Chapter 14 of Moser and Carson’s “Moral Relativism” : “Non-Relative Virtues” – Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum’s primary goal in this paper is to show how a virtue-based approach to ethics initially put forward by Aristotle responds to relativist arguments. Nussbaum questions the idea that the Aristotelian view is relativist. She argues that Aristotle criticized the local traditions of his people, which suggests he is not a relativist as he argued against the ideas of his epistemic system. Some argue that the list of virtues Aristotle presents are just the ideal “Greek gentleman” (Nussbaum 201) and therefore just the virtues of his epistemic system in Greece at the time of Aristotle. However, Aristotle tries to make sure that his virtues are applicable to the entire human race by referring to “spheres of life” within which all humans have some connection. Nussbaum (and Aristotle) argue that if one is human then they will react to a sphere of life regardless of their cultural background, which supports the view of objectivists. Any argument within these spheres on how to achieve virtue are just arguments between competing specifications about the same virtue, which therefore means that societies’ different norms are just competing ways in which to achieve the same virtue.

 

3 objections to virtue ethics

The first problem highlighted in the article with virtue ethics is the idea of “the singleness of a problem” vs. “the singleness of a solution”. The Aristotelian ideas allow that there is a debate about how to achieve any specific virtue. However, these ideas do not state that there will only be one way in which to achieve that virtue. In addition, the different answers on how to be virtuous are dependent on culture suggesting that the only thing that is shared between humans is our grounding experiences / spheres of life and not how they react to them.

The second problem highlighted in the article questions the idea of spheres of life, the foundation of the Aristotelian view on virtue ethics. The objection states that it is naïve for us to think that all human’s share these virtues put forward by Aristotle. People are incapable of looking at something with an “innocent eye” suggesting that because the mind is an interpretive tool nothing can be objective including the spheres of life. The objector puts forward recent anthropological studies that show how much of fear is learned and has cultural variants. Adding on to this, the idea of death and what it entails has been changed many times over the course of history. Therefore, this shows that a key sphere of life put forward by Aristotle “the fear of death” is bound heavily by cultural elements.

The third problem touches on the “non-necessary” nature of some types of experiences. We can imagine a human existence where a certain sphere of life does not exist and therefore the corresponding virtue cannot be objectively good. In some cases, the existence of the sphere may in fact point to “bad human life” and that the virtue is just a reaction to a bad state of affairs. In comparison, a “good human life” would not have this sphere of life and would therefore not require the corresponding virtue. An example used in the article to portray this is the virtue of generosity as it is only required if people are in need. In a communist world without private property etc. there would be no need for generosity which suggests that it is not an objective idea.

 

Rebuttals against these objections

 Nussbaum’s rebuttal to the first problem is that the Aristotelian does not have say that there is only one answer to the question ‘how can one be virtuous in a given sphere?’. Although you might be left with multiple ways by which to be virtuous, some things will still be eliminated as not virtuous. This process of elimination is very significant in itself as it proves that several things are right, but somethings are definitely wrong which follows with the objectivist stance of the essay. Following on from this the idea that cultures make different decisions on how to be virtuous may just be two entities achieving the same virtue within their cultural context. “The Aristotelian virtues involve a delicate balancing between general rules and a keen awareness of particulars” (Nussbaum 212) which suggests that a virtuous decision is context sensitive, but this does not necessarily make it a relativist standpoint.

To argue against the second problem Nussbaum states that just because nobody possesses an “innocent eye” that everything is equally valid. Certain ways of seeing the world can still be criticized. The search for the virtuous truth means one can reject the institution of slavery for example, based off of reflection upon the shared human experiences that form the spheres of life. Nussbaum argues against relativists, saying that there is a certain amount of overlap there is between cultures and this results in the spheres of life existing across cultures. Especially now, whereby, due to globalization, cultures are more connected than they have ever been and are therefore able to converse on deep matters such as these spheres of life as it is an experience shared by all humans. Nussbaum ends her rebuttal of the second problem saying that people inherently search for ‘good’ instead of ‘tradition’ which is why morals have developed over time. This does suggest an intrinsic quality within humans to do and be good which supports Nussbaum’s objectivist claims

Nussbaum argues against the third problem simply by stating that Aristotelian virtues are defined on a set of problems and limitations that exist in our world. It is a relatively pointless argument to undermine the virtues by completely changing the world (e.g. eliminating private property). If the world were to be so drastically different that the spheres of life and the virtues no longer applied human beings would be equally different. Aristotle said that “an inquiry into the human good cannot end up describing the good of some other being” (Nussbaum 221) and Nussbaum argues that the proposed differences to human life in the third argument against virtue ethics would in fact change humans into different beings and so it follows that we are unable to describe the good of those beings. She essentially says that relativists are reaching too far in this case

 

In conclusion Nussbaum provides a solid defense of the idea that Aristotelian virtue ethics is in fact objectivist in nature, while at the same time satisfies a lot of the gripes of relativists. A point of contention where her and relativists clash seems to be about the nature of spheres of life whereby the relativists believe they are heavily influenced by culture and therefore are varied depending on one’s culture, but Nussbaum outright disagrees stating that (especially in today’s world) there is a lot more overlap than the relativists think.

4 thoughts on “Chapter 14 of Moser and Carson’s “Moral Relativism” : “Non-Relative Virtues” – Martha Nussbaum

  1. Sawyer Tadano

    Quote:

    “There is, of course, much more to be said about this list, its specific members, and the names Aristotle chose for the virtue in each case, some of which are indeed culture-bound. What I want to insist on here, however, is the care with which Aristotle articulates his general approach, 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. On this approach, it does not seem possible to say, as the relativist wishes to, that a given society does not contain anything that corresponds to a given virtue. Nor does it seem to be an open question, in the case of a particular agent, whether a certain virtue should or should not be included in his or her life-except in the sense that she can always choose to pursue the corresponding deficiency instead. The point is that everyone makes some choices and acts somehow or other in these spheres: if not properly, then improperly. Everyone has some attitude, and corresponding behaviour, towards her own death; her bodily appetites and their management; her property and its use; the distribution of social goods; telling the truth; being kind to others; cultivating a sense of play and delight, and so on. No matter where one lives one cannot escape these questions, so long as one is living a human life.”

    Argument Reconstruction:

    1. It isn’t possible that a society doesn’t contain anything that corresponds to a virtue
    2. It isn’t an option for a person in a society to choose whether a virtue should or shouldn’t be included in his or her life
    3. ⸫ Everyone acts within these spheres either properly or improperly

    Question:

    So is what Nussbaum saying here that it is inevitable that people in a society are going to be shaped by the virtues of their society if they decide to follow them or not?
    Would it be possible for an individual in a society to not be influenced at all by these virtues?

  2. Madison Lord

    “In an important section of Politics II, part of which forms one of the epigraphs to this paper, Aristotle defends the proposition that laws should be revisable and not fixed, by pointing to evidence that there is progress towards greater correctness in our ethical conceptions, as also in the arts and sciences. Greeks used to think that courage was a matter of waving swords around; now they have (the Ethics informs us) a more inward and a more civic and communally attuned understanding of proper behaviour towards the possi- bility of death. Women used to be regarded as property, to be bought and sold; now this would be thought barbaric. And in the case of justice as well we have, the Politics passage claims, advanced towards a more adequate understanding of what is fair and appropriate…To hold tradition fixed is then to prevent ethical progress. What human beings want and seek is not conformity with the past, it is the good. So our systems of law should make it possible for them to progress beyond the past, when they have agreed that a change is good.” Pg 207

    If laws are fixed, then ethical conceptions are fixed as well.
    Ethical conceptions are not fixed.
    If ethical conceptions are not fixed, laws are not fixed.
    ________________________________________________________
    Laws are revisable.

    “Here, then, is a sketch for an objective human morality based upon the idea of virtuous action-that is, of appropriate functioning in each human sphere. The Aristotelian claim is that, further developed, it will retain the grounding in actual human experiences that is the strong point of virtue ethics, while gaining the ability to criticize local and traditional moralities in the name of a more inclusive account of the circumstances of human life.” pg 207

    If the human sphere is based on such general ethical terms such as the pursuit of justice and courage, how can it have the ability to criticize both local and traditional moralities? It seems similar to the reading about understanding the environment and circumstances of which an action is done, in order to rationalize that all societies are trying to achieve the same moral code just in different ways.

  3. Harriet LeFavour

    “In an important section of Politics II, part of which forms one of the epigraphs to this paper, Aristotle defends the proposition that laws should be revisable and not fixed, by pointing to evidence that there is progress towards greater correctness in our ethical conceptions, as also in the arts and sciences. Greeks used to think that courage was a matter of waving swords around; now they have (the ethics informs us) a more inward and a more civic and communally attuned understanding of proper behavior towards the possibility of death. Women used to be regarded as property, to be bought and sold; now this would be thought barbaric. And in the case of justice as well we have, the Politics passage claims, advance towards a more adequate understanding of what is fair and appropriate.”

    1. Laws are based on what society deems ethical at a given time.
    2. Ethics of society are constantly evolving.
    —————————–
    3. Laws cannot be fixed but rather revisable to reflect changes in ethics. (1,2)

    Q: If Aristotle is correct that society’s ethics are constantly evolving and should be reflected in law, how does this account for the disparity in ethics between factions of a single society? How is any within a society deemed correct, and is ethics in this case defined as a society or by individual discretion?

  4. Ho June Rhee

    “Heraclitus, long before him, already had the essential idea, saying, “They would not have known the name of justice, if these things did not take place.” “These things,” our source for the fragment informs us, are experiences of injustice-presumably of harm, deprivation, inequality. These experiences fix the reference of the corresponding virtue word. Aristotle proceeds along similar lines. In the Politics he insists that only human beings, and not either animals or gods, will have our basic ethical terms and concepts (such as just and unjust, noble and base, good and bad), because the beasts are unable to form the concepts, and the gods lack the experiences of limit and finitude that give a concept such as justice its points. In the enumeration of the virtues in the Nicomachean Ethics, he carries the line of thought further, suggesting that the reference of the virtue terms is fixed by spheres of choice, frequently connected with our finitude and limitation, that we encounter in virtue of shared conditions of human existence.” (204)

    Argument Reconstruction:
    1. Experiences, or spheres of choice, establish references of virtues.
    2. Limitation and finitude are specific experiences of humans.
    3. Humans share the conditions of human existence such as limitations and finitude.
    ————————————————————————————————-
    4. Humans can establish references of virtues. (1-3)

    Questions

    1. Based on the passage above, Aristotle suggests the presence of limitation and finitude and how it shapes references of virtues. However, he does not discuss the variation of limitations and finitude over time, whether it be socioeconomic statuses or technological capabilities. Do humans share the same/similar limitations and finitude, or spheres of choice?

    2. In reaction to Aristotle’s example of an existing homicide law, Nussbaum states that “to hold tradition fixed is then to prevent ethical progress” (205). Based on Nussbaum’s statement, are cultures that preserve tradition ethically inferior to others? Is there a way to maintain tradition and progress ethically at the same time?

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