Van Norden Reviews Annas


Posted August 14, 1995

"Prudence and Morality in Ancient and Modern Ethics" ETHICS Vol. 102 No. 2, (January 1995): 241-257, by Julia Annas (University of Arizona)

Reviewed by Bryan Van Norden (Vassar College) (

Annas' article is the first of three in a "Symposium on Ancient Ethics." She begins with the observation that ancient ethics are "eudaemonist" in form. That is, they assume "that each of us has a vague and unarticulated idea of an overall or final goal in our life," which we label eudaimonia or happiness, "and the task of ethical theory is to give each person a clear, articulated, and correct account of this overall goal and how to achieve it" (p. 241; Annas defends this generalization, which is controversial as applied to Stoic and Epicurean ethics, in her The Morality of Happiness [Oxford, 1993]). Furthermore, whereas modern ethical theories (e.g., those of Kant and Sidgwick) typically distinguish between "moral reasoning" and "prudential reasoning," ancient ethical theories do not. How come? One "widespread" and "traditional" view (pp. 244, 245) is that ancient ethics assimilate morality to prudence: "ethical theory guides the agent from an intuitive, restrictive view of what is in her interests (money, power) to a more expanded and elevated view (the virtues)" (p. 244). This interpretation is sometimes joined with the claim that the Greeks took for granted what Nicholas White terms "fusionism": the view that individual good is not ultimately distinct from social or collective good (p. 245). However, Annas notes, ancient Greek literature provides ample illustration that "fusionism" was not taken for granted.

Annas thinks the traditional view is mistaken about anicent ethics in general. It would obviously be too much for one article to demonstrate this in the case of every ancient philosopher; Annas devotes the bulk of the article to demonstrating the inadequacey of the traditional interpretation for Stoic ethics. According to Annas, "at a certain point of our developing rationality, the Stoics claim that something becomes clear to a normally rational human, namely, that our employment of reason has itself a distinct kind of value, different from the value of the results that we employ it to achieve, and which we value from a self regarding viewpoint" (p. 249). (Unfortunately, as Annas admits, the Stoics do not offer a justification for this claim, or for the related claim that this "distinct kind of value" is moral value.) The result of this recognition is not that ordinary goods such as wealth and health cease to have value. Indeed, when "the agent performs a virtuous action, this will in fact be an action which tries to achieve some ordinary good" (p. 250). Nonetheless, "the value of virtuous activity so outweighs the kind of value that [ordinary goods] have, that their place in her life is that of the material for virtuous activity" (p. 253). In other words, what makes an action virtuous "is not that the agent does not really value [ordinary goods like] health, but that he aims to achieve health in a virtuous way" (p. 250).

Thus, the traditional interpretation misses the fact that "reasoning has its own characteristic aim, which the agent values for itself, and is not just valued for the results it assures for the agent" (p. 251). Furthermore, unlike modern ethical theorists, Annas says Stoics do not acknowledge "a distinct and coordinate claim of prudence, one which is recognizable as obviously rational and whose rationality can withstand the recognition of the claims of morality" (pp. 252, 253). One who thinks in terms of the modern prudence/morality dichotomy is "forgetting or repressing the insight that reasoning transcends its prudential employment and enables the agent to grasp the characteristic aim of morality" (p. 252).

The issues raised by the article are of general interest to ethicians, and, as one would expect from a scholar of Annas caliber, the article is clear and well argued. Limitations of space (and my own competence) prevent me from disputing her reading of Stoicism. Looking at Stoicism simply as an ethical theory, though, I must agree with Annas admirably candid comment that "there is much in the [Stoic account] which strikes moderns as underargued at best, implausible at worst" (p. 253). In contrast, whehter "the traditional view" is an accurate interpretation of ancient philosophy or not, it seems to me to be an interesting and promising ethical position in its own right.

Annas notes that modern ethical theories tend to assume "that purely prudential reasoning is an obvious, well entrenched, and unproblematic item in our moral theorizing." She suggests that part of the payoff of studying ancient ethics is that it may lead us to "ask ourselves whether this assumption has more than familiarity to recommend it" (pp. 256, 257). This is an excellent suggestion, but here again I wonder whether "the traditional view" is superior as an independent ethical theory. The traditional view suggests that we cannot know what prudence requires until we know what is in our interest. But we cannot know what is in "our" interest until we have worked out a view of what our self is. Hence, far from being "obvious" and "unproblematic," our conception of prudential reasoning is parasitic upon our answers to complicated and vexing questions about the nature of the self. This, it seems to me, kicks the legs out from under people like Thrasymachus and Gorgias.