Issue #16 September 2018

A Problem Based Reading of Nussbaum’s Virtue Ethics

Martin Roth — Installation — (2018)

It is customary, when starting an article about virtue ethics, to mention that it is ‘gaining in popularity’ or has been ‘getting a lot of attention in recent years’. In mentioning this I’ve more or less said it, so I’ll just dive right in.

‘Virtue Ethics’ in its modern incarnation is often seen as an alternative to ‘principlist’ ethical theories. The two big projects of this latter type are Utilitarianism and Kantian ethical theory. ‘Principlist’ because both of these projects assume that the question of ethics is the hunt for some clinching principle towards which we just need to conform our actions. Virtue ethics, it is thought, offers itself as an alternative; seeing in ethics a question of multiple virtues (justice, honesty, kindness, generosity, benevolence, friendship, etc), not singular principles. Against the cool, calculating Utilitarians, and the duty bound hyper-rational Kantians, virtue ethics focuses on questions of character, the complexity of lived situations, and interpretation: rather than “what should I do?” the question becomes “what sort of person should I be?”.

This has largely been financed by a return to Aristotle, but also Hume, and even the ‘virtue based’ writings of Kant, Mill and Bentham. Nussbaum has argued (1999) that ‘virtue ethics’ is not a useful category at all, but instead loosely picks out a number of critical projects utilizing a host of theoretical resources, with a host of targets, more or less only unified by their rejection of the ethical paradigm that has reigned supreme in the anglosphere since the 1950’s. That is, a particular approach by both Utilitarians and Kantians that conceives the paradigmatic ethical object as the ‘choice’, free from all situational and particular conditions. Hence the proliferation of ‘trolley problem’ like problems. The thinkers who get lumped into the bucket of ‘virtue ethics’, she writes, have a huge number of different axes to grind against a huge number of grindstones. Anti-Utilitarians, Anti-Kantians, Neo-Aristotelians, Neo-Humeans, Nietzscheans, Feminists, and Existentialists…

Nussbaum is firmly in the Neo-Aristotelian camp. Her paper, Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach (1988/2013), presents a reading of Aristotle’s philosophy attempting to answer the charges of parochialism and relativism often leveled against an ethics that tries to base itself on virtues and ‘life worlds’ (i.e. aren’t virtues like ‘generosity’ just cultural, historical items?). I want to do a reading of her paper here teasing out some of the (markedly Deleuzian) implications of it. I argue that the interpretation of Aristotle she presents is not just an ‘alternative to’ principlist ethics, but a radically different ethical ontology. I feel this point has been underappreciated. That is to say, the ‘virtue ethics’ Nussbaum presents is not just a simple matter of offering ‘virtues’ as an alternative, or addition, to ‘utility’ or ‘duty’, but a new paradigm altogether.

Nussbaum’s Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

In Nussbaum’s interpretation of Aristotle, virtues precipitate on domains of human activity. It is not the case that there is simply something that it is to be, say, “generous”, considered in isolation; generosity, rather, is the name of ‘excellent conduct’ in a particular sphere of human activity. Thus, a particular virtue is a function of a class of problems and sequences of conduct, native to a sphere of life and human activity. The spheres of human activity are multitudinous, and thus the virtues (as terms denoting the excellent conduct vis-à-vis the problems inherent in various spheres) will be likewise. One can be a great parent but a miserable friend, for example.

Her reading Aristotle in this way is financed both by Aristotle’s mode of presentation (introducing spheres of human activity prior to discussing ‘excellent conduct/virtue’ in that sphere) and by Aristotle’s admission that the terms he is using for the virtues and vices are inexact, because what he wants them to denote is in a sense being discovered by his analysis. She characterizes Aristotle’s analysis as:

“beginning from a characterization of a sphere of universal experience and choice, and introducing the virtue name as the name (as yet undefined) of whatever it is to choose appropriately in that area of experience.” (Nussbaum, 2013, p.633)

However, there’s another reason why we want to put things in this orientation, with problems preceding and defining virtues, rather than supposing that virtues precede the problems they overcome. If we take virtue ethics as affirming those virtuous characteristics called up by familiar names today (i.e. making an appeal to ‘generosity’ as it is commonly understood) we will have a circle emerging. ‘Generosity’ is not a mere descriptive label for a particular kind of conduct, but is already normatively flavoured. It already sits at the ‘golden mean’ between stinginess and profligacy, as ‘sharing resources with others in a good and selfless way’. That is to say, we can’t reach for the dictionary or our pre-theoretical understanding about what these virtues consist in because we discover that perhaps Aristotle’s thought, and its subsequent interpretation through the ages, precedes us. However, as mentioned just above, Aristotle didn’t see the meanings of the virtue and vice terms as a solved matter, so we have to wonder where this intuition of the inherent goodness of the mean between stinginess and profligacy (themselves normative terms) comes from. If we don’t question this, but accept ‘generosity’ as fundamentally good by definition (as our pre-theoretical understanding presents it), then we beg the question.

Hursthouse (2013) identifies this circularity, that the injunctions of virtue ethics are “couched in terms, or concepts, which are certainly ‘evaluative’ in some sense” (p.648), but minimizes it by pointing out that principlist ethical theories have the same defect. Despite initial appearances, Utilitarians and Kantian deontologists do depend, for example, on concepts like ‘murder’ over the more purely descriptive but less determinate ‘kill’. The job, then, for everyone is to examine and define these evaluative concepts that are indispensable for ethical theories. However, this “you too” counter-argument is a little unsatisfying: ideally this issue should be faced where it stands.

It would seem the widespread and prolonged adoption of a particular ethical theory creates the conditions for that ethical theory to appear intuitive (putting aside the obvious question here as to what preconditions precede the initial entertaining of the theory in the first place). Think of taking the famous ‘trolley problem’ to a New Guinean highland village. Where the presentation of the problem requires the elicitation of Utilitarian intuitions in the first stage in order to bring about the contradiction of intuitions in the second stage (fat man on the bridge), the presentation, in that different context, might become arrested at part one with questions of who the workers on the track are, how are they related through blood or marriage to the respondent, so on and so forth.

This is not, yet, a relativism issue. I merely hope to point out that when an ethical theory ‘helps itself’ to pre-theoretical, evaluative terms, it risks circularity because ethical thinking throughout the ages (including the contribution of the theory currently being supported and theorized) may have seeded these very evaluations into these terms in advance. Thus, when virtue ethics appeals to the folk-understanding of ‘generosity’, it may be the case that this very understanding is already heavily coloured by Aristotle himself (via, for example, the Christian scholastic readings of Aristotle). Thus, if one isn’t careful, the argument amounts to “everybody already believes this to be the case (generosity is good in itself), so it is the case”. This is all to say that we should tread very carefully here and treat these terms with ample grains of salt.

Nussbaum’s account avoids this circularity by situating the virtue terms as ‘virtual solutions’ to problems inherent in different spheres of human activity, based on common ‘grounding experiences’. Though she uses the word ‘choice’, her definition of the spheres of human activity of interest as those “in which human choice is both non-optional and somewhat problematic” (Nussbaum, 2013, p.633) allows us to talk purely of ‘problems’. To say ‘I have a problem’ is to say there is a non-optional demand upon me to do something (make a choice), which is not a matter of indifference, but rather has some stakes involved which are risked by my ‘response’ to this demand. I want to argue that it is her reframing ethics in terms of problems that marks the basis for a radical shift away from principlism and its interrogation of moral intuitions and customs looking for universalizable principles of choice.

Problematic Fields

The ‘ethical ontology’ of principlism has been largely composed of choices and values (be it utility, pleasure, rationality, or just the ‘good’). ‘Problems’ are then derived from these (I value x and y so my choice in situation z is now a problem, the ‘principle’ being an ‘answer’ to this problem). Virtue ethics, then, could be seen as adding ‘virtue’ to this ontology (as a thing to help us solve the problems created by choices between some or other values). But I want to argue that Nussbaum has done something more interesting: rather than add ‘virtues’, she’s added ‘problems’ to our ethical ontology. It’s not that problems derive from the existence of virtue (how do I be virtuous?), or from choices between competing values (choose generosity, duty, or utility?), it’s that the problems exist, in a sense simply and irreducibly, and virtues are then ‘derived’ from these.

This point is alluded to by Rosalind Hursthouse’s argument (2013) (in defense against the claim that virtue ethics ties itself in knots in certain ethical dilemmas) that there is no assurance that all ethical dilemmas actually have solutions. If problems were engendered by choices then it may be reasonable to assume they do (the problem arises from the choice, so once I’ve made a choice it vanishes, for better or worse). But if it is problems that prompt me to start seeing my actions as bifurcating into choices, it’s possible that none of the choices available to me at this moment are sufficient to dealing with the problem, as, in its preexistence of choice, the problem is quite ambivalent to the choices I present myself when faced with it.

There is no claim here that individual virtues are positive, determinate phenomena (admitting of clean conceptual definition), instead it is the problems that are real (as the ‘grounding experiences’), and the virtue merely denotes the ‘ideal solution’ in a case by case basis. Thus, there are as many kinds of generosity as there are problematic situations calling for ‘generous’ conduct. Such an ‘ideal solution’, or set of proximate solutions, is implied by the very presence and apprehension of problems qua problems. It’s not that ‘generosity’ precedes there being problems requiring ‘generous’ conduct, it’s that there is a particular class of problems that inhere in life that, being problems, call us to action. The name for acting excellently towards this particular class of problems is ‘generosity’.

A number of conditions need to hold for this (encountering a problem calling for ‘generosity’) to arise: firstly, this problem is related to the division of property with others (as this is why the term ‘generosity’ makes an appearance, and not ‘magnanimity’, or ‘courage’), secondly, this division strikes us as problematic, engendering a choice between competing motivations, or outcomes.

When I make a gift to my little brother of suits that no longer fit me, knowing that they’ll fit him and that he’d appreciate the gift, I have not really overcome a ‘problem’. I had no use nor desire for them. There was no problem at all, and thus no generosity strictly speaking. Generosity is only needful when I feel my desire for this thing of mine conflict with my recognition that it would be appreciated or needed more by others (or some other recognition that basically turns my possession and distribution of the thing, vis-à-vis others, into a problem for me). We first need to have this recognition in order to experience the conflict that underlies the problem, the ‘excellent’ solution of which is termed ‘generosity’ (because this particular problem involves the distribution of our possessions among others, it is ‘native’ to that sphere of human ‘drama’).

It is not enough for me, when this problem arises, to remind myself of the maxim ‘be generous’, which I then interpret to universally mean ‘give away the thing that I want’, because excellence of conduct vis-à-vis this problem in this situation may not call for ‘generosity’ to be interpreted in this way (for example, in the distribution of attention and time between multiple people). In fact, from this perspective, this style of rational deliberation is entirely back to front. ‘Generosity’ is not a form of conduct I consult to match with my action when I encounter a problem, the form of conduct to be called ‘generosity’ is engendered by my overcoming of this problem excellently (and only I and those involved here in this predicament ultimately know what this consists in exactly). I don’t need the name of the virtue, or what others or I believe it entails (though this may provide assistance), merely intuit, when greeted with a problem, that there is some maximally ideal solution (notice, not necessarily “perfect”), given the situation, and things and actors within it. And, such an intuition is cooked into the very idea of encountering a problem as problem in the first place.

This is why the principlist objection that virtue ethics does not give a clear indication of what to do in moral test cases misses the mark. Not only is it not offering simple principles of the kind “be virtuous, be generous”, but it rejects the feasibility of the moral test cases as ‘false problems’. These moral test cases, stripped of all particularity, and with their assumption there must be some, one, clear solution, seemingly conflates the kinds of problems worthy of moral consideration (the problems of life) with ‘problems’ in the sense of a ‘math problem’ set for homework. Furthermore, as Annas has pointed out (2013), ‘flattening out’ the problems of life to the simplicity of a math-like homework problem is in itself a kind of attitude or pattern of conduct that can be evaluated by a more holistic virtue ethical approach. Towards what problems and when and where is it an ‘excellent response’ to flatten out the issue itself in this way? And when is doing so a vice? What does a Utilitarian buy for their spouse on their birthday, for example?

Katie Moore — “Entropy” — (2018)

Relativism and Social Virtues

Nussbaum sees the Aristotlean project of virtue ethics moving on two, consecutive, fronts. First the identification of the spheres of human problems (which amounts to creating a table of virtues as nominal placeholders), and then the analysis of what it means to choose ‘excellently’ in these spheres (which amounts to a ‘thick’ determination of the virtues). From this position we can see that in many realms this is precisely what happens. If anything like ‘ethical progress’ is to be made, the first step is bring into focus a problematic sphere where one was not apprehended before, either individually or collectively as a society. The trigger of this ‘emergence’ of a problem is often some event or revelation, but other times it is the hard work of cultural and attitudinal shift. For a very long time our relationship to animals was a completely unproblematic sphere of human activity: chop them up and eat them, strap them to carts and whip them, put them in cages and poke them. However, now we encounter this whole sphere of activity as rife with problems. We do not yet have a word for the virtue that signifies excellent conduct vis-à-vis these problems, I would argue we don’t even know what this excellent conduct looks like (perhaps it’s simply veganism). The problems themselves haven’t even been brought into sharp focus. Had they been, then arguments of the kind that Peter Singer presents would be both maximally persuasive (in regards to shifting behaviour) and unnecessary (because the problem, brought to the fore and clarified exactly, would have the urgency of a splitting tooth-ache).

This glosses over how these shifts could even take place. This in itself is a very interesting question, how problems themselves develop out of the non-problematic. Some no doubt inhere in our very being human, and have never disappeared, and are a perennial source of concern and moral debate. But others, as evinced by some cultures and epochs ‘having no problem with them’ appear to ‘develop’, or at least require certain preconditions for them to emerge, or, conversely, can be adequately ‘solved’, perhaps if only temporarily. I have a suspicion that there may be a sense in which problems persist through their apparent solutions, and rear their heads in many guises, like attempting to iron out a wrinkle in a badly hemmed table cloth: one only moves it around and distributes it differently. But still, as with the table cloth, not all distributions are ‘equally bad’.

· · ·

This distinction between ‘thin’ placeholder names for virtues (as names for ideal or virtual solutions to problems identified in spheres of human activity) and ‘thick’ fully determined virtues (as the determinate solutions) also allows flexibility that can circumnavigate the charges of cultural relativism. This charge is that the virtues may show cultural variation, so what being virtuous entails is necessarily parochial. Nussbaum’s argument is that the spheres of human activity (and the problems that inhere therein) are more universal than the charge implies. Annas (2013) makes a similar rebuttal (that it’s actually the language of virtues that is the most cross-culturally universal in regards to ethical thinking).

However, the charge does persist in the ‘thick’ notion of virtue (what does being ‘generous’ actually entail, here and now, in a positive sense?). This is no issue though, because we can claim a degree of universality to the total set of problems inherent in the human condition, and still allow for local solutions (‘thick’ determinations of solutions to these problems), all the while being able to still critique and evaluate many of these determinate solutions in a holistic way based on the universality of the problems they answer to. Certain ‘solutions’ to the problems inherent in being human may just be stop-gaps, overly volatile, or counterproductive. So, when the Marxist critiques that virtues such as ‘generosity’ are ideally done away with through a radical restructuring of economic and social relations (in fully realized communism there would be no need for anybody to be generous) we can point out that in one sense this is right. Though this does not commit us to a relativism where generosity is merely a virtue under the regimes of certain forms of life, only that what generosity means in the ‘thick’, fully determined sense is linked to this (for example, giving to charity). In the ‘thin’ sense, of merely denoting the problems that inhere in a sphere of human activity, we can argue that in a hypothesized full communist future, the issues of ‘distribution’ will insist, even if only as problems of time and attention. There will still be an ‘excellence’ of conduct, and a ‘miserableness’ vis-à-vis these issues. Perhaps, overall, this sphere of activity (distributing between others) will, in its problematic aspects, fall into the background, or, perhaps, it will be at the forefront (as in, become a ‘key problem’ of the times).

(Attempts at ‘solving’ problematic domains tend to have this ‘back-fire’ effect. ‘Social’ media making us more lonely, the internet’s promise of making everybody connected and more informed now causing a crisis of trust and information, dating apps promising to solve the ‘problems’ of romance causing loss of intimacy… The ‘technology’ focus of this list is not intended to put undue emphasis on our problems today being wholly technological in nature, but rather just that these issues seem to be some of the ‘key problems of the times’. The interesting point here is that we should be mindful of how technology is not necessarily producing these problems as perhaps allowing them to re-emerge in new guises, or at least demonstrating that, in a sense, problems always outstrip their particular solutions.)

Thus, in the two-fold analysis (first analysing those spheres of activity and the problems inherent in them, then attempting to determine what counts as ‘excellent conduct’ in these spheres) we gain a degree of flexibility resistant to charges of relativism. The positive content of the virtues can shift, and even the virtues in the ‘thin’ sense can wax and wane in their ‘needfulness’ as they simply denote problems in the spheres of human activity that may be more or less intense in differing, concrete conditions of life. The universalist wager is that some fundamental set of these problems are inherent in our just being human, they may rise and fall in their urgency as the concrete conditions of human life changes, but they nonetheless persist.

However, the points I have made here seem to contradict themselves. How can I hold, on the one hand, that there are a set of universal problems inherent in our being human, and also hold that new problematic spheres arise (as with our activity towards animals)? The solution, and this is intimated by Nussbaum, is that we may need to ‘dig deeper’. That is, in the analysis that establishes the spheres of human activity where problems arise, they may require a more ‘elementary’ character than implied by Aristotle’s table. I think here, purely illustratively, of Lacan’s formula of fantasy: “$ ◊ a”, where the ‘◊’ in the middle can be read as the four operators > < ^ and v. Thus, the subject $ stands in some relation to the object cause of their desire a’: dominating, submissive to, conjunctively or disjunctively. I don’t mean Lacanian psychoanalysis will be of any help here, I merely use the formalism as an example of what a more ‘elementary’ analysis of the spheres of human problems could look like. Rather than problems pertaining to, say, ‘hospitality’, as in Aristotle’s analysis, the sphere of hospitality might be more universally rendered as being a relation of ‘conjunctive dominance’ over ‘conjunctively submissive’ others. Or the sphere of the division of my possessions necessitating generosity involving a disjunction either/or. Or some such thing. This all merely illustrative. The point I want to make, and will continue below, is that we are not necessarily committed to Aristotle’s complete analysis even if we accept his point that ‘problematic domains’ precede the virtues that are embodied by the activity in them. We can substitute, for example, Deleuzo-Nietzschean premises, construing the problematic that ‘generosity’ answers to as being a certain configuration of active and reactive forces, and forego the idea of ‘virtuous agents and motivations’ entirely.

And Virtuous Characters?

The reader may have noticed that in my reading of Nussbaum here, and throughout this article, I have avoided speaking of those ‘virtue ethics’ hallmarks of motivation, and virtuous characters, instead focusing on ‘problems’ and ‘spheres of human activity’. As I’ve intimated, I do this in order to be conservative in the number of commitments being made, which is yet another virtue of Nussbaum’s approach (that it does not necessarily entail a certain theory of agency). From here we are only a stone’s throw to the full discussion of virtuous characters and moral cultivation of individuals should we wish, but pausing here we realize that virtue ethics is not necessarily committed to any particular theory of the subject. In fact, the ‘Nussbaumian’ sketch I have presented here can operate at the level of whole societies, or, at the granular level of ‘partial subjects’ thematized by the concept of ‘drive’ in psychoanalysis and Nietzschean philosophy. Of course, it is as individuals, however that is construed, that we encounter the problems inherent in different spheres of our activity in our lives: work, relationships, families, self-development, etc, and it is in our own lives, negotiating these problems, where we rise or fail to rise to virtue in our excellence in negotiating them. But, we can effortlessly ‘zoom out’ to see that in many instances these problems precede us and lie in waiting, they inhere in what we could call, for want of a better term, the ‘social fabric’. This is what the Marxist critique, concerning the contingent ‘bourgeoise’ nature of many virtues, turns on. But, even though with these considerations we’re skirting closer to the kinds of relativism Nussbaum wants to avoid, we can go back to our previous point: we may collectively, through moral education, political change, or revolution, create a more ‘virtuous society’ that removes the intensity of the problem of the ‘distribution of possessions’, removing the need for ‘acts of generosity’ in the ‘thick’ determinate sense, but, every bit as collectively, we will still encounter the issue in some sense (albeit if it is just in terms of time and attention). All this is without making any solid metaphysical commitments whatsoever about what it is to be a subject and what it is to possess something and what it is to distribute it. Whatever sense that clings to these problems, in our lives, where things and others and foci and movements and desires gets all messed up and wretched, that sense calls us to ‘un-mess’ it. We often fail, but in this recognition of ‘failure’ there is glimpsed the possibility of some response, some constellation, where this is all untangled (a maximally ideal ‘solution’). We call such a response ‘generosity’, and it is indeed a fine thing, but what it is like is only discovered through the business of untangling these particular class of problems in the contexts that we have established such that they arise in the particular way that they do…

John C. Brady is a student of philosophy and educator situated in Beijing. He gets most of his reading done in traffic jams. He is also a co-editor of this magazine, by way of full disclosure.

Works Cited

Annas, J. (2013). Being Virtuous and Doing the Right Thing. In R. Shafer-Landau, Ethical Theory: An Anthology (2nd ed., pp. 676–686). West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hursthouse, R. (2013). Normative Virtue Ethics. In R. Shafer-Landau, Ethical Theory: An Anthology (2nd ed., pp. 645–652). West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Nussbaum, M. (1999). Virtue Ethics: A Misleading Category. The Journal Of Ethics, 3(3), 163–201. doi: 10.1023/a:1009829301765

Nussbaum, M. (2013). Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach. In R. Shafer-Landau, Ethical Theory: An Anthology (2nd ed., pp. 630–644). West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.


September 2018


Avicenna’s Connotational Attributes, Mickey Mouse, and Sex Dolls

by Anthony Kroytor

Kierkegaard’s Recognition

Isaac Fried in conversation with Jamie Aroosi

Thinking the Political with Thomas Hobbes

by Timofei Gerber

A Problem Based Reading of Nussbaum’s Virtue Ethics

by John C. Brady


fiction by Raphael Chim