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As the subtitle suggests Perfecting Virtue consists of a series of essays on Kantian ethics and virtue ethics. The book, however, is not merely an attempt to provide a comparative evaluation of contemporary versions of virtue ethics and Kantian ethics. It has a broader aim, namely to "explore key aspects of each approach as related to the debate [between virtue ethics and Kantian ethics], and identify new common ground but also real and lasting differences between these approaches" (from the back cover).
This means that the book covers a wider ground than one might initially expect and that the essays make occasionally surprising and unexpected systematic and historical detours. This is both the book's main weakness and its main strength. On the one hand the diversity of the essays means that that the book does not have as clear and focused an aim as one might have wished for. On the other hand this diversity highlights the complexity of the discussion and brings to light a number of fundamental theoretical and conceptual disagreements, which is often swept under the carpet in more traditional approaches to the discussion between virtue ethics and Kantian ethics.
I have no room here to discuss all of the essays. Instead I will briefly summarize some of the essays in order to indicate the range of topics discussed in the book, and then make some general remarks about the presuppositions which shape and influence both these essays and the contemporary debate between virtue ethics and Kantian ethics.
Marcia Baron's introductory essay "Virtue ethics in relation to Kantian ethics: an opinionated overview and commentary" provides an entrance to the contemporary discussion between virtue ethicists and Kantian ethicists. Baron, a well-known defender of a Kantian-inspired approach to ethics, is puzzled by the apparently hostile reaction of certain proponents of virtue ethics when they are faced with questions concerning the precise character of virtue ethics and attempts to disentangle different theses associated with virtue ethics. Why, she wonders, do virtue ethicists view such questions and efforts as problematic, sometimes even as hostile attempts to undermine the plausibility and relevance of virtue ethical approaches and concerns? In working through these questions Baron provides an overview of some of the most important questions and conflicts currently being addressed in the discussion between virtue ethics and other theoretical approaches to normative ethics such as Kantian ethics
Several of the essays have an explicitly historical agenda. Rosalind Hursthouse's contribution "What does the Aristotelian phronimos know?" focuses on Aristotle's ethics and attempts to spell out exactly what the Aristotelian phronimos' excellence with regard to practical reasoning is supposed to consist in. This is obviously an interesting project in its own right. Furthermore Hursthouse goes some way towards explaining the relevance of this project for contemporary discussions within virtue ethics. However Kantian ethics is not explicitly mentioned in her essay, and though there are a few references to contemporary Kantians there is no extended discussion of how Hursthouse's discussion can and should influence the work of contemporary Kantian ethicists. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that more work is needed to integrate the essay in the contemporary discussion between Kantians and (Aristotelian) virtue ethicists, which Perfecting Virtue is explicitly aimed at.
Another explicitly historical essay is Paul Guyer's "Kantian Perfectionism", which focuses on Kant's disagreements with Christian Wolff's moral perfectionism and meticulously outlines the main differences and agreements between Kant's and Wolff's moral views. Guyer believes that this discussion is relevant for current discussions, because there is a certain overlap between Wolff's perfectionist moral philosophy and contemporary Aristotelian-inspired forms of virtue ethics. Kant's criticisms of the former might thus be relevant for our understanding of contemporary Kantian criticisms of the latter. Guyer's conclusion is somewhat surprising, namely that "perhaps it is Kant rather than anyone else who should be regarded as the best model for an ethics of virtue" (p. 214). Unfortunately this tantalizing remark is the very final sentence of his essay, and the reader is left with a lot of question as to how this idea is to be spelled out.
The essays by Barbara Herman, Julian Wuerth, Lara Dennis and Christine Swanton all start with and from Kant's texts and from there move on to develop Kant's moral philosophy in ways which clearly have a basis in Kant's writings but goes beyond anything Kant himself explicitly wrote or said.
Barbara Herman in "The difference that ends make" provides an interesting interpretation of Kant's account of ends and shows how this account can be used to explain some of the more vexing passages in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. In "Moving beyond Kant's account of agency in the Grounding" Wuerth provides a Kantian account of moral agency, which rectifies some of the perceived deficiencies of Kant's own account in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Lara Denis develops "A Kantian conception of human flourishing", which she believes is deeply grounded in Kant's moral thought and enhances the appeal of Kantian ethics. And in "Kant's impartial virtues of love" Christine Swanton focuses on an oft neglected claim by Kant: the claim that there are two moral forces at work at the foundation of morality: respect and love and considers the implications of taking this claim seriously.
These four essays show that Kant's ethics have the resources to answer at least some of the criticism directed at it by virtue ethicists, and in the process bring Kant closer to what is traditionally viewed as virtue ethical territory.
The final two essays in Perfecting Virtue discuss the problem (or problems) of deontology. In "The problem we all have with deontology" Michael Slote focuses on the question of how to justify deontology. Deontology in Slote's view is the view that a) sometimes it can be morally right to act in ways which does not optimize (or maximize, or satisfice) the amount of good in the world and b) that there are certain kinds of acts which it is always morally wrong to perform. Slote believes that consequentialists simply denies both of these claims and that Kantian ethics accepts them but have problems providing a plausible justification. Slote's own preferred moral theory, a form of moral sentimentalism, does however seem to have the resources to provide a kind of justification (or at least explanation) for our deontological intuitions. Or that at least is Slote's claim.
In "Intuitions, system, and the "paradox" of deontology" Timothy Chappell discusses the well-known problem (or paradox) that deontology seems to require that some morally objectionable action should not be performed, even when performing that action would reduce or perhaps even eliminate future performances of precisely this type of objectionable action. Chappell believes that this problem (which he regards as a reductio ad absurdum argument rather than as a paradox), stems from a reductive and implausible view of the role of agency. Consequentialists believe that the primary and fundamental role of agency is to produce (perhaps even maximize) goodness. But this Chappell believes is only one of the many roles human agency plays in human life, and if we acknowledge this functional diversity we can avoid the "paradox" of deontology. However, and precisely because of this complexity, Chappell also believes that all attempts to develop a systematic account of morality, be they deontological, consequentialist or virtue ethical, is bound to fail. Human agency is such a complex phenomenon that it cannot without loss of meaning be adequately explained or accounted for within one theoretical approach to moral life.
These short summaries of (some of) the essays in Perfecting Virtue illustrate the diversity of theoretical approaches employed by virtue ethicists and proponents of a Kantian-inspired account of ethics as well as the range of topics discussed. Besides the essays I have mentioned there are contributions from Allen Wood ("Kant and agent-oriented ethics"), Talbot Brewer ("Two pictures of practical thinking") and Nancy Sherman ("Aristotle, the Stoics, and Kant on anger", which further expands the field of discussion.
As already mentioned it is difficult to find a guiding thread, which ties all of these essays together, besides the rather obvious point that they all to some extent are intended as interventions in the debate between virtue ethics and Kantian ethics. There are at least two reasons for this.
First of all there seems to be no agreement on even the most basic terms and concepts employed in the debate. There is no agreed upon definition of virtue ethics, of deontology, or of Kantian ethics, which everybody involved all involved subscribe too, nor are there widely shared definitions of terms such as virtue, vice, morality, ethics, principle and character, which can serve to anchor the discussion. This is problematic because such conceptual disagreement and ambiguities makes substantial progress in our understanding of the problems and questions raised by the discussions between virtue ethicists and Kantians difficult.
The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that most moral philosophers seem to think that we do in fact have a pretty clear understanding of the concepts, notions and theoretical options available to us. Or that at least is how this particular area of moral philosophy is often presented to the outside world. As Marcia Baron put it:
"All too often, students or "outsiders" to ethical theory pick up a book or hear some introductory lecture from which they learn that Kantian ethics emphasizes rules (or principles) and actions, while virtue ethics emphasizes virtue and character, and that these are rival theories. [...] the damage reaches yet further. Not only are we given the idea that an ethical theory cannot be focused both on virtue and on principles and acting on principle, but the idea is that there are two packages which cannot be unpacked and rearranged into different groupings" (pp. 36-37).
Bu why should we accept this picture of the theoretical field? If moral philosophers themselves do not agree on or have a clear grasp of the concepts and terms involved in drawing the distinction between virtue ethics and Kantian ethics, why should this distinction then be taken for granted? And to complicate things even further; just imagine what happens when consequentialism, the third major contemporary theoretical approach to normative ethics, is brought into the discussion? The theoretical complexities and conceptual ambiguities seem to multiply exponentially.
Most of the contributions to Perfecting Virtue are interesting and well-written, and for that reason alone the essays are worth reading. The primary value and relevance of the book however, lies less with the individual contributions, than with the combined effect of these essays on the reader. They reveal the inherent complexity of an apparently well-ordered field and thus challenge certain widespread and implicit taxonomical presuppositions of contemporary moral theorizing.
© 2012 Carsten Fogh Nielsen
Carsten Fogh Nielsen, Ph.D., post graduate student, University of Aarhus. Main interests: Kant, moral philosophy and the philosophy of popular culture