The Routledge Companion to Virtue Ethics

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Lorraine L. Besser-Jones, Michael Slote
Routledge Companion Series
  • New York, NY: 
    , January
     582 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A famous claim in the history of virtue ethics recently celebrated its sixtieth birthday. In 1958, G. E. M. Anscombe claimed in “Modern Moral Philosophy” that a coherent system of ethics requires a robust and widely agreed-upon philosophical psychology—something she thinks no modern civilization, much less the dialogue between civilizations, currently has. Thus, The Routledge Companion to Virtue Ethics stands in a strange relation to Anscombe’s claim. Lorraine Besser-Jones and Michael Slote write in their introduction that this volume’s contributions “open up our understanding of the possibilities, both historically and presently, of virtue ethics” by “looking at the matter from a more international perspective” (xxii). Far from offering a unified moral or philosophical psychology, then, this volume introduces a great many of them, pulling from sources separated across time and space. My suspicion is that one’s reaction to the project of The Routledge Companion to Virtue Ethics will be inversely proportional to one’s opinion of Anscombe’s claim.

In other words, Anscombe’s sympathizers will see in this volume evidence that a plurality of moral psychologies tends inevitably towards cacophony. Take, for example, the breadth of positions concerning whether knowing the good is sufficient to motivate virtuous action. Charles Goodman’s “Virtues in Buddhist Ethical Traditions” and Tad Brennan’s “Stoic Theory of Virtue” both argue that fundamental to the moral sage is accurate knowledge of one’s self and context, though of course what the Stoic and the Buddhist mean by self-knowledge are different. Opposite this, Yong Huang claims in “Respect for Differences: The Daoist Virtue” that emphasizing self-knowledge makes one overly-scrupulous and doctrinaire, distorting the otherwise virtuous impulses within fundamentally benevolent human nature. Meanwhile, Andrew Pinsent in “Aquinas: Infused Virtues” says that for the Thomist, no knowledge of the good is ever sufficient for perfect virtue until God wills for someone to have it. It’s in no way clear that these divergent views can be brought together harmoniously. Nor is it clear that there is even agreement on what virtues actually are. Are they traits which tend to produce good effects, as Julia Driver says in “The Consequentialist Critique of Virtue Ethics” (c.f. 325)? Are they basic impulses within human nature that can arise without any special effort at cultivation, as Heather Battaly and Michael Slote seem to say in “Virtue Epistemology and Virtue Ethics” (c.f. 266)? Or is the Aristotelian definition that virtues are acquired dispositions toward certain patterns of behavior still sufficient? 

Alternatively, those skeptical of Anscombe will see evidence that even radically different traditions sometimes converge in surprising ways. One such case is the agreement between Confucius (May Sim, “Why Confucius’ Ethics is a Virtue Ethics”), Xunzi, (Eric L. Hutton, “Xunzi and Virtue Ethics”), Aristotle (Nancy Snow, “Models of Virtue”), and others on what John McDowell has called the “uncodifiability thesis” about principles of right action. That is, whether we call it phronêsisyi (義), or practical wisdom, disparate traditions all seem to recognize that a virtuous person can discern the right action in situations where extenuating circumstances make it impossible for universal principles to neatly apply. There also seems to be widespread agreement that the virtues are not only helpful for achieving human flourishing, but in fact are at least partly constitutive of it. This is a point endorsed by Aristotelians and Neo-Aristotelians, Confucians, Buddhists, Christians, and—as Edward Harcourt envisions them in “Nietzsche and the Virtues”—Nietzscheans. Whatever the specifics of Anscombe’s desired moral psychology then, it seems much of the world can already agree on at least a few points about its general structure. But supposing that such agreements turn out to be merely superficial, what then? Supporters of this volume’s project might look to Christine Swanton’s conclusions in “Pluralistic Virtue Ethics,” in which she argues that virtues are fundamentally grounded in a plurality of goods. If she’s right, then even seemingly irreconcilable accounts of virtuous action are nevertheless grounded in four-fold claims of value, social bonds, authority, and individual goods. Perhaps the robust and widely-agreed upon philosophical psychology isn’t so elusive after all.

Whether it ultimately goes down as dissonant or harmonious, The Routledge Companion to Virtue Ethics deserves praise for its ambition in breadth and depth. Its breadth is particularly noticeable in part 1, which offers a history of virtue ethics that differs from other anthologies by presenting both Western and Eastern thinkers in a nearly 1:1 ratio. The contributions in this section are uniformly approachable for non-experts and engage with problems familiar to most students of ethics. Parts 2-4, which comprise the rest of the volume, offer a depth of reflection by bringing together experts from a wide range of subjects to discuss the applications, criticisms, and new directions for virtue ethics. Nearly all of these latter essays can be recommended as introductions to the terminology and key debates within particular problems or sub-fields. A few strike me as genuine standouts: Liezel van Zyl’s “Eudaimonistic Virtue Ethics,” Allen Wood’s “Kant and Virtue Ethics,” and Lorraine Besser-Jones’s “The Situationist Critique.” Two other notable essays are C. Daniel Batson’s “Testing the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis against Egoistic Alternatives,” which is one of the few philosophical essays that draws conclusions based on empirical data from psychological studies. Finally, Stephen Angle’s “World Virtue Ethics” should perhaps be the first essay any reader of this volume looks to, since he provides a helpful overview of how the project of comparative virtue ethics can be done. 

Whatever we make of Anscombe’s call for a unified moral psychology, it’s clear that philosophy in general, and virtue ethics in particular, is becoming increasingly pluralistic. This reality presents us with the need to understand the nuanced language of other traditions. Collections like The Routledge Companion to Virtue Ethics, by bringing together reputable scholars from widely divergent areas of philosophy, are important steps in this direction. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Wesley Bergen is a graduate student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lorraine Besser-Jones is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Middlebury College. She is the author of Eudaimonic Ethics: The Philosophy and Psychology of Living Well (Routledge, 2014), as well as of many articles on moral psychology and the history of ethics

Michael Slote is UST Professor of Ethics and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami. A member of the Royal Irish Academy and former Tanner lecturer, he has written in the areas of ethics, philosophy of mind, epistemology, political philosophy, and philosophy of education.


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