Virtue and the Moral Life: Theological and Philosophical Perspectives

Edited by William Werpehowski and Kathryn Getek Soltis. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014. x+210 pp. $85.00 (hardcover). 

Who am I? Who do I want to become? How ought I get there? These are some of the questions virtue ethics asks and which are at the heart of a teleology that frames the essays of Virtue and the Moral Life: Theological and Philosophical Perspectives. Although drawing largely from the Christian tradition, the book presents a wide array of theoretical and practical perspectives on virtue ethics; yet, on the level of praxis, and in spite of its religious leaning, it offers insight to anyone interested in the value of civic integrity, raising moral children, or those coping with tragedy and moral grief. Virtue and the Moral Life contributes to the diverse discussion on virtue ethics today by appraising its role in both private and public life, its significance for the individual and the family, as well as its capacity to contribute to the common good of society.

When Jennifer A. Herdt quotes Augustine saying, “No virtue is truly such unless it is directed towards that end in which humankind’s good—the good than which nothing better exists—is found” (29), she identifies this end as God. Most theists would agree. What about non-theists? There is less explicit discussion of this; however, some writers do proffer that even nonbelievers care about morality and are interested in making ethical choices. As the editors make clear, their task in compiling the volume is not to encompass the entire field of virtue ethics, nor necessarily to make novel strides in the subject, but rather to engage in a “contextual moral investigation” (viii). The reader is reminded that ethics is not about quandaries and puzzles to be solved in a vacuum of impartial rationality, but about real decisions that real people make in the world. Virtue and the Moral Life then serves as a practical contribution to the topical and always timeless issue of how to live morally. 

The book is well organized into five parts: Part 1 begins with James F. Keenan, S.J.’s compelling chapter on why virtue ethics is important today and in how it is an active ethics that uses ordinary language. “When we realize that every human action is a moral one, we begin to realize that we are inevitably built up or brought down by what we do” (6) he says in the opening pages, and in so doing frames the discussion of the remainder of the book. Herdt charts the philosophical history of virtue via Augustine and Christian liturgy, and deftly shows how the secular realm is in fact the condition of pluralism (32). Part 2 gets into the lived substance of ethics and argues for the accurate redress and truthful telling of history in order that participants of the political community both practice and realize the virtue of “civic integrity”. Part 3 deals with the family and raising moral children where, among others, Mary M. Doyle Roche presents an important critique of consumer culture, which she identifies as a manipulating force that objectifies people and distorts cardinal virtues; and only “[a] virtue ethic that sees relationship (with God, self, neighbour, stranger) as the ground and goal of human flourishing is best able to meet children wherever they are on the winding road of moral development and call them to grow in self-care, fidelity, justice, and prudence” (91). Part 4 explores moral failure and the limits of virtue while part 5 focuses on the virtue of humility as a way to bridge divides or disagreements between religious groups, owing to their shared commitment to virtue in general. 

Virtue and the Moral Life shines as a book of Christian virtue ethics. Yet while God is often presupposed as part and parcel of the virtuous or moral life, it does not rely on assumptions to make its points and in this way makes itself relevant to a wide array of readers. And its clear and accessible language is a refreshing and welcome change from the otherwise opaque discourse that all too often plagues works of theology and philosophy. Students, theologians of all faiths, parents, and anyone interested in virtue or morality will find benefit in this volume. At the very least, it will cause the reader to question his end as well as his means to that end.  One wishes that the volume had included accounts of virtue ethics from religious traditions other than Christianity; Jamie Schillinger’s contribution is a noble attempt wherein his comparative study of humility and justice in Christian and Islamic virtue responds to Kantian and secular accounts. Although it does not address the subject fully, it is  appropriate for the purposes of the volume, and a welcome addition to counterbalance the otherwise exclusively Christian accounts of virtue. 

Virtue and the Moral Life eschews the technical language and jargon that is characteristic of much of philosophical ethics and instead presents a contextual overview of some of the discussions in virtue ethics today. The question of where morality comes from or what constitutes a moral action or person is a timeless question. In one way or another, it informs the lives of theist and atheist alike, young and old, the personal and private as much as the social and political. And it is the pragmatism with which Virtue and the Moral Life treats the subject that is perhaps its most valuable contribution to the discourse on ethics—for it is a discourse that does not exist purely in theory but has always been, and must always continue to be, a lived discourse. 

Yusuf Lenfest  is a Research Fellow Harvard University