- Before Virtue: Assessing Contemporary Virtue Ethics by Jonathan J. Sanford
"Aristotle's ethics is not a virtue ethics" (180; cf. 15). This arresting claim is at the literal and conceptual center of Jonathan Sanford's insightful Before Virtue: Assessing Contemporary Virtue Ethics. The claim is jarring to anyone casually and even well familiar with the recent turn to virtue ethics in contemporary philosophy, a move that nearly always draws significantly upon the thought of Aristotle. To establish his claim, Sanders must of course provide an account of what contemporary virtue ethics is and then a basic account of Aristotle's ethics. This is precisely the structure of Before Virtue. The first half of the book sets up the project and narrates the origins and varieties of contemporary virtue ethics. The second half of the book offers an overview of a robustly Aristotelian ethic.
Sanford starts from the often-made claim that contemporary virtue ethics finds its origin in Elizabeth Anscombe's 1958 essay "Modern Moral Philosophy," which offered a rousing critique of the subject named in its title. However, he argues that virtue ethics has succumbed to the very same limitations of modern moral philosophy outlined by Anscombe and others, and thus neither responds to Anscombe's clarion call nor offers a truly Aristotelian ethic that would indeed constitute such a response. Thus, his book might be understood as an attempt to "save" Aristotle from contemporary virtue ethics, the latter of which is apparently referenced in the title Before Virtue.
Sanford's book is of enormous value to proponents of traditional Aristotelian and Thomistic accounts of morality. He offers an insightful and accurate narrative of the rise of contemporary virtue ethics. Perhaps his greatest contribution is the way he substantiates his thesis about this movement's failure to break out of the shackles of modern moral philosophy by his careful delineation of its many varieties through reliance on its most prominent exponents (e.g., Hursthouse, Slote, Annas, Nussbaum). Sanford provides a mental map of contemporary virtue ethics that is of great value to readers of this journal and that would be a service to the thinkers just [End Page 286] mentioned as well. The book's second half, an overview of a thoroughly Aristotelian ethic (one augmented by an occasional turn to St. Thomas), will surely be appreciated by scholarly readers as accurate, even though they will find less there they do not already know.
Sanford's introduction and chapter 1 present the overall thesis of the book and do some needed brush-clearing for his later analysis. For instance, chapter 1 claims that all contemporary moral philosophers address, in one way or another, sets of basic questions about who we are, why we are here, and how we are to live (31-37). Sanford also claims that every contemporary moral philosophy relies on a metaphysics, explicitly or implicitly, and offers a very helpful distinction between metaphysical and religious claims (40).
He then turns in chapter 2 to the near-universally regarded matriarch of contemporary virtue ethics, Elizabeth Anscombe. He uses her classic essay to distill three theses about the inadequacy of modern moral philosophy: (a) it is not profitable to do moral philosophy until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology; (b) concepts of moral obligation and moral duty ought to be jettisoned as survivals of older conceptions of ethics no longer regnant; and (c) the differences between modern English moral philosophers are actually, in Anscombe's words, "of little importance" (62). Sanford uses Anscombe's theses as well as related markers of modern moral philosophy (relying on Solomon [see 108 and 121; cf. 151]) as standards with which to evaluate contemporary virtue ethics. He concludes that contemporary virtue ethics fails to heed the former and continues to be characterized by the latter.
It is in chapters 3 and 4 that Sanford's scholarship shines brightest. He argues that contemporary virtue ethics is marked more by the "loose unity...