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v2.1 Reference

Before Virtue

Assessing Contemporary Virtue Ethics

Classical virtue ethics, exemplified by Aristotle (d. 322 BC), asked: what can we know of human nature and the virtues by which it is perfected in order to live well? Dominant ethical theories today generally avoid the question of human nature, taking deontological (non-metaphysical) or utilitarian (maximizing perceived social benefit) approaches. Elizabeth Anscombe's 1958 article "Modern Moral Philosophy," sparked a revival of virtue ethics. She critiqued contemporary ethical theories and exhorted her readers to recover central features of an Aristotelian approach. Jonathan Sanford finds that despite the common origins of contemporary virtue ethics in Anscombe, the literature varies widely not just in its scope but in its basic commitments. What exactly is contemporary virtue ethics? In Before Virtue, Sanford develops strategies for describing contemporary virtue ethics accurately. He then assesses contemporary virtue approaches by the Anscombean dual standard which inspired them: the degree to which they avoid the pitfalls of modern moral philosophy and the extent to which they exemplify a successful recovery of an Aristotelian approach to ethics. Sanford finds the results to be mixed. But an underlying and unifying theme emerges: an adequate virtue theory must incorporate at least preliminary answers to the questions of the nature of human beings, our ends, and the principles by means of which our ends are best pursued. It is only in light of recognizing the significance of those questions to moral philosophy that one can begin to appreciate the contribution of Aristotelian ethics. Ultimately, Anscombe's judgment about the need to eschew what she designates as modern moral philosophy is vindicated through a recovery of Aristotelian ethics that goes further in addressing those more basic questions than has most contemporary virtue ethics. The concluding chapters of this book contribute to that recovery.

About the Author

JONATHAN J. SANFORD is Provost, University of Dallas.


"[Jonathan Sanford] has offered a clear account of what contemporary virtue ethics is and of the distance between it and what both Anscombe and Aristotle envisioned. Anscombeans and Aristotelians alike will profit greatly from it."—American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly

"A splendid example of careful scholarship and deep insightSanford's survey of contemporary writers claiming to present virtue ethics as a moral theory is comprehensive, perceptive, and pointed."—Horizons: Journal of College Theology Society

"Happily, this book does not simply rehearse the standard narrative usually told about virtue ethics. By giving a more sophisticated account of the range of positions that claim this name, Jonathan Sanford provides a critical assessment of the surprisingly diverse approaches that have been offered as virtue ethics and thereby significantly advances our understanding of the recent history of ethics."—International Philosophical Quarterly

"Sanford indicts contemporary virtue ethics on the grounds that it is not a full-blooded descendant of Aristotelian ethics, which is a compelling alternative to contemporary virtue ethics and all modern moral philosophy. Before Virtue is a helpful map, one that could serve as a guide to those currently working in the field, especially since Sanford lays out what steps must be taken next in order to vindicate a viable virtue theory."—Public Discourse

"An admirable, exceedingly detailed tour de force of the contemporary virtue ethics movement; its criticisms of the conventional and even unconventional wings of the movement as well as its serious reflection on Aristotle's ethical claims are especially well supported and argued."—Review of Metaphysics

"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. 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."—Thomist

"Recommended"—S.A. Mason, Concordia University, CHOICE

" of interest to libraries in graduate institutions with moral philosophy and ethics programs, especially in Catholic universities."—Robert R. Rahl, Catholic Library World

"Before Virtue is a must read for any scholar interested in virtue ethics It's careful analysis of the current state of virtue ethics and his projection of a future trajectory of virtue ethics is propaedeutic to any careful future development of virtue ethics. Highly recommended."—Steve W. Lemke, Catholic Books Review

"Jonathan Sanford's book is a splendid example of careful scholarship and deep insight Before Virtue is a solid, well-researched, and clearly presented work of scholarship."—Harold Baillie, Univ Scranton, Horizons: The Journal of the College Theology Society

"It would be worthwhile to do something in the virtue movement in moral theology similar to what Sanford has successfully done in contemporary virtue ethics. One might look at such theologians as Servais Pinckaers, Benedict Ashley, and Romanus Cessario. All three have written widely on the cardinal and theological virtues in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition. They also uphold the concept of intrinsically evil acts and their corresponding moral absolutes. Only Ashley, however, has contributed significantly to bioethics. But there are many others who would need to be looked at, who do not always affirm moral absolutes, such as Edward Vacek, James Keenan, and Jean Porter. This effort could also, like Sanford's, evaluate how well these theologians have applied their virtue theories to specific moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex acts. Sanford has provided us with an excellent model for such a study: thorough in his approach to the literature, fair in his engagement with and assessment of others' views, and sound in his judgements."—Latkovic, Mark, The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly

"An elegantly simple book that impressively sets out its argument, pursues it transparently, chapter by chapter, provides a succinct and compelling proposal, and concludes by summarising briefly but comprehensively."—Scottish Journal of Theology

The Catholic University of America Press

9780813232621 : before-virtue-sanford
Paperback / softback
304 Pages
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