Review of Michael Austin’s "Virtues in Action"

Posted on 13 August 2014



Here’s a draft of a review of Virtues in Action, edited by Michael Austin.  As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are most welcome.


This ain’t your grandma’s virtue theory.

This ain’t your grandma’s virtue theory.

In Michael Austin’s bold new collection, Virtues in Action: New Essays in Applied Virtue Ethics, gone are the pretentions of defining right action generically as what a virtuous person would do in the circumstances, while acting in and from character, provided that a virtuous person would end up in those circumstances, and what a virtuous person would advise otherwise.  Instead, we find detailed explorations of specific virtues and vices related to specific fields of activity and problems, with attention (some of it careful – some less so) to relevant empirical literature and elbowroom for alternative normative approaches and conceptions.  Aristotle tells us about courage, temperance, generosity, magnificence, magnanimity, even temper, pride, justice, and friendship.  The first wave neo-Aristotelians such as Geach (1977) tell us about prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and charity.

Contributors to the present volume tell us about instilling openmindedness and curiosity in students (Bassham), promoting a sense of competitive honor and magnificence in business executives (Demetriou), fostering humility through sport (Austin), cultivating sexual tenderness (Van Hooft), reconciling Mencius’s sprout of ren with Aristotle’s notion of virtue-habituation (Giebel), promoting pacifism because the training of soldiers harms their character (Trivigno), the relation between virtue and abortion (again – Flannagan), developing Buddhist compassion in the face of environmental catastrophe (Frakes), learning to live with the rest of nature through ecological humility (Pianalto), learning to hope to learn (Snow), translating virtue theory into the contemporary dual-process model of psychology (Tessman), and charitably debating fraught political and moral issues (Garcia & King).

That’s twelve chapters in just over two hundred pages – roughly 7000 words per chapter.  Naturally, then, many of the discussions are truncated.  In some cases, this makes the chapter a breezy jaunt through a novel topic; in others, the reader is left feeling that the discussion was facile and superficial.  To put the chapters in perspective, Austin has arranged them into four parts: professional (education, business, and sport), social (sex, partiality, war, and abortion), environmental, and intellectual.  Some of this categorization works better than others.  For instance, Bassham’s chapter on education concerns not the virtues of educators but the prospects and problems of educating for virtue – especially intellectual virtue.  It might fit better in the last part.  Likewise, Tessman’s chapter on dual-process theory might have found a more natural home among the papers on social virtue.

Given the diversity of topics covered in this volume, few readers will be equally interested in all of the papers.  Two of them are must-reads: “Sex, Temperance, and Virtue” by Stan van Hooft and “A Virtue Ethical Case for Pacifism” by Franco Trivigno.  I’ll describe these two chapters in some detail below.  Most of the rest of the chapters are quite readable.  I’ll give summarize their main points.  A few of the chapters are notably weak; I’ll briefly mention why.

Van Hooft explores the relation between virtue theory and sexual activity.  He uses as a stalking horse Raja Halwani’s (2010) claim that temperance-intemperance is the sole dimension on which virtue theorists should consider sex and sexual activity.  Halwani argues that there are two aspects to temperance: rational control and regulation over sexual behavior and mentation, and avoiding the use of independently wrong actions (lying, stealing, rape, injustice, unkindness) as means to sexual ends.  Van Hooft correctly points out that the second aspect has nothing to do with sexuality specifically, but that the first aspect applies also to moderating other natural bodily appetites related to eating and drinking.  In other words, neither aspect of sexual temperance, as Halwani characterizes it, is distinctively sexual.

On Van Hooft’s account, this error replicates Aristotle’s own failure to think through the differences between sex on the one hand and food and drink on the other hand.  As he pertly puts it, “If sex raised only the same ethical problems as eating and drinking, the paradigm case of sexual activity would be masturbation” (p. 64).  Such a conception of sex is, obviously, “seriously deficient” in at least three ways.  First, sex – even masturbation, which often involves fantasizing and imagination – is typically social.  Second, as Freud taught us, sex is polymorphously perverse, capable of eroticizing just about anything.[1]  Third, unlike eating and drinking, the enjoyment of sex is often not only passionate but agentic.  These considerations lead Van Hooft to conclude that, pace Halwani, the distinctively sexual virtue is tenderness, not temperance.  Such tenderness answers not just to the value of moderation but also to such values as agency, privacy, timeliness, intimacy, generosity, considerateness, and trust.

Trivigno mounts an argument for contingent pacifism based on psychological and related investigations of moral injury to soldiers.  The ingredients for this argument are a proper understanding of what contemporary military training does to the moral character of soldiers, the knock-on consequences of this training for the soldiers, and the knock-on consequences of this training for other people (enemies in combat, civilians and bystanders in war zones, and soldiers’ civilian compatriots).  Trivigno argues only for contingent pacificism, which he describes as “a very strong presumption against the use of military force” given current military training techniques (p. 86).  What are these techniques, and why are they so objectionable?  The vast majority of adult humans harbor a deep resistance to killing conspecifics, which seems to be bound up with both empathy and the natural tendency to see others, even enemy combatants, as human beings.  Studies reveal that during World War II, for instance, between 80% and 85% of American soldiers in combat did not fire their weapons or fired them harmlessly into the sky.  In the last six decades or so, militaries have developed techniques for overcoming this resistance to killing.  Trivigno focuses on three: automating the process of firing weapons through operant conditioning, euphemizing the act of killing, and dehumanizing enemies and potential enemies.

Through conditioning, soldiers learn to fire their weapons without deliberating about the nature of their actions.  Thus, they become capable of killing without realizing in the moment that that’s what they’re doing.  The other two techniques are meant to ensure that they aren’t later debilitated by the recognition of what they’ve done.  Action, as Davidson (1980) taught us, is always intentional under some description.  If the only available description for what you’ve done is “killing another person” and you’ve embodied (as almost all of us have) a norm against killing, then even if you judge that you did the right thing, you may feel devastated.  Moder military training erects a Potemkin village of euphemisms for the horrific actions that soldiers are sometimes ordered to commit.  You’re not “killing a person.”  You’re “servicing a target,” “achieving an objective,” “wasting a towel-head.”  The first two euphemisms work through sanitization.  The third transitions to the final technique: dehumanization.  As Tirrell (2012) explores in more detail, dehumanization is a prelude to and perhaps even a constitutive part of atrocity.  The Nazis described Jews as vermin.  During the Rwandan genocide, Hutu Power called Tutsis cockroaches.  Modern military training[2] typically severs the empathic connection between the soldier and everyone other than his comrades (since everyone else is at least a potential enemy) by portraying the other in demonic or bestial language and imagery.

Shocking.  Horrifying.  Depressing.  What does it have to do with virtue and pacifism?  Trivigno traces two main connections.  First, the capacity for empathy, while hardly sufficient for good character and flourishing, is a constituent of it.  By destroying or corrupting soldiers’ capacity for empathy, modern military training harms their moral character and their chances for flourishing.  Second, the techniques used in modern military training (automaticity, euphemism, and dehumanization) are too coarse-grained to prevent extremely bad consequences such as atrocity.  Given the way soldiers are currently trained, we should expect incidents like My Lai, Abu Ghraib, and the Fallujah massacre as a normal part of war.  Expressions of shock in the face of such atrocities reflects either ignorance or wishful thinking.

Although Van Hooft’s and Trivigno’s contributions stand out, there are plenty of other solid chapters in this collection.  Gregory Bassham furnishes six reasons to prefer a model of education in which students cultivate virtues (intellectual and perhaps even moral) rather than merely acquiring knowledge.  First, historically, this is how education has been conceptualized.  Second, this is what liberal universities are explicitly committed to in their mission statements.  Third, since a university education is meant to have a “deep and positive impact” on students, they should aim for virtue, which is deeper than knowledge.  Fourth, arguably an incomplete education that involves virtue but not knowledge is more easily parleyed into a complete education than one that involves knowledge but not virtue.  Fifth, focusing on virtue-development makes education more of a collaboration among educators, students, families, and communities.  Finally, education intrinsically aims at personal development, which includes among other things virtue.

Dan Demetriou argues that, regardless of one’s political preferences, the rapid rise in income and wealth inequality throughout the developed world should be troubling.  In response to this, he recommends promoting competitive honor and magnificence as virtues for business executives and other obscenely wealthy people (e.g., workers in the finance industry).  There’s always more money to be had.  But being the most honored (or the second most-honored, or the third) is an artificially scarce resource.  For this reason, it would be better for everyone if people with the absurd amounts of power currently afforded to the ultra-wealthy pursued the prestige that accrues to magnificent generosity than yet more wealth.  Demetriou may be right, though if he is, one is forced to ask he awkward question: if we’ve been reduced to encouraging super-managers (as Piketty 2014 calls them) to voluntarily redistribute their ill-gotten gains, perhaps more drastic solutions are called for.

In his chapter in his own book, Michael Austin argues that sport – even if it hasn’t been successfully harnessed for such purposes, can and should be aimed at cultivating and displaying virtue the moral virtues of athletes.  First, there are positive values embedded in the practice of sport.  Second, participating in sport can foster humility, as one submits oneself the standards inherent in the practice.  Third, sport can be used in the cultivation of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice.  Austin’s account of how sport can be used in this way is – for reasons of space, perhaps among others – brief.  It also makes dubious use of the empirical literature on ego depletion (pp. 43-4).  One question that Austin doesn’t ask but which clearly must be considered is how sport relates not to participants but to spectators and those related to them.  Does watching football (American or otherwise) on the television in any way help a spectator to cultivate virtue?  Does it contribute to the spectator’s vice?[3]

Chris Frakes argues that, while Western conceptions of compassion may leave on debilitated in the face of monumental environmental degradation and injustice, Buddhist compassion may be more robust.  In particular, someone who embodies Buddhist compassion is able to direct her attention and action well in the face of suffering, and is motivated to adopt an environmentally mindful lifestyle.

Nancy Snow discusses hope as an intellectual virtue.  In so doing, she distinguishes the attitude of hope, which has particular ends, from the agentic disposition of hope, which does not.  To hope for X is to perceive X as good but regard its occurrence as uncertain, and in so doing to exercise imagination and agency to see to it that X occurs.  The disposition of hopefulness, in turn, involves being inclined to have the attitude of hope towards various ends.  According to Snow, hope motivates the pursuit of knowledge by holding out the possibility that one will discover the truth, immunizes the hoper against setbacks and frustrations, and thus constitutes a method for acquiring knowledge.  Perhaps surprisingly, Snow fails to consider the ancient fatalist conception of hope exemplified in the myth of Pandora’s box: what if hope is the greatest of evils because it leads us to persevere through suffering for no reason?

The last chapter worth reading is co-authored by Robert Garcia and Nathan King, who document two fallacies that tend to undermine frank and engaged discussion of morally fraught issues: assailment-by-entailment and the attitude-to-agent fallacy.  Assailment-by-entailment is basically a failure of perspective-taking.  You believe that p entails q, and thatq is morally repugnant.  Your interlocutor asserts that p.  You infer that your interlocutor not only believes that p but also believes (like you) that p entails q and therefore believes thatq.  In fact, she rejects q or at least suspends judgment on it.  You thus end up attributing to her a belief that you find repugnant and that she is not committed to.  The attitude-to-agent fallacy is a relative of the fundamental attribution error, in which people all-too-quickly infer something deep about an agent from something superficial, such as a one-off behavior or the expression of an isolated attitude.  Against these errors, Garcia & King recommend cultivating and expressing intellectual humility and charity of interpretation.

I’m afraid I cannot recommend reading the chapters by Heidi Giebel, Matthew Flanagan, Matthew Pianalto, or Lisa Tessman.  Giebel’s contribution merely summarizes some well-known views of Mencius and Aristotle.  Her attempt to deal with the threat of situationism to virtue theory is shockingly under-informed.  Flannagan engages in reactionary turn of the screw in the interpretation and response to Hursthouse’s arguments about abortion.  Pianalto serves up character assassination rather than argument, suggesting that “the person who gets depressed when considering his or her life from a wider perspective feels this way because the wider perspective challenges his or her own attitude of self-importance,” belying an “attitude of arrogant or vain self-importance” (p. 140).  A word to the not-so-wise: when your best evidence is your own phenomenology, don’t accuse others of vice for honestly reporting their own phenomenology.

Finally, Lisa Tessman does that voodoo that she does, arguing in her chapter that virtue ethics is consistent with the prominent dual-process framework in contemporary psychology, and that virtue thus understood means that lots of decisions are tragic decisions (in this case, pitting automatic, affect-laden, “System 1” intuitions against effortful, deliberative “System 2” judgments).  An keen observer of Tessman’s publication record might note that this is more or less the conclusion of everything she’s published in the last decade years.

In sum, the chapters by Van Hooft and Trivigno alone make Virtues in Action a worthy acquisition.  Many of the other chapters are edifying.  A few are best avoided.  Such are the virtues – and the vices – of Virtues in Action.




Davidson, D. (1980). Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford UP.

Geach, P. (1977). The Virtues. Cambridge UP.

Halwani, R. (2010). Philosophy of Love, Sex, and Marriage: An Introduction. New York: Routledge.

Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Belknap.

Tirrell, L. (2012). Genocidal language games. In I. Maitra & M. K. McGowan (eds.), Speech and Harm: Controversies over Free Speech, pp. 174-221. Oxford UP.


[1] My favorite example is this exchange from the BBC show “Blackadder”:

SAMUEL JOHNSON: Ah, I see you’ve underlined a few: ‘bloomers’, ‘burp’, ‘fart’, ‘fiddle’, ‘fornicate’?


JOHNSON: Sir!  I hope you’re not using the first English dictionary to look up rude words!

EDMUND: I wouldn’t be too hopeful; that’s what all the other ones will be used for.

BALDRICK: Sir, can I look up ‘turnip’?

EDMUND: ‘Turnip’ isn’t a rude word, Baldrick.

BALDRICK: It is if you sit on one.

[2] And, I should add, police training at least in the United States, given the rapid militarization of law enforcement.

[3] The question is serious.  Domestic violence spikes in countries that endure losses in the World Cup.