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Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Virtue Ethics
The source of value
• What is the source of value? What makes
something good/bad, right/wrong?
– Consequentialism: real-world, material
consequences.
• Utilitarianism: “good” = pleasure / happiness.
• Virtue ethics: “good” = flourishing.
– Deontology: actions become right or wrong based
on their internal logic. Material consequences
have nothing to do with morality.
The source of value
• What is the source of value? What makes
something good/bad, right/wrong?
– Consequentialism: real-world, material
consequences.
• Utilitarianism: action-based.
• Virtue ethics: character-based.
– Deontology: actions become right or wrong based
on their internal logic. Material consequences
have nothing to do with morality.
Why character?
• There can be a moral difference between an
action and a character.
– Good people are capable of doing bad things; bad
people are capable of doing good things.
• Gets “underneath” the action to the source from
which all actions ultimately flow – an individual
person.
– Good people tend to do good things; bad people tend
to do bad things.
– People who do enough good over time tend to
become good people. People who do enough bad
over time tend to become bad people.
What makes a character “good?”
• To be good is to possess a sufficient array of virtues.
• “Virtues” = traits that allow a thing to achieve its
purpose.
• Everything that exists on earth has a function.
Function = goal, purpose, end towards which a
thing strives.
– The purpose of an acorn: to turn into an oak tree.
– The purpose of an axe: to help a person cut down a tree.
Putting it together: How to evaluate: Is
this thing good or bad?
Step 1: What is the thing?
Step 2: What is the purpose of
that thing?
Step 3: What traits facilitate this
end?
These are the thing’s virtues.
Step 4: Now look at the thing in
question. Does it meet these
criteria?
If yes, it is good. If not, it is bad.
Putting it together: How to evaluate: Is
this thing good or bad?
Step 1: What is the thing?
?
Step 2: What is the purpose of
that thing?
Step 3: What traits facilitate this
end?
These are the thing’s virtues.
Step 4: Now look at the thing in
question. Does it meet these
criteria?
If yes, it is good. If not, it is bad.
Putting it together: How to evaluate: Is
this thing good or bad?
Step 1: What is the thing?
A pen.
Step 2: What is the purpose of
that thing?
Step 3: What traits facilitate this
end?
These are the thing’s virtues.
Step 4: Now look at the thing in
question. Does it meet these
criteria?
If yes, it is good. If not, it is bad.
Putting it together: How to evaluate: Is
this thing good or bad?
Step 1: What is the thing?
Step 2: What is the purpose of
that thing?
Step 3: What traits facilitate this
end?
These are the thing’s virtues.
Step 4: Now look at the thing in
question. Does it meet these
criteria?
If yes, it is good. If not, it is bad.
A pen.
Purpose?
Putting it together: How to evaluate: Is
this thing good or bad?
Step 1: What is the thing?
Step 2: What is the purpose of
that thing?
Step 3: What traits facilitate this
end?
These are the thing’s virtues.
Step 4: Now look at the thing in
question. Does it meet these
criteria?
If yes, it is good. If not, it is bad.
A pen.
Purpose: to write.
Putting it together: How to evaluate: Is
this thing good or bad?
Step 1: What is the thing?
Step 2: What is the purpose of
that thing?
Step 3: What traits facilitate this
end?
These are the thing’s virtues.
Step 4: Now look at the thing in
question. Does it meet these
criteria?
If yes, it is good. If not, it is bad.
A pen.
Purpose: to write.
Virtues?
Putting it together: How to evaluate: Is
this thing good or bad?
Step 1: What is the thing?
Step 2: What is the purpose of
that thing?
Step 3: What traits facilitate this
end?
These are the thing’s virtues.
Step 4: Now look at the thing in
question. Does it meet these
criteria?
If yes, it is good. If not, it is bad.
A pen.
Purpose: to write.
Virtues:
*Cylindrical
*Light weight
*A few inches long
*Solid material
*Contains ink
(etc.)
Putting it together: How to evaluate: Is
this thing good or bad?
Step 1: What is the thing?
Step 2: What is the purpose of
that thing?
Step 3: What traits facilitate this
end?
These are the thing’s virtues.
Step 4: Now look at the thing in
question. Does it meet these
criteria?
This is a good pen!
A pen.
Purpose: to write.
Virtues:
✓Cylindrical
✓ Light weight
✓A few inches long
✓Solid material
✓Contains ink
(etc.)
Putting it together: How to evaluate: Is
this thing good or bad?
Step 1: What is the thing?
Step 2: What is the purpose of
that thing?
Step 3: What traits facilitate this
end?
These are the thing’s virtues.
Step 4: Now look at the thing in
question. Does it meet these
criteria?
If yes, it is good. If not, it is bad.
You can apply this procedure to
anything in the world: non-natural
items (pens), natural items (carrots),
abstract concepts (professions of
various kinds, industries of various
kinds), animals (dogs)…
But we are not yet talking about
moral virtues.
Moral virtues belong specifically to
the natural thing called “the human
being.” So…
What is the purpose of a human
being?
What defines the human life? What makes it specifically human?
What do humans characteristically do that no other creature on earth
does?
What is the ultimate aim towards which all human beings strive?
Eudaimonia
• Translation: flourishing, happiness (in a specific sense).
– Not “pleasure,” and so not “happiness” in Mill’s more modern sense.
• The aim for human beings: not merely to live, but to live well.
• “The chief and final good:” something desirable for its own sake,
and not for the sake of something else.
$
?
Eudaimonia
• Things like money, food, sleep, pleasure…
these are all aspects of eudaimonia, but no
one of these is eudaimonia in itself.
$
?
Moral Virtues
• Virtues are those characteristics that tend to
promote eudaimonia.
• They are the products of habit. We each have
an innate capacity for virtue, but it must be
actualized through constant practice.
• They represent mid-points (“means”) between
two extremes.
Virtue as a Mean between Extremes
Human Capacity
Too much
Mean
Too little
Feeling pleasure
Indulgence
Temperance
Self-Abnegation
Feeling fear
Cowardliness
Courage
Recklessness
Giving to others
Self-sacrifice
Generosity
Stinginess
Etc…
For each innate human capacity, one ought to strive to exercise
that capacity in moderation. To have too little of that thing is a
vice, as is having too much.
Virtue as a Mean, Relative to Us
“…by the intermediate relatively to us [I mean]
that which is neither too much nor too little- and
this is not one, nor the same for all.”
Virtues are both universal in some sense and relative in
another sense.
Virtue as a Mean, Relative to Us
Virtues are both universal in some sense and relative in
another sense.
Universal: The same list of virtues applies to each and
every human being.
Virtue
(anything in the yellow)
What is and is not
yellow is an objective
fact.
Virtue as a Mean, Relative to Us
Virtues are both universal in some sense and relative in
another sense.
Relative: How one should achieve a given virtue is
dependent on one’s particular context.
Virtue
(anything in the yellow)
How you should fire
to hit the yellow
depends on the bow
and arrow you have,
the wind conditions,
etc.
Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism
Author(s): Martha C. Nussbaum
Source: Political Theory, Vol. 20, No. 2 (May, 1992), pp. 202-246
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/192002
Accessed: 21-03-2016 20:27 UTC
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HUMAN FUNCTIONING AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism’
MARTHA C. NUSSBAUM
Brown University
It will be seen how in place of the wealth and poverty of political economy come the rich
human being and rich human need. The rich human being is simultaneously the human
being in need of totality of human life-activities- the man in whom his own realization
exists as an inner necessity, as need.
-Marx, Economic and
Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844
Svetaketu abstained from food for fifteen days. Then he came to his father and said,
‘What shall I say?’ The father said: ‘Repeat the Rik, Yagus, and Saman verses.’ He
replied, ‘They do not occur to me, Sir.’The father said to him . . . ‘Go and eat! Then wilt
thou understand me.’ Then Svetaketu ate, and afterwards approached his father. And
whatever his father asked him, he knew it all by heart…. After that, he understood what
his father meant when he said: ‘Mind, my son, comes from food, breath from water,
speech from fire.’ He understood what he said, yea, he understood it.
-Chandogya-Upanihad4 WPrapathaka 7Kanda
When you love a man you want him to live and when you hate him you want him to die.
If, having wanted him to live, you then want him to die, this is a misguided judgment
‘If you did not do so for the sake of riches, you must have done so for the sake of novelty.’
-Confucius, Analects, Book 12. 10
AUTHOR’S NOTE: A version of this essay was presented at the Institute for the Humanities at
the University of Chicago inMay 1991; Iam grateful toNorma Fieldforarranging the invitation,
and to the participants, especially David Gitomer and Chris Bobonich, for their helpful
comments. I also owe thanks to Amartya Sen for many discussions, to Frederique and Steve
Marglin for challengingand provoking me, toDavid Crocker and HenryRichardson for valuable
comments on earlier related work and to Tracy Strong and Cass Sunstein for comments on an
earlier draft.
POLMCAL THEORY, WN. 20 No. 2, May 1992 202-246
0 1992 Sage Publications, Inc.
202
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Nussbaum / DEFENSE OF ARISTOTELIAN ESSENTIALISM 203
ANTIESSENTIALIST CONVERSATIONS
I begin with three conversations, taken from my experience working in
Helsinki as a research advisor at an intemational institute affiliated with the
United Nations, which brings people from many disciplines together to work
on problems connected with development economics.2 Contemporary as-
saults on “essentialism” and on nonrelative accounts of human functioning
have recently made a dramatic appearance there, with potential implications
for public policy that I view with alarm. I have in some cases conflated two
separate conversations into one, but otherwise, things happened as I describe
them.3
1. At a conference on value and technology, an American economist who
has long been considered a radical delivers a paper urging the preservation
of traditional ways of life in a rural area of India, now under threat of
contamination from Western values. As evidence of the excellence of this
rural way of life, he points to the fact that, whereas we Westemers experience
a sharp split between the values that prevail in the workplace and the values
that prevail in the home, here, by contrast, there exists what the economist
calls “the embedded way of life.” His example: just as in the home a
menstruating woman is thought to pollute the kitchen and so may not enter
it, so too in the workplace a menstruating women is taken to pollute the loom
and may not enter the room where looms are kept. An economist from India
objects that this example is repellent rather than admirable, for surely such
practices both degrade the women in question and inhibit their freedom. The
first economist’s collaborator, an elegant French anthropologist (who would,
I suspect, object violently to a purity check at the seminar room door)
addresses the objector in contemptuous tones. Doesn’t he realize that there
is, in these matters, no privileged place to stand? Doesn’t he know that he is
neglecting the radical otherness of these village people by bringing his
Western essentialist values into the picture?
2. The same French anthropologist now delivers her paper. She expresses
regret that the introduction of smallpox vaccination to India by the British
eradicated the cult of Sittala Devi, the goddess to whom one used to pray in
order to avert smallpox. Here, she says, is another example of Western neglect
of difference. Someone (it might have been me) objects that it is surely better
to be healthy rather than ill, to live rather than to die. The frosty answer comes
back: Western essentialist medicine conceives of things in terms of binary
oppositions: life is opposed to death, health to disease. But if we cast away
this blinkered way of seeing things, we will comprehend the radical otherness
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204 POLITICAL THEORY / May 1992
of Indian traditions. At this point, Eric Hobsbawm, who has been listening
to the proceedings in increasingly uneasy silence, rises to deliver a blistering
indictment of the traditionalism and relativism that prevail in this group. He
lists examples of how the appeal to tradition has been used in history to
defend various types of oppression and violence. His final example is that of
National Socialism. In the chaos that ensues, most of the traditionalist social
scientists (above all the ones from abroad, who do not know who Hobsbawm
is) demand that Hobsbawm be asked to leave the conference room. The
radical American economist, covered with embarrassment at this evidence
of a split between his relativism and his left-wing affiliations, convinces
them, with much difficulty, to let Hobsbawm remain.
3. We shift now to another conference,4 a philosophical conference organ-
ized by me and by the objector of my first story, the economist from India
who objected to the degradation of women by menstruation taboos. (He also
holds the unsophisticated view that life is opposed to death.) His paper
contains much “essentialist” talk of human functioning and human capabil-
ity; he begins to speak of freedom of choice as a basic human good. At this
point he is interrupted by the radical economist, who points out, with the air
of one in the know, that contemporary anthropology has shown that non-
Western people are not especially attached to freedom of choice. His exam-
ple: a new book on Japan has shown that Japanese males, when they get home
from work, do not wish to choose what to eat for dinner, what to wear, and
so on. They wish all these choices to be taken out of their hands by their
wives.5 A heated exchange follows about what this example really shows.
I leave it to your imaginations to reconstruct it; it did have some humorous
dimensions. But in the end, the confidence of the radical economist is
unshaken: we are both victims of bad essentialist thinking, who fail to
recognize the beauty of otherness.
These examples are not unusual; I could cite many more. What we see in
such cases is an odd phenomenon indeed. Highly intelligent people, people
deeply committed to the good of women and men in developing countries,
people who think of themselves as progressive and feminist and antiracist,
are taking up positions that converge, as Hobsbawm correctly saw, with the
positions of reaction, oppression, and sexism. Under the banner of their
radical and politically correct “antiessentialism” march ancient religious
taboos, the luxury of the pampered husband, ill health, ignorance, and death.
(And in my own essentialist way, I say it at the outset. I do hold that death is
opposed to life in the most binary way imaginable, and slavery to freedom,
and hunger to adequate nutrition, and ignorance to knowledge.)
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Nussbaum / DEFENSE OF ARISTOTELIAN ESSENTIALISM 205
Essentialism is becoming a dirty word in the academy and in those parts
of human life that are influenced by it. Essentialism -which for these
purpose I shall understand as the view that human life has certain central
defining features-is linked by its opponents with an ignorance of history,
with lack of sensitivity to the voices of women and minorities.6 It is taken,
usually without extended argument, to be in league with racism and sexism,
with “patriarchal” thinking generally, whereas extreme relativism is taken
to be a recipe for social progress. In this essay, I question these connections.
I grant that some criticisms of some forms of essentialism have been fruitful
and important: they have established the ethical debate on a more defensible
metaphysical foundation and have redirected our gaze from unexamined
abstract assumptions to the world and its actual history. But I argue that those
who would throw out all appeals to a determinate account of the human being,
human functioning, and human flourishing are throwing away far too much
– in terms even, and especially, of their own compassionate ends.
I argue, first, that the legitimate criticisms of essentialism still leave room
for essentialism of a kind: for a historically sensitive account of the most
basic human needs and human functions. I then sketch such an account,
which I have developed at length elsewhere, showing how it can meet the
legitimate objections. I then argue that without such an account, we do not
have an adequate basis for an account of social justice and the ends of social
distribution. With it, on the other hand, we have -what we urgently need at
this time -the basis for a global ethic and a fully international account of
distributive justice. Finally, I argue that without essentialism of a kind, we
are deprived of two moral sentiments that are absolutely necessary if we are
to live together decently in the world: compassion and respect.7
THE ASSA ULT ON ESSENTIALISM
The contemporary assault on universal accounts of the human being and
human functioning is not always accompanied by clear and explicit philo-
sophical arguments. All too often, as in my examples, the opponents of
essentialism use the word polemically as a term of abuse and with a certain
air of superiority, as if they were in the know about some new and decisive
discovery that removes the need for argument.8 So, the first task for anyone
who wishes to defend a position in this debate must be, it seems to me, to
introduce some clarity into the picture by sorting out the varieties of anti-
essentialist argument and describing the train of thought that has led to the
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206 POLITICAL THEORY / May 1992
extreme relativist traditionalism exemplified in my Helsinki conversations.
The att …
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