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The Routledge Companion to Virtue EthicsReview - The Routledge Companion to Virtue Ethics
by Lorraine L Besser and Michael Slote (Editors)
Routledge, 2015
Review by Fred Guyette
Aug 6th 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 32)

The editors for this volume in the Routledge Philosophy Companions series are Lorraine Besser-Jones, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Middlebury College, and Michael Slote, Professor of Ethics and Philosophy at the University of Miami. They have drawn together 37 essays and divided them into four major sections: Part I "History of Virtue Ethics," Part II "Contemporary Approaches," Part III "Critical Interactions," and Part IV "Applications."       

Modern moral philosophy has been dominated by utilitarianism and by Kantian theories of duty, law, and rights. However, the ancient Greek discussion of virtue provides an alternative that is guided by a different question: How do we develop into agents whose actions are rooted in moral character? That is how Nicholas White frames the issues in "Plato and the Ethics of Virtue." In Plato's dialogues, Socrates interviews various "experts" and asks them probing questions to see what they know about virtue (p. 5). A military general ought to know something about the virtue of courage – let's ask him (Laches). Young Euthyphro is taking his own father to court on charges of impiety? Then maybe he can tell us something about the virtue of piety. Is happiness a matter of always getting what we desire, as Callicles claims in Gorgias, or is it better to live a life in which our desires are shaped by temperance and justice?

The discussion continued to grow and mature in the next generation, as Dorothea Frede shows in "Aristotle's Virtue Ethics." Plato thought a deep commitment to one single good characterizes the best kind of life. In the Nicomachean Ethics, however, Aristotle visualizes a life in which (1) there are many goods, and (2) virtue is often a mean between two extremes. We can think of safety as a good, but flee from battle is cowardly. It is good for a warrior to be eager, but if he rushes into the fray without sizing up the situation, he is unwise. The virtue of courage considers these extremes and searches for a mean between them. Frede rightly points out, though, that this way of approaching virtue can lead to both blandness and blindness where unjust practices are concerned. Aristotle's reflections on virtue never did lead him to think critically about slavery or the subordination of women in Greek society, and those omissions have continued to haunt his account of the ethics of virtue (p. 28).

        

          In "The Stoic Theory of Virtue," Tad Brennan turns our attention to Cicero, who was keen to distinguish between local customs and universal reason. According to Cicero, human beings are virtuous when they act in accordance with their divinely-given nature. Thus, "getting it right" depends on whether my will is in conformity (symphonia) with the natural law as it is inscribed in the cosmos. To set Brennan's account in a wider context, readers might turn to The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by Pierre Hadot, Stoicism and Emotionby Margaret Graver, or Malcolm Schofield's The Stoic Idea of the City.

          "Hindu Virtue Ethics," by Roy Perrett and Glenn Pettigrove, describes four ascending levels of moral motivation (p. 53). The lowest is kama, a self-centered desire for sensual pleasure. Next are middling virtues that have to do with acquiring wealth and exercising political power, called arma. Higher obligations to family and society come under the aegis of dharma. Important virtues here include truth-telling, not-harming, and respecting the property of others. The highest level of virtue, moksa is characterized by a detachment from desires, and it seems to follow that freedom from desire also means freedom from suffering. There are other virtues deemed praiseworthy in Hinduism, such as ahimsa (non-violence) and daya (benevolence). Some readers may find it difficult, though, to visualize how these principles might be fleshed out in action. It would be good to supplement this discussion of principles with more concrete examples of the virtues in narrative form, such as those found in the India's epic story, The Mahabharata. One recent book that takes this approach is Arvind Sharma's Hindu Narratives on Human Rights (Praeger, 2013).

          The Analects, which summarizes the teaching of Confucius, praises the actions of a person who restores social harmony after it has been broken. This point is emphasized in May Sim's essay, "Why Confucius' Ethics Is a Virtue Ethics." What kind of inner resourcefulness makes it possible for an agent to resolve social conflict? Consider the case of an elderly father who has stolen the sheep of a neighbor (p. 65). His son has a filial obligation to protect his father from shame, but he also has an obligation to make sure the sheep are returned to their rightful owner. A virtuous man seeks a way to restore the animals to the neighbor without exposing his father's wrongdoing. Then he can reason quietly with his father in private about how to prevent such an offense in the future.  

          The greatest follower of Confucius was Mencius (372–289 BC). Shirong Luo's writes about him in "Mencius' Virtue Ethics Meets the Moral Foundations Theory." Luo focuses on the scenario that sums up Mencius' teaching about innate human goodness: What would we feel if we saw a child fall down into a well? Witnesses of such an event would naturally feel compassion for the suffering of the child and the family. This compassion is the beginning of the moral life and it can be likened to a "sprout" because it can grow in scope and be applied in many other situations (p. 84). In much the same way, we have an innate feeling that evil ought to be avoided, and this feeling of aversion for evil can grow into the virtue of righteousness. A basic feeling of deference and yielding to others can grow into the virtue of ritual propriety.

          When the government of China officially embraced Marxism in 1949, however, everyone was forced to renounce the teachings of Confucius. Nevertheless, since 1990 there has been a steady revival of interest in Confucius. According to David Elstein's essay, "Contemporary Confucianism," this new wave has been particularly interested in showing how Confucian perspectives on compassion, righteousness, and respect for moral tradition differ from Kant's Enlightenment project, which involved sweeping away moral tradition, relying heavily on reasons that can be given for an action, and justifying individual rights (p. 241-242).

          One of the strengths of Charles Goodman's essay, "Virtue in Buddhist Ethical Traditions," is the striking contrast it draws between the virtues and the vices. The unenlightened mind is dominated by reactive emotions such as anger, hatred, greed, and pride. How do Buddhists make progress in the moral life? By developing a more altruistic set of virtues: lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (p. 92). Goodman also offers a quick assessment of Damien Keown's landmark study, The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (Palgrave, 1992). Keown showed how the Buddhist virtues resemble those discussed by Aristotle, but what Keown could not quite see is the extent to which the Buddhist virtues are concerned not merely with personal growth, but also with the public consequences of virtuous practices.  

          Chapter 8 is "Respect for Differences: The Daoist Virtue," by Yong Huang. Under the heading of "Action with Ease" is a discussion of Daoism's deep respect for those who are excellent in the practice of a particular skill. There is no better wheelwright in the kingdom than Pian. He knows that if he cuts the wood too slowly or too quickly, the wheel will not be perfectly round. When the Cook Ding uses his knife to carve the meat of an ox, there is no wasted motion. Ziqing the Carpenter can always be trusted to make a perfect frame for a bell (p. 100). The sage, seeing that common people have developed these diverse skills, has the virtue of "respect for differences." In some societies today, pluralism is regarded as dangerous. Even in countries with strong democratic traditions, there are moral critics who say the virtue of toleration has been allowed to go too far. Yet, if those critics had a better grasp of Chapter 19 in the Zhuangzi, a classic of Daoist ethics, they might find a new kind of respect for differences.   

          In "Xunzi and Virtue Ethics," Eric Hutton shows how a philosopher who lived through China's "Warring States Period" concluded (contra Mencius!) that human beings do not have an inner moral compass. Instead, says Xunzi, goodness must be taught, and he identifies three stages of progress in the study of virtue. The "scholar" is little more than a beginner, while the "gentleman" has made some progress on the path to becoming a "sage." Xunzi's sage regards "ritual propriety" as one of the most important virtues, because it helps hold society together (p.119-122). As a thought-experiment, one might try to trace some of Xunzi's themes through the film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Why does the young female warrior Jen feel such contempt for ritual propriety? The evil deeds of her teacher, Jade Fox, seem to confirm Zunzi's claim that human beings have no innate moral compass. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien have loved each other for many years, but they have always set their feelings aside for the sake of harmony with others in the community. After we see the end that each of them comes to, can we imagine alternative paths that would have been better for them to follow?

          Question: Why does James Wetzel's essay refer to St. Augustine's view as "Consecrated Virtue"? Answer: Because Augustine takes the four virtues described by Plato – wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance – and imagines how different they would look if they were ordered together under just one virtue, love for God. This reorientation of the virtues is first described in On the Morals of the Catholic Church, which Augustine wrote in 388. Some twenty-five years later, in City of God, Augustine would write about two competing societies and the very different forms of love on which they are founded (Book XIV, 28). The City of Man was founded by the murderer Cain and it is devoted to a restless kind of self-love. In The City of God, love for God is paramount and the hearts of Christians are filled with peace instead of strife (p. 129). Wetzel suspects that Augustine's account of consecrated virtue cannot fully reconcile the individual's desire for happiness and the fulfillment on offer in the love of God, but a more optimistic take on the relationship between inclination and duty can be found in John Langan, "Augustine on the Unity and the Interconnection of the Virtues" Harvard Theological Review 72 (1979): 81-96.        

 

          Andrew Pinsent zeroes in on the most distinctive feature of Thomas Aquinas' theological ethics, which is "Infused Virtue." St. Paul writes about faith, hope, and love in 1st Corinthians 13. Aquinas teaches that the Holy Spirit pours these virtues into our hearts as gifts, and that is how we begin to grow in friendship with God. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics can teach Christians quite a lot about wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance, but Aristotle knows nothing about St. Paul's three theological virtues. It should not be too surprising then, if a person determined to maintain a secular outlook finds only a limited interest in what St. Thomas says about virtue. And yet, those who study the "psychology of happiness" (Martin Seligman and friends) have taken a renewed interest in Aquinas' discussion of virtues, gifts, beatitudes, and flourishing      (p. 147-150).

          St. Thomas writes about virtue from a deeply religious perspective, but what is most characteristic of David Hume's account is his effort to describe the virtues in a way that is completely autonomous and independent of faith. Jacqueline Taylor's essay on Hume focuses on his book, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. What is it that leads us to praise the virtues of benevolence, compassion and justice, he asks, and blame those who are unjust and cruel? Hume's answer does not have to do with metaphysics at all, but with social utility (p. 156). The virtues help build a cohesive society, while the vices sow conflict and disorder. The advantage of this line of argument is that the social consequences are in some sense observable, but it also runs the risk of reducing virtue ethics to little more than a morality based on social consensus. We should also consider another serious difficulty with Hume's approach to virtue, one that has more to do with his epistemology. Given the radical empiricism of Hume's theory of knowledge, how is it possible for him to speak of "virtue" or "forming character" at all, when there appears to be no substantial "self" – only a bundle of brute sensations the we receive ceaselessly from the outside world? 

          Hume is content to separate the virtues from a religious framework, but Frederick Nietzsche is even more vehement in his rejection of the Christian virtues. They keep us from acting on our deepest desires, as Edward Harcourt notes in "Nietzsche and the Virtues." In The Gay Science Nietzsche says, "Obedience, chastity, piety, and justice are mostly harmful to their possessors. When you have a virtue, you are its victim!" Christian teaching praises goodwill, consideration for the needs of others, and mercy, but these only serve to make us useful to "the herd," when instead we should each be seeking our own path to excellence (p. 173). What should we make of Nietzsche's critique? Religious approaches to virtue usually do acknowledge self-love as one good among others, but the kind of self-love that Nietzsche advocates has more to do with narcissism and self-worship. How can any lasting community be built on that foundation?    

          This claim -- that an ethics of virtue is needed if we are to construct happy and flourishing communities – is subjected to closer scrutiny by Liezl van Zyl, who brings certain counter-examples to our attention in "Eudaimonistic Virtue Ethics." She asks whether the person who practices the virtues should also expect to find fulfillment and happiness in a life of virtue. Mother Theresa of Calcutta practiced the virtue of benevolence for many years in her work with the poor, but she herself had very few days in which she felt any consolation from God (p. 194). Something similar might be said about the virtue of honesty. An honest person feels a strong commitment to the truth, but telling the truth can have very painful consequences, as many courageous whistleblowers can attest. So the relationship between virtue and happiness turns out to be more complex than we might have imagined at first. It may be best, then, to acknowledge that the life of virtue should be undertaken for its own sake, rather than for the sake of some other benefit that we hope to gain from it.  

          "Sentimentalist Virtue Ethics," by Michael Frazer and Michael Slote, focuses more directly on feelings associated with virtue such as mercy, compassion, kindness, and love. Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments illuminates the nature of fellow-feeling (p. 201). Smith's way of looking at the virtues regards them mainly as emotions, which is rather different from Aristotle's view that virtue is the result of a wise choice that comes after searching for a mean between two extremes. We need to consider that emotions are not always reliable guides to moral action. Skillful politicians can stir up strong emotions that lead one faction to harm another. Or, we might feel that there are many people deserving of compassion, only to discover that we are unable to help all of them. Then we would look for a more orderly way to rank our priorities where benevolence is concerned.  

          Christine Swanton observes in "Pluralistic Virtue Ethics" that today's public square is dominated by different groups and individuals, all demanding that their vision of the good life should take precedence over others. Some of their conceptions of the good life are based on eudaimonia (the pursuit of individual happiness), while others are based on loyalty to an absolute good (The Kingdom of God, for example), and still others are based on a list or catalogue of virtues. These different conceptions of the good life are often incommensurable with each other, meaning that political unity will probably never be possible. Nevertheless, a liberal view of the political order says that people who hold such diverse views can live peacefully side by side, if they all agree to limit their demands that others conform to their standards of virtuous behavior. That is why tolerance is a much-needed virtue in a pluralistic society.    

           "Varieties of Contemporary Christian Virtue Ethics," by Jennifer Herdt, recalls that Martin Luther urged Protestants to focus on scripture alone in order to make a clean break from Aristotelian virtue ethics. Nevertheless, many Protestants have rediscovered virtue ethics. Influential studies include Works of Love (Soren Kierkegaard), Agape and Eros (Anders Nygren) and Agape: An Ethical Analysis (Gene Outka). Stanley Hauerwas has developed an impressive body of work in which the church is seen as a community with sacred stories that shape character and nurture a countercultural vision of a new society. Hauerwas' approach to virtue ethics has often been described as sectarian, especially when compared to Catholic moral theology. Catholics such as Servais Pinckaers and Jean Porter have continued to plumb the depths of Thomas Aquinas' work on the virtues and they gladly defend the view that there is a close connection between the seven virtues and natural law ethics.

          We get a second, more nuanced look at the Christian virtue of love thanks to Timothy Jackson's essay, "Agape and Virtue Ethics." The twofold love command is found in Matthew 22:34-40. When the teachers of the Law asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment, he said: Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. John 13:34 deepens the second half of this teaching. That is where Jesus says, "Love one another as I have loved you." This gives brotherly love a decidedly cruciform shape – that is, Christian love is informed by the kind of self-sacrificial love that Jesus showed by giving his life on the cross for the good of others. So Christian love is not simply a matter of what we "feel" about other people. Rather, agape is about willing the good of another person and honoring the teachings of Christ (p. 300). Agape-love is unique in another way, too, in that it can integrate       (1) an ethics of character with (2) an ethics of action and (3) an ethics of consequences.          

           "Virtue Epistemology and Virtue Ethics" was written by Heather Battaly and Michael Slote. Descartes is remembered for subjecting everything to doubt. He did find one Archimedean point that could not be doubted, however: his own existence as a doubter (dubito, ergo sum/cogito ergo sum). On that bare foundation, he hoped to build up a body of reliable beliefs. In much the same spirit, virtue epistemology is concerned with forming the habits of mind that can lead to reliable knowledge and even to truth. Virtue epistemology is in some sense a skill, then, the kind of skill that we can develop with practice (p. 256). We can also think of virtue epistemology as the search for a mean between naivete (being too ready to believe everything we hear) and being closed-minded (unwilling to consider other possibilities).

          Karen Stohr's essay, "Feminist Virtue Ethics," looks at the feminist critique of patriarchal norms and asks whether women are inclined to rank the virtues in ways that are different from men. Let's briefly consider three theorists. (1) Carol Gilligan observed that men typically invoke justice to solve moral dilemmas, while women are much more likely to opt for an ethics of care (p. 274). (2) When we care deeply about someone, we might become angry if we think they are being hurt or threatened. That is why Lisa Tessman's book, Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles, suggests that sustained anger over the oppression of women can be considered a virtue (p. 277). (3) Much of Martha Nussbaum's work also has to do with care and what is needed for human beings to flourish. Her "capabilities approach" says human beings need access to food, clean air and water, education, freedom to move from place to place, along with freedom to express emotions and develop one's natural talents. If we mean to live justly, we should do our best to build communities in which these basic needs are met, and women must not be excluded from these goods (p. 280).     

           Many of the essays in this collection embrace virtue ethics as an alternative to Kantian ethics, but in "Kant and Virtue Ethics," Allen Wood tries to show that their critique of Kant is little more than a rough caricature. Kant comes close to an ethics of virtue in three ways. (1) Kant does believe that we can make plans to become better people and that we can act to achieve many of the moral ends that we choose. (2) When Alasdair MacIntyre says Kantian duties are at odds with our natural inclinations, he misunderstands Kant's view (p. 309). Rather, for Kant, we have both good and evil inclinations, and virtue struggles against evil inclinations. (3) Julia Annas argues that Kant shows no interest in happiness, which for her is a matter of "hitting the target at which my whole life is aimed." In fact, though, Kant's moral philosophy is interested in happiness, but he regards it primarily as a state in which we are able to enjoy both physical and spiritual goods, and are deprived of neither (p. 316). There is however, a very significant way in which Kant differs from an ethics of virtue, and it comes to the foreground in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone That is where Kant says the ethics of virtues does not fully understand the depths of human evil. An ethics of virtue assumes from the outset that we are already able to make progress move toward the good on our own initiative, when in fact, our wills must first undergo a more radical conversion before they can do that (p. 318).

          The "rediscovery" of virtue ethics that began with G. E. Anscombe was in part a reaction to a utilitarian emphasis on the "consequences" of moral decisions. Consequentialism aims to be universal and impartial, with very little room for considerations of loyalty to family and friends. Moreover, that kind of moral anonymity cannot give a meaningful account of the way we take inspiration from moral exemplars or the way communities get their moral bearings from narratives. But Julia Driver's essay, "The Consequentialist Critique of Virtue Ethics" turns the tables on that assessment. Don Quixote has many of the traditional virtues, to be sure, but he has little feel for the consequences of his deeds. The sentimentalist account of virtue runs into a similar difficulty (p. 326-328). How often do feelings of sympathy and compassion remain at the level of emotions, without ever producing good effects?  

          Ramon Das extends this critique in "Virtue Ethics and Right Action." An ethic that concerns itself with the formation of character is focused primarily on the agent's internal emotions. But moral dilemmas and conflicts need to be dealt with in the external world. Max Weber described this gap as the difference between an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility. We can examine this gap from another angle, too. There is a familiar expression we use when someone does something surprising: "That was out of character for him to act that way!" In other words, dispositions to act in a certain way might not be as effective as the ethics of virtue likes to claim (p. 333).

          Christopher Toner examines another criticism of virtue ethics in "Virtue Ethics and Egoism." Suppose we ask this question: "In virtue ethics, we are talking about a person – which person?" The answer is inescapable: "We are talking about the subject, the point of view is that of the first-person." Then, consider the amount of time spent in self-reflection that is required to develop the virtues. Isn't that time that could be spent helping others? Even if we think this objection is not strong enough to undermine an ethics of virtue, it does at least sound a note of caution. We need to think in a more comprehensive way about "who" the virtues are for (p. 347).  

          Though it does not sound like a criticism at first, Nancy Snow writes about "Models of Virtue." What could be troubling about that? The problem, it turns out, is the great number of those models and the fact that they so often disagree with each other (p. 359). Philippa Foot and Alasdair MacIntyre follow an Aristotelian paradigm in which virtue is regarded as a character trait. For David Hume and Adam Smith, feelings of sympathy are more important. Jonathan Webber claims that an ethics of virtue can be constructed on the basis of what Sartre says about "projects."  Others have argued that a virtue is a skill, but as Daniel Jacobson observes, there is no intrinsic relation between a skill and goodness (p. 370). Given that the interpretations of virtue ethics vary so widely, we might begin to wonder: Do we really gain anything distinctive from thinking about virtue ethics?   

          What does a reflection on social roles add to our understanding of virtue?  That is the question taken up by J. Garcia in "Roles and Virtues." At the level of common discourse, we often say things like: Her devotion makes her a good friend. They are good neighbors because they are so helpful. His loyalty makes him a good citizen. Friend, neighbor, citizen. These are roles that set up certain moral expectations between social actors (p. 415). Virtue has to do with their ability to meet those expectations, while a consistent inability to meet expectations might qualify as a vice. Certain roles create more complex relationships with others – doctor, teacher, lawyer, clergy. The virtues needed to fulfill those roles might be more complex. The consequences of failure might be more serious. Consider, too, that nearly everyone has encountered one professional or another who seemed unengaged, no longer able to care for others in a meaningful way. Can an ethics of virtue prevent that kind of moral distancing from taking over in the life of a professional? We can hope for that, yes.

          But we might be less sure of the grounds for that hope after reading Lorraine Besser-Jones, "The Situationist Critique." Your friend Joe is known as a compassionate person. Your other friend Jane – she's the more difficult one – has a reputation for being self-centered. Which one is more likely to help a person in need? You would predict Joe. But the most important factor turns out to be the specific situation they find themselves in, on that day, and at that moment. Our observations about the "character" of another person are often unreliable. For more on this issue, see Gilbert Harman, "The Nonexistence of Character Traits," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 100 (2000): 223-226.

          C. Daniel Batson is the author of "Testing the Empathy-Altruistic Hypothesis Against Egoistic Alternatives." He asks a question that looks simple -- until we try to answer it: Why do we help others? We send money to help famine victims, people we have never met. If someone takes a wrong turn and gets lost, we try to help them find the best route to take to get back on track. During World War II, some people helped hide the Jews from their enemies, while others remained bystanders. How can we account for helping behavior? Generally, we feel empathy for others and that feeling leads us altruistic action (p. 386). But maybe I am helping in order to reduce my own emotional arousal, and not purely for the sake of the other. Another theory says I have been socialized to help others, and if I don't help a person in need, I will feel guilty. More recent studies seem to confirm the view that helping others gives us joy, even if we don't completely understand why. For further discussion see: Eric Stocks and David A. Lishner, "Empathy and Altruism" in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology(2018).

          Nel Noddings makes a strong case for including "care" in any catalog of virtues. In her essay, "Care Ethics and Virtue Ethics," she says being attentive to the needs of others is more important than "claiming my rights" (p. 407). What kind of needs does she mean? The paradigmatic example is that of a mother caring for the needs of her child. A teacher cares about the inferred needs of students, because they have educational needs they can't always articulate themselves. Nurses care for the needs of their vulnerable patients, with the goal of restoring their health. In John 10, The Good Shepherd cares for the needs of the sheep, while the hired man runs away at the first sign of danger. Why did Mr. Rogers care so much about children? Because someone cared about him when he was a child.

          Environmental ethics is a relative newcomer to the world of moral reflection, as Philip Cafaro explains in Chapter 31. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) sounded an alarm: if we want a community fit for our children and grandchildren, we will have to protect the land and refrain from economic practices that harm it. What are the virtues we need to develop in order to protect the environment? Wonder, awe, humility, and respect for natural surroundings that we did not create -- these have been proposed as environmental virtues. Temperance, self-control, moderation of the desire for "more" that drives capitalism -- these virtues have also been recommended. For further study, see Jennifer Welchman, "The Virtues of Stewardship" Environmental Ethics 21 (1999): 411-423, and Ronald Sandler, Character and Environment: A Virtue-Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics (2007).   

          Globalization – that is the background for "World Virtue Ethics" by Stephen Angle. When we begin to "think globally" about different traditions of virtue ethics, our preoccupation with Aristotle can look somewhat provincial. On the other hand, it can be difficult for us to enter into the experience of "foreigners," just as it can be difficult for them to understand us. Michael Walzer speaks of "thick" and "thin" when describing cross-cultural comparisons of ethics (p. 449). What we learned as children in our families and in our houses of worship tends to be "thick," while the norms in a document like The Universal Declaration of Human Rights are designed to be "thin," simply because they are meant to be recognizable in many different settings all over the world. Why should we bother to think about other cultures and their accounts of virtue? Because so many refugees are moving across borders. Because pollution is no respecter of national boundaries. Because someday it might mean the difference between war and peace.   

          Randall Curren's essay, "Virtue Ethics and Moral Education," notes that Emile and The Social Contract (both written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau) argue that children should be allowed to discover moral truths for themselves. On this view of moral education, parents and teachers should say very little about virtue, lest the child's understanding, reason, and freedom be overshadowed by habits of deference to their elders. The proper role of adults is to model good will and refrain from teaching young people anything that might lead to fanaticism or wars of religion. In Kant's view of moral education, however, children will profit greatly from guidance in discovering the principles of justice. When Lawrence Kohlberg describes various cognitive phases of moral development, he also recommends that teachers stimulate moral growth by posing ethical dilemmas for their students to discuss and reflect on together. Kohlberg was not keen on teaching what Aristotle's "bag of virtues." He was much more interested in the process of reasoning by which young people develop moral character. But is it the case that "process" and "autonomy" are sufficient when it comes to developing moral insight, or do young people need something more substantive in the way of a moral "vocabulary"?       

          Yang Xiao writes about "Virtue Ethics as Political Philosophy: The Structure of Ethical Theory in Early Chinese Philosophy." In many constitutional democracies, the emphasis is on defining and protecting individual rights. But Confucius and Mencius, the two leading figures of traditional Chinese moral thought, were more concerned with social relationships. The Five Relationships are father-son, ruler-minister, husband-wife, brother to brother, and friend to friend (p. 481). We hope it won't happen to anyone, but we know it does – there are old men without wives, elderly women without husbands, old couples who have no children, and children without parents. Can the king be persuaded to help the vulnerable people in his land? That is one of the key questions for a political ethics of virtue.

          What is the aim of law? How should legal institutions approach the task of resolving conflicts? Lawrence Solum tries to answer these questions in "Law and Virtue." The final end of law is to promote human flourishing, he says, but isn't the history of law rather more haphazard and much less even-handed than that? Solum is on firmer ground, I think, when he says we need virtuous judges – people who know something about the common good, civic courage, judicial temperament, practical wisdom, and the nature of justice (p. 494-499).

          Rebecca Walker's essay, "Virtue Ethics and Medicine" describes the movement to include the ethics of virtue in the medical education curriculum. The formation of character and appropriate moral action are central goals of this trend. There is also an emphasis on models of human lives well lived for inspiration. But how much do we care about the moral virtue of the professional who is looking at our medical chart and searching for the right diagnosis (p. 516)? Should it matter to us what "version" of virtue ethics is being taught in medical and nursing schools? Is virtue ethics complementary to or in tension with the four Georgetown principles of autonomy, beneficence, not-harming, and justice?         

          Virtues supply their possessors with good reasons that indicate what sort of thing should be done and with motivation to do them. So says Robert Audi in "Business Ethics from a Virtue-Theoretic Perspective." An ethics of virtue will ask about the beneficiaries of what the business does: not only for owners, customers, and employees, but also for other stakeholders, including the community in which the business operates. We should also expect an ethics of virtue to help us identify morally good persons in job interviews and performance evaluations. Nearly everyone wants to be considered honest, fair, loyal, just, sincere, kind, and generous (p. 539). No one wants to work closely with a person who is a liar, cheat, coward, brute, bully, thief, turncoat, fraud, or phoney. In Shakespeare's play, Hamlet counsels his mother: "Assume a virtue, if you have it not." Or to put it more plainly to the person with a career in business:  Perhaps you have not been virtuous up to this point. If not, now is the time for you to begin to grow in virtue.

          In sum, I read each essay in this diverse collection with growing enthusiasm. The answers proposed by one author were often taken up as questions to be wrestled with by the next. The resulting dialogue is lively and leads to further critical reflection on the ethics of virtue.     

           

© 2019 Fred Guyette

 

Fred Guyette, Anderson University, South Carolina.


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