Putting on Virtue
The Legacy of the Splendid Vices
Jennifer A. Herdt
University of Chicago Press, $55, 454 pp.
Since the mid-twentieth century, “virtue ethics” has staged a comeback among both theologians and philosophers. Reacting against the formalism of moral theory since Kant, scholars have drawn attention to the ways in which our actions are determined by habits, qualities of character, and shared conceptions about what constitutes the good life. This seems to make better sense of how we are shaped by our fulfillment of social roles and how we nurture children in patterns of conduct. Advocates of virtue ethics stress that we are trained to develop habits and moral beliefs, as opposed to a simple application of the categorical imperative or mere recourse to notions of autonomy, sincerity, and self-expression. Such considerations have led to a retrieval of Aristotle and Aquinas as key resources for contemporary philosophical ethics in the work of Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Alasdair MacIntyre. At the same time, the example of Jesus and the ways we are shaped by the practices of the church have been afforded a more central role in accounts of Christian action in the theological ethics of Stanley Hauerwas and others.
In this landmark study, Jennifer Herdt, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, offers a detailed investigation of the handling of the virtues in a succession of key Christian thinkers. Traversing the work of Augustine,...