Reading Update

So I’ve been reading a ton of books on virtue ethics as research for the book I’m working on.

Six months ago, Matt Zwolinski, Aaron Ross Powell, and Drew Summitt recommended a big list of books and authors with the idea that any one or two of them would be a good place to get started with virtue ethics. I assembled the list, looked at it, and thought to myself “I’ll bet I can read these by the end of the year.” Setting that challenge for myself was one of the first steps to deciding I wanted to write a book myself.

It’s gone faster than I thought it would. I just finished Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness, which was the last book from the original list. I’m not done with the virtue ethics part of my research yet—I’ve been adding books and papers as I went along, so that I now have at least seven more that I want to include in this leg of my research. I’ve also taken a couple of detours along the way—most notably Deirdre McCloskey’s Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics and Michael Oakeshott’s On Human Conduct. Both well worth the time taken.

What I have found interesting about my tour of virtue ethics so far is the diversity of perspectives. McCloskey’s framework in Bourgeois Virtues was so cohesive, and she drew on other sources so liberally, I hadn’t expected her own perspective to be so distinct in some ways. For instance, her treatment of prudence as being equivalent to phronesis is at odds with, at minimum, how Julia Annas understands those concepts. And Annas’ emphasis on virtue as skill, while not at odds with McCloskey, is something different, surprising, not what I expected to find when I set out. But in a good way—it made virtue concrete for me, something I could really understand.

Moreover, there are some wildly different metaphysics going on. Alasdair MacIntyre is more like me; he sees morality as synonymous with a moral tradition. Meanwhile, Martha Nussbaum bluntly states that she is not like that at all; she believes herself operating firmly within the Enlightenment framework and simply scavenging the ancients for wisdom that can be used within that framework. Most objective moral metaphysics within this community are similar to, or directly inspired by, Foot’s (developed at length in Natural Goodness). Foot (inspired by Aristotle) speaks of the good as being relevant to the telos of a species; we can speak of “a good specimen of X” based on some very specific ideas of what it means for X species to flourish. I find it interesting, but think it works better within a McCloskeyan pragmatist framework than as a theory of truly objective morality.

In a way the metaphysics is something of a distraction. A business book audience is not going to care one bit for metaphysics; if I try pulling that on them I’m certain to lose their attention or any chance that a publisher would take me on. Still, I’m not going to write a book about a moral framework unless I believe in it and its underpinnings. And books like Bernard Williams’ Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy can be very clarifying about what the role of a philosophy of ethics should be. Oakeshott helps a great deal as well—as Oakeshott might put it, I’m going to be writing a book for an audience that already subscribes to the same moral language that I do. All I’ll be doing is attempting to expand their vocabulary, so to speak.

Another surprise for me was how central the role of luck was to the multi-century debate in ancient ethics. Annas covers this as part of her (masterful) tour of ancient ethics overall, and Nussbaum focuses specifically on this, and contrasts the philosophical positions with the perspective to be found in Greek tragedy. The debate between the Stoics and the intellectual descendants of Aristotle was just about whether or not living well or happiness (eudaimonia) was vulnerable to changing circumstances, or if the virtuous person was truly happy no matter their circumstances. This seems a bizarre question for us moderns, but Annas and Nussbaum put it in context masterfully.

The best modern response I’ve read to this question is Daniel Russell’s in Happiness for Humans. He argues that the Stoics were correct that virtue is all that is needed for living well, but that the details of what this means do, still, leave us vulnerable to luck. Virtue is the skill of living well, and he argues that the activity involved in the exercise of that skill is “embodied”. He does not just mean that it is a physical thing that occurs (and thus physically vulnerable), though that is part of it. His point is more interesting than that.

Russell draws on the bereavement literature to discuss how the typical person copes with tragic circumstances. He discusses C. S. Lewis, who wrote that when his wife died he felt like he had lost a piece of himself. He then points to studies on people who have lost physical limbs that show that they often speak of feeling as though they have lost a loved one. This equivalence is striking, from each side; and Russell shows that Lewis’ case is not uncommon; indeed feeling like one has lost a limb is a typical response to losing someone very close to you.

This is what Russell means by “embodied”—the virtuous person takes the major, meaningful activities of their life, and the people who are dearest for them, and makes them a significant part of who they are. I am not just a man who happens to be married to a woman. An important part of who I am is the husband to my wife. If I were to lose her, I would not just be losing another person, but a vital part of myself. Russell argues that the stability that the Stoics sought can be approximated only by a separate skill, the skill of resilience, of reshaping your life meaningfully after a tragic loss.

All of the books I went through have been enriching to read. If I had to pick only two to take with me to a desert island, I would take Julia Annas’ Intelligent Virtue and Russell’s Happiness for Humans. If I could take three, I’d add Annas’ The Morality of Happiness. If I could add a fourth, it would be Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness.

As I said, I intend to read yet more virtue ethics books. I’ve got three books by Alasdair MacIntyre alone that I intend to read, including his most famous, After Virtue (though to be honest I’m much more excited to read Whose Justice? Which Rationality?). But I will now increasingly be reading other categories of books—McCloskey recommended this one, for instance, and of course I’ve got business books and self-help books to get to.

The exciting but frustrating thing about diving deep into a subject is that the further you go, the bigger the corpus of relevant works seems to grow. Actually getting to the writing of this book is going to take self-control on my part, in terms of creating a definitive stopping point where I say enough is enough where research is concerned. I intend to reach that point by the end of next year.

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time.