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Which Variety of Virtue Ethics?


As interest in virtue ethics has developed and spread, a variety of accounts of virtue, and of virtue ethics, has emerged. We are now familiar not only with neo-Aristotelian accounts (still the most popular) but also target-centered, exemplarist, agent-based and sentimentalist accounts, as well as accounts based on Kant, utilitarianism and other theories. This blossoming in a former desert is to be heartily welcomed, but it also produces a new issue for virtue ethics. How are we to evaluate, or even compare, these different versions? If we ignore tensions and conflicts between different versions, virtue may appear to be too pliable a concept, easily integrated into widely different theories and so raising doubts about its robustness as a central ethical concept. Yet attempts to judge virtue, and virtue ethics, by fitness, or not, to prior constraints on ethical concepts or theories risk begging important questions. With this in mind, I begin on a comparative project by (briefly) setting out two versions of virtue ethics and asking how well they compare in responding to some tasks and expectations of ethical theory. This is not a (hopeless) attempt to contrast theory with something completely non-theoretical, but simply a first move in the complex issue of asking what ethical theories do for us, and which do it best. The two accounts are those of Aristotle and Nietzsche.


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  1. 1.

    Cf D 102.

  2. 2.

    Cf BGE ‘Maxims and Interludes’ 107.

  3. 3.

    Cf GS 169.

  4. 4.

    The choice is partially defended at D 392.

  5. 5.

    Cf GS 9.

  6. 6.

    In the “Our Virtues” section of BGE the virtues of different generations are contrasted (214, 224).

  7. 7.

    Cf GS 120, where again it is not clear that Nietzsche thinks that there is no general norm.

  8. 8.

    Cf D 30 on “refined cruelty as virtue”, where Nietzsche speculates on its origins, and D 206.

  9. 9.

    Cf D 264, 468.

  10. 10.

    D 18 and 551.

  11. 11.

    D 392 and D 293.

  12. 12.

    BGE 284 (contrast D 556).

  13. 13.

    D 452.

  14. 14.

    In Z I.

  15. 15.

    Swanton (2003, 2005, 2006).

  16. 16.

    For an excellent survey and criticism, see Russell (2009), Part III.

  17. 17.

    See Kahneman (2011), Haidt (2001, 2006).

  18. 18.

    See Knobe and Leiter (2007).

  19. 19.

    Merrit et al. (2010), Alfano (2013), Adams (2006).

  20. 20.

    Nietzsche himself faces this issue, and accepts the idea that what we think of as the self is a fiction.

  21. 21.

    Reason itself is, on this picture, just another drive; see D 109 (above, p. 0).

  22. 22.

    Haidt (2006), 4. The third chapter of his (2012) is titled ‘Elephants rule’.

  23. 23.

    Cicero on the Republic Book 2, 67.


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Annas, J. (2017). Which Variety of Virtue Ethics?. In: Carr, D., Arthur, J., Kristjánsson, K. (eds) Varieties of Virtue Ethics. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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