Virtue and Theological Ethics

Toward a Renewed Ethical Method

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Todd A. Salzman, Michael G. Lawler
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , October
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The always thought-provoking team of Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler come together once again in Virtue and Theological Ethics: Toward a Renewed Ethical Method, to “provide a methodological-ethical roadmap, grounded in a virtuous perspective, that . . . changes the primary focus in Catholic theological ethics from a law-based, act-centered ethics of doing to a virtue-based, person-centered ethics of being” (30). While working from the Catholic tradition, Salzman and Lawler are ecumenical and interdisciplinary in approach, seen especially in their articulation of the four sources of moral knowledge through the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: scripture, tradition, science, and human experience (2). 

The introduction merits special mention for two reasons. First, it functions as an intellectual toolbox by which to understand the rest of the work,. Here Salzman and Lawler provide the clearest articulation of both the main qualities of their method, that it is “thoroughly inductive” and person-centered (5-6), along with definition of  central concepts used throughout, including conscience (2-4), virtue (7-8), and human dignity (9). Second, here the reader will find one of the most unique contributions of the book for the field of Christian ethics—that is, their justification as to why ethics must seriously engage the developing field of neuroscience (17-20). The authors do draw productively from neuroscience in their discussions on learning from moral exemplars (52-53) and the role of emotion in ethics (70). However, their engagement with the field for the remainder of the text is limited to gestures in its direction.

In chapter 1, Salzman and Lawler describe what they see as the two main camps in Catholic ethical method today, conservative and progressive. This dichotomy is used throughout the book to its detriment, as it tends to cast those the authors refer to as conservative in method as Magisterial yes-men, and thereby undermines the authors’ attempt to create a charitable dialogue, which they otherwise succeed at (see, e.g., 104 and 108). The main difference between the two methods, they contend, is the manner in which the four sources of moral knowledge presented in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral are ordered. Thus, Salzman and Lawler describe conservative ethical methods as hierarchically prioritizing tradition, and progressive ethical methods, including their own, as employing “a dialectic among the four sources of moral knowledge,” accepting “tradition as a source but not uncritically” (32).

This dialectical use of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, along with “Lonergan’s theory of perspectivism, which says that different truths derive from different theoretical perspectives” (38) and attempts to seriously account for the sociohistorical limitedness of human knowledge (39), in particular by reconceiving the natural law in a social/personal rather than in the traditional natural/biological manner (43-48), results in Salzman and Lawler defining Catholic ethical method as “a normative pattern of recurrent and related theological operations that proposes an epistemology for reaching ethical truth, and seeks both a definition of human dignity and the formulation and justification of moral norms for its flourishing” (32-33). 

Chapters 2, 3, and 5 can be thought of as a topical unit within the text. In chapter 2, Salzman and Lawler give an account of their virtue ethics in light of the theory of virtue provided in the introduction (61). In addition to discussing central concepts of their virtue ethics in further detail, for example, exemplarity (62-65) and the role of emotions (65-70), the authors assert that what makes Christian virtue ethics unique is the imitation of Christ at its core: “first, be like Jesus and then, do like Jesus” (79, emphasis original). Absent here and throughout is consideration of the role spirituality and the sacramental life play in the life of Christian virtue. This is disappointing, as maintaining a consistent connection between the moral, spiritual, and liturgical-sacramental areas of the Christian life is something Catholic moral theologians especially continue to struggle with today. Chapter 3 continues the discussion on how Christians are to be and do like Jesus where the four sources of moral knowledge delineated by the Wesleyan Quadrilateral are discussed. Based on the perspectivist approach described in chapter 1, the authors describe the process of “selection, interpretation, prioritization, and integration (or SIPI)” (93) for holding the sources in dialectical tension. In chapter 5 the authors discuss how the formulation and justification of ethical principles and norms (165) can be done through what they call “virtuous perspectivist epistemology” (168). 

Chapters 4 and 6, while drawing from the methodological elements already adumbrated, treat two of its central components individually. Human dignity, which the authors describe as the good sought after in theological ethics, is explored through sexual human dignity in chapter 4 (127). Here Salzman and Lawler track the historical development of the understanding of sexual human dignity from one grounded in “biological and physical complementarity” (129), “to a procreative-relational union definition of sexual human dignity, which emphasizes persons-in-relationship and the communion of life between them” (130, emphasis original). This shift, they contend, reveals that a change is needed in Magisterial teachings on moral licitness of contraception (143) and homosexual acts (162). The discussion culminates in the discussion in chapter 6 on the conscience.

For Salzman and Lawler, personal conscience is both “the most important dimension of human dignity” (9), and “the ultimate authority of every moral action” (226). Aware of the individualistic dangers, the authors assert that the activity of the conscience “is far from an individualistic process. The Latin word con-scientia literally means knowledge together, perhaps better rendered as to know together” (202, emphasis original). This chapter may have been better placed near the beginning of the book, due to the central role the conscience plays in the authors’ method. 

That said, by ending here the authors bring us full circle, as it were, encouraging theological ethicists and faithful alike, to engage in the important work of charitable dialogue concerning what it means to live a virtuous Christian life, a mantra repeated throughout (e.g., 31-32). By constructing their ethical method and conducting their discussion of ethical issues in an ecumenical manner, Salzman and Lawler provide both a methodological basis and example of how this can be done. These aspects alone make the work worth reading for Christian ethicists, especially Christian virtue ethicists. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anthony Crescio is a doctoral student of Christian Theology at Saint Louis University.

Date of Review: 
November 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Todd A. Salzman is Professor of Catholic The­ology at Creighton University.

Michael G. Lawler is Dean Emeritus of Creighton University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Emeritus Professor of Catholic Theology at Creighton.


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