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Given its enthusiastic reception, Hursthouse's work
is likely to set the agenda for years to come on what virtue ethics is, why we
should believe in it, and what problems it faces. So, good or bad, this is a book that demands attention. It is just as well, therefore, that it is in
fact a very good book. On Virtue
Ethics is written as a textbook with all the clarity and vitality, as well
as scholarship, that one would hope to find in a work aimed at (fairly
sophisticated or mature) undergraduates.
But it is not a simplifying rehash of familiar ideas.
Hursthouse's central argument is that moral
philosophy should be more Aristotelian.
She is not so much interested in getting the better of utilitarians, for
instance, so long as they are of the sophisticated, eudaimonistic, John Stuart
Mill kind, and she is particularly sympathetic with Kantians. Nor does she agree completely with
Aristotle, or anyone else, but instead develops her own theory. This she does in three stages. The first aims to show that many popular
objections to virtue ethics, such as that it cannot guide our decision-making,
are mistaken and that virtue ethics can give us just the same kind of theory
that utilitarians and Kantians offer.
The second concerns the emotions and moral motivation, and tries to show
that virtue ethics, while better than the alternatives, is not as different
from Kant's view as is generally supposed.
Finally part III argues that it is rational and natural, in an objective
sense, for human beings to be virtuous.
Hursthouse stresses that virtue ethics can tell us
what to do, but it cannot make life easy for us. For instance, in some cases what it tells us to do is simply to
ask a virtuous person for advice. If
moral philosophy cannot provide an algorithm for life's problems, we might
think that it should be purely descriptive, but a complete description of every
possible moral problem, or its solution, is not possible. So any moral theory can only offer a
somewhat schematic view of moral life, albeit a very sophisticated one in
Hursthouse's case. It seems inevitable
that her view will strike some (Wittgensteinians, say) as still too simplified
and others (Benthamites for instance) as impractically complex or open.
Hursthouse's other main aim is to provide, not
motivating reasons to be ethical, but 'purely philosophical' justification for
the life of virtue. The truly honest
will value honesty for its own sake and no reason for being honest can ever be
given that is wholly value-free, she argues.
But it is also possible to see that honesty benefits both its possessor
and humanity more generally, although it is not guaranteed to work perfectly in
every case. Hursthouse judges whether a
characteristic makes for happiness partly by "the smile factor," a
subjective assessment of how happy someone seems. This of course will not satisfy the more scientifically minded,
but Hursthouse is offering a beginning, a promising program for research, not a
completed account of the whole truth about ethics.
Another problem for virtue ethicists is pinning down
just what it means to have any particular virtue or vice. Hursthouse considers honesty, for instance,
to be a permanent and deep state of a person's character, which can make it
sound as though it is some condition of the brain that predisposes us to behave
in certain characteristically honest ways.
But I think she means something less empirical than that, something more
grammatical (in the Wittgensteinian sense).
Hursthouse makes frequent references to science (especially animal
behavior) but most of her argument is based on appeal to what we (or what
virtuous people) say and think about this case and that. This is a familiar, and probably inevitable,
way to think about ethics, but we can see some problems for it in Hursthouse's
controversial suggestion that non-vegetarianism (generally) is intemperate and
that seemingly brave Nazis are not in fact brave at all. She might be right, but even long and
careful dialogue is likely to leave disagreements about what to say about such
So Hursthouse has not put paid to all the standard
objections to virtue ethics. She has,
though, given good reason to take it seriously. She responds to many critics in the terms on which they seem to
insist. She bases her argument on a
sensitive, subtle, and realistic account of what we actually believe. She is reassuringly naturalistic. Perhaps most of all, what she has done is to
reduce the sense of rivalry between theories.
The more sophisticated and realistic theories get, the more they tend to
resemble each other. Perhaps we are now
on the way to a unified theory of ethics.
Or perhaps increased sophistication and sensitivity will deny the
possibility of anything recognizable as a theory. It will be interesting to see.
2002 Duncan Richter
Richter is an Associate Professor at the Virginia Military Institute in the
Department of Psychology and Philosophy.
He is the author of Ethics
After Anscombe: Post "Modern Moral Philosophy (Kluwer, 2000) and several papers on ethics
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