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  • The Virtue of Aristotle's Ethics
  • Matthew Walker
Paula Gottlieb. The Virtue of Aristotle's Ethics. Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xix + 241. Cloth, $85.00.

In this work, Paula Gottlieb offers a wide-ranging overview of Aristotle's virtue ethics that puts Aristotle's doctrine of the mean at the center of discussion. She distinguishes this doctrine from a doctrine of moderation, and identifies the doctrine as one of equilibrium: just as a well-calibrated scale registers the right weight, the well-calibrated, virtuous agent responds appropriately in his circumstances. The virtues, then, are balanced dispositions (between extremes). Further, they are in a mean "relative to us," where, Gottlieb argues, the specific features of the agent that such relativity concerns vary according to the sort of situation that the agent faces.

Against this background, the first half of Gottlieb's book examines various issues that surround Aristotle's theory of virtue. Gottlieb argues that Aristotle can appeal to the doctrine of the mean to identify and independently establish certain dispositions as virtues, even if they are not recognized as virtues in a particular cultural context. Hence, Gottlieb's account emphasizes Aristotle's "nameless" virtues, and suggests that Aristotle's theory does not simply recapitulate conventional Greek ethical beliefs. After rebutting the claim (attributed to Philippa Foot and Christine Korsgaard) that virtues are remedial dispositions that correct flaws in human nature, Gottlieb appeals to the doctrine of the mean to explain why certain dispositions (e.g., perseverance) plausibly fail to possess virtue-status, just as she explains how such putative virtues as benevolence show up on Aristotle's table in the form of generosity, magnificence, and friendliness. In a brief discussion, Gottlieb applies the doctrine of the mean to defend the virtue-status of certain dispositions that Aristotle does not explore (e.g., tolerance).

In examining Aristotle's unity of the virtues thesis, Gottlieb offers a useful discussion of the sense in which ethical virtue is a disposition "involving" (meta) reason, not one merely "according to" (kata) reason. On a traditional reading, dispositions are "according to" reason if they follow a source of reason external to the agent (e.g., the agent's parents), whereas they "involve" reason if they follow the agent's own reasoned understanding. On an alternative reading (proposed by J. A. Smith), by contrast, dispositions "involve" reason if they are merely accompanied by reason, but are "according to" reason if they are actually caused by reason. On Gottlieb's proposal, however, dispositions "involve" reason when they are thoroughly integrated with reason, whereas dispositions are merely "according to" reason when they incidentally follow what reason prescribes (as happens, e.g., in the case of the enkratic agent).

In the second half of the book, Gottlieb turns her attention to Aristotle's views on ethical reasoning, and she explores such topics as the practical syllogism, fine motivation, what the virtuous agent needs to know, and the political implications of Aristotle's theory of virtue. In a stimulating chapter, Gottlieb examines how Aristotle would treat problems of dirty hands and tragic dilemmas. According to Gottlieb, Aristotle denies that virtuous agents facing bad options perform base deeds that taint their characters. Rather, Aristotle allows that an action bad without qualification can nevertheless be good with qualification (in certain pressing circumstances). For instance, if an agent finds himself in a situation in which he must obey a tyrant's orders to save his family, he may nevertheless do the best he [End Page 397] can in the circumstances—and perform the right action—by obeying the tyrant. While the agent may feel regret for obeying the tyrant, the agent's character need not be tainted; the agent's regret need not extend to himself, but may extend only to the bad circumstances in which he has found himself.

Gottlieb is a straightforward writer. Her accessible prose makes this a suitable volume not only for Aristotle specialists, but also for students of normative ethics who seek an overview of Aristotle's virtue ethics and its differences from Kantian and utilitarian moral theories. Her book performs the worthy task of highlighting the doctrine of the mean's important...


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pp. 397-398
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