a1 Philosophy, Columbia University
It is well-known that in recent years, alongside the familiar forms of modern ethical theory, such as consequentialism, deontology, and rights theory, there has been a resurgence of interest in what goes by the name of “virtue ethics” — forms of ethical theory which give a prominent status to the virtues, and to the idea that an agent has a “final end” which the virtues enable her to achieve. With this has come an increase of theoretical (as opposed to antiquarian) interest in ancient ethical theories, particularly Aristotle's, an interest which has made a marked difference in the way ethics is pursued in the Anglo-Saxon and European intellectual worlds.
In this essay, I shall not be discussing modern virtue ethics, which is notably protean in form and difficult to pin down. I shall be focusing on ancient eudaimonistic ethical theories, for in their case we can achieve a clearer discussion of the problem I wish to discuss (a problem which arises also for modern versions of virtue ethics which hark back to the ancient theories in their form).
* I am grateful for helpful discussion of this essay from this volume's editors and contributors, especially from Judith Jarvis Thomson, Shelly Kagan, John Kekes, Wayne Sumner, Warren Quinn, and Fred D. Miller, Jr.