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Ever since the publication of Alasdair MacIntyre's ground breaking "After Virtue" (MacIntyre, Alasdair: After Virtue, 2nd edition. Notre Dame University Press: 1984), virtue ethics has seen a renaissance unrivaled in contemporary moral philosophy. Contemporary virtue ethics has developed into one of the most dynamic competitors when it comes to explaining why people act the way they do and under which circumstances we qualify those actions as "good", "virtuous", "just" etc. In her 2001 book "Uneasy Virtue" (Uneasy Virtue. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Studies in Philosophy: 2001). Julia Driver convincingly shows that it is not virtue per se that dominates recent accounts of virtue ethics but the Aristotelian reading that poses the quintessential point of departure from which most of the recent discussion unfolds.
Driver's assessment is mirrored in Daniel C. Russell's important "The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics". It is interesting to see how Russell's volume tries to exemplify the broad ground upon which recent virtue theory truly is founded, but to realize likewise that many of the articles presented in the volume work with an Aristotelian (broadly construed) background -- for example there is no room Driver's consequentialistic account of virtue ethics. This is not meant as a criticism, but rather as an observation how much the Aristotelian tradition still influences the debate.
Russell's volume features 14 original articles. The bulk of the volume is concerned with the history of virtue ethics and its development throughout the history of (mainly) western philosophy and the discussion of virtue ethics in various fields of applied ethics (I will not cover this section in this review, because as someone working mainly in theoretical philosophy and meta-ethics, I do not feel sufficiently qualified to provide a just assessment of these matters in applied ethics):
The historic section starts with Kamtekar's account of "Acient Virtue Ethics" (29-48), which provides a thoughtful introduction into the different strains of virtue thought in ancient philosophy. It is Kamtekar's goal to show that ancient virtue theory undergoes strong but sometimes subtle changes. He takes the virtue of "wisdom" as his focal point because on the one hand wisdom is the only property considered a virtue throughout the history of ancient philosophy. But on the other hand, Kamtekar shows that the different accounts of wisdom based on the different approaches to the concept of virtue still bear relevance for recent debates.
The second paper of the historic section is the only paper in this section to leave the European perspective of the volume. Ivanhoe's "Virtue Ethics and the Chinese Confucian Tradition" (49-69) argues that two of the main figures in Chinese virtue thought can be understood as proponents of the (Aristotelian) strain of virtue ethics that defines the goal of virtue as human flourishing. But looking at the details, both Mengzi as well as Wang Yingmang exemplify aspects that rather fall under the Humean notion of virtue via sentiments.
After this side-glance into Chinese traditions, Porter's discussion of "Virtue Theory in the Medieval Period" (70-91) shows how virtue ethics evolves in medieval period especially against the background of its ancient foundations. Porter identifies two main strains of virtue theory that have dominated medieval debates: First, there is the central idea of the theological virtues -- faith, hope, and charity -- that laid the grounds for any discussion of virtue. In addition with the cardinal virtues, they address challenges to the way, how human persons should lead their lives. Second, there are those virtues -- like humility -- that are intimately tied to personal human growth which gain greater influence as monastic and -- in particular -- the mendicant orders become more important.
The fourth paper of the historic section is "Hume's Anatomy of Virtue" (92-123) by Paul Russell. It poses a certain caesura in the discussion of virtue, because within Hume's account many traditional virtues -- once again humility -- are suspicious of truly being vices rather then virtues. Within Hume's theory virtue ethics is described with in a broadly scientific world-view, which is inherently a-religious:
"It is, then, Hume's considered view that a careful anatomy of virtue, displaying its foundations in human sympathy and considerations of utility, can serve to guide our practice and structure our institutions in a manner that will free them of the corrupting and pernicious influence of superstition. To this extent it is indeed the case that Hume's 'cold and unentertaining' dissection of virtues serves the purposes of 'practical morality' by discrediting religious morality and putting in its place a secular morality based on the secure and credible foundations of a proper understanding of human nature and the human condition." (Russell, Paul: Hume's Anatomy of Virtue. In: Russell, Daniel C. (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics. Cambridge University Press: 2013, 92-123, 115.)
Consequently, Dorothea Frede's paper addresses "The Historic Decline of Virtue Ethics" (123-148). Frede sides with MacIntyre's 30-year old assessment that abandoning virtue theory altogether is one of central problems of modern moral philosophy. She argues that the alleged decline of virtue ethics is directly tied to the general rejection of Aristotelianism during the wake of modern philosophy. Virtue ethics got replaced by new bases for morality, says Frede: both the rise of deontic moral philosophy as rule-following as well as the Kantian idea of duty as the central term in morality have led to this decline.
Chappell's contribution "Virtue Ethics in the Twentieth Century" (149-171) takes this line of thought up where Frede's description of the historic decline ends. Chappell argues that virtue ethics has truly seen a renaissance and that the major figures of this development have been Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot and Alasdair MacIntyre. Very interesting is his assessment of the future of virtue theory. He is convinced that many areas of research are prone to benefit from virtue theory -- for example: moral phenomenology:
"In all these ways and others 'virtue ethics' fertilizes not just one progressive research program, but a whole range of them. Insofar as this gives virtue ethics an advantage over other, less fruitful, approaches to normative ethics, it has to be a tactical blunder of virtue ethics to get drawn into debates about 'which moral theory is the best one' which in practice are always conducted on those other approaches' singularly barren terms." (ibid., 169)
Both historic section as well the section concerned with applications of virtue theory in applied ethics are 'framed" by two systematic papers addressing the structure of virtue ethics: Russell's own contribution "Virtue Ethics, Happiness, and the Good Life" (7-28) explores Eudaimonistic Aristotelian virtue theory, which is probably the predominant view today. He argues based on Aristotle that happiness can be the final end of human life and growth just as the final end of human life and growth can be happiness. I think that Swanton's final contribution serves as an excellent addition and supplement to Russell's exposition of Eudaimonistic virtue theory: Her "The Definition of Virtue Ethics" (340-362) discerns three lines of thought along which virtue theory has been explicated: Eudaimonistic virtue ethics, agent-centered virtue ethics, and last but not least virtue-notion-centered virtue ethics. I consider her paper one of the central pieces of Russell's volume.
Personally, I would have loved for Russell's volume to feature papers that explicitly address these different strains of virtue ethical development that have been highlighted by Russell's own and Swanton's contribution. But I can also understand why an exposition of the different fields of application of virtue theory is important. At the end of day, I would like to recommend this volume to students of philosophy and those philosophers looking for a general introduction into virtue thought. Especially, the historic part, I find well put together and helpful. This is indeed an important contribution to the growing and diversifying field of virtue ethics.
© 2014 Ludwig Jaskolla
Ludwig Jaskolla is working at the Munich School of Philosophy, Germany. He specializes in analytic metaphysics and philosophy of mind.