BMCR 2005.09.74

Virtue Ethics Old and New; Virtue, Norms, and Objectivity

, Virtue Ethics, Old and New. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005. 222 pages. ISBN 9781501724275
, Virtue, Norms, and Objectivity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 344 pages. ISBN 9781280753701

[Authors and titles for both volumes are listed at the end of the review.]

Classicists sometimes feel under siege and undervalued in the contemporary world. This is both strange and unsurprising. Strange because we claim for ourselves some of the finest literature ever written and some of the most important historical events to which we still have scholarly access. But unsurprising because there is nowhere that the discipline is not threatened either institutionally, economically, or ideologically. This is surely one of the reasons (though not the most creditable) that we do more than most humanities disciplines to reach out intellectually to other fields, to explore themes and areas of interest that are important to our colleagues and students in other disciplines. But there are other and better reasons for interdisciplinary and comparatist work. Whether in literature, linguistics, history or philosophy, the centrality of Greco-Roman civilization and its role in the development of later European traditions make it intellectually rewarding for classicists to explore their shared interests with others; similarly, these facts make it valuable for those in other disciplines to turn their gaze quite frequently towards us, to see where the ancient world stood on issues that are of interest in their own fields.

Nowhere is this more true than in philosophy, and within philosophy ethics probably looks to the ancient world more than any other sub-field. There are many reasons for this, but the most important is arguably the emergence over the last quarter century of a style of moral philosophizing known as ‘virtue ethics’, which self-consciously traces its roots back to the predominantly agent-centred moral theories of antiquity, theories in which character states and dispositions played a far more important role than had been the case in the ethical theory of (at least) the previous two hundred years. But it is not just in its connections to virtue ethics that ancient theory continues to matter to contemporary philosophy. On a variety of epistemological, metaethical and even metaphysical questions, contemporary thought continues to look over its shoulder at the ancient world. Naturally, many of us think that this is just as it should be.

Both books under review are the results of conferences which set out to explore connections between ancient and modern ethical theory. Virtue Ethics Old and New grew from a conference held at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand in 2002. Stephen Gardiner, the editor and organizer, has pulled together ten engaging papers (of an original 27 oral contributions) on various aspects of virtue ethics. Some of these are of direct relevance to central questions in ancient philosophy. Among these is Annas’ wide-ranging consideration of the relative merits of various forms of ethical naturalism. She distinguishes different forms of naturalism in ancient and modern virtue ethics and argues that in important ways Stoic naturalism (with its greater emphasis on the uniqueness of human reason in the natural world) has more to contribute in today’s philosophical climate than does Aristotle’s version, which seems to give more weight to the social nature of human beings. She holds that in Aristotle’s ethics our social nature constrains the exercise of characteristically human reason more than it does in Stoic theory. Stoicism also emphasizes our social nature, but finds a way to allow rational excellence to play a larger role in moral theory and practice. This is a wide ranging paper, with fruitful links to the work of Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse as well as Lawrence Becker, and makes an important contribution to contemporary feminist debate.

Stephen Gardiner’s own paper addresses the question of the nature of moral rules in virtue ethics. Here Stoicism is the central focus. Virtue ethics focusses on the characters of good persons as the reference point for moral thinking. With its emphasis on the norm-setting role of the sage, Stoicism ought to put a lesser emphasis on general rules in determining the right thing to do. And yet, according to many scholars, Stoicism emphasizes the role of “an elaborate system of principles and rules” (p. 30). The balance between the particular insights of a moral virtuoso and the guidance of general rules is hard to draw (perhaps in part because different Stoics may have had different views on the question), and Gardiner shows how this historical issue about Stoicism goes to the heart of some important theoretical problems in contemporary virtue ethics. He does so by negotiating a sophisticated alternative to the two hitherto dominant views about the role of rules in Stoic ethics, each of which emphasizes one of the theoretical extremes. Since this reviewer is a representative of one of the competing interpretations I will limit myself to observing that, whatever the truth about ancient Stoicism, Gardiner has advanced both the historical and the contemporary theoretical debates.

Robert Solomon’s argument that erotic love of a mature sort should be considered a form of virtue touches on Platonic themes and will be of interest to some students of Plato, but it is essentially an argument for taking an expansive view of what can be considered a virtue in contemporary theory. Daniel Russell, by contrast, gives us an argument for the importance in ethics of ‘self-respect’, basing his argument on a detailed exegesis of parts of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Since there is no obvious term for self-respect in Aristotle, Russell quite properly pursues the substance rather than its lexical indicators. Our idea of self-respect, he maintains, is found all through Aristotle’s ethics, detectable in Aristotle’s emphasis on moral strength and stability, on nobility and maturity of character, on an implicit notion of moral commitment, and on traits like courage and pride. Epictetus is also drawn into this complex historical and philosophical discussion. A philosophical theme running throughout the paper is rebuttal of one common criticism of agent-centred ethics, that it is somehow self-centred or egoistic. The very nature of self-respect, Russell argues, refutes that misunderstanding.

The other chapters offer less to the classical reader, although Irwin on Aquinas and Crisp on Hume display the kind of philosophical and scholarly virtues which characterize the best of ancient philosophy; they are of strong comparative interest to students of ancient thought. The other chapters, whatever their merits, offer less to classicists. Higgins, writing on a particular form of Taoist thought, argues that passive virtues should be included when thinking of virtue ethics, but my reaction to her fascinating account of Zhuangzi’s ethics was profound doubt whether a character state so fundamentally different from Greek (and indeed contemporary notions) of virtue can usefully be treated as a version of ‘virtue’. This would only be reasonable if ‘virtue’ were taken as a term for any and all positively characterized character states in a given culture. It is hard enough in the Western tradition to be sure that a word like ‘courage’ picks out what a Greek meant by ἀνδρεία or to figure out what φιλία is in the modern world; the gap is much greater between Taoist thought and both the Greeks and us. The comparatist work of G.E.R. Lloyd would be worth remembering here. Welchman argues (unconvincingly in my view) for the merits of Dewey’s pragmatism in connection with virtue ethics. Swanton’s valiant attempt to rework Nietzsche as a virtue ethicist is interesting but in the end much less successful than either Crisp’s compelling reassessment of Hume or Harris’ subtle engagement with Hurka’s perfectionism. Since Aristotle is one important conceptual starting point for Hurka, this rich discussion (which includes a fascinating discussion of theodicy and metaphysical pessimism as well as a perceptive analysis of loneliness) demonstrates among other things that the strongest and most independent philosophical conceptions often loop back to their starting points. And these starting points very often lie in the classical world.

While Gardiner’s collection is focussed on virtue ethics, Gill’s book (the offspring of a conference on ‘Ancient and Modern Approaches to Ethical Objectivity’ at the University of Exeter in 2002) is both broader and narrower in scope. All the papers deal directly with the ancient world; the broad comparatist sweep of Gardiner’s collection is missing. But the range of issues within ancient and modern ethics is wider. Given the size and richness of the volume I will restrict myself to commenting in detail on only a few of the chapters.

Christopher Gill asks wide-ranging questions about the status of moral rules or norms in ancient ethics. In this he overlaps with Gardiner’s chapter in Virtue Ethics Old and New. Distinguishing carefully between universality and objectivity (often prematurely conflated) he considers Kant and Utilitarianism, characteristically modern manifestos such as the Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Biblical tradition of norm-setting, all of which give universality an important role in establishing the objectivity of norms. This is then contrasted with the more complicated situation in ancient ethics, where objectivity (to the extent that we can locate that concept in ancient thought) turns more on establishing reliable knowledge of ethical norms and ideals than on the notion that objectivity is linked to universality. Gill’s test case for this is the Stoic idea of natural law and, as one might expect, Cicero plays a major role in the discussion. Although Gill strains to build connections to modern universalism, he ultimately puts greater emphasis on the different and distinctively epistemological concerns of the ancients.

One of the most striking features of ancient normative theory is the central role played by the concept of the summum bonum or τέλος. Sarah Broadie presents a superb analytical account of the idea in ancient philosophy generally, though her main reference point is Aristotle. Less directly concerned with moral foundations is Nancy Sherman’s Stoic-focussed exploration of the idea that in ancient ethics virtue is characterized by a certain aesthetic, a ‘look and feel’, as well as by cognitive and other dispositional traits. The evidence for this often overlooked fact is compelling, not just in Stoicism but perhaps especially there. Sherman compares this aesthetic of virtue with the ethos of contemporary American military behaviour and dress standards. While the social structures considered are distinctively modern, an analogous fusion of moral standards and apparently superficial social norms can be found in much of ancient ethics as well. Sherman might have said more about the significance of the defiance of such social by Cynics and other philosophical contrarians in the ancient world (see p. 72). Seneca’s On Favours is aptly selected as a test case for the careful Stoic balance between social and moral values.

Ludwig Siep gives a more overtly comparative meta-ethical analysis of the ancient tradition. He notes the contrast between ancient ethics and the Kantian tradition. The ancient concern with objectivity about the virtues leads easily into a discussion of the problem of cultural relativism. This is a persistent problem for virtue-based theories. It is evident that different cultures pick out different virtues: is our ethics, then, relative to our society? (The papers by Annas and Higgins in Gardiner’s book raise this question as well.) Siep takes an optimistic view about the normative objectivity of ancient virtue ethics without going so far as to commit himself to universality in even the attenuated sense accepted by Gill.

Sabina Lovibond continues the focus on how human nature is meant to ground ethics and the virtues. With particular emphasis on questions of theodicy she positions both the ancient and modern versions of Aristotelianism between a form of Kantian ethics and the rather resigned views of Bernard Williams. Though various versions of revived Aristotelianism and Platonism are considered, Lovibond avoids direct engagement with any of the major Stoic treatments of theodicy; more’s the pity.

Wolfgang Detel (responded to by Gill) provides the most complex account of the source of ethical normativity in his ‘Hybrid Theories of Normativity’. Focussing primarily on Plato among the ancients (in whose works three levels of normativity are detected), he brings in contemporary naturalistic semantics (Donald Davidson, Robert Brandom and several others make an appearance in the argument). The theory he advances has relatively little to do with ancient ethics, though, except that he sees contemporary theories as a “rehabilitation of Plato’s way of approaching these issues” (p. 144). It is clear that Plato exerts a powerful attraction on Detel, but not quite so evident that his own positive views depend on anything still recognizable as being Platonic. Even Gill’s reply, which analyses Detel from a Stoic standpoint, leaves the question of comparison’s between ancient and modern theories of normativity unusually abstract.

Terry Penner, M.M. McCabe and Christopher Rowe bring us back sharply to the concrete consideration of various aspects of Platonic ethics. Penner’s articulation of Socratic ethics is the clearest and most attractive version to date of his unorthodox theory. Socrates’ intellectualism and “ultra-realism” (the view that in fact human beings really do want what is objectively good; if we think we want anything else we are simply mistaken about our own desires) is a highly abstract construction out of several key Platonic dialogues, especially the Gorgias. Whatever one thinks of its relationship (ultimately unprovable) to the views of the historical Socrates, it provides an attractive rational reconstruction of his views, which helps to explain several features of ethics in the Socratic tradition, particularly Stoic ethics. The great weight placed on intellectual clarity and on internal coherence among one’s beliefs and the fact that questions about the sources of normativity seldom become explicit in the ancient world in the way that they do for us — these ‘oddities’ would make a good deal of sense if Penner’s Socrates were the real thing. McCabe analyses the Euthydemus as an attack on consequentialism and so indirectly as a founding text for a distinctively ancient approach to the metaphysical bases of values and norms. As several other papers suggest, the objective nature of value in ancient theory does not entail that it is impersonal. In assessing values it is not just that people come first, but rather that the person engaged in the debate comes first: “objectivity may not be just out there, in what we pursue; that does preclude value’s being real, nor its being ours” (p. 214). It may be that Plato is being wielded as a club in contemporary metaethical debates, but it does not follow that McCabe’s Plato isn’t genuinely present in at least some dialogues. Rowe explores the complexities of Plato’s so-called theory of Forms in its relation to the issue of ethical objectivity. The conclusions seem tame (that Forms and our relationship to them are indeed the foundation of moral values: the elenchos and other forms of dialectic do not yield truth as a mere matter of intersubjective agreement). As in others’ papers in this volume, Platonic studies are here set in a rich matrix of contemporary philosophical views (Gadamer and Davidson most prominently). But Rowe’s treatment here, while comprehensible in itself, is also an important part of Rowe’s long-term project on Plato, without which its impact cannot be fully appreciated.

The volume ends with two Aristotelian papers. Timothy Chappell explores at length Aristotle’s use of the ἀγαθός or φρόνιμος as a standard for what is right and wrong in his ethics, bringing out the philosophical strengths of this often criticized notion without denying (as would be implausible) that in Aristotle’s own version of this person-centred standard of value élitism often impedes our confidence in its objectivity. Chappell holds, though, that the approach has sufficient merits that the theory itself need not be impeached by the élitism of its author. R.W. Sharples concludes the volume with an analysis of a debate in the Mantissa attributed to Alexander of Aphrodisias. The debate concerns the status of justice (is it conventional or not?) and, though the issue is certainly germane to the theme of the collection, in the end the chapter deals more with the nature of ‘scholastic’ debate in the second century CE than with the larger philosophical context for the issue. This is quite fitting for Sharples, who has done more than anyone else in the last 25 years to improve our understanding of Alexander of Aphrodisias and his milieu; but his paper fits rather poorly in this volume, which is otherwise strongly philosophical in its approach.

These collections have uneven patches here and there. This is an inevitable risk for books based on conferences. But in both cases the editors have constructed wholes greater than the sum of their respective sets of parts. Ancient philosophy continues to play an important role in several areas of contemporary ethical theory and these volumes, both well produced and equipped with serviceable indices, help to show why that should be the case.


Virtue Ethics Old and New

Introduction: Virtue ethics, here and now: Stephen M. Gardiner.

Part 1: Historical innovations on foundational issues.

1. ‘Virtue ethics: what kind of naturalism?’: Julia Annas.

2. ‘Seneca’s virtuous moral rules’: Stephen M. Gardiner.

3. ‘Do virtues conflict? Aquinas’ answer’: T.H. Irwin.

Part 2: A reappraisal of some central virtues.

4. ‘Erotic love as a moral virtue’: Robert C. Solomon.

5. ‘Aristotle on the moral relevance of self-respect’: Daniel Russell.

Part 3: The nature of virtue reconsidered.

6. ‘Negative virtues: Zhuangzi’s Wuwei‘: Kathleen Marie Higgins.

7. ‘Virtue ethics and human development: a pragmatic approach’: Jennifer Welchman.

Part 4: Virtue ethics and its environs.

8. ‘Hume on virtue, utility and morality’: Roger Crisp.

9. ‘Nietzschean virtue ethics’: Christine Swanton.

10. ‘The virtues, perfectionist goods, and pessimisms’: George W. Harris.

Virtue, Norms, and Objectivity

Introduction: Christopher Gill.

Part I: Issues in ancient and modern theory. The nature and grounding of ethical norms.

1. ‘In what sense are ancient ethical norms universal?’: Christopher Gill.

2. ‘On the idea of the summum bonum : Sarah Broadie.

3. ‘The look and feel of virtue’: Nancy Sherman.

4. ‘Virtues, values, and moral objectivity’: Ludwig Siep.

5. ‘Virtue, nature, and providence’: Sabina Lovibond.

6. ‘Hybrid theories of normativity’: Wolfgang Detel.

7. ‘Commentary on Detel from a Stoic standpoint’: Christopher Gill.

Part II: Readings in Ancient Philosophy. Ethical virtue and objective knowledge.

8. ‘Socratic ethics: ultra-realism, determinism and ethical truth’: Terry Penner.

9. ‘Out of the labyrinth: Plato’s attack on consequentialism’: Mary Margaret McCabe.

10. ‘What difference do Forms make for Platonic epistemology?’: Christopher Rowe.

11. ‘The good man is the measure of all things?: Objectivity without world-centredness in Aristotle’s moral epistemology’: Timothy Chappell.

12. ‘Aristotelian virtue and practical judgement’: A.W. Price.

13. ‘An Aristotelian commentator on the naturalness of justice’: R.W. Sharples.