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Virtue and Character: More Than Rule-Following

Yesterday, I told you about the cheating scandal at Harvard involving half of the students in an “Introduction to Congress” class. (No, I’m not making that up!) The scandal has already cost Harvard two of its best players from last season’s Ivy League basketball champions.

But there’s more to this story than academics, basketball, or even cheating itself. It’s ultimately about character.

The students under investigation claim, as the New York Times put it, that “they were tripped up by a course whose tests were confusing, whose grading was inconsistent, and for which the professor and teaching assistants gave contradictory signals about what was expected.”

Not surprisingly, students facing possible suspension have threatened to sue Harvard over the matter.

I don’t know whether “contradictory signals” were given or not. But what I do know is that more than half of the class did not collaborate. Apparently, they didn’t interpret the “contradictory signals” as a license to cheat.

Events in Cambridge demonstrate the limitations of defining ethics and especially virtue, as a matter of rules. People have an almost infinite capacity for rationalization and what lawyers and ethicists call “casuistry.” We acknowledge that lying and theft are wrong in one breath and then “explain” why what we’re doing is neither lying nor thievery, in this particular instance, in the next.

For the Christian, while rules matter, they are far from enough. The goal is not rule-keeping, it’s character and virtue.

In his book After You Believe, theologian N.T. Wright uses the story of Chesley Sullenberger, the celebrated US Airways pilot who safely landed an Airbus 320 in the Hudson River after it had been disabled by a flock of geese.

According to Wright, Sullenberger’s achievement was “to have so formed his character, by thousands of small choices and learned decisions ... that, when the test came, he did by ‘second nature’ what was required.”

This kind of “second nature” is what Wright means by “character.” Christians overcome our sinful fallen natures one “small choice and learned decision” at a time until we no longer need to consciously ask ourselves what the rules are.

Of course it isn’t only Christians. Something similar, minus the specifically-Christian virtues of faith, hope and love, was what previous generations had in mind when they referred to a person’s “character.” In this setting, for an honest person honesty was a habit, not a matter of interpreting signals.

Unfortunately, as James Davison Hunter wrote in The Death of Character: “Character is dead. It’s time has passed.” He didn’t mean that virtues such as courage, prudence, and temperance are no longer being practiced or that our culture denies that they are good things.

Hunter meant that a “profound transformation” in America’s “moral culture” in the 20th century made it much more difficult to instruct the young about the importance of virtue. And without this instruction, character formation is, at best, difficult.

Thus, cheating is no longer a matter of “what kind of person do I want to be?” Instead, it’s “do the rules apply to me in this instance?” In other words, the stuff of lawyers.

On Monday, I’ll tell you about the alternative. It requires a certain kind of courage: the willingness to be out-of-step with the times. It’s not easy, but it’s the only road that leads back to character. Please tune in.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: September 19, 2012

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