on July 31, 2000
I read this book in a philosophy course at Dartmouth, and wrote a 20-page paper on it. For those not familiar, virtue ethics has recently come into fashion as an alternative to both deontological (rule-based) and consequentialist (results-based) ethics.
Hursthouse is a big fan of Aristotle (although she does "update" a few of his sexist remarks), and often hearkens back to his discussion of "the virtues," and the idea that there is no set of rules that can ever properly encompass every situation -- rather, the ideal virtuous agent is someone who is actually _skilled_ at ethics, and simply knows the virtuous thing to do.
An example that might help get across the idea of virtue ethics -- take a classic ethical case such as Ayn Rand's example of a man whose wife is very sick and who spends extraordinary amounts of money to save her life. It turns out, however, that he could have spent the same amount of money and saved the lives of ten women he didn't know. The utilitarian says that the lives of ten are more important than the life of one. The virtue ethicist says that the fact that we place the interests of loved ones above the interests of strangers is good -- a vital part of humanity we would not want to sacrifice to some mathematical moral calculation. And who would want to live in a world where we forsake our spouses to save strangers?
The book also contains a very interesting chapter on naturalism in ethics. Overall, a very worthwhile read, especially if your entire background in ethics consists of Kant, Bentham, Mill, etc.
A note -- this is not the most abstruse philosophy text I've ever read, but I wouldn't suggest approaching it without some sort of academic philosophy background.
on February 21, 2006
I cannot help but take issue with H. Gintis's uninformed and uncharitable review of this book. The philosophical community regards this work as an important and interesting contribution to the literature in virtue ethics and ethical theory more generally. Certainly, many philosophers disagree with Hursthouse on various points, but this is compatible with believing that it is a philosophically important book.
Hursthouse takes pains to make her work readable to those without extensive philosophical training. Although the ideas are philosophically sophisticated, the language is engaging and accessible. It is well worth reading for those who want to know more about one of the great philosophical traditions in ethics.
on July 17, 2004
This is a really valuable book. A lot of philosophers have been talking for the past twenty years about "Virtue Theory" as an approach in normative ethics that can rival deontology and utilitarianism for depth, plausibility and coherence. But Hursthouse's book is the first that I'm aware of to attempt a full statement of precisely what it is that makes the approach distinctive. And anyone who's familiar with the work of other philosophers (e.g. Elizabeth Anscombe, John McDowell, Bernard Williams) who've been viewed as the standard-bearers for VT during this period of time will be able to recognize that it's an unqualified success in at least this respect.
So, does the book actually make VT seem appealing? Well, there's some excellent stuff on how to distinguish rule-based approaches from character based approaches to ethical evaluation. And there's a wonderfully subtle discussion of precisely how Aristotlelian accounts of the moral significance of a person's motivations differ from those traditionally given by Kantians. There's also some very silly stuff at the end though. Her discussion of the difference between human beings and animals is jaw-droppingly simplistic - really, almost Philistine. Like Foot and McDowell, she fails to register the fact that thousands of very smart people have thought about this subject in zoology, anthropology and biology departments around the world and that it might be at least somewhat worthwhile to take a bit of glance at what they have to say. And at the end she delivers a stunning battery of ad hominems against Bernard Williams for daring to suggest that the Aristotelian notion of a distinctive human function doesn't stand up to careful and impartial scrutiny.
Even in these areas, though, what Hursthouse says is far from being out of step with the views propagated by other writers in the VT tradition. If one is left with the slightly disappointing impression that the VT approach might after all be little more than the fetish of a couple of generations of clever, but slightly wooly Oxbridge humanists, it's hard to see how she herself can be blamed for this.
on September 16, 2013
For virtue ethics, this is the most important book of the past few decades, and it is the most systematically worked out account of Neoaristotelian Virtue Ethics since its emergence in the early 20th century.
Rosalind Hursthouse offers an alternative to Kant's deontology or Bentham's utilitarianism. She reworks many of the ideas in Aristole's Nicomachean Ethics to create an ethical system that has these qualities:
(1) The end goal of life is eudaimonia, which is living in a good and characteristically human way, as understood by both the sciences and humanities
(2) Virtues are character traits that help us to live well. And they entail rules, such as "Be courageous!" "Be kind!' etc.
(3) As a normative theory, virtue ethics can answer not only questions about what we should do in a given situation, but it can also answer metaethical questions, such as how we come to understand ethical truths, what desires and motivations reveal about action, and whether there are any objective, moral truths.
Hursthouse's book is programmatic. She doesn't pretend to have all the answers, nor to have written them here. Instead, the greatest strength of this book is to rework many of the ideas from early in her career to try to create a comprehensive system.
If you're into virtue ethics, this is a must read. If you like clear thought about trying to figure out what is moral or immoral, then I highly recommend this book.
on February 6, 2010
Another reviewer "wouldn't suggest approaching [this book] without some sort of academic philosophy background." I cannot really speak to this - I have an academic philosophy background - but I fear that it obscures how much fun this book is. It is fluent and lucid. I've enjoyed parts enough to read them aloud to friends and family with no background in philosophy, and they seemed to do just fine. I read the bulk of the book on transatlantic flights, and it was compelling enough to block our distractions.
To get an idea, hit the "surprise me!" link under "look inside!" (What's with all these exclamation points?) Or search on the word 'children'; Hursthouse has interesting things to say about how ways of bringing up children reveal thinking about ethics.