When Elizabeth Anscombe wrote “Modern Moral Philosophy” in 1958, she opened the doors to a new way of looking at ethical foundations. Since then a burgeoning field of “virtue ethics” has emerged, seeking a way out of the unsatisfactory categories of deontology, utilitarianism, and social compact theories of right. But has virtue ethics offered us a viable alternative to modern moral philosophy?
In Before Virtue: Assessing Contemporary Virtue Ethics, Jonathan Sanford surveys the virtue ethics movement and responds with a resounding “no.” Sanford indicts contemporary virtue ethics on the grounds that it is not a full-blooded descendant of Aristotelian ethics, which is a compelling alternative to contemporary virtue ethics and all modern moral philosophy.
Anscombe charged philosophers in “Modern Moral Philosophy” to cease all ethical theorizing until they develop an adequate “philosophy of psychology.” Sanford argues that although contemporary virtue ethics originally attempted to rise to this challenge, it has lost its way. Before Virtue maps out how contemporary virtue ethics failed to fulfill its Anscombian quest. Within this context, Before Virtue excellently reveals the various positions in the virtue ethics movement and shows how they relate to other ethical theories more broadly.
In this sense, the book is a helpful map, one that could serve as a guide to those currently working in the field, especially since Sanford lays out what steps must be taken next in order to vindicate a viable virtue theory. Although the book sometimes aims for comprehensiveness at the expense of depth, its argument is both compelling and serious.
The Fatal Flaw of Virtue Ethics
In the first part of the book, Sanford makes the case that contemporary virtue ethics is fatally flawed, because it is really just another version of modern moral philosophy. As Sanford describes it, modern moral philosophy includes deontology, consequentialism, and sentimentalism. It is united by its subject matter, aim, and methodology. It denies that there are moral absolutes, has a weakened view of practical reason, has a narrow view of human flourishing that rejects the existence of normative final ends, and overestimates the importance of social circumstances for determining moral action.
Contemporary virtue ethics is the dominant strain of the virtue ethics movement. This form of virtue ethics is a “broad tent”; the requirements to be a contemporary virtue ethicist are so thin that nearly all ethical theorists are included in the group. Philosophers with substantively different views—including foundational thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Epictetus, Hume, Nietzsche, and Eastern philosophers generally—are all included, because each in his own way concerns himself with character development. On this view, the virtues are important to the moral life due to modern moral philosophy’s criteria for evaluation, which Sanford articulates in this way: “that a successful moral theory be action-guiding in some direct way, provide a means by which the moral agent can move from egoism to altruism, and specify some distinctive motivational state that marks off moral from nonmoral states of action.” Like modern moral philosophy, contemporary virtue ethics also holds that practical reason is only instrumental, and that states of character are central to moral evaluation.
Sanford contrasts both of these ethical movements with radical virtue ethics, the minority view within the virtue ethics movement. He shows that radical virtue ethicists consider their project to be so different from the tenets, scope, and aims of contemporary virtue ethics that many radical virtue theorists refuse to self-identify as virtue ethicists.
According to Sanford, radical virtue ethics is the true descendent of classical thought, particularly the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas. Unlike its rivals, radical virtue ethics denies that moral theory must be action guiding and that it must identify some distinctively “moral” motivational state. It seeks to answer questions that are broadly human, not just “moral,” including questions in anthropology, teleology, and normativity. Radical virtue ethics takes a distinct stance regarding
the role of consequentialist reasoning, the significance of contemplative wisdom, the logical relation between the virtues and happiness, the significance of practical wisdom, the unity of the virtues, the supposed significance of altruism and benevolence, the significance of friendship, the significance of justice, and the political nature of the human person.
Radical virtue ethics also assumes things that modern moral philosophy does not, such as the goodness of virtuous traits of character. It does not make the virtues the reductive foundation of other ethical concepts. It assumes ethics has notions of happiness, virtue, and final ends. It argues for moral absolutes and holds that the virtues cannot be used wrongly. It is suspicious of rules as guides to sufficient action.
With these three camps framing the discussion, Sanford shows that the virtue ethics movement—initially motivated by Anscombe to develop an adequate philosophy of psychology—was co-opted by modern moral philosophy. While building this narrative, Sanford constructs various helpful taxonomies of recent scholarship to describe the contours of the virtue ethics movement. This backdrop enables Sanford to argue effectively that contemporary virtue ethics is neither cohesive, comprehensive, nor coherent.
Sanford’s Controversial Claims
These shortcomings lead Sanford to argue that contemporary virtue ethics is not a thoroughgoing revival of Aristotle’s ethics and that Aristotle’s ethics remains a live option. He identifies ten ways in which contemporary virtue ethics differs from Aristotelian ethics. Of the claims made, three are particularly controversial.
First, Sanford repeatedly claims that Aristotelian ethics alone endorses moral absolutes. In his view, all other theories devolve into problematic forms of consequentialism, since the outcome of an action becomes the morally decisive factor in all hard cases. By contrast, Aristotelian virtue theory argues that happiness is the logical consequence of virtue, not the other way around. Sanford insists that, for Aristotle, setting aside absolutist principles can never lead to happiness or right action, because it is impossible to use a virtue wrongly.
This claim is as controversial as it is central to Sanford’s argument. While it is true, strictly speaking, that virtue leads to happiness for Aristotle, Sanford glosses over tough cases that Aristotle himself raises. Throughout book one of the Nicomachean Ethics, for example, Aristotle repeatedly writes of Priam, the virtuous king of Troy. Aristotle argues that only a philosopher defending a thesis at all costs would insist that the virtuous Priam was happy as he endured the devastating losses of his city and children. Due to horrible circumstances, Priam was cut off from happiness. In his case, virtue was necessary but not sufficient for attaining happiness. This leads one to examine the connection between virtue and right action in other kinds of tragic scenarios. For example, an agent might tragically face the choice, say, to be honest to a madman or to lie to save the life of an innocent person. Here the means by which one upholds one virtue seems to come at the expense of another person’s life. Sanford’s argument for moral absolutes and the connection between virtue and happiness would benefit from explaining tough cases like these.
Second, Sanford claims that Aristotle is not a foundationalist. Aristotle does not try to justify what counts as a virtue; rather, he aims to explain the contours of what we already know to be virtuous. For this reason, Sanford explains that “Aristotle is then frankly unconcerned with an issue that is, in many respects, of primary importance for contemporary ethicists,” since a central preoccupation of modern moral philosophy is to justify what should count as the correct standard of moral behavior. Sanford’s point, again, is strictly speaking true; however, questions remain. While Aristotle assumes in the Nicomachean Ethics that the virtues are good, he does so because of the metaphysical and anthropological background that grounds this assumption. This is particularly evident in his function argument, which contends that the virtues are choiceworthy because they are the means by which people fulfill their human nature. Sanford himself seems to recognize this, for he devotes entire chapters to anthropology and teleology. Yet the extent to which Aristotle’s view of human nature grounds his ethics seems to mitigate the difference Sanford draws between modern moral philosophy and Aristotelian ethics. Fleshing out the differences between how modern moral philosophy and Aristotelian ethics conceive of and address the grounds of ethics would clarify Sanford’s argument.
Finally, Sanford’s depiction of what grounds Aristotle’s arch-virtue of practical wisdom is varied and perplexing. At times, Sanford argues that an adequate anthropology could ground a proper understanding of practical wisdom. At other times, he suggests that linguistic analysis could objectively ground our notions of good and bad. Sometimes Sanford dismisses the question of what grounds one’s understanding of the good as a problematically modern sort of question. At other times, he argues that we access what is practically wise through culture building, through understanding the difference between primary and basic understandings, or through a robust account of the foundations of moral principles. At a minimum, clarifying the grounds of practical wisdom would be helpful, since Sanford argues that this is an important point of distinction between modern moral philosophy and Aristotelian virtue theory.
Nevertheless, by the end of the first part of the book Sanford successfully demonstrates that Aristotle would not fit in well with contemporary virtue ethicists.
The Superiority of Aristotle
Sanford then moves to defend the second main thesis of the book: that Aristotelian ethics is better because it is non-reductionistic and answers questions more completely than does any version of modern moral philosophy.
Sanford defends this thesis by turning to Aristotle’s own philosophical psychology as expressed in his anthropology, teleology, and normativity. This part of Sanford’s argument is mostly skeletal, as he himself admits. In order to do justice to any of these topics, much more support would be needed. However, Sanford’s work in these areas does serve as a helpful guide for future research and for explaining the contours of Aristotle’s philosophical anthropology.
Sanford effectively shows that Aristotle’s anthropology explains why the virtues enable human beings to perfect and actualize their functions. Sanford also shows how Aristotle’s anthropology is situated within his larger teleological commitments. He acknowledges that any argument for an overarching end in life is wildly philosophically unfashionable. Nevertheless, he rightly points out that, for Aristotle, inquiry into one’s end is necessary for ethical theorizing. Sanford’s treatment of teleology is helpful for seeing how Aristotle’s conception of virtuous ends is situated within Aristotle’s larger metaphysics, yet actualized in and through highly concretized cultures, traditions, and practices. The chapter does a good job of connecting the abstract and concrete aspects of Aristotle’s teleology.
Sanford concludes his argument by stumping for the normativity that attends virtue theory. He focuses on Thomistic natural law, giving a broad description of natural law as it differs from contractarian, procedural political theories, particularly that of John Rawls. The main difference between the two traditions, Sanford argues, is that natural law is grounded on the theory that justice is always concerned with another’s good, whereas procedural contractarian theory is grounded on the position that justice is the result of a truce between selfish individuals who, if given the power to do so, would tyrannize each other. On the contractarian view, justice and fairness are a matter of exercising one’s reason in order to maximize narrow self-interest without harming others. Sanford argues that procedural, contractarian theory is grounded on a faulty anthropology that Thomistic natural law avoids. Due to a faulty anthropology, contractarian views mistakenly conclude that justice is a matter of procedural fairness rather than a matter of thick, virtuous interpersonal interactions.
The chapter contains many good arguments, and yet one still wonders whether all contractarian views fall prey to Sanford’s criticisms. A Lockean contractarian view, for example, is often coupled with exhortations to virtue in order to stabilize the contractarian structure.
Before Virtue concludes with a brief summary and assessment of the virtue ethics movement, as well as a call to proceed with the vindicated project of defending Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical psychology. Throughout Before Virtue, Sanford reviews an impressive amount of recent scholarship to build his case for radical virtue ethics. He describes nuanced and important differences in approaches to ethical theory that are central for anybody interested in how to argue well about morality. Yet a great deal of work remains.
Developing an adequate philosophical psychology emerges as just as formidable a task today as it was in 1958. Virtue theorists must ask to what extent Aristotle’s metaphysics necessarily informs his ethics, and how deeply one must dig into the fine details of Aristotle’s metaphysics to understand that connection. Is Aristotle’s function argument adequate to understand the connection between teleology and ethics, or must one comb through Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, and de Anima to develop the full argument? I suspect that the latter task lies ahead for those who find the argument of Before Virtue compelling. As such, Before Virtue turns out to be the beginning of an argument, not the end of one.
Allison Postell teaches in the Philosophy Department at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.