- Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View
If, as both Michel Foucault and Bernard Williams suggest, the significance of Nietzsche lies in the uses to which his thought can be put, then we should welcome the appearance of Christine Swanton's Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View. By putting Nietzsche in the service of contemporary analytic virtue ethics, Swanton contributes to clarifying just how wide and deep the range of suitable appropriations of his work is. Anyone who reads this book will learn an immense amount about the intricacies of current discussions of virtue ethics. Furthermore, by situating Nietzsche's immoralist psychology in relation to her own favored ethical outlook, Swanton forcefully addresses a number of issues that arise in almost any appropriation of Nietzsche for ethics. This is therefore a valuable book, even if it perhaps ultimately leads up a garden path.
The contemporary flourishing of virtue ethics arguably begins with G. E. M. Anscombe's claim for the priority of moral psychology to ethics. Her argument is, roughly, that it is necessary to have a correct account of the proper functioning of persons and agency in order to consider the normative standards that are appropriate for human beings. With respect to this basic position, Swanton follows in the tradition of Anscombe. She looks to Nietzsche, and also empirical psychology, for "psychological theories of character which give a sufficiently deep account"(6) of those fine inner states that constitute virtues. This is an incisive use of Nietzsche. If we take Nietzsche as offering an especially radical or "deep" version of moral psychology, then Nietzschean psychology should have a profound effect on the ethical approach that Anscombe has in mind.
Swanton, accordingly, identifies her main appropriation of Nietzsche in this way: "Nietzsche's importance to ethical theory, in my view, lies not only in his characteristic emphasis on the expressive component of morality, but also in his view that depth-psychological analysis reveals that apparently valuable responses can express disvaluable states"(130). Nietzsche, for Swanton, informs us that human activity is distinctively meaningful, perhaps as revelatory of inner states. Moreover, Nietzsche provides us an account of how this meaningfulness, although dependent on superficial psychological explanations, ultimately arises out of "deeper" psychic structures. Swanton also makes use of a number of other, more specific Nietzschean psychological claims. She claims that a Nietzschean moral psychology demands that we "lower our sights" in identifying the virtues: "If the views of Nietzsche and post-Nietzscheans on human nature are correct, it is vital that we form a conception of virtue that is appropriate for what Nietzsche has called 'the convalescent'"(64). She finds in "undistorted"(12) will to power an account of "self-love . . . as a bonding with oneself"(134) that is a "crucial depth-psychological component of virtue"(11). She also seems to find in Nietzsche an ally in her broad approach, especially with regard to the importance of creativity (53), a pluralist [End Page 75] rejection of naturalism (90), and a particularism (242) that requires "connecting ethics to concrete phenomena"(9).
In the ethics that results, virtue and character are, of course, the fundamental normative moral concepts, and Swanton insists on a pluralism in the "bases" and "modes" of "moral responsiveness or acknowledgment," "in what makes a character trait a virtue," and in "the conception of rightness of action." A virtue is, or expresses, a "fine inner state"(6) and is defined as "disposition to respond to, or acknowledge, items within its field or fields in an excellent or good enough way"(19). Virtues each have a "profile," in particular a "functional profile," an "acknowledgment profile," and a "target profile," that allows them to be recognized as virtues. In short, virtues are those features of ourselves that enable us to integrate and respond to the "demands of the self and the demands of the world"(193) in a plurality of appropriate ways, and we distinguish them in terms of what they call for and what their objects are. Since "the chances of us developing to perfection the...