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Review: The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics

7 July 2013

Socrates & AthenaThe Cambridge Companions to Philosophy series is justly regarded as an excellent series of introductory textbooks and valuable reference resources. The most recent entry into the series (published March of this year) is a companion to Virtue Ethics, edited by Daniel C. Russell of the University of Arizona and consisting of 14 chapters written by 15 contributing authors. The topics under discussion range from the definition of virtue ethics to its history to its application(s) to various applied ethical questions and the result is both a good introduction to virtue ethics as a field today and an excellent collection of essays for those already established within it.

Each chapter, written by one or more contributing authors and usually addressing a fairly discrete topic, runs to about 20 pages, plus endnotes. The result is a text very readable in chunks (I read a chapter a day, except for a two week break from most things academic during visits from abroad, each taking about an hour, though a reader not reading to review would likely be quicker) and excellent as assigned readings. The latter was no doubt the idea but not all works formatted in this manner are wholly successful. The drawback to the format is that the chapters can often be quite ejaculatory, firing a quick round of information at the reader without going into too much depth. On the flipside were chapters that wasted valuable space repeating information, especially retreading historical exposition on classical Greek virtue ethics. Though readable and informative, the chapters didn’t do a great job of building on eachother.

A textbook, The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics is concerned both to place virtue ethics in its historical context and to provide a window into the state of the field among modern ethicists. Therefore the historical chapters provided select slices of virtue ethics history, focussing in particular on historical precursors relevant to major theories today. Therefore chapters on ancient (Greek) virtue ethics, neo-Confucian virtue theory, medieval virtue ethics, and Humean virtue theory culminated in an account of the 20th century aretaic turn. That last was a particular favourite of mine. You may recall that I blogged about it on its own here. The chapter on Neo-Confucian concepts of virtue was also extremely. The topic is, it seems to me, under-published on and I was reminded of my own (historical) interest in 16th and 17th century Confucian thought. Both broad survey and (relatively) in-depth analysis were accounted for, with Ivanhoe’s just-mentioned chapter on neo-Confucian theory, focussing on contrasting two thinkers, and Paul Russel’s chapter on Hume, tending most strongly in the latter direction and taking the ‘exemplar’ approach to introducing the reader to a given slice of virtue ethics’ history (Confucianism and Scottish sentimentalism, respectively).

The chapters whose intents were more theoretical, discussing virtue ethics in reference to specific modern applied ethical concerns, were less concerned to provide overviews of the state of the field than examples of contemporary positions within it. The sole exception to this was Justin Oakleys very interesting chapter on virtue bioethics, which was primarily a survey of the contributions made by virtue ethicists to bioethics and a support of the potential for future such contributions. Certainly Oakley took an argumentative tack at times, clearly positioning his own (and others’, it should be said) Alasdair MacIntyre-influenced professional-focussed model of aretaic medical and bioethics as the way to go. Other such chapters, on happiness, right action, business ethics, and others, sought either to explicate an aspect of virtue ethics or explain its applicability to a given field. The final two such chapters, one on the ‘situationist critique’ of virtue ethics (by Gopal Sreenivasan) and the definition of virtue ethics (by Christine Swanton) were unexpected by interesting. Sreenivasans reply to ‘situationism,’ a philosophical objection to virtue ethics (and not the continental philosophical school, as I had confusingly assumed before going in) presented some interesting ideas about the empirical realities to which aretaism must address itself, especially when it is critiqued with psychological observation. The chapter was on the dry side, though, as much of Sreenivasans argument consisted of examining past behavioural trials. Swanton’s project to properly define ‘virtue ethics’ was an interesting, and, I think, broadly successful attempt to produce a broad tent definition which can positively distinguish virtue ethics beyond ‘ethics about virtues’ or ‘like Aristotle, not Bentham or Kant’ (I won’t spoil the ending).

Of particular interest to me were the chapters on Chinese virtue ethical theories (by Phillip J. Ivanhoe), twentieth century virtue ethics (by Tomothy Chappell), environmental virtue ethics (by Matt Zwolinski and David Schmidtz), and virtue theory of political order (by Mark LeBar). These chapters were by turn edifying and challenging and while I often disagreed with them, particularly the latter two, they were all in their own way engaging. Ironically I also fount them the most disappointing. Swolinski and Schmidtz were, I thought, far more concerned to disagree with utilitarians argument relevant to population control than produce any substantively aretaic environmental ethic, which is a difficult but necessary project. LeBar’s concern was to a model of justification of political authority that was simultaneously aretaic and liberal (in the strictest sense). While I’ll admit that I found this project less than engaging, if only because I am very much not a liberal in the relevant sense, LeBar’s arguments were certainly interesting. That being said, I find that virtue ethics provides one of the strongest critiques the whole liberal project and attendant anthropology and I thought it unfortunate that Russell chose to have the only chapter in the book on politics be one that defends the political theoretical status quo.

Textually the book is certainly to CUPs usual standards. I noticed no typos or major formatting issues. At one point a page break between a block quotation (which CUPs style, specifically its approach to the relevant capitalisation, makes less visually distinct than they might be) and the continuing text caused me momentary confusion but that was the worst of it. CUPs insistence on chapter endnotes was no more frustrating than usual, though one or two very endnote-heavy chapters had me making mental note of the next one to bother with, to avoid flipping to the end of the chapter every 6 sentences. The serif typeface and justified margins produced a clean and readable page with minimal excessive spacing between words (no small feat). The insistence on giving all citations by author (sur)name and date, forcing the reader to look up the title in the bibliography, was certainly bothersome, especially when it in resulted in phrases like ‘see my 2009,’ which are jarringly bizarre. CUP also can’t quite seem to decide what order the chapters should be in, and the table of contents advertised on the book’s webpage is different from my copy, which has no apparent printing errors.

I would recommend The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics as a textbook, as in introduction to contemporary virtue ethics for the interested layperson or new scholar, or as an interesting collection of essays for one already engaged in the field. It is an interesting and engaging collection which challenge and edify, and only occasionally disappoint.

Edition reviewed: Russell, Daniel C., ed, The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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