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(This post is part of a series on Shane Clifton’s book Crippled Grace. This posts focuses on chapters 3 and 4. The post on chapter 1 can be found here, and chapter 2 can be found here.

In chapter 3, we turn to Clifton’s engagement with the virtue tradition. The virtue tradition, at least in the West, begins with some of the pre-Socratics, but comes to prominence with Plato and, especially, Aristotle. It then played a key, and perhaps the central, normative role in Christian theology and philosophy up through the medieval period. It’s always been central to Catholic theology, whereas deontic or divine command views became more influential in protestant circles. In the past sixty, there has been a resurgence in virtue ethics. (I co-edited a book on virtue and vice a few years ago; my co-editor and I are now writing a short introductory text on virtue that should be complete this summer.)

Clifton introduces the reader to some of the key concepts in traditional virtue theory in this chapter:

  • flourishing (‘living and doing well’);
  • how virtue is teleological;
  • the distinction between virtuous activity and virtue;
  • and moral formation, including habituation, instruction, and the role of community

In general, I don’t want to quibble with details of this chapter too much, as Clifton’s not trying to give a comprehensive treatment of the virtue tradition in general, nor the incorporation of that tradition into much Christian theology. But let me note that I think Clifton takes too strong of a disconnect between the “two constructions of flourishing” (60) found in the Hebrew Bible, namely Proverbs (eudaimonistic) and Ecclesiastes (hedonic). I think he’s correct that the Christian tradition needs to ‘reinterpret’ parts of the ancient Greek virtue tradition (see, e.g., 69). But the role of ‘imitating Christ’ that he talks about can be (and, I think, should be) understood in terms of moral perfection and a moral exemplar).

I think that Clifton misses an important distinction about pity (which I plan on addressing in a future post) and gets wrong parts of Aristotle’s view of friendship (but not nearly as much as N. T. Wright does in an otherwise excellent book). I also find the claim that virtue can be wielded as a form of oppression (83) to be very puzzling. If virtue is a kind of excellent–and especially if that excellence is a perfection not just of the individual but also of the individual as a member of their community–then I’d need to know more about how virtue can play this alleged role before agreeing. This should be seen as a friendly invitation for him to say more.

The majority of chapter 4 is the story of Mark Tonga, another quadriplegic that Clifton knows. Quite a few philosophers (e.g., Kittay) and theologians (e.g., Yong and Carter) writing on disability draw on narratives in a similar way. I think there is value in such narratives, especially for those readers that don’t have much direct experience with disability. For purposes of my class, however, the chapter didn’t really add much. I would have preferred for it to focused more on the disconnect between subjective and objective accounts of happiness, or how virtue demands advocacy or social action. But I can’t fault Clifton too much for not writing the book I wanted.


  • Hey Kevin, thanks for the interesting critical response. I’m not surprised I get Aristotle wrong at a few points, to be honest — so I won’t even try and defend myself on that! But perhaps an explanation of virtue as a means of control. When people with power — politicians and preachers, normally men — tell, teach, or encourage “followers” to exercise virtue, they generally do so in such a way as to buttress their own power. This was Friedrich Nietzsche’s fundamental critique of virtue ethics, and it comes out in most of his writing at some point. And I think he is absolutely right to say that preachers of virtue have historically encouraged congregants to exercise patience, temperance, kindness and so on for the purpose of keeping people in their place — to stop them from raging against injustice. It is a topic I take on more later in the book.

    It’s not really a critique of virtue per se, but an observation that virtue can be wielded as a weapon of control, if that makes sense.

  • mm Kevin Timpe says:

    Thanks for weighing in, Shane. I’d love it if we could sit and chat about your book.

    I agree with you about the abuse of what has been called virtue for the purpose of trying to keep people in check–as a weapon of control, as you put it. But if that weapon isn’t good for the one that it’s wielded against (or the one wielding it, in terms of their objective flourishing) then it’s not a virtue no matter how much it’s called to be one. Does that make sense?

    I hope you’re doing well.


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