that are not beyond man’s strength, he will fear them as he ought and as reason directs, and he will face them for the sake of what is noble; for this is the end of excellence.
He also notes, what is not courage and he pulls out a particular case, 1117a10-20
Nor are sanguine people brave for they are confident in danger only because they have conquered often an against many foes. . . . When their adventures do not succeed, however, they run away; but it was the mark of a brave man to face things that are, and seem, terrible for a man, because it is noble to do so and disgraceful not to do so.
American leadership, I’m looking specifically at the US governors who have closed their borders to the refugees, have betrayed our most noble foundational characteristics. Because they are afraid that among the refugees there might be a few ISIS soldiers. They will let tens of thousands suffer because of their shameful fear of a few. We ask our own soldiers to face enemies often. We expect them to be courageous. But for many, including these pusillanimous governors and those that support them, the risk is too high. We cannot do our Christian duty, we cannot lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters (Who are our neighbors?) because we have grown like the sanguine people Aristotle marks as cowards above—those who are only brave when all the odds are stacked in their favor. We count the risk too high because we must not even entertain a certain negligible risk to act as Christ taught us to act. We are willing to let suffering, that in many ways our nation is responsible for, go unchecked, and leaving these people and their children uncomforted and unredeemed. For fear. Because we are afraid of ISIS. Americans have been scared out of our Christian duty. We have become craven and miserly.
Ben Reed writing on the courage of George Washington highlights a letter that he sent to the governor of Rhode Island about the risks and dangers they were facing,
No danger is to be considered when put in competition with the magnitude of the cause.
What greater cause is there than expressing the love that Christ time and time again laid out was our responsibility? The responsibility to care for others? Let us be generous with our country, its opportunities, and blessings. The kind of generosity we were once known for and that Robinson laments is disappearing.
And mostly let is be courageous. Let us not shrink in a cowardly retreat or miserly grasping of our resources. We must help the disenchanted people who stand at our gate as refugees. We cannot dare think that because of an accident of our birth we have a special right to the freedoms God granted us and that we can withhold them from our fellow brothers and sisters. As a letter from the first presidency states:
“The Church’s efforts to assist refugees around the world echo a directive to take care of the poor and needy that was taught by the Savior during His mortal ministry. “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in. … Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:35, 40).”
How much I would like to join with the Syrians refugees in singing our most beloved hymn, and this stanza in particular:
We’ll find the place which God for us prepared,
Far away, in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the saints, will be blessed.
We’ll make the air, with music ring,
Shout praises to our God and King;
Above the rest these words we’ll tell –
All is well! All is well!
Can you imagine how beautiful, how meaningful, and heartfelt such words would mean to these refugees?
But to do this, we must first sing among ourselves and let our voices carry our government leaders,
Why should we think to earn a great reward
If we now shun the fight?
Gird up your loins; fresh courage take.
Our God will never us forsake;
Courage. It’s a virtue for that cries out for presence in the moment at hand.
Robinson, Marilynne, 2015. The Givenness of Things: Essays. pp. 175-176