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date: 25 May 2020

Early Virtue Ethics

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines some of the main lines of development of virtue ethics in the early days of its revival, roughly from the mid-1950s until the mid-1980s. The emergence of virtue ethics is linked to other changes in Anglophone academic ethics during this time, including attacks on non-cognitivism, the rejection of the sharp distinction between meta-ethics and normative ethics, and the revival of large-scale normative theories. Among the figures whose contributions to the revival of virtue are discussed most fully are William Frankena, G. H. von Wright, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Focus throughout is on the Aristotelian heart of this revival.

Keywords: virtue, normative ethics, non-cognitivism, William Frankena, G. H. von Wright, Elizabeth Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntyre

Virtue ethics emerged in the last half of the twentieth century as a significant alternative to the deontological and consequentialist approaches to ethics that had dominated normative ethical thinking in Anglophone academic ethics earlier in the century. This chapter examines certain features of the early days of this return to virtue (a period roughly from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s). After some general remarks about this development within academic ethics in the first section of the chapter, the second section turns to a brief description of other significant developments in academic ethics that were related to the turn to virtue. The third section explores some central texts that constitute the “canon of early virtue ethics.” The concluding section discusses briefly some developments in virtue ethics after its early days.

I. The Concept of Virtue and the Project of Virtue Ethics

It is sometimes thought that twentieth-century Anglophone ethics prior to the emergence of virtue ethics in the mid-twentieth century ignores both the concept of virtue as well as the project of virtue ethics. Yet discussions of the concept of virtue, or of the particular virtues, are at home in any attempt to do moral philosophy or ethical theory—for example, in the work of Kant and Mill. Since the virtue concepts—such notions as justice, courage, temperance, and amiability—are central to practical thought, any philosophical account of ethics must attend to them, as well as to the concept of virtue itself, even if what it says merely marginalizes them. Discussions of an ethics of virtue (as opposed to the particular virtues or the concept of virtue itself), however, involve quite different considerations. An ethics of virtue is an ethical theory that gives a central place to the virtues or to the concept of a virtue.

Since neither Kant nor Mill makes the concept of virtue the central notion in his ethical theory, they are not typically regarded as virtue ethicists. It is common to characterize (p. 304) Kantian-style normative theories as taking rules or principles as fundamental (in some sense of “fundamental” to be specified within the theory) and utilitarian normative theories as taking the notions of a good (or choice-worthy) end as similarly fundamental. For both Kant and Mill (and for most modern ethical theorists), the concept of a virtue is a secondary notion within the structure of an ethical theory, to be explained in terms of the other more fundamental ethical concepts in the theory. A Kantian-style deontological theory might define a virtue as a disposition to act in accord with certain principles, thus subordinating the notion of a virtue to the notion of a principle. Similarly, a classical utilitarian ethical theory like Mill’s might define virtues as dispositions to act so as to maximize good outcomes open to one in a situation, thus subordinating the notion of a virtue to the notion of a “good outcome.”

This distinction makes clear what was neglected in moral philosophy during the first half of the twentieth century and what was not. There was certainly discussion of the concept of a virtue—and of the particular virtues—during this period. Early twentieth-century moral philosophers, such as Prichard and Moore, wrote much about virtue but, since they never gave the virtues a central or fundamental place in their theories, they are not virtue ethicists.

In the 1950s and 1960s, however, moral philosophers began to give virtue a more central place. It is difficult to reconstruct the slow emergence of virtue ethics as an alternative within academic moral philosophy, however, since its early development engaged numerous problem areas within contemporary academic ethics. The next section examines briefly two such areas with the goal of clarifying how “early virtue ethics” developed in the period roughly from 1955 to 1985. Although there is no consensus on the beginning and end of “early virtue ethics,” this discussion dates its beginning in the late 1950s with the appearance of Elizabeth Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958), G. H. von Wright’s Gifford lectures (1959) on which his Varieties of Goodness is based, and the influential articles by Philippa Foot, “Moral Arguments” (1958) and “Moral Beliefs” (1958–1959), which anticipated many of the themes that developed later.

Early virtue ethics gave way to a more mature virtue ethics in the early to mid-1980s. In 1981 Alasdair MacIntyre’s magisterial After Virtue was published, the first contemporary, full-length, systematically developed piece of moral philosophy that placed virtue at the center of the discussion.1 In 1985, Bernard Williams’s tour de force, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, appeared.2 Though not a straightforward defense of virtue ethics, it provided, in the eyes of many, a devastating critique of the ambitions of those modern moral theories seen as the main alternatives to an ethics of virtue. Following it, the Midwest Studies volume on virtue ethics (1986) contained significant articles by central figures in the virtue revival, including Martha Nussbaum, Alasdair MacIntyre, Rosalind Hursthouse, and Julia Annas.3 It seems reasonable, then, to regard early virtue ethics as persisting from roughly the mid-1950s until the mid-1980s. By 1985, with the mature work of MacIntyre and Williams in play and the Midwest Studies collection reflecting diverse and refined explorations of virtue, virtue ethics surely reached the end of its beginning and was firmly launched.

(p. 305) II. The Emergence of Virtue Ethics in Twentieth Century Moral Philosophy

The decades after World War II, during which early work in virtue ethics commenced, were a complicated and dynamic period within Anglophone academic ethics. Moral philosophy as a discipline was changing in multiple ways, and it was in the midst of these changes that virtue ethics emerged. Early proponents of the virtues were engaged in two simultaneous disputes. Within classical meta-ethics, which dominated academic ethics when moral philosophers first turned their attention to the virtues, they argued for a revived naturalism against entrenched non-cognitivist and intuitionist meta-ethical views. But with the revival of interest by moral philosophers in large-scale normative theories in the 1960s and 1970s, they encountered different issues and different opponents. Proponents of the revival of the virtues then joined the debate about the structure of normative theories as well as the debate among the emerging normative theories, especially Kantian rationalism and utilitarianism, which were at odds with Aristotelian virtue ethics.

At the moment in the late 1950s when moral philosophers such as Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Peter Geach were turning their attention to the virtues, moral philosophy at the leading philosophy departments in the United Kingdom and the United States had been dominated for a half century by a set of technical issues focusing largely on the semantics of ethical language, along with closely related epistemological and metaphysical questions about ethics. These meta-ethical issues, as they were called, were second-order questions about the meaning and justification of ethical claims, and had their proximate origin in G. E. Moore’s 1903 classic work, Principia Ethica.4 Moore argued that the most fundamental questions in ethics are semantic ones (i.e., questions about the definitions of the most general ethical terms). He also argued that “good” is the most basic ethical term, and, somewhat surprisingly, concluded that it was indefinable (in its non-instrumental uses) and functioned solely to name the simple, non-natural property of intrinsic goodness. Moore’s argument in support of his indefinability thesis, the “open question argument,” purported to establish that not only was “good” indefinable, but any attempt to give a reductive definition of any ethical term committed a logical fallacy—“the naturalistic fallacy”—and must be rejected.5

Though Moore’s arguments on these matters were controversial in 1903, and continue to be controversial today, his approach to fundamental questions in ethics had shaped academic moral philosophy in crucial ways by the mid-twentieth century. The semantic questions that Moore took as primary (and the related epistemological and metaphysical questions) defined a sphere of ethics that was sharply distinguished from the normative ethics that had traditionally been at the heart of ethical theory. Normative ethics, unlike meta-ethics, focused on substantive questions about what things are good and (p. 306) which actions are morally permissible or morally required. By the time questions about the virtues were becoming seriously addressed in the 1950s, meta-ethical discussions had come to dominate academic moral philosophy, and normative ethics was largely neglected.

By the 1950s, the options in meta-ethics had been reduced to three relatively well-defined positions: intuitionism, non-cognitivism, and naturalism. Intuitionists held, with Moore, that ethical claims are objective, but that ethical properties are non-natural and not reducible by definition to natural properties. Ethical claims when true are self-evident. Naturalists agreed with intuitionists on the objectivity of ethical claims, but held that ethical properties are empirical and that empirical claims can serve as evidence for ethical claims. Non-cognitivists disagreed with both intuitionists and naturalists on the objectivity of ethical claims, arguing instead that such claims do not express propositions and are not, therefore, truth-apt (i.e., capable of being true or false). For non-cognitivists, the primary role of ethical talk was not to express truths, but rather to express the attitudes of the speaker and influence causally the attitudes of the audience.

By the mid-1950s, intuitionism had fallen out of favor within academic ethics and non-cognitivism had emerged as the dominant view, especially in the sophisticated version defended by R. M. Hare in his widely read and influential early books, The Language of Morals (1951) and Freedom and Reason (1963). Hare’s version of non-cognitivism held that there were a number of sharp distinctions in ethics—distinctions between facts and values, between descriptive language and prescriptive language, between evaluative meaning and descriptive meaning, and between meta-ethics and normative ethics. He was strongly committed to the view that there was an unbridgeable gap between descriptive (or factual) discourse and evaluative (including ethical) discourse. On his view, no logical bridge from purely factual premises to ethical conclusions was possible. There was always a gap. And, following Moore, he held that the open question argument guaranteed that no naturalistic definition of ethical terms could close that gap.

The third competing meta-ethical view, ethical naturalism, rejected this so-called fact-value gap and argued that there were logical limits to what could count as evidence for (or against) ethical judgments—and that these limits were tied to the meaning of ethical terms. This view was anathema to Hare and the other non-cognitivists who dominated moral philosophy at the time. Indeed, before the 1950s, it was difficult to find any moral philosophers who espoused meta-ethical naturalism, since the power of the open question argument seemed to render such views untenable on their face. Philippa Foot recognized these difficulties in articulating and defending a naturalist meta-ethical view when she opened her defense of ethical naturalism in her influential 1958 article, “Moral Beliefs,” by saying, “To many people it seems that the most notable advance in moral philosophy during the past fifty years or so has been the refutation of naturalism … given certain apparently unquestionable assumptions, it would be about as sensible to try to reintroduce naturalism as to try to square the circle.”6

While acknowledging these difficulties, Foot went on to attack in a series of influential articles7 the “apparently unquestionable assumptions” that supported the widespread rejection of naturalism. She emerged as the most prominent defender of naturalism in (p. 307) meta-ethics at this time, but was joined in her effort to resuscitate naturalism by almost all of the moral philosophers who were also beginning to bring discussions of the virtues back into the heart of moral philosophy, including Elizabeth Anscombe, Peter Geach, Iris Murdoch, Julius Kovesi, Alasdair MacIntyre, and other prominent participants in the virtue revival.8

These figures, and others, were simultaneously defending a naturalist view in meta-ethics, while trying to put the virtues back at the center of academic ethics. Since they all focused their attacks on Hare’s formulation of non-cognitivism—and its rejection of ethical naturalism—the early years of virtue ethics were marked by sharp exchanges between Hare and many of the main early advocates of virtue ethics.9 And Hare spent much of the remainder of his career fighting a rear-guard action against the kind of revived naturalism so persistently defended by early figures in virtue ethics.

Since most of the early figures in virtue ethics took a broadly Aristotelian approach to ethics, according to which natural facts about human capacities, inclinations, and other psychological properties are deeply relevant to ethical questions, it is not surprising that they pursued a naturalistic meta-ethical view. But the constraints of meta-ethical discussions did not allow them to pursue within the framework of the naturalism debate the normative issues that were also at the heart of Aristotelian virtue theory. Fortunately, as the style of discussion typical of classical meta-ethics was being transformed under the assault of such virtue-oriented thinkers as Anscombe, Foot, and Geach, another quite different undertaking was gaining prominence in Anglophone academic moral philosophy. This new problematic rejected altogether the earlier reluctance on the part of academic moral philosophers to engage normative issues. After a half-century, from the death of Sidgwick10 until the 1950s, in which the project of constructing and defending large-scale normative theories—a project that had dominated nineteenth-century work in moral philosophy—had almost disappeared, it experienced a sudden and dramatic revival in the 1960s and 1970s.

Although there already had been tentative steps toward a return to constructing broad normative theories,11 the impetus that turned this tentative movement to a stampede was the publication of John Rawls’s influential A Theory of Justice in 1971.12 Rawls did not just argue in favor of reviving normative theory; he actually revived it—and did so on a scale that had not been attempted since Sidgwick, and with a clear, judicious voice that gained the attention of the entire philosophical world. Rawls almost completely ignored the debates of the meta-ethicists that dominated Anglophone academic moral philosophy from Moore to the 1960s, and he returned to the kind of large-scale normative project that had engaged nineteenth-century moral philosophers like Sidgwick, Bradley, and Spencer.13

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls explored and defended a form of Kantian rationalism that saw as its main opponent the utilitarianism that he felt had dominated ethical and political thinking in late modernity. Rawls’s breakthrough was followed by other important works in normative ethics in a similar deontological vein. But having opened the door to the construction of normative theories, he could not prevent a number of other styles of normative theories following him through. In particular, there was a rebirth of interest (p. 308) in developing utilitarian theories on the same scale as Rawls’s deontological account.14 For a while it looked as if the great normative debates in academic ethics would be confined to debates between these two late modern positions in ethics—Kantian rationalism and utilitarianism. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, however, there was a steady stream of articles and books suggesting a third alternative, Aristotelian virtue ethics, to compete with the Kantian and utilitarian positions.

The high point of this Aristotelian revival in normative theory in early virtue ethics was the publication of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue in 1981.15 After Virtue, which will be discussed in some detail in the next section, was the first large-scale defense of an Aristotelian virtue approach to ethics that could match Rawls’s Kantian effort in comprehensiveness, subtlety of argument, and historical awareness. Written in a lively style and accessible even to non-specialists, it had a large readership outside the narrow circle of professional philosophers. It also powerfully attacked many fundamental features of late modern culture in ways that reflective persons outside the academy could appreciate.

MacIntyre’s entry into the normative discussion made it clear that there were three alternatives competing within normative ethical theory, not two. But more than that, the entry of virtue ethics into the normative arena substantially enriched the philosophical agenda of early virtue ethics. It now would challenge its Kantian and utilitarian rivals on substantive normative issues, as well as on questions about the methodology of normative ethics and the appropriate goals and aims for a normative ethical theory. The next section will examine a number of particular contributions to early virtue ethics that take on these tasks.

III. Major Developments in Virtue Ethics

The revival of virtue ethics in the midst of these changes in academic moral philosophy took the form of a canon of articles and books focusing on virtue. Although at first diverse in aims and methodology, common themes slowly emerged. Nevertheless, even a half-century after the emergence of virtue ethics, there remains deep disagreement about the center (if there is a center) of a virtue approach to ethics.16 This section selectively comments on some important texts from early virtue ethics to sample the different approaches and to discern common themes.

The very earliest work calling attention to virtue in a new way was not put forward as a comprehensive normative theory with virtue at its heart. It rather emerged in the midst of the changes in academic ethics at mid-century discussed earlier, with the intention of reintroducing the topic of the virtues to the discussion and contributing to the reconstruction of ethics in the midst of these changes. Two examples of the earliest discussions of virtue in this period are William Frankena’s influential 1963 textbook, (p. 309) Ethics, and G. H. von Wright’s 1959 Gifford Lectures, later published as The Varieties of Goodness. A discussion of their very early views will be followed by an examination of more substantive invocations of virtue, focusing especially on the work of Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre.

Frankena was a highly respected and influential moral philosopher, much of whose early work had been done in technical areas of meta-ethics. His influence on the emergence of virtue ethics was primarily exerted through his widely read textbook, Ethics, published in 1963 and revised substantially in 1973. Even before the virtue revolution, Frankena spent the bulk of this text, five out of six chapters, on normative ethics. Only in the last chapter, after providing a taxonomy of normative theories in the first five chapters, did he explore the meta-ethical issues that still dominated academic ethics in 1963.

At the heart of Frankena’s text was his influential taxonomy of normative ethical theories derived from his division of ethical judgments into three classes: (1) deontic judgments or judgments of obligation, (2) aretaic judgments or judgments of moral goodness, and (3) judgments of non-moral goodness. Theories of obligation, on his view, were either teleological (where obligation was a function of the non-moral good produced in an action) or deontological, which, as Frankena put it, “deny what teleological theories affirm.”17 Having distinguished deontological and teleological theories, he turned to questions about the relation of rule theories to the virtues in chapter 5, where he notes that “throughout its history morality has been concerned about the cultivation of certain dispositions or traits, among which are character and such virtues … as honesty kindness, and conscientiousness.”18 He goes on to acknowledge that for some philosophers, Plato and Aristotle specifically, “morality is or should be conceived as primarily concerned, not with rules or principles, but with the cultivation of such dispositions or targets of character.”19

He also concludes that a complete normative theory of morality would seem to require both principles (deontological or teleological), in order to discern the actions one is morally required to do, and virtues, to provide the appropriate motivation for performing the action. He thus concludes that one need not have to choose between an ethics of rules and an ethics of virtue:

I propose therefore that we regard the morality of principles and the morality of traits of character … not as rival kinds of morality between which we must choose, but as two complementary aspects of the same morality. Then, for every principle there will be a morally good trait, often going by the same name, consisting of a disposition or tendency to act according to it; and for every morally good trait there will be a principle defining the kind of action in which it is to express itself. To parody a famous dictum of Kant’s, “principles without traits are impotent, traits without principles are blind.”20

It is difficult to overestimate how much influence Frankena’s brief account of the nature of “an ethics of virtue” and its relation to a rule-based normative theory had on subsequent discussions of the role of the virtues in ethical reflection. Frankena treated as non-controversial certain theses about the virtues (and their relation to obligations and (p. 310) moral rules or principles) that became matters of bitter dispute among moral philosophers for the next forty years. Among the views that he put forward straightforwardly are these:

  1. (1) The role of the virtues in the ethical life is exclusively motivational. Virtues are unable to discern what should be done without the aid of principles, since “without principles they are blind.” Frankena denies the virtues any cognitive role in the ethical life.

  2. (2) The role of principles or rules in guiding action is exclusively cognitive. Principles can tell us what to do, but cannot move us to do it, since “without virtues they are impotent.” He denies principles or rules any motivational role in the ethical life.

  3. (3) The alleged deep disagreement between the virtue-centered accounts of ethics in ancient philosophy and the characteristically principle-based accounts in modern moral philosophy is illusory. The ancients and the moderns are not deeply disagreeing, but merely talking about different parts of the ethical life—the cognitive and the motivational, “two complementary aspects of the same morality.”

  4. (4) “The moral” equally frames the ancient virtue approaches to the ethical life and the modern principle-based approaches. Morality is a timeless notion, framing in a similar fashion the projects of ancient philosophers (e.g., Plato and Aristotle) and modern thinkers (e.g., Butler, Kant and Rawls).

All these commitments that Frankena accepted straightforwardly became matters of sharp contention within the growing body of work by early virtue ethicists and their opponents. Philosophers as different as Iris Murdoch and John McDowell sharply defended the cognitive character of the virtues. For McDowell, virtues are “sensitivities” to norms that could guide us;21 for Murdoch, they embodied a certain vision that made them far from blind.22 Additionally, many deontologists denied the claim that principles must be impotent.

However, the two final commitments of Frankena’s became the most controversial. Many moral philosophers committed to the centrality of the virtues claimed that the great divide in ethical theory was precisely between the ancient and the modern. They insisted that the notion of “morality” itself was a characteristically “modern” notion (largely absent from ancient ethics) and that the focus on it in modern ethics distorted ethical reflection in important ways. Using different approaches, Elizabeth Anscombe (with her attack on the modern “moral ought”),23 Alasdair MacIntyre (with his attack on the fragmentation of the moral vocabulary in modernity and the inevitable failure of the “enlightenment project”),24 and Bernard Williams (with his attack on morality as “the peculiar institution” and his insistence that moral philosophers return to “Socrates’ Question”)25 all highlighted the radically different approaches to ethics found in modern and ancient moral philosophy.

(p. 311) Let us turn now to von Wright. Like Frankena, von Wright didn’t straightforwardly defend an ethics of virtue, but his 1963 book The Varieties of Goodness played an important role in shaping the discussion of virtue in the 1960s and 1970s, especially among Oxford moral philosophers. He denied that the book was a “treatise on ethics,” but admitted that it contained “the germ of an ethics” and “that a moral philosophy may become extracted from it.”26 Because much of the book was critical of the approaches to ethics in vogue at the time he was writing, it might be more appropriately described as “ground-clearing” or as a preliminary to writing a proper treatise on ethics. Like many others with an early interest in the virtues, he rejected any sharp distinction between facts and values, between the descriptive and the evaluative, or between meta-ethics and normative ethics. He was also highly critical of what he called the “conceptual autonomy of morals,” the particularly Kantian view that there was a “peculiar moral sense of ‘good’ and ‘duty’ which is the proper object of ethical study.”27 He rejected the narrow Kantian conceptual autonomy of morals in favor of a broad approach that would place moral ideas in a comprehensive network of ideas drawn from value concepts like “good,” normative concepts like “obligation,” “permission,” “prohibition,” and “rights,” and psychological concepts like “choice,” “deliberation,” “intention,” and “motive.”

The Varieties of Goodness thus examined how moral notions fit into the “broader setting of value-concepts and normative ideas.”28 And among those moral notions was the concept of virtue. Von Wright noted, as others had, that virtue was neglected in modern ethics and was regarded as obsolete, but he urged philosophers to see virtue as a “subject awaiting fresh developments,”29 as a concept related to a complex set of evaluative notions. His careful exploration in chapter 7 of virtue’s place in this complex set of evaluative notions is much more sophisticated than Frankena’s relatively crude treatment of the “ethics of virtue.” Indeed, von Wright’s expanded conception of what ethics could be, when rescued from the burden of sharp dichotomies between facts and values, meta-ethics and normative ethics, and the moral and the non-moral, contributed significantly to the later explosion of creative work on the role of virtue in ethics.

Both Frankena and von Wright are heralds for the revival of the virtues in moral philosophy. Both moved beyond the non-cognitivism that dominated ethical theory at this time. They rejected a sharp distinction between meta-ethics and normative ethics and regarded normative thinking as an integral part of academic moral philosophy. Although neither of them proposed a normative virtue ethics, each was eager (in different ways) to place the topic of virtue on the agenda of contemporary moral philosophy. Frankena held that virtue was required to do the motivational work of the ethical, but also that a principle-based ethics was required to do the work of discerning what the virtues were required to motivate. Von Wright introduced a broader conception of ethics, one not so in thrall to the deontic concepts that had dominated much of ethical discussion earlier in the century. He rejected any sharp distinction between the moral and the non-moral and invited a fresh exploration of all forms of the good—including, of course, the good of virtue.

(p. 312) IV. Virtue Ethics and the Project of Modern Moral Philosophy

Although Frankena and von Wright bring virtue back into the conversation of academic ethics, it is Elizabeth Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy,” the 1958 article almost universally considered the most significant early expression of a serious return to virtue, that engages central meta-ethical and normative issues in stating a powerful case for the superiority of virtue ethics to its contemporary alternatives. This celebrated article is about much more than virtue, although virtue looms large in it. Its philosophical density is staggering, containing more ideas per page than almost any philosophical article written in the twentieth century. It is strikingly original, both in the content of its ideas and in their mode of presentation. In addition to laying the groundwork for the later revival of virtue ethics, it, along with Anscombe’s short monograph Intention,30 published at approximately the same time, inaugurated a new discussion of practical reason and invented the philosophical specialty of action theory; introduced the term “consequentialism” into contemporary ethics; took seriously the history of moral philosophy and the historical and cultural influence on ethical ideas in a new manner; argued that the most important differences in moral philosophy were those between the modern and the classical, not between modern traditions like Kantian rationalism and Benthamite utilitarianism, which were mere variants on modern themes; raised serious questions about the coherence of the modern notion of “morality” as a distinctive, autonomous sphere of human life and evaluation; and allowed the voice of the moral philosopher to speak with moral authority, even when it spoke from the perspective of the philosophical. Anscombe’s forthright espousal of substantive normative positions in “Modern Moral Philosophy” reflected a clear break with the earlier, more normatively timid style of academic ethics. Clearly her ambition was to make a frontal assault on moral philosophy as practiced in the Anglophone academic world throughout the early twentieth century.

Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” is one of the bookends of early virtue ethics, with Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, published twenty-three years later, as the other. They bear many similarities, and MacIntyre has always acknowledged Anscombe’s influence on him. Their views are deeply Aristotelian, and both develop a version of “radical virtue ethics.” They are radical in that their goal in making virtue central to ethics is not merely to make a move within the contemporary problematic of ethical theory (say, to replace the notion of a rule as central to ethics with the notion of virtue as central), but rather to undermine the contemporary problematic itself.31 Both Anscombe and MacIntyre argued that there was something seriously amiss with contemporary ethical theory, both in its substantive normative conclusions, and in the framework within which those conclusions are established. Anscombe even suggested that the practice of moral philosophy should cease until certain issues in philosophical psychology that stand in the way of progress in the field are resolved. MacIntyre, similarly, was skeptical of the ability of analytic ethics or of recent continental ethics to resolve the ethical (p. 313) difficulties that confront late modernity. Both also agreed that to understand fully the ambitions of modern moral philosophy, and its failure to realize them, one must turn to the history of ethics to discover when and how ethics went wrong. They agreed, finally, that reintroducing virtue to the heart of ethics was essential to fixing its problems.

Anscombe located the central difficulty in modern ethics as the emergence of the “modern moral ‘ought’ ” as the dominating notion in modern moral thought. She argued that this categorical and foundational moral “ought” is only intelligible in communities, like traditional Jewish and Christian ones, that accept a law conception of ethics anchored in a Divine legislator. With modern secularizing currents bringing about the widespread rejection of such a legislator, no law conception of ethics is available to render this distinctively modern moral “ought” intelligible. What we have instead, she argues, is an instance of a concept persisting in thought past the time when the background necessary to make its use intelligible has disappeared.

Among Anscombe’s main theses in this paper was the claim that, given its tainted state, the “modern moral ‘ought’ ” should be abandoned. Agents should conduct their ordinary deliberations without using this compromised concept; philosophers should eschew it as well. She further suggested that it was possible to avoid using the moral “ought” in practical thinking because recourse to the language of virtue is possible. As she argued, Aristotle did not have access to the modern moral “ought” and did ethics relying only on virtue discourse.32 There is a difficulty with the proposal to adopt a virtue framework straightaway, however, in that she also argued that there is not yet an adequate concept of a virtue—or of the particular virtues—to permit replacement of the deliberative framework centered on the moral “ought” with a framework largely constituted by thought and talk of the virtues. She develops this point at length in the following important passage in “Modern Moral Philosophy”:

In present-day philosophy an explanation is required how an unjust man is a bad man, or an unjust action a bad one; to give such an explanation belongs to ethics; but it cannot even be begun until we are equipped with a sound philosophy of psychology. For the proof that an unjust man is a bad man would require a positive account of justice as a ‘virtue.’ This part of the subject matter of ethics is, however, completely closed to us until we have an account of what type of characteristic a virtue is—a problem, not of ethics, but of conceptual analysis—and how it relates to the actions in which it is instanced: a matter which I think Aristotle did not succeed in really making clear.33

In this influential passage, Anscombe gave contemporary virtue ethics its marching orders. Its task is to develop a framework of concepts from which philosophy could reoccupy a classical perspective on ethics that puts virtue at its center and relates it properly to naturalistic notions of human flourishing and harm and to substantive views of the particular virtues, especially justice.

Much of the work in early virtue ethics was done in the spirit of carrying out this Anscombian mandate. Her two Oxford colleagues, Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot, though differing significantly from Anscombe and from each other, shared her antipathy (p. 314) to the modern moral “ought” and the Kantian ethical views it carried in its wake—and agreed that more attention to the virtues was needed to break the hold of this distorted picture on our practical lives.34 Murdoch’s 1960s essays, drawing on resources more Platonic than Aristotelian, explored the kind of “self” that might be an alternative to the lonely Kantian “self” so foreign to a classical view of the virtues.

Foot was Anscombe’s student, colleague, and collaborator at Oxford’s Somerville College. In her influential articles (including “Moral Beliefs” and “Moral Arguments,” discussed in the previous section) she defended a naturalistic view of ethics with Aristotelian virtues at its heart.35 She focused on demonstrating that giving primacy to the virtues allowed one to avoid the sharp distinction between facts and values, the descriptive and the evaluative, the meta-ethical and the normative, and other similar dichotomies that bedeviled ethical thinking at the time and fueled the enthusiasm for non-cognitivism.

Other important Aristotelian efforts to revive virtue ethics appeared after “Modern Moral Philosophy,” but it is MacIntyre’s After Virtue that carried the Anscombian project forward most powerfully. MacIntyre, like Anscombe, believed the key to understanding the plight of modern ethics was to be found in certain episodes in its history. He argued that modern moral philosophy was in thrall to the “Enlightenment Project,” a conception of modern moral philosophy that emerged after the loss of the teleological conception of nature in the late medieval and early modern eras.

According to MacIntyre, classical ethics was shaped in a world in which moral rules and virtues were understood as guiding agents from their natural states to the perfected states, realized when they had achieved their natural ends (or “in moving from man-as-he-happens-to-be to man-as-he-would-be-if-he-realizes-his-essential-nature”).36 With the loss of a teleological conception of nature (brought about by modern science) and the loss of the theologically grounded teleology in Christianity and Judaism (brought about by the Reformation and secularizing forces in early modernity), this conception of moral rules and virtues as transformative and end-directed was no longer tenable. The Enlightenment Project was the attempt by moral philosophers to construct arguments for received moral rules and virtues based simply on the features of “man as he happens to be.” Rules and virtues, intended in classical ethics to transform human agents, were reconceived after the loss of teleology as being derived from features of human agents as they are—and, thus, as losing their transformative power. What was supposed to be remedial became, in the hands of modern moral philosophers, merely descriptive. In light of those developments, MacIntyre concluded that the Enlightenment Project failed, and had to fail, given its deep incoherence. The incoherence, put most simply, arose from the Enlightenment attempt to justify moral rules and virtues whose goal was to transform human sensibilities by appealing to the very features of human agency most in need of transformation. Or, as MacIntyre summed it up,

… the eighteenth-century moral philosophers engaged in what was an inevitably unsuccessful project; for they did indeed attempt to find a rational basis for their moral beliefs in a particular understanding of human nature, while inheriting a set of moral injunctions on the one hand and a conception of human nature on the other which had been expressly designed to be discrepant with each other.37

(p. 315) Like Anscombe, MacIntyre turned to virtue as a rescue strategy for modern moral philosophy. For Anscombe, recourse to the language of virtue was necessary to rescue ethical thinking from domination by the “modern moral ‘ought’ ” and the consequently distorted picture of deliberation and practical reason that accompanied it. For MacIntyre, it was the incoherent project of Enlightenment ethical theory (which of course also embodied the “modern moral ‘ought’ ”) that was the villain. Their critiques of modern moral philosophy were similar in many respects, but MacIntyre’s embodied a more sophisticated account of the historical details of the development of enlightenment ethics than Anscombe’s.

MacIntyre also expanded Anscombe’s project in two important ways. First, he coupled with his attack on the Enlightenment Project a subtle and far-reaching discussion of the impact Enlightenment ethics had on modern social life. His depiction in the first half of After Virtue of contemporary culture as “emotivist culture,” with its dominating characters of the manager, the therapist, and the aesthete, brought the project of virtue ethics into contact with post-1960s concerns among contemporary social critics.38 It gave virtue in academic moral philosophy a cultural salience that it had previously lacked. In this way, MacIntyre contributed to the return of moral philosophy to a substantive engagement with culture that Rawls had pioneered in A Theory of Justice.

Second, MacIntyre developed a sophisticated and detailed positive account of the virtues unlike anything attempted in contemporary ethics previously. His location of the virtues in the tripartite framework of practices, the narrative unity of a life, and tradition drew on work in other areas of philosophy and in other disciplines (especially sociology and literary studies) to give a substantive and comprehensive account of how virtues might serve as the central notions in ethical theory.39 In After Virtue, virtue ethics moves finally from being merely a nagging critic of mainstream academic moral philosophy to being a significant alternative to broadly Kantian and consequentialist views.

The rich development of broadly Aristotelian virtue ethics in this period from Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” to MacIntyre’s After Virtue is surely the heart of early virtue ethics, but there are other accounts of the virtues that contribute to the virtue revival. These views depart from Aristotelianism in various ways, but still place virtue at the center of their accounts. G. J. Warnock, Edmund Pincoffs, and James Wallace developed three of these influential non-Aristotelian views.40 Warnock’s 1971 book, The Object of Morality, defended a form of virtue-consequentialism and located moral virtues as important contributors to the “amelioration of the human condition,” which, he argued, was the object of morality. Pincoffs’s 1971 article, “Quandary Ethics,” argued that ethics went wrong in narrowly focusing on its role in solving practical puzzles or quandaries. He insisted that the neglect of virtue was responsible for this narrowing of the focus and that turning to virtue would distance agents from the quandary paradigm. Wallace’s 1978 book, Virtues and Vices, took a broadly Deweyan perspective on ethics and deployed a biological functionalist argument for the centrality of the virtues in ethics.

The variety of philosophical work that made a serious contribution to the revival of virtue in this period is great. Moreover, there are many other philosophers in this period who would not be described as committed to virtue ethics, but who nevertheless made significant contributions to putting virtue back at the center of discussions in academic (p. 316) ethics. Bernard Williams and Charles Taylor would surely be among this group.41 They both approached issues in ethical theory from a rich historical perspective and with a deep suspicion of the ambitions of modern Kantian and consequentialist theories. In this way, their work lent support to the revival of interest in the virtues, even if they are not usually counted as virtue ethicists.

Given the variety of the views that contributed to early virtue ethics, it is impossible to give a single or simple characterization of the distinguishing marks of virtue ethics in this period. However, a list of themes that repeatedly emerged in the work of philosophers who turned to the virtues would certainly include the following:42

  1. (1) A suspicion of rules and principles as adequate to guiding human action in the complex, variegated situations in which human agents find themselves.

  2. (2) A rejection of conscientiousness as the uniquely appropriate motivational state in the best human action.

  3. (3) A turn for an understanding of the ethical life to the virtue terms (e.g., “justice,” “courage,” and “chastity”) in preference to more abstract ethical terms like “good,” “right,” and “ought.”

  4. (4) A critique of modernity and of the models of practical rationality that underlie such enlightenment theories as Kantian deontology and Benthamite consequentialism—with the critique extending to the impersonal bureaucratic features of many central modern social practices.

  5. (5) An emphasis on the importance of community in introducing and sustaining the ethical life, in contrast with the individualism that permeated Kantian and consequentialist approaches to ethics.

  6. (6) A focus on the importance of the whole life as the primary object of ethical evaluation, in contrast with the modern focus on the evaluation of individual actions or more fragmented features of human lives.

  7. (7) An emphasis on the narrative structure of human life, as opposed to the more episodic picture of human life found in Kantian and consequentialist alternatives.

  8. (8) An emphasis on the centrality of contingently based special relationships, especially with friends and family, for the ethical life, in contrast to the Kantian and consequentialist tendency to downplay such relationships.

  9. (9) A suspicion of the institution of morality as an autonomous and alienating grid of obligations and rights, cut off from the more concrete features of human practical life.

  10. (10) A special emphasis on thick moral education involving training in the virtues, as opposed to Kantian and consequentialist models of moral education that tend to emphasize growth in autonomy or in detached instrumental rationality.

Some of these themes, of course, are also found in work not specifically committed to a virtue approach to ethics, but many of them came to the center of contemporary discussions of ethics from out of the rich mix of views in early virtue ethics.

(p. 317) V. After “Early Virtue Ethics”

Other chapters in this Handbook will discuss more recent work in virtue ethics, but it may be useful to conclude by calling attention to some of these significant later developments. First, as virtue ethics develops beyond the mid-1980s, the diversity of forms of virtue ethics increases. While there is still important work being done in Aristotelian virtue ethics, broadly Aristotelian approaches to virtue do not dominate the field in the way they did in early virtue ethics. Humean, Nietzschean, and consequentialist models of virtue ethics are common, and there seems no limit to the variety of ethical approaches that might place virtue at their center. Second, contemporary virtue ethics seems overall less radical than it had been in its earlier days. Many proponents of virtue in the early days of virtue ethics turned to virtue because they found something seriously wrong with the direction or the structure of academic ethics as standardly practiced. Recent virtue ethics seems more concerned to find a place for virtue within the received structure of academic ethics.

A third exciting development in more recent virtue ethics stems from the attempt to respond to a serious objection to virtue ethics from outside the field of philosophy altogether. In the 1990s, the situationist critique of virtue ethics emerged from empirical work done in social psychology.43 This empirical work convinced many that virtues themselves did not play the powerful motivational role in ethical situations they were traditionally claimed to play. The objection charged that experimental work demonstrated that it was rather contingent and seemingly ethically trivial features of situations that dominated motivation. Some early versions of this objection went so far as to claim that this work demonstrated in fact that virtues as traditionally conceived did not exist.44 This objection has led to a lively debate in virtue ethics that, while far from settled, has already influenced the field in important ways. In order to respond to this objection, philosophical advocates of virtue ethics had to engage complicated empirical work in the social sciences, which, in turn, fueled an expanding interest on the part of moral philosophers to investigate empirical resources further. As a result, empirical work on motivation, on the nature of happiness and satisfaction, and on the acquisition of virtues has had an increasing impact on virtue ethics.45 It is unclear where this new interest in empirical work will lead the field, but it is no doubt changing it in important ways.


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(1.) Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

(2.) Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985).

(3.) Peter French, Theodore Uehling, and Howard Wettstein. Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XIII (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986).

(4.) G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1903).

(5.) See William Frankena, “The Naturalistic Fallacy, Mind 102 (1939): 464–477, for a classic discussion of both the naturalistic fallacy and the open question argument.

(6.) Philippa Foot, “Moral Beliefs,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 59 (1958): 83.

(7.) Philippa Foot, “Moral Beliefs”; Philippa Foot, “Moral Arguments,” Mind 67 (1958): 502–513.

(8.) Elizabeth Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy 33 (1958): 1–16; Peter Geach, “Good and Evil,” Analysis 17 (1956): 33–42; Iris Murdoch, The Sovereighty of Good over Other Concepts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967); Julius Kovesi, Moral Notions (New York: Humanities Press, 1967). Alasdair MacIntyre, “Ought,” in Against the Self-Images of the Age (London: Schocken Press, 1971), 136–156.

(9.) A useful collection of articles on these disputes is found in Anthony Flew, The Is-Ought Problem (London; Macmillan St. Martin’s Press, 1969).

(10.) Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th edition (London: MacMillan, 1907).

(11.) See, for example, Kurt Baier, The Moral Point of View: A Rational Basis for Ethics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1958); and Marcus Singer, The Generalization Principle in Ethics (New York: Knopf, 1961).

(12.) John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).

(13.) Sidgwick, Methods; F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1876); Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics (London: Williams and Northgate, 1892).

(14.) See especially Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

(15.) Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

(16.) See Martha Nussbaum, “Virtue Ethics: A Misleading Category,” The Journal of Ethics 3(3) (1999): 163–201.

(17.) William Frankena, Ethics (Englewood-Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973), 46.

(21.) John McDowell, “Virtue and Reason,” The Monist 62(3) (1979): 331–350.

(23.) Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” 46. Her particular problems with the “moral ought” are described in detail later.

(24.) Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1981), 39. MacIntyre characterizes the particularly modern ‘ought’ as at home in “that particular sphere in which rules of conduct which are neither theologial nor legal nor aesthetic are allowed a cultural space of their own.” It is the breakdown of the project of an independent rational justification of morality in this sense that provides the key, according to MacIntyre, to the failure of the Enlightenment Project at the heart of modern moral philosophy.

(25.) Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), chap. 10. Williams’s attack here on the modern notion of morality is complex and sustained, and certainly impossible to summarize briefly here. He concludes his attack on morality by claiming that “[i]ts philosophical errors are only the most abstract expressions of a deeply rooted and still powerful misconception of life” (196).

(26.) Georg von Wright, The Varieties of Goodness (London: Routledge, 1963), vi.

(30.) Elizabeth Anscombe, Intention (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957).

(31.) For more about “radical virtue ethics,” see David Solomon, “Virtue Ethics: Radical or Routine?” in Intellectual Virtue: Perspectives from Ethics and Epistemology, edited by Linda Zagzebski and Michael DePaul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 57–80.

(34.) Foot’s distaste for the “moral ought” is particularly on display in her much discussed 1972 article, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” The Philosophical Review 81 (July 1972): 305–316.

(35.) Philippa Foot, “Moral Beliefs,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 59 (1958): 83–104; Philippa Foot, “Moral Arguments,” Mind 67 (1958): 502–513.

(38.) MacIntyre, After Virtue, chap. 3–4.

(39.) MacIntyre, After Virtue, chap. 14–15.

(40.) G. J. Warnock, The Object of Morality (London: Methuen, 1971); Edmund Pincoffs, “Quandary Ethics,” Mind 80 (October 1971), 552–571; James Wallace, Virtues and Vices. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978).

(41.) Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985); and Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Self (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).

(42.) MacIntyre, Williams, and Taylor pursue all of these themes. Others take some seriously and distance themselves from others.

(43.) A nice summary of this objection is in John Doris, “Persons, Situations and Virtue Ethics,” Noûs 32 (4) (1998): 504–530.

(44.) Perhaps the most influential proponent of this view is Gilbert Harmon. See, for example, Gilbert Harmon, “Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology: Virtue Ethics and the Fundamental Attribution Error,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 99 (1999): 315–331.

(45.) Two important instances of this new empirical work is found in Nancy Snow, Virtue as Social Intelligence: An Empirically Grounded Theory (London: Routledge, 2010); and Christian Miller, Character and Moral Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).