Book Update: Five Books to Get the Gist of Virtue Ethics

I’ve basically finished the philosophy part of my research for the book, though I keep finding more tempting titles through the books I’ve already read or through word of mouth from people who know of my project. The Internet’s great aphorist Aaron Haspel has convinced me that I need to read Lecky’s History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, so that’s another one on the list.

But for the most part I’ve moved on to the business and self-help section of the research. So far I’ve been very lucky in the quality of what I’ve picked up, but before I get to that, I’d like to address something that a few people have asked me about.

After I read The Bourgeois Virtues, I wondered what the best way to learn more about virtue ethics was. I had some great guidance from Matt Zwolinski, Aaron Ross Powell, and Drew Summitt that got me going. Now that I’ve read what they’ve recommended (and then some) I’d like to provide a list: five books to get you from zero to pretty knowledgeable when it comes to virtue ethics.

Many of these books are priced by academic publishers, sadly, so you might want to see if you can get them from the library.

  1. The Morality of Happiness, by Julia Annas. If you only read one book on the subject, make it this one. This is an overview of the Hellenistic schools of ethics starting with Aristotle. It is organized by topic rather than chronologically, which I found very accessible. Annas is a polished, top-notch scholar; if you’re intellectually curious (and why would you be reading her book if you weren’t?) you can pursue the debates among historians and philologists endlessly in her citations. Or you can just read her book straight up and she gives you a very good summary of what is presently understood about these schools. She frames these ancient giants of philosophy in a very accessible way; you really get what sorts of problems they were wrestling with and why, and you see the debates and attempts at syntheses as they played out.
  2. The Cardinal Virtues in the Middle Ages, by István P. Bejczy. This appears to be out of print (though I have a PDF so you can contact me if you’d like that) but used copies do exist. I would say this is the least “required” of this list; I felt it very important to try and find an equivalent to Annas’ book that took me into virtue ethics’ life and evolution when picked up by the old Catholic church fathers. This book provided an excellent overview of that—but it’s very, very dry. Much more about theological particularities than the more accessible sorts of discussions in Annas’ book. But just these two books alone gets you a good ways towards a basic familiarity with the history of virtue ethics, before its modern incarnations.
  3. Practical Intelligence and the Virtues, by Daniel Russell. This is one of the most philosophically sophisticated books I’ve ever read. Unlike the first two, this isn’t a history but a pure book of philosophy. The section on the nature of moral ideals alone makes the book worth reading. The section on the enumeration problem (the problem of actually having a comprehensive list of virtues) is not only the most thoughtful treatment of the subject I can imagine, it is the only one I have found. His reply to the situationist critique of virtue ethics is far superior to what I was able to muster. Non-philosophical readers will probably struggle with this book but it is worth the effort.
  4. The Bourgeois Virtuesby Deirdre McCloskey. You didn’t think I was going to leave this out, did you? As you are no doubt aware if you are reading this post, McCloskey’s book is a straightforward apologia for the culture and ethics of commerce, presented in a virtue ethical framework, one derived especially from Thomas Aquinas. Read it! Live it!
  5. The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics. In my experience, Cambridge Companion books are very hit or miss. This one is edited by Daniel Russell and includes a chapter co-authored by Matt Zwolinski; in short, it is very much a hit! Very good background material on the subject.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention Alasdair MacIntyre’s works, even After Virtue, probably the single most famous book in virtue ethics. I love MacIntyre’s stuff as well as After Virtue in particular, but I’m not sure it’s the best place for people to start on the specific subject of virtue ethics. MacIntyre’s offers a big, compelling narrative and set of theoretical concepts that are best tackled as its own corpus, I think. But for its own sake, his books are well worth reading. And for my purposes, I found him immensely helpful.

There are many, many other books I could have mentioned. The other book that  I read by Daniel Russell, Happiness for Humans, is an excellent look at that aspect of virtue ethics that focuses on eudaimonia; happiness, flourishing, however you want to translate it. Essentially, living well; having a good and meaningful life as a whole.

The list goes on. But if what you want a good, broad background to start with, I stand by the five above. Any combination of two or three will get you quite far, as well.

Step Two

I didn’t stick strictly to philosophy books for my research in 2014, but it was heavily biased that way. But 2015 will be the year of business and self-help books, as I seek to understand the conversation in that area since it is that audience I am pursuing. I’m giving myself until the end of the year to read broadly in these genres before beginning to write the first draft; I may decide I’m comfortable starting earlier than that, but not later. Knowing when to say “enough is enough” is important here; at the rate I read business and self-help books, one year should be more than enough.

A book that straddled the philosophical and self-help is Russ Roberts’ latest, How Adam Smith Can Change Your LifeThough this book is excellent, I was a bit uncomfortable when I read it. It’s a little too close to the book I want to write! It’s all about using philosophy to ask how to live a good life. The fact that it focuses on a particularly famous philosopher rather than a tradition more broadly is a strength for a business-book reading audience, who have most likely heard of the father of economics. But really, this book is very good. Hopefully my emphasis on the relationship of a good life to making a living, and other differences, will prove to be differentiating enough.

The Alliance, by LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman as well as Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh, is a fascinating little book. It emphasizes a need to change how we talk about the employer-employee relationship in the wake of the transition from manufacturing-dominated to service-dominated economies, especially fast-moving ones like the tech sector. In short, we need to rethink our ethics and our rhetoric. A more McCloskeyan book you will not find, I think, except for those written by McCloskey herself!

Give and Take is a truly marvelous book, one I’d recommend for just about anyone at any level of the working world. Adam Grant offers what I would consider to be the best real-world answer to MacIntyre’s call for “networks of uncalculated giving”. Grant’s work is primarily empricial; in terms of theory he simply offers three very thin categories of people—takers, who try and capture as much value for themselves as possible, matchers, who operate on a tit-for-tat basis, and givers, who lean towards uncompensated generosity. He examines how givers actually are able to build networks that, on the whole, end up helping them do very well in their careers and in life, so long as they exercise some prudence in protecting themselves against takers.

Building Trust is a pretty good book. I got it because I had read elsewhere that Robert Solomon was among the earliest business ethicists to rely on virtue ethics as a framework. To my surprise, he and co-author Fernando Flores actually rely mostly on Heidegger in the book as their philosophical background. Nevertheless, the book is an interesting examination of the various facets of trust, trusting, and trustworthiness, and like veteran business book writers they do it all in 150 pages. I have to say, it feels as though they could have done it in even less; the first two sections in particular seemed to have a lot of repetition.

So far, so good. I am going to take a detour into Lecky’s history. I’m also going to read books like Manufacturing Morals which are about business education specifically. But largely I’m going to try and dive into the books that make the most influential or most read lists when it comes to business, self-help, leadership, and so on.

That’s all for now. Just thought it was high time I checked in.

Book Research After MacIntyre

Alasdair MacIntyre has probably done more than any other single individual to spread awareness of the modern virtue ethics movement. From the minute I took an interest in the subject of virtue, people have recommended his big hit After Virtue to me. Now that I’ve finished reading the four books of his I intend to read as part of my research, I thought it might be another good moment to pause and look at how the project is proceeding.

MacIntyre: Tradition, History, and Community

These are the books of his that I read, in the order that I read them:

Chronologically, Three Rival Versions came out after Whose Justice and before Dependent Rational Animals. But Drew convinced me that I should start where I did.

The first three books are deeply historical, and the common thread between them is that reasoning and rationality—and reasoning about justice—are highly contingent to specific traditions of thought embedded in specific historical contexts. In MacIntyre’s view, criticism of a tradition of thought cannot be accomplished effectively from outside of that tradition. Instead, the critic must familiarize themselves with that tradition as if they were themselves a member of it. Then, they can identify the problems—problems identified by the members of that tradition, and problems by the standards internal to that tradition—which the tradition of thought lacks the resources to adequately address in order  to make progress. Finally, the critic presents an alternative framework and argues that it has greater resources available for addressing the deficiencies of the tradition under critical examination, and is also better able to make progress on its own terms.

One of my rhetorical takeaways from this project has been to feel comfortable talking about reason, rationality, and rational justification for the first time. So long as these are not understood in some antiquated Cartesian sense, these are perfectly good terms for describing deliberation and critical discussion within the context of particular traditions of thought.

The most relevant aspect of MacIntyre’s work to my own project is his take on practices; on goods internal to those practices, and the tension with the external goods that are used to entice people into being inculcated into the values of the practice. I’ve wrestled with this idea a bit, but in retrospect I think I had a better handle on where I need to go with it when looking at it from a McCloskeyan point of view. Which makes sense, given that MacIntyre is highly hostile to commerce and especially modern commerce, while McCloskey is an evangelist on its behalf. But MacIntyre has provided me with a more concrete framework for thinking about internal goods and practices specifically.

The last of the four books, Dependent Rational Animals, is a drastically different sort of work. Of the four, it is the only one where he advances a specific moral theory in an attempt to win allegiance on its behalf. The character of that theory will surprise no one who has read the other three books—it is Aristotelian and Thomist, but also draws heavily on MacIntyre-specific work on internal goods and such. But the focus of the book is on our biological nature—in particular, what our reasoning has in common with the reasoning of some animals, and how our vulnerability and dependence on others needs to be factored into our ethics.

In MacIntyre’s view, a good parent—in the Aristotelian sense of “good” meaning a good example of X—is one who engages in uncalculated giving; a given with only the good of their child in mind. It is uncalculated because the parent is prepared to give as much as is necessary whether their child is perfectly healthy and responsive to instruction or chronically ill and struggling with their schoolwork. Moreover, a good community is characterized as a network of mutual uncalculated giving of this nature. In that network, we acknowledge a debt to those who have helped us and our loved ones by being prepared to similarly give—even if it is to members within that network who have not been the ones to give to us directly.

For personal reasons, I also find this related passage to hit something on the nail that I rarely see addressed:

There is however another sense in which prudent calculation is not only permitted, but required by just generosity. If I do not work, so as to acquire property, I will have nothing to give. If I do not save, but only consume, then, when the time comes when my help is urgently needed by my neighbor, I may not have the resources to provide that help. If I give to those not really in urgent need, then I may not have enough to give to those who are. So industriousness in getting, thrift in saving, and discrimination in giving are required. And these are further aspects of the virtue of temperateness.

Moreover, one’s network of uncalculated giving cannot be expanded to include all of mankind (or even a meaningful fraction of it) without reducing our capacity to look out for any one individual within it. This is part of the basis for my various criticisms of telescopic morality.

I cannot do justice to everything I have learned from MacIntyre here, but I think in the final analysis his footprint will be quite large in the work I intend to write.

Other Notable Books

A good complement to Dependent Rational Animals is the self-help book Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown, a a vulnerability and shame researcher. According to Brown, and against the Stoics, courage and living well requires putting ourselves in positions of vulnerability. Or to put it differently, courage just is being brave enough to take a chance, risking emotional or material consequences. It’s a great book and one I think that just about anyone will find something valuable to take away from it.

Normative Theory and Business Ethics was a good tour of some of the work that’s been done in business ethics from the academic side, though the book positions itself primarily as bringing in a broader set of normative theory than has generally been done. Not an Earth-shattering work but a good introduction.

The Art of What Works is a pretty good business book which employs the term Coup D’oeil from Clausowitz in a manner very consistent with Aristotle’s phronesis. The book also provides a lot of historical case-studies, which is something that is highly valuable to me as someone who is overinvested in abstract theory. However, the book grew a bit tiresome, returning to the same examples in different contexts and essentially going “there, see? That was a coup d’oeil just as my formula would predict” over and over. It could have been about a third the length that it was.

From Higher Aims to Hired Hands is an excellent history of business schools in America, and the still unfulfilled vision of those who founded the original ones. This book came recommended by McCloskey, and I don’t think I could isolate any one part of it that is valuable to my project—the whole work has provided me with an enormous amount of much needed context.

I’ve read many more books than this, but these three were my first steps beyond virtue ethics so I thought I’d mention them.

Further Reading

On Samuel Hammond’s recommendation, I’m reading Joseph Heath’s Morality, Competition, and the Firm: A Market Failure Approach to Business Ethics. Even though MacIntyre is explicitly anti-commerce, I have so far found Heath chafes me more—perhaps proving the old adage that we hate heresy more than blasphemy. Heath is just close enough to the world of economics-informed libertarianism for me to see a kindred spirit, yet he falls on the other side of a long-standing debate between that community and those who see market failure models as prima facie case for regulation.

It’s not so much his conclusion that bothers me as that I’ve come to think the whole line of reasoning (on both sides) fails on several important margins. But Heath is clearly a very intelligent, very careful, and very bold thinker. Moreover, he explicitly rejects the ethical neutrality that a lot of welfare economists pretend to, and accepts the implications of doing so. If anyone can provide a credible extension of economic theory into business ethics, it seems to me that it would be him.

It should also prove productive to examine the conflict between the frameworks adopted by Heath, MacIntyre, and McCloskey. I’m sure the end result will be a lot of arguments with Sam. At least, I hope so.

I’m basically done with the virtue ethics segment of my research. I’ll finish up with Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire and Russell’s Practical Intelligence and the Virtues, and probably Russ Robert’s latest book on Adam Smith. But these will be deprioritized in terms of when I get to them, in favor of business and self-help books, as well as works specifically about business ethics.

I also have a great deal of rereading to do, I should think. At minimum, I will need to go back to The Bourgeois Virtues, the book that started this whole project, having broadened my perspective since the last time I read it.

The Book To Be Written

I am giving myself until the end of next year to get far enough in my research to actually begin writing the book. I may well start sooner, I just want to make sure I don’t start any later than that.

My current thinking is that there will be three sections to it. The first section will concern those just beginning their careers, the second for those in mid-career, and the third for those looking towards retirement. Of course I intend for all three sections to be useful for anyone at any stage in their careers—we should all be lifelong learners, and should from the beginning be looking towards our legacy.

The awkward thing of course is that in a year, I’ll still only be 30. Who am I to talk about anyone in the middle-to-end of their careers? I will definitely seek to compensate for this in various ways—not just by reading books by and about people with long careers, but by actually talking to people at different stages in theirs. Time will tell if this will be enough to overcome the inherent naivete of the relatively inexperienced writer.

I’ve taken a stab at a few outlines and the only thing that was accomplished by that exercise was to emphasize certain areas I need to probe more deeply in my research. But that’s fine—all part of the process.

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.