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A Neo-Aristotelian Against Mainstream Virtue Ethics

Ben Bayer

Friends of mine who work on Rand's ethics often list Elizabeth Anscombe’s seminal 1958 article, “Modern Moral Philosophy” as a favorite. The paper is noteworthy for its sweeping condemnation of both consequentialist and deontological normative ethical theory and its allegation that both relied on concepts rooted in divine command morality. Anscombe’s paper is widely recognized as having paved the road for a renewed interest in Aristotle, which included a renewed appreciation of Aristotle’s ethics.

So it is with some interest that I read a recent review at NDPR of a new book by Jonathan Sanford, Before Virtue: Assessing Contemporary Virtue Ethics (Catholic University of America Press, 2015), which takes contemporary virtue ethics to task for failing to live up to Anscombe’s original rallying cry. According to Sanford, “mainstream” virtue ethics attempts to assimilate itself to either deontology or consequentialism, and in doing so fails to escape from the framework Anscombe had critiqued.

Of special interest, Sanford argues that Aristotelian ethics is “non-consequentialist” although it is teleological, a trait I think he shares with Rand. He also claims Aristotelian ethics “does not, and cannot, endorse a selfless and generic benevolence,” another point on which I’m sure Rand would agree enthusiastically. Sanford criticizes contemporary virtue ethics for abandoning these distinctively Aristotelian points.

Happily, NDPR reviewer Micha Lott notes that not all contemporary virtue theory shares these faults:

Most surprisingly, Sanford makes no mention of the work of Michael Thompson. This is odd, given that Thompson's work is important to both Foot and Hursthouse, whom Sanford discusses often. Moreover, in Life and Action, Thompson does precisely the thing that Sanford complains is not being done -- he attempts to given an account of foundational concepts in practical philosophy (life, action, practice), and he does so in a way that is broadly Aristotelian and that draws explicitly on Anscombe.

Other important omissions include: John Haldane, Richard Kraut, Mark LeBar, Anselm Müller, Roger Teichmann, and Candace Vogler. In very different ways, each of these thinkers has addressed the foundational questions about human nature and philosophical psychology that Sanford wants to see taken up by moral philosophers. To varying degrees, all of these thinkers can be classified as "Aristotelian", and some of them draw heavily on Anscombe. All of them have things to say about virtue.

To this list, I would of course add Ayn Rand, though she did not draw on Anscombe. Atlas Shrugged came out just a year before “Modern Moral Philosophy,” and proposed a series of moral virtues based on a broadly Aristotelian view of human nature. Rand’s theory also offered to transcend the modern consequentialism vs. deontology alternative, and in a way that famously rejected “a selfless and generic benevolence.” I should say that Rand’s theory also avoids the Thomistic “natural end” teleology that Lott criticizes Sanford for assuming without much argumentation.

Readers interested in learning more should consult Volume I of the Ayn Rand Society Philosophical Studies, Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue, edited by Allan Gotthelf and James Lennox. In particular, check out Darryl Wright’s excellent overview essay “Reason, Choice and the Ultimate End,” which includes a useful summary of the big-picture similarities and differences between Rand’s view and Aristotle’s, and also the contributions by Wright, Christine Swanton, Helen Cullyer and Tara Smith on Rand’s relationship with virtue ethics.

Also, readers should also look up the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Ayn Rand, edited by Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri. Gotthelf’s essay “The Morality of Life” also contains new and useful differentiation between Rand’s ethics of virtue and contemporary virtue ethics. In particular they clarify why, for Rand, virtues are neither ends in themselves nor merely instrumental means to an end, a possibility that some critics of Rand have failed to appreciate in the past. A valuable footnote by Salmieri to the piece (#14) also contains a useful summary of the parallels between Rand and Anscombe.

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