Aristotelian virtue ethics achieved something of a resurgence in the twentieth century. Was this progress or retrogression?
Younghoon Seo, Chadwick International School, South Korea
Winner of the 2019 Philosophy Prize | 8 min read
Progress and Retrogression in Philosophy
In the physical world, time measures progress and retrogression as steps along the linear timeline based on the empirical evidentiary facts. These facts are verified or falsified as time passes, which inextricably links time and progress. For example, replacing the heliocentrism with geocentrism is retrogressive because the astronomical evidence accumulated through time discredits the latter. However, progress in philosophy is incompatible with such a view because philosophy belongs to the abstract world, where the lack of empirical factual basis obfuscates the link between time and progress. Hence, a step backward in time does not necessarily equate to retrogression: we cannot say that the Aristotelian concept of justice is retrogressive compared to the Rawlsian concept purely based on the concept of time.
To answer the question, we need to construct a method that measures progress in philosophy. I seek to achieve this by asserting that, in philosophy, a certain degree of falsification is achievable. Utilizing philosophical inquiry and thought experiments, we can rationally assess the logical validity of theories and assign “true” and “false” status to philosophical thoughts. With this in mind, I propose to employ the fourth process of the Popperian model of progress - “t2 has passed tests which t1 failed to pass” - divided into the following two conditions:
1. When the new theory provides a logical response to the deficiencies of existing thoughts.
2. When the new theory can be rationally justified from criticisms.
The first condition is crucial because the new theory must be a development from the previous idea to be considered as progress, where development is defined as rectifying the existing deficiencies. If not, the new theory fails the tests that existing theories had failed, which condemns it to the same false status as the existing theories. The second condition indicates that the new theory cannot be unjustifiably false, since no philosophers, seekers of the truth, would consciously advocate for a false theory. Holding false position necessitates irrational dogmatism, which deprives philosophy of truth and reason, of its goal and foundation.
Utilizing these two conditions, I contend that Aristotelian virtue ethics was progress from Kantian ethics and utilitarianism.
First Condition: Overcoming Social and Moral Schizophrenia
The sense of moral obligation thoroughly pervades within Kantian ethics and utilitarianism. Kant writes that only “an action done from duty has moral worth”; likewise, Bentham states that pain and pleasure “point out what we ought to do.” When used as moral terms, “ought” and “duty” adopt the special connotations of being obliged, bound, or required, which are concepts that necessitate a presence of law. This insertion of law into ethics has its genealogical genesis in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, from its notions of the divine law and God (the law-giver). Although the Enlightenment rejected the existence of this divine law-giver, Enlightenment duty-based theories have preserved the Judaeo-Christian concepts of law-based obligation. In other words, they have clung onto the remnants of religious tradition despite the Nietzschean concept of the “Death of God.” Since the Enlightenment eliminated the notion of God, the core pillar of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, it becomes illogical for Enlightenment theories to maintain other aspects of the belief that it subverted. As Anscombe described, “it is as if the notion ‘criminal’ were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished.” Such phenomenon depicts my notion of “social schizophrenia,” where the societal disharmony arises from the simultaneous acceptance and rejection of Judaeo-Christian tradition.
To circumvent social schizophrenia, three non-divine alternatives to divine law have been proposed as the moral norm: society, contract, and human virtue. However, if society were the moral standard, an individual is subjected to the circumstantial moral luck concerning whether the rules of the society are good or evil (e.g., 2019 Geneva vs. 1939 Munich). On the other hand, contracts cannot be the standard because people are ignorant of their being under a moral contractual obligation, when, unlike law, it is impossible to be under a contract without being aware. Thus, given the shortcomings of other alternatives, human virtue is the ideal moral norm. However, this outlook on human virtue replaces the Judaeo-Christian concept of “law-based obligation” with the Aristotelian “good man,” who is the rational “standard” of a virtuous and ethical life. Adopting human virtue as the moral norm entails the elimination of “moral obligation” and the rejection duty-based theories in favor of Aristotelian virtue ethics.
In short, there are two approaches to overcome social schizophrenia:
1. Maintain duty-based theories but re-establish God as the divine law-giver (divine law as the norm)
2. Replace duty-based theories with Aristotelian virtue ethics (virtue as the norm)
The first choice reverts the secular philosophical progress since the Enlightenment, and, consequently, normative ethics retrogresses to infallible religious dogma, in which stagnation is the only possibility. Contrarily, the second option is more compatible with the progress of Enlightenment secularism in its overcoming of social schizophrenia.
Kantian ethics and utilitarianism establish reason as the basis of moral duties and obligations. However, as evident in Kant’s rejection of emotions as a moral motivation or Bentham’s exclusion of motives from the list of variables for the felicific calculus, these theories eliminate personal motives - “values of personal and interpersonal relations and activities” - from ethical decisions. We can deduce from this that there are moral circumstances where reason and motives clash in a state of disharmony. Michael Stocker calls such phenomenon “moral schizophrenia,” which he describes as “not to be moved by what one values” and vice versa. Like social schizophrenia, moral schizophrenia raises detrimental implications to Kantian ethics and utilitarianism.
Let us consider the Trolly Problem to illustrate moral schizophrenia, ceteris paribus. A trolley is headed towards one’s child, who is on the main track. The moral agent can pull the lever to divert the trolley to the sidetrack, which contains three thieves.
Based purely on personal motives, the agent would resolutely pull the lever because the paternal love for one’s own child surpasses all the other relationships. However, a utilitarian agent, whose reason values mathematical utility, cannot sacrifice three lives for one, since utilitarianism regards every person as no more or less than a single human being. Similarly, a Kantian, whose reason values the categorical imperative (particularly the Second Formulation in this case) as the duty, cannot deliberately condemn the three people as means to the child’s end. For both cases, the agent experiences moral schizophrenia due to the dichotomy between the personal motive and reason.
As shown above, since moral actions lead to discontent in lieu of fulfillment, people are unable to attain the good life (eudaimonia) when reason and motive are in disharmony. Conversely, to actualize eudaimonia, one needs to live in accordance with virtue, which harmonizes reason and motive. I believe the reason is that Aristotle includes emotion within virtue ethics along with reason, since motives such as love and friendship are emotion-based, not reason-based. Aristotle holds that it is the characteristic of virtue to allow emotions “at the right times” and “in the right fashion.” Here, Aristotle is not asserting emotions over reason, since the Aristotelian doctrine of the mean keeps emotions within the reins of reason. Instead, he is saying that one must possess a harmony of motive (emotion) and reason, as the purpose of virtue is to attain eudaimonia, not to fulfill a duty. To return to the Trolley Problem, a virtuous person would pull the lever based on the virtue of love as the harmony of the motive of parental love and the reasoning that a parent has a duty towards the child. Hence, unlike Kantian ethics and utilitarianism, Aristotelian virtue ethics succeeds in overcoming moral schizophrenia.
Second Condition: Defense of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics
Critics assert that self-centered ethical theories are retrogressive, as they claim that ethical theories progressed during the Enlightenment by placing the interests of others at the center. Prima facie, Aristotelian virtue ethics is self-centered: the purpose of a virtuous life is to gain eudaimonia for oneself.
Philippa Foot defends virtue as being “beneficial either to others, or to its possessor as well as to others.” Through the virtue of charity, the principal recipients of happiness are others. Furthermore, the virtue of justice is “giving people what they deserve” based on merit, without particular regard to oneself. However, this raises a deeper criticism that a virtuous agent generally disregards the virtuous character of others. From an act of virtue, the virtuous agent receives the most valuable thing (virtuous character for eudaimonia), while others receive momentary happiness. This “virtuous-character-for-self-and-happiness-for-others” mentality treats others and their happiness as a secondary means for the primary achievement of eudaimonia.
Intriguingly, David Solomon employs tu quoque (partner-in-crime) approach to reveal that this kind of self-centeredness is not unique to virtue ethics. In Kantian ethics, “it is self-contradictory to demand that I do (make it my duty to do) what only the other person himself can do.” We can deduce from the previous statement that Kantian ethics is self-centered, considering that there is no duty requiring one to help others to act based on duty and achieve moral status. More subtly, this asymmetry between self and others is also observable in utilitarianism, a principle where an agent endeavors to make others benevolent as well. The benevolence of others is “only of instrumental concern” (to increase utility), while benevolence of self is more than such: benevolence of self is the perspective that gives the “moral significance” to the benevolence of others, but cannot “attain moral significance from this perspective because it is the perspective,” which grants oneself the exclusive “special status.” Since self-centeredness is fundamentally shared amongst prevalent ethical theories, we, as human beings, must ask whether the complete detachment of self, or absolute self-less-ness, is even plausible.
The purpose of normative ethics is “to discover what the right action is.” However, people criticize that Aristotelian virtue ethics lacks explicit action-guidance for all moral circumstances, that it is unable to clearly identify right and wrong, contrary to Kantian ethics and utilitarianism. This raises the fundamental issue of whether Aristotelian virtue ethics is a theory of normative ethics.
Firstly, I affirm that virtue ethics can provide specific action-guidelines. The Aristotelian mean doctrine defines vice (excess and deficiency) and virtue (mean of two vices) as “prohibition” and “positive instruction” that manifest clear specifications of “right action.” These definitions enable us the capability of identifying right and wrong, which we can apply in moral circumstances as the guiding principles.
For those declaring virtue ethics as retrogression due to its lack of explicitness, they have to ponder whether explicit guidance for all moral possibilities is genuinely feasible. Sarah Broadie maintains that other theories fail to emulate the vast applicability of virtue ethics because only virtue ethics recognizes the impossibility of providing explicit action-guidance for every moral scenario “in itself,” considering that what is right “always depends on the particulars.” Although Kantian ethics and utilitarianism claim to provide explicit moral guidance for all possibilities based on absolute principles (categorical imperative and utility), countless cases
expose their inadequacy, e.g., lying to a Nazi officer about a Jew hiding in the basement (Kantian ethics) or demagogically framing Jews for the sake of nation’s overall peace and stability (utilitarianism). However, since each moral circumstance is unique, the Aristotelian doctrine of the mean is not a rigid mathematical mean between two vices but instead is a flexible concept with the capacity to tailor to particular circumstances based on the agent’s practical and intellectual reasoning. However, unlike Nietzschean ubermensch, the standard of judgment is not the arbitrary individual will, but is rather the established definitions of virtues and vices. All things considered, the lack of explicit action-guidance for all possibilities, in reality, is a strength that enables a vast application of Aristotelian virtue ethics.
In conclusion, Aristotelian virtue ethics successfully fulfills the two established conditions of philosophical progress. Although virtue ethics belonged to an era two thousand years back in time, its resurgence in the twentieth century was a step forward in normative ethics.
1 Alex Deagon, “Popper or Kuhn: Truth and the Progress of Science” (paper, Perspectives on Progress Conference, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 27-29 Nov. 2013, Academia),. 3,
2 Immauel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. and trans. Allen W. Wood (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), 15.
3 Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Kitchener: Batoche Books, 2000), 14.
4 Gertrude Anscombe, "Modern Moral Philosophy." Philosophy 33, no. 124 (1958): 5.
5 Ibid., 12.
6 Ibid., 13-15.
7 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. trans. F. H. Peters (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1893), 74.
8 Michael Stocker, "The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories." The Journal of Philosophy 73, no. 14 (1976): 455. doi:10.2307/2025782.
9 Ibid., 454.
10 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 46.
11 John Hacker-Wright. Pilippa Foot’s Moral Thought (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), 77
12 Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 187.
13 Immanuel Kant, The Doctrine of Virtue: Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mary J. Gregor (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964), 44.
14 Yong Huang, Why Be Moral?: Learning from the Neo-Confucian Cheng Brothers (New York: SUNY Press, 2014), 84
15 Roger Crisp, “What is Virtue Ethics?” Practical Ethics Bite. University of Oxford, 22 Sep. 2014, podcasts.ox.ac.uk/what-virtue-ethics.
16 Rosalind Hursthouse, “Virtue theory and Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 20, no. 3 (1991): 227.
17 Sarah Broadie, Ethics With Aristotle (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 102.
Given the broadness of the topic and the word limit, I have focused on the evaluation of the resurgence of Aristotelian virtue ethics as progress or retrogression exclusively within the field of normative ethics, despite the resurgence of virtue (aretaic turn) within other philosophical fields, such as epistemology, political philosophy, and legal theory. Furthermore, this essay narrows the field of normative ethics in the twentieth century to its two most dominant and prevalent ethical theories: utilitarianism and Kantian ethics. The answer to the question requires the comparison of Aristotelian virtue ethics with the existing ethical theories in the twentieth century. If too many theories are taken into consideration, this paper would not be able to delve into thorough depth, considering the word restriction. Therefore, comparing Aristotelian virtue ethics to utilitarianism and Kantian ethics as the representation of the twentieth century normative ethics prior the resurgence of virtue ethics would be the most coherent and efficient method for the evaluation of virtue ethics as progress or retrogression.
Anscombe, Gertrude. "Modern Moral Philosophy." Philosophy 33, no. 124 (1958): 1-19.
Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. Translated by F. H. Peters. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1893.
Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Kitchener: Batoche Books, 2000.
Broadie, Sarah. Ethics With Aristotle. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Crisp, Roger. “What is Virtue Ethics?” Practical Ethics Bites. University of Oxford, 22 Sep. 2014.
Deagon, Alex. “Popper or Kuhn: Truth and the Progress of Science.” Paper presented at Perspectives on Progress
Conference, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 27-29 Nov. 2013, Academia,
Hacker-Wright, John. Philippa Foot’s Moral Thought. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.
Huang, Yong. Why Be Moral?: Learning from the Neo-Confucian Cheng Brothers. New York: SUNY Press, 2014.
Hursthouse, Rosalind. “Virtue theory and Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 20, no. 3 (1991): 223-246
Kant, Immanuel. The Doctrine of Virtue: Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals. Edited by Mary J. Gregor. New
York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964.
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Edited and translated by Allen W. Wood. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002.
Sandel, Michael. Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
Stocker, Michael. "The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories." The Journal of Philosophy 73, no. 14 (1976): 453-66. doi:10.2307/2025782.