What happens to virtue in an age of social media?

In the old days, we used to be able to travel and meet in person to discuss interesting and important issues in theology and ministry. During that time, I hosted several Festivals of Theology, at which we heard seven or eight fascinating presentations on a range of subjects. This is a revised version of Alastair Robert’s presentation on virtue ethics in a virtual age and offers a brilliant insight into the dynamics of social media and their impact on discipleship.

I am reposting it now because of recent debates about the use of social media, because stresses on social media appear to have become more intense during the Covid lockdown, and because of the proposal by some that ‘virtual’ church can be the equivalent of meeting in person. Alastair’s observations about the presentation of the self on social media offer important insights into all these questions. 

The Promise of Virtue Ethics

Over recent decades, partly through the influence of theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas and philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, there has been a renewed appreciation for the concept of virtue in Protestant ethics. Not least because of its attention to the moral agent, the questions of character, and its formation in community, virtue ethics has often represented a welcome movement away from grand yet abstract theories of ethics.

These abstract theories were often, perhaps stereotypically, preoccupied with ethical conundrums that have little relevance to our actual lives. While we can all be amused by far-fetched iterations of the trolley problem, they seldom help us much with the issues that are most immediate to our lives. In contrast to such theories, virtue ethics has tended to encourage greater attention to the integration of the self with community and of action with character. In the work of Hauerwas, this has taken the form of a pronounced particularism, with the church as the community of virtue and an emphasis upon the role of liturgy and scripture in the task of formation.

More recently, writers such as James K.A. Smith have popularized a form of virtue ethics in relation to the discussion of Christian formation, emphasizing the importance of the formation of desires and imaginations through ‘liturgies’. Smith maintains that we need to be mindful of the embodied and imaginative dispositions and habits that shape our Christian belief and practice. We must also seek to address and correct these through healthful forms of practice within the Church.

Although it is limited and should not be the only tool in our toolbox, a virtue ethics approach helpfully foregrounds the question of the sort of people that we ought to be. While many other moral systems concern themselves chiefly with decisions, virtue ethics takes a broader perspective, calling us to attend to our practices, habits, desires, imaginations, to the communities, rituals, and other forces shaping them, and to the character that arises from them.

Community and Virtue

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