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.