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Virtue Ethics

The Rise Of Modern Virtue Ethics

Modern virtue ethics is generally assumed to have been launched by G. E. M. Anscombe's 1958 article "Modern Moral Philosophy," in which she roundly criticized utilitarian and Kantian ethics, briefly indicated "how Plato and Aristotle talk" about ethics, and startlingly claimed that we should give up doing moral philosophy until we had "an adequate philosophy of psychology." The latter turns out to involve, particularly, "an account of what type of characteristic a virtue is … and how it relates to the actions in which it is instanced."

Fortunately, Anscombe's article did not deter moral philosophers from sticking to their subject. In the 1970s and 1980s Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Alasdair MacIntyre, Bernard Williams, John McDowell, and Julia Annas followed her in criticizing contemporary moral philosophy from the perspective of their reading of the ancient Greeks (and in some cases Aquinas), in which talk about the virtues and vices naturally occurred.

They were not alone in finding the prevailing ethical literature unsatisfactory. By the 1970s, it had become respectable for moral philosophers to do applied ethics. (In the first half of the century they had concentrated almost exclusively on the methodology of ethical theory, metaethics, and the language of moral discourse.) But, despite the fact that articles on contemporary moral issues had become common, moral philosophy seemed to some almost as abstract and removed from everyday life as what had been done in the first half of the century. If "real life" was what was being discussed, why was there no mention of friendship and family relationships, of the morality of the emotions, of motives and moral character, or of moral education? Why did no one ever address the questions of what sort of people we should be and how we should live? Why was the concept of happiness, when it was employed, so unrealistically shallow? The writings of Anscombe's early followers alerted the dissatisfied to the exciting fact that all of these topics were discussed in Aristotle in connection with the topic of virtue.

By the early 1980s, a flood of books and articles had been published, enough to justify a survey article, Gregory Pence's 1984 "Recent Work on Virtues." Its title, however, was significant. The work surveyed was mostly on the virtues themselves, often on a single virtue such as courage or integrity, or on a group such as the virtues involving sympathy, or on the virtues' relation to knowledge or the emotions. Most of the writings discussed were not explicitly on what we would now call "virtue ethics," an approach that could replace the traditional deontological or utilitarian theories—though, as Pence notes, many of them made "grand claims" about this possibility. Nevertheless, they frequently contained passing and sometimes sustained criticism of the prevailing orthodoxy and illustrated, albeit perhaps in relation to only one virtue, how "a return to the virtues" avoided the problem identified.

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