Religious Studies | Studies in Religious Ethics: Religion, Virtue, and the Good Life
R571 | 28621 | A. Stalnaker


What is the relevance of ancient discussions of character and the good life to contemporary
ethical and political reflection? Starting approximately 25 years ago with the publication of
Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, an influential movement in philosophical and religious
ethics has developed that advocates making the study of character, virtue, culture, and
tradition central in ethics, and arguably politics as well. While originally focused on
“retrieving” pre-modern notions of virtue from ancient Western philosophy, later
proponents of this movement have attended to similar concerns in Christian and Confucian
traditions, modern Western figures such as Hume, Kant, and Dewey, democratic writers
such as Walt Whitman, and contemporary versions of a feminist ethics of care. Part of what
makes virtue ethics fascinating is the way its champions range across personal and
historical narrative, philosophical argument, cultural criticism, religious polemic, and
political debate. This course will attempt to survey this varied landscape, noting both high
and low points. Main topics of debate will include: divergent assessments of the moral
resources of the modern West; the relations of “human nature,” tradition, and ethics;
whether or not there might be a single, universal list of the most important virtues and
vices; advantages and disadvantages for ethics of focusing on character and virtue rather
than rights, duties, and consequences; whether aristocratic and patriarchal accounts of the
good life can be made congruent with modern commitments to democracy and the equal
dignity of women and men. As a seminar the course will emphasize discussion. Writing
assignments will range from short response papers to a longer final paper on a topic of
each student’s choice.