Contemporary Virtue Ethics
PHGA 7671 Contemporary Virtue Ethics
Professor Christopher Gowans
The course will examine recent work in virtue ethics. Here is some background: in analytic philosophy, virtue ethics emerged in the 1950s and 1960s—especially in the work of Philippa Foot, Peter Geach and G.E.M. Anscombe—as an alternative to dominant trends in meta-ethics (non-cognitivism and forms of cognitivism such as intuitionism) and normative ethics (deontological or Kantian theories as well as consequentialist approaches such as utilitarianism). Virtue ethicists drew upon Aristotle (and to some extent Aquinas) in an attempt to develop a richer moral theory, naturalistic in its meta-ethics and emphasizing the importance of character, and hence the virtues, in its normative ethics.
A second impetus for the current revival of virtue ethics was Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue in 1981. This inspired a flood of work in virtue ethics so that by the 1990s it was generally acknowledged that virtue ethics was one of the major alternatives in moral theory, especially in normative ethics and to a lesser extent in meta-ethics.
Through most of its 50 year career, it was supposed that virtue ethics should be rooted in Aristotle’s eudaimonism, and this continues to be the major influence. However, with the onset of middle age, as it were, virtue ethics has become more diverse: Other influences have come into play, and the sharply-drawn contrasts with other approaches have given way to more nuanced and complex analyses.
In this class, we will begin with a preliminary examination of the nature of virtue ethics. But our main focus will be some features of the current state of discussion, highlighting both Aristotelian approaches and some of the recent diversity, as shown in the following four books:
This is MacIntyre’s most recent book on virtue ethics. Though still broadly Aristotelian, he focuses on what human beings have in common with other intelligent animals, as well as the facts of human vulnerability and disability, to develop and modify his earlier work.
- Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Open Court, 1999).
This may be the most sophisticated recent defense of virtue ethics in the Aristotelian tradition. Hursthouse’s topics include moral dilemmas, emotions, comparisons with Kant, and a naturalistic justification of the virtues (developing recent work of Foot).
- Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1999)
Slote’s agent-based virtue theory draws on the sentimentalist tradition of Hutchinson and Hume as well as the care ethics inspired by the work of Carol Gilligan and developed by Nel Noddings. He is concerned to combine care for oneself, for close friends and relations, and for strangers.
- Michael Slote, Morals from Motives (Oxford University Press, 2001)
Swanton draws on Nietzsche as well as Aristotle, and also psychology and literature, to develop a virtue theory in which there are diverse bases and modes of moral responsiveness. In addition to many of the standard topics, she emphasizes love, respect, and creativity.
- Christine Swanton, Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View (Oxford University Press, 2003)
Students are expected to write a term paper and give a class presentation (these may, but need not be, on the same topic). The four books above will be ordered for the class.