Jonathan J. SANFORD. Before Virtue: Assessing Contemporary Virtue Ethics. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2015. 280 pp., $65.00 hardback. ISBN: 978-0-8132-2739-9. Reviewed by Steve W. LEMKE, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, LA 70126.
Before Virtue, whose title intentionally complements Alasdair MacIntyre’s magisterial book After Virtue, analyzes in detail the status of contemporary virtue ethics. Authored by Jonathan Sanford, Dean of the Constantin College of Liberal Arts and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dallas, Before Virtue traces the trajectory of virtue ethics since Elizabeth Anscombe’s pivotal article “Modern Moral Philosophy” in 1958. Anscombe’s article lamented the decline in modern moral philosophy, calling for a return to Aristotelian philosophical psychology. Sanford describes Anscombe as the “grandmother” of contemporary virtue ethics because of the revival of interest in virtue ethics in response to her article.
Sanford surveys several categorizations of virtue ethics, such as the contrast between hard virtue ethics, which utilizes phronesis (practical moral reasoning) and soft virtue ethics, which does not; and the contrast between mainstream/conventional virtue ethics, which utilize some of the same criteria for moral evaluation as consequentialists and deontological ethicists, and marginal/unconventional virtue ethics, which do not. Utilizing these distinctions, Sanford describes and contrasts the beliefs of all the best-known contemporary virtue ethicists – Julia Annas, Elizabeth Anscombe, Christopher Coope, Philippa Foot, Peter Geach, Rosalind Hursthouse, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Slote, David Solomon, Christine Swanton, and Gary Watson. Sanford’s careful analysis of the widely varying views of these virtue ethicists is worth the cost of this volume.
Sanford himself affirms an approach which might be described as hard virtue ethics and unconventional virtue ethics, agreeing with Anscombe’s call for a return to an Aristotelian foundation for virtue ethics. Sanford outlines ten characteristics of Aristotelian ethics: it is not limited to human actions narrowly defined as in the ethical sphere, it is nonconsequentialist, it insists on the application of contemplative wisdom, it affirms that virtue produces human happiness or flourishing, it requires the application of practical wisdom (phronesis) to direct virtuous actions, it asserts the impossibility of exercising any virtue wrongly (with the exception of technical knowledge), it does not necessarily endorse selfless generic benevolence, it highlights the value of friendship, it insists on the indispensability of the virtue of justice, and it affirms that human life is lived in and imbedded in community. Aristotle’s view also requires the foundation of a properly framed account of anthropology and psychology.
Sanford’s dense prose (with some sentences having over a hundred words) will be challenging to the casual reader, but Before Virtue is a must read for any scholar interested in virtue ethics. The breadth and depth of this text is impossible to summarize adequately in this review. Its 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.