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How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
Chapter one of Virtue Ethics begins with this sentence. "In 1958, Elizabeth Anscombe published a paper that was to change the shape of modern moral philosophy" (11). There seems to be a consensus among academic philosophers that Anscombe's "Modern Moral Philosophy" signals the rehabilitation of a way of thinking about ethics generally dismissed by modern Enlightenment-inspired philosophers. The idea that to understand virtue is to understand the core of morality was central to such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics. Athanassoulis's Virtue Ethics is a clearly written and nicely organized rehearsal of the core debate between "virtue ethicists" and modern mainstream (for lack of a better term) moral philosophers, in particular deontologists and consequentialists. "The aim of this volume" says Athanassoulis, is to provide a critical introduction to virtue ethics for readers who have some general background knowledge of moral philosophy" (3).
The 175-page book is divided into three parts of three chapters each and includes brief introductory and concluding chapters, an index, and a bibliography. Part One, "Virtue Ethics as a New Alternative," does a nice job of introducing the endeavor of moral philosophy and in so doing sets up the debate between modern moral theory and virtue ethics. That is, one of the central issues for modern moral philosophy is to identify and justify principles that are "action guiding." In other words, the job of moral philosophers (as understood by the mainstream) is to "to give us some guidance on what we should do when faced with practical ethical problems" (15). This, of course, is the central preoccupation of both consequentialist (as in the utilitarianism of Bentham, Mill, and Peter Singer) and deontological moral theory (as elaborated by Kant).
Mainstream moral philosophy's focus on action-guiding principles tends to privilege reason to the exclusion of feelings and thus, argues Athanassoulis, "results in a very poor conception of what makes a human life meaningful" (29). To be moved to act by feelings is just what Kant, for example, thought was the mark of not acting morally appropriately. For Kant, to act from reason alone, based on a rationally justifiable principle, is to do the right thing. But such thinking, say virtue theorist critics, leads to what Athanassoulis, borrowing the phrase from Michael Stocker, calls "moral schizophrenia" (32). Consider our close relations to others. If we consider friendship to be "a good to be maximized or a duty to be fulfilled," this relationship, then, "misses the point of actual friendship" (33). Moral praise and blame, for virtue ethicists, has more to do with human character than with following rules. And because virtues are central to character, virtues are at the core of morality. Part One concludes with a useful chapter about the nature and role of character in morality.
Much of the criticism of the Aristotelian family of virtue theories settles on the idea that such theories are both naively naturalistic and overly dependent on an inherently bogus teleological methodology. Part Two, "Virtue Ethics Comes of Age," primarily consists of a clear summary of the major features of Aristotle's understanding of virtue and moral theory. It ends with a useful discussion of recent work by Phillipa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse that updates the reader on more contemporary developments in the area of virtue ethics. In particular, the discussion of the work of Foot and Hursthouse effectively addresses those two criticisms of the Aristotelian version of virtue ethics. Hursthouse, for example, rejects the simple dichotomy of human beings as on the one hand creatures of reason and on the other hand as part of the natural order. Developing Aristotle's ideas here, Hursthouse claims that "rationality itself is the natural way of being for humans, not a statistical notion, but a normative one" (94). Similarly for Foot "the virtues are not merely instrumental for living the good life, they are constitutive of it." "What it is like to be a good human being derives from biological facts about what it is to be a human being" (96).
The three chapters making up Part Three, "Current Developments in Virtue Ethics," contains some of the most interesting as well as some of the most exasperating discussions in Virtue Ethics. Chapter Seven, "The Challenge from Personality Psychology," as its title implies summarizes some recent work in experimental psychology that concludes that a number of the basic claims of virtue ethics, particularly those relying on the concept of character, are without merit. Athanassoulis turns such research on its head and makes the claim that a number of these researchers themselves commit logical errors that significantly weaken their criticism of virtue ethics. "Rather than presenting a challenge to virtue ethics, these experiments are a rich source of materials confirming virtue ethics and giving practical illustrations of the theory's claims" (117). This discussion is both interesting on its face as well as unusual in that it is not common for philosophers to dive into the work of empirical researchers. Chapter Eight, "Moral Education and the Virtues," is also quite interesting. Here Athanassoulis addresses some "practical considerations involved in educating students of ethics on how to think rather than about what to think" (153). This discussion is insightful and informed by a practicing educator's experience with young students.
Part Three's Chapter Nine, "The Kantian Response," doesn't strike me as so useful or so interesting as the previous two chapters. This chapter is entirely given over to addressing a number of criticisms of virtue ethics leveled by contemporary developers of Kant's ethical theory. Given that Virtue Ethics begins with a summary of both deontological (Kantian) and consequentialist (Bentham and Mill) ethical theories, I wonder why there was no follow-up in the book to the consequentialist approach. In any case, the discussions in this last chapter concern quite intricate matters in moral theory and simply may not be particularly accessible to the audience addressed by the bulk of Virtue Ethics. As the author says regarding the Kantian response to virtue ethics, "At the end of the day, we may not have entirely clear answers to every point of either theory, but we have a much better understanding of both and of what further research is needed" (159). In my own view, the reader might have been better served by deleting this chapter in favor of a more general conclusion regarding the state of virtue ethics today, particularly in light of the more serious criticisms leveled against it from both deontological and consequentialist thinkers.
irtue Ethics is generally nicely written and well-organized. I can imagine it being used effectively in college classrooms and being appreciated by a general intelligent reading audience. A number of visitors to the Metapsychology site might find its discussion of personality psychology, desire, and the emotions of great interest. One final comment. Looking over a number of my past reviews on this site I can see that I have discovered a trend. It is a concern that applies to the current volume under review here. That is, there are numerous typographical, grammar, and spelling errors. There are repeated references to "section a" or "section b," when in fact there are no such sections in this volume. Athanassoulis refers to students throughout the book. As I said above, I can imagine this book being used to effect in some undergraduate philosophy courses. But poor editing and a general careless attention to presentation can undermine one's credibility with one's audience, particularly when that audience is made up of students.
© 2013 Ben Mulvey
Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of Arts and Sciences of Nova Southeastern University. He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University specializing in political theory and applied ethics. He teaches philosophy at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network.