The Oxford Handbook of VirtueReview - The Oxford Handbook of Virtue
by Nancy E. Snow (Editor)
Oxford University Press, 2018
Review by Samuel LeBlanc
Jan 1st 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 1)

At 881 pages, this collection of new contributions on virtue ethics is a rich and timely addition to the recent resurgence of research in this fast-growing field. The seven-part volume addresses most of the key issues in virtue theory and is well divided for ease of investigation. The Oxford Handbook of Virtue (henceforth, The Handbook) is dived as follows: (I) Conceptualization of virtue (II) Historical and religious accounts (III) Contemporary virtue ethics and theories of virtue (IV) Central concepts and issues in virtue ethics and theories of virtue (V) Critical examinations of virtue ethics (VI) Applied virtue ethics, and (VII) Virtue epistemology.

The handbook format means that all chapters are self-sustaining, which facilitates access and, unfortunately, occasionally bores with redundancies. On the second point, the main problem with The Handbook is the lack of self-references, meaning that there are numerous missed occasions to directly leverage the thoughts and arguments provided by all authors. The clearest illustration of this is the absence of references to Bates and Kleingeld's "Virtue, Vice, and Situationism." In an excellent chapter on a critique of virtue ethics that has dogged theoreticians over the past 30 years, Bates and Kleingeld hit all the right notes to debunk situationism as a fundamental threat to virtue ethics. Yet, time and again, the authors who deal with situationism in their chapter in The Handbook rehearse the same basic information about situationism without referring to and going beyond Bates and Kleingeld, such as with Greco and Reibsamen's fine-grained analysis of reliabilist virtue epistemology. The handbook would have benefited with stronger unification.

That said, returning to the first general point, this same independence of chapters allows me to recommend to begin reading The Handbook with chapter 40, Baehr's "Intellectual Virtue and Truth, Understanding, and Wisdom." Now even if Aristotle said that, "we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good," (Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1103b28-29), the former needn't hinder the latter. Because The Handbook is an intellectual endeavor of the highest order, it is entirely appropriate to seek guidance from one of the preeminent scholars in virtue epistemology. After surveying various conceptions of virtue epistemology, Baehr presents his own, where intellectual virtues "are (1) excellences of intellectual character like open-mindedness, intellectual carefulness, intellectual thoroughness, and intellectual autonomy, (2) that gain their status as intellectual virtues on account of their contributions to their possessor's 'personal worth' or excellence, that is, on account of making their possessor good or admirable qua person" ("Intellectual Virtue and Truth, Understanding, and Wisdom," in The Handbook, 803). Such a position sets up the reading, and study of the whole handbook.

With Baehr's endorsement that virtues are a feature of one's character, greater details are provided by the three conceptualizations of virtue explored in Part I. The presentation of virtue as a trait, a sensitivity, and a skill covers the fundamental understandings of the nature of virtues. Each chapter presents a clear and cohesive perspective on the virtues, and perhaps with Stichter's "Virtue as a Skill" standing out, because of its ancient roots, and recent prominence, especially in light of Annas' Intelligent Virtue (OUP, 2011). The major benefit from this early investigation into the conceptions of virtues is that readers are confronted with nuanced, "thick", and complimentary understandings of virtues, which makes it well-nigh impossible to see them as just one thing. This is in stark contrast to competing theories of ethics, like deontological ethics and utilitarianism that subsume ethics under one golden rule.

As we move on to Part II, the historical and religious views of virtues, the 11 chapters devoted to this theme deal with great depth and freshness with most of the historically relevant contributors to virtue ethics. If Trivigno and Curzer do classic justice to the canons that are Plato and Aristotle respectively, Becker deserves unreserved praise for his valiant effort to make Stoic virtue ethics palatable, even if ultimately unreachable, as even Cicero accepted that, "For virtue is so demanding, requires such a pitch of perfection, that no human beings known to us—not even the founders of the Stoic school themselves—are truly virtuous. Not even close" (in Brennan, "The Stoic Theory of Virtue," in The Routledge Companion to Virtue Ethics, 31). However, this shouldn't stop readers from exploring a subtle and profound analysis, which is supplemented by an abundant bibliography, and at over six pages, the longest of The Handbook.

The turn toward eastern interpretations of virtues, from Buddhism to neo-Confucianism, culminates into Sim's chapter "The Phronimos and the Sage." Her expert comparative analysis invites readers to understand virtues in a comprehensive manner. Sim's to-and-fro, between Aristotle and Mencius's notions of the phronimos and the sage, creates an artful dialogue on a central theme in virtue ethics, the exemplar. Later, Swanton's chapter on Hume and Nietzsche's accounts of virtue will follow the same overall strategy, which not only carefully presents the views of two essential philosophers, but also how to think about their ideas, as intellectual virtues would recommend.

Or, perhaps as God recommends? For Islamic, Aquinian and Christian theories of virtue are well represented in The Handbook. Bucar, Vogler, and Wood each analyze the impact of virtue theory on theology and vice-versa. In contrast to the first three conceptions of the virtues outlined in Part I, readers are confronted here with the challenge of accepting, or not, a divine underpinning to ethical virtues. Whether it be through the Qur'an or Aquinas's notion of god-infused virtues, these approaches bring forth meta-ethical questions about the justification of virtues, as well as the possibility of being wholly responsible for their development. It is in Bucar's chapter on Islamic virtues that worries are best dealt with, as she devotes almost half of writing on "Tensions and Ambiguities."

Finally, a point of tension that I wish to highlight is the inclusion of Kant in this handbook, to the exclusion of other historically relevant candidates. While Hill and Cureton offer a robust analysis of the place of virtues in Kant's theory, it is impossible to view virtues as anything other than secondary and subservient to the categorical imperative and Kant's infatuation with duty. Rather, it would have been much more useful to include one of women's philosophically rich and underrepresented thinkers on virtues. This omission is indeed odd, especially given that The Handbook's editor is quoted in Dillon's chapter, "Feminist Approaches to Virtue Ethics," saying that traditional accounts "either expound different lists of virtues that apply separately to men and women and privilege men's virtues over women's; apply the same virtues, such as chastity, unequally to men and women; or elaborate social roles with accompanying virtues—such as wife and mother—that require women to subordinate themselves to men" (The Handbook, 383), before turning to a short historical account herself. In addition to the 17th and 18th century women scholars that Dillon briefly speaks of (Mary Wollstonecraft, Catherine Beecher, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton), we know that Marie le Jars de Gournay, Mary Astell, and even Maria Montessori engaged directly and fully with the virtues. Their inclusion would have helped to correct a historical and contemporary wrong.

Despite this last flaw, the transition to Part III, to contemporary virtue ethics and theories of virtues nicely captures the historical perspectives presented, while adding and correcting for neglected views. For the most part, neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics is the choice of the majority of virtue ethicists today, and Snow's analysis of this mise à jour highlights the works of two of the best scholars in this field, Daniel C. Russell, and Rosalind Hursthouse, before concluding with an engaging analysis of the role of naturalism in virtue ethics, something which has changed significantly since Aristotle's time. For those unsatisfied with amendments to Aristotle's work, The Handbook draws on proximate and independent contemporary theories of virtue ethics. Whether it be from Pettigrove's specific chapter "Alternatives to Neo-Aristotelian Virtue Ethics," or Slote's "Sentimentalist Virtue Ethics," and Dillon's aforementioned chapter on feminist ethics, the chapters in this part are testimony to the dynamism and relevance of contemporary virtue ethics that heed Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe's 1958 and 1978 calls for more research in virtue ethics.

Part IV brings us to the core of virtue ethics theory with four chapters that tackle the pillars of virtue theory: acquiring virtues, ideals, motivation, and eudaimonism. Recalling Aristotle's invocation that we yearn to be good, Athanassoulis's chapter on learning to become virtuous focuses on imitation, inspiration, and education. Her detailed analysis is one of the two scholars in this handbook (the other being David Carr) who leverage Joseph Dunne's profound research on virtue, skills, education, and phronesis, and to good effect. In particular, she reaches a conclusion that needs to remain forceful in virtue ethics to account for the complexity of people, which is that, "It seems then that the more we understand virtue, the more difficult it is to see how one becomes virtuous in the first place" ("Acquiring Aristotelian Virtue," in The Handbook, 418). Instead of despairing or discarding virtue ethics, we are invited to explore the role of phronesis, and the possibility of empirical support, to understand what it means to become virtuous.

While empirical analysis helps to keep the boundaries of virtuous agents in check, it is Russell's aptly named chapter "Putting Ideals in their place" that offers the keenest illustration of what is feasible and to what most people should aspire. And yet, development of virtues would be impossible without some form of motivation. This is why the following chapter, Stohr's "Virtuous Motivation," nicely picks up where Russell left off. In her analysis, being appropriately motivated asks more than to align with doing the right action, or emulating the virtuous person; in aspiring to virtue, people need to recognize why they are doing the right action, in addition to choosing it. While she accepts that reaching such high benchmarks is uniquely demanding, it points to ideals that are instructive, and which can be kept in check thanks to Russell's analysis. Finally, this part concludes with a feature of virtue ethics that reverts to its foundations: eudaimonism. It may seem like an outlying theme, according to Lebar, but he insists that eudaimonism (roughly translated as "happiness" or "flourishing") shapes our ideas of virtues by answering questions such as "What is it to carry out this project well? What is it to live well?" ("Eudaimonism," in The Handbook, 471). For some, such as Hare, eudaimonism is infected with egoism, and yet Lebar takes on Hare (and other critiques) to argue that thinking about what I, or anyone, values is precisely starting point of valuing others' lives.

Critiques such as Hare's figure regularly in all chapters of The Handbook, and are dealt with varying degrees of success, such that some, if not most of the work of defending virtue ethics has already been done by the time Part V devotes four chapters to objections to virtue ethics. Yet these chapters are essential in order to fully deal with cultural relativism (in Stangl's "Cultural Relativity and Justification"), situationism (to which I referred earlier), and psychology (through Kristjánsson's biting "Virtue from the Perspective of Psychology"), all of which are neatly introduced by Johansson and Svenson's survey chapter, "Objections to Virtue Ethics." Each contribution presents serious (e.g. descriptive moral relativism) and lofty objections (i.e. the problem of pro-sociality) to virtue ethics with measured responses. Beyond securing virtue ethics as a contender for moral study and legitimate outlook, these chapters build upon the relevant objections to strengthen virtue ethics and include appropriate findings, such as paying more attention to situations and cultural influences that people experience.

In perhaps one of the most fruitful directions in virtue ethics, as well as a robust response to critiques of its uselessness, Part VI's devotion to applied virtue ethics reaffirms its relevance through practical applications. For those versed in virtue ethics, most of the chapters will tread familiar waters, maybe even a bit too familiar. Applied medical, business, legal, environmental, and educational virtue ethics all show their strengths in domains that outstrip what competing ethical theories offer by focusing on people occupied in specific fields. It is in light of the 2008 global financial crisis that it makes sense to study Alzola's "Character-Based Business Ethics," and we do best by paying attention to Kawall's "Environmental Virtue Ethics" for key environmental virtues such as humility and courage to confront ecological crises around the world.

Of the practical themes with the greatest import, nothing would be possible if we couldn't rely on educational virtues, as David Carr presents them. So much depends on good education, and in true Aristotelian manner, Carr agrees that "moral life and experience are more than grasping universal principles (of either duty or utility) and require appreciation of the complex ways in which various elements of human character are implicated in the struggle to achieve […] a flourishing life" ("Virtue Ethics and Education" in The Handbook, 645). All of this is put in the hands of good teachers, according to Carr, who exemplify or aim to embody honesty, courage, fairness, as well as a regard for their students. And it is from these all-embracing heights that we return to the last two chapters of this part, which touch on sexual and communication virtue ethics.

Concerning the former, Halwani uses the familiar strategy of building his analysis around a plausible scenario concerning a potentially vicious sexual encounter. Things seem to go awry, however, when Aristotle and Kant are used to ground praiseworthy sexual conduct. This may make sense, if it is only to arrive at the sought-out conclusion that "we end up with a very pessimistic picture of our ability to be sexually virtuous. Continence might be the best hope for those lucky ones" (Halwani, "Sexual Ethics," in The Handbook, 695). But to condemn humanity on arguments taken from two philosophers that held little esteem for women is ill-advised. On communication ethics, Harden Fritz situates this field in the long-standing tradition of rhetoric and eventually journalism to rightly identify the pervasiveness of communication in human activity, culminating in new and digital media, which would have benefited from refering to Shannon Vallor's excellent book Technology and the Virtues (OUP, 2016). While he draws on MacIntyre's conception of virtues as applying to practices that offer professional guidance to media practitioners, it is his insistence on meaningfulness through narrative that affords a general application of virtues to human communication.

It is fitting that the last chapter in Part VI is on communication, for it allows a logical transition to the field of virtue epistemology. This burgeoning domain of research is well represented in the seven chapters devoted to essential aspects of virtue epistemology. Standard in studying virtue epistemology, the chapters on reliabilism and responsibilism clearly detail the arguments concerning having access to the means to reliably get at the truth, and being responsible for knowing a truth. We are then invited to break new grounds with Slote and Battaly's contribution in "Sentimentalist Virtue Epistemology." Leaving behind a neo-Aristotelian framework, the authors draw on Hume to offer their own view that builds on empathy, and specifically, on receptivity. This allows them to bridge Hume's view and fundamental epistemic virtues such as open-mindedness. True to form, Slote and Battaly's theory is conceived to accommodate and enrich reliabilism and responsibilism; it is receptive to other approaches.

The last three chapters broaden the horizon of intellectual virtues, through their moral reach, implications for wisdom and understanding, and finally democratic contributions. In what is routine for Chinese philosophy, that is the communion of intellect and action, Brady's chapter, "Moral and Intellectual Virtues," explicitly identifies commonalities and differences in both realms. From internal (the mind) differences to differences in development (context), substantive and formal goals, a solid case is made to conclude that, "excellence in thought often requires excellence in feeling, and vice versa" (Brady, "Moral and Intellectual Virtues," in The Handbook, 797). And in order to know toward what excellence in thought should be directed, Baehr's chapters on intellectual virtues, truth, understanding, and wisdom rehearses some of the arguments defended by reliabilism and responsibilism to arrive at his view of personal worth. While avoiding cognitive error and being responsible for getting at the truth are noble intellectual aims, Baehr argues that it is in the overall goal of being a praiseworthy person that intellectual virtues find their best footing. In what sounds classically Aristotelian (Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, 1177a11-18) Baerh argues that, "the aim of intellectual virtues should be understood in terms of something like 'theoretical wisdom,' or sophia" ("Intellectual Virtues and Truth, Understanding, and Wisdom," in The Handbook, 809). That said, he is quick to advise that this conclusion merely scratches the surface and that much work remains to be done on what subjects merit intellectual devotion, and how theoretical as well as practical wisdom are intertwined.

Finally, it is the turn to the practical implications for democratic life that brings this collection to a close. Farelly's chapter is the best analysis of the implications of intellectual virtues for political philosophy. While his contribution could have easily belonged to the part on applied virtue ethics, its place here unites the epistemic implications for what it means to see democracy "as 'a way of life,' [that] helps guard against intellectual of epistemic vice" (Farelly, "Virtue Epistemology and the Democratic Life," in The Handbook, 841, italics in original). His elegant analysis tackles three critiques of democracy that tend to reduce the depth of human experience, rather than build upon them. That democracy is said to be irrational, curb autonomy, and belie expertise discounts what society has to offer to individuals, and vice versa. As a means to live a flourishing life, Farrelly reveals the limitations imposed by purely rational, and hedonistic accounts of democratic life. Referring to the work of well-known positive psychologist Martin Seligman, Farrelly grounds his argument with the idea that the "democratic way of life, by making us psychologically connected and continuous with others, is enjoyable, and it facilitates (moral and intellectual) development" (ibid., 846, italics in original). Finally, this development is best achieved, for most, by nourishing an inquiry-based and participatory form of an inclusive civic life.

In comparison to the commendable The Routledge Companion to Virtue Ethics (2015) and The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics (2015), The Oxford Handbook of Virtue is a welcome addition to this field. Of the few misgivings concerning this last volume, such as the lack of interconnectedness between the chapters entails that readers must deploy more energy, where specialists could have contributed. This also applies for each part, which would have benefited from a critical summary analysis. Alternatively, each author was careful to highlight new directions for future research, which successfully paves the way for a very bright research agenda in virtue ethics. In the end, there are but a few small reservations concerning an otherwise outstanding collection that no one in ethics, psychology, or education should neglect.


© 2019 Samuel LeBlanc


Samuel LeBlanc is PhD candidate, at the Faculty of Education, University of New Brunswick (Canada) working on the 21st century intellectually virtuous student.



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