Roger Crisp Interview

Dr. Roger Crisp

The following is an interview with Dr. Roger Crisp, Uehiro Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy, St Anne's College, University of Oxford. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Reasons and the Good, and dozens of journal articles in such journals as Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Journal of Moral Philosophy, Analysis, and Ethics, among many others.

Can you give us a very brief overview of your own work on character and/or virtue in recent years?

I edited and introduced a couple of collections on the virtues and virtue ethics in the 1990s. How Should One Live? contained commissioned pieces on various issues in virtue ethics, while Oxford Readings in Virtue Ethics (co-edited with Michael Slote) contained some of the most significant contributions to modern virtue ethics. Since that time, I’ve written some articles which express a certain scepticism about some of the claims that have been made about virtue and virtue ethics in the modern era. In “Does Modern Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” I argue against Elizabeth Anscombe’s suggestion that ancient ethics is radically different from, and preferable to, modern, and in a piece forthcoming in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research I suggest that modern virtue ethics, in its usual form, is in fact a version of standard deontological ethics. I’ve developed my position on ancient and modern ethics a little further, in connection with the work of Bernard Williams among others, in a paper on “Homeric Ethics” in the Oxford Handbook of the History of Ethics.

As far as ancient thought on virtue itself is concerned, I translated Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for Cambridge University Press and have written several articles on the topic, including one comparing Plato and Aristotle: “Socrates and Aristotle on Virtue and Happiness.” I’ve also written a little about utilitarianism and the virtues (including the utilitarianism of J.S. Mill), and about the relation between virtue ethics and virtue epistemology.

How did you get interested in issues related to character and virtue?

I suppose this happened first when I was reading texts by Plato and Aristotle as an undergraduate. Then I learned from some of my teachers – perhaps especially James Griffin – to question existing categories, and this led me into thinking about virtue and character and their role in the traditions of ethics I’d studied.

What do you see as areas of research where further work needs to be done on character or virtue?

I believe that genuine virtue ethics is not a theory of right action. Rather, it is the claim that virtue itself is of non-instrumental value. That claim, which was indeed central to much ancient philosophical thinking, has dropped largely out of view in modern ethics (except that done by those working on ancient philosophy) and I would like to see it centre-stage again.

Our views on virtue and character have a history, and I believe that this history ought to be studied more closely by philosophers. And here I’m talking not only about evolutionary history (though that is important), but also the cultural history of the last two-and-a-half millennia.

What book(s) or philosopher(s) has been most influential on you in general?

If I had to pick one book, it would be Henry Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics (which in fact has some extremely insightful things to say about virtue, especially in book 3, chapters 2 and 14).