Unit 5 Study Guide: Ethics and Politics of Virtue

5a: Describe Aristotle's concepts of merit and justice.

    • Explain Aristotle's concept of the mean and virtue.
    • Explain Aristotle’s concept of justice.
    • What is the relationship between virtue and justice according to Aristotle?
    • Describe the relationship among the concepts of virtue, distributive justice, and moral dessert in your society.
    • What is the relationship among these concepts according to Aristotle?
    • Do you think people today would consider Aristotle's views on these concepts to be different and a bit strange? In what way?

As we noted in Unit 1, Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, believed that someone who leads a virtuous life creates happiness and human flourishing (eudaimonia). Our goal, end, or purpose as human beings is to live a good life.

What does it mean to live a good life? Leading a good life involves developing a virtuous character through education and practice, and by cultivating habits that come to engender elements of virtue. Virtue is a form of excellence that enables us to perform our function well.

Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean consists of three pillars which work together to form a complete account.

First, a person who leads a good life lives in a sort of equilibrium, or balanced state. They may exhibit extremes or overreact to situations, but they are able to maintain composure. The second pillar states we should strive for a mean that is relative to us. For example, a gallon of water may be excessive for a small plant, but deficient for a tree. The mean will depend on the individual. The third pillar is that each virtue falls between two vices. One vice is on either end (excess or deficiency) and the virtue is in the middle.

Aristotle's concept of the mean (which some call the "golden mean") refers to the desirable middle ground between two extremes: one of excess and the other of deficiency. As we discussed in Unit 1, Aristotle and Plato considered the most important virtues to be wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Cultivating one’s character includes learning to avoid vices, such as ignorance, cowardice (or brashness), intemperance, and injustice.

Review this material in the lecture The Good Citizen (up to timestamp 27:01) by Michael Sandel; and Book One of Politics by Aristotle.

In his lecture, Sandel uses the example of the way a society distributes the best flutes among different types of musicians. You can substitute other objects of value to consider different types of examples.

    • What type of people would get the best flutes in today's society?
    • Who should get the best flutes according to Aristotle?
    • Which response do you think is better?
    • Name some other ways a society could use to determine who should get the best flutes?
    • Define the Greek word, telos, and teleological reasoning?

Review this material the lecture What's the Purpose? (after timestamp 25:51) by Michael Sandel.

5b: Explain Aristotle's connection between virtuous behavior and state policies.

    • How does Aristotle define natural desire, natural ruler, and natural slave?
    • Do these things exist and do you agree or disagree with Aristotle’s definitions?
    • How does Aristotle define family, village, and state?
    • Describe the key distinctions among these organizations according to Aristotle.

Review this material in Book One of Aristotle’s Politics. Pay particular attention to chapters 1-3 of Aristotle’s text.

    • Describe how Aristotle’s concept of the state relates to virtue and to ethics.
    • Define paternalistic laws.
    • What is the role of the state with respect to paternalistic laws according to Aristotle? What about for your state in today's climate? Which role is better? Why do you think so?
    • What is the purpose or telos of a human being according to Aristotle? Do you agree with Aristotle's characterization of a human being?

Review the purpose of the state and Aristotle’s concept of virtue in the lecture The Good Citizen (up to timestamp 27:01) by Michael Sandel.

    • What does Aristotle mean by citizen?
    • Name some of communities Aristotle examines in Chapter 1 which need to be governed.
    • Describe some of the differences among these communities.
    • How do these characteristics help Aristotle define the role of a citizen?

Review this material in Book 3 of Aristotle's Politics, Chapter 1.

    • Describe the relationship between the virtue of a good citizen and the virtue of a good man, according to Aristotle. Are they the same?
    • Can a state be good if it is comprised of bad people according to Aristotle?

Review this material in Book 3 of Aristotle's Politics, Chapter 4.

    • Can the good citizen be good at making laws and good at obeying them, according to Aristotle? How do you think this applies to a modern democracy?

Review this material in Book 3 of Aristotle's Politics, Chapter 4.

How you define citizenship provides an important foundation for how you define the meaning and purpose of the state. Review questions about the concepts of citizen and citizenship in Book 3 of Aristotle’s Politics.

Define what Aristotle meant by the following terms:

    • Virtue;
    • Habit;
    • Habituation;
    • Virtue of character;
    • Ethical;
    • Nature;
    • State of Character;
    • Excess;
    • Deficiency;
    • The Mean (also called "the golden mean").

Aristotle described his concept of virtue in his famous work, Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle spells out his idea that moral virtue is a matter of habit in sections 1-3 of Book II. Good legislators should instill good habits in the citizens they govern, but they first need to know what it means to live virtuously to help citizens develop their virtues.

Review Aristotle's definitions for these terms in the text of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

5c: Compare and contrast Aristotle, Kant, and MacIntyre on the concepts of freedom and community membership.

Michael Sandel differentiates Aristotle from the modern theorists we have discussed in this course: Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick who support libertarian rights, and Immanuel Kant and John Rawls who support egalitarian rights. Why do these modern thinkers believe that justice is not a matter of rewarding or honoring virtue, merit, or your moral and just desserts? (see below).

What is justice about according to Aristotle? Remarkably, Aristotle, disagrees with all of these thinkers on this point. It is just to discriminate according to the relevant grounds of merit, moral desserts, or what the recipient deserves in terms of the relevant level of excellence. You have to consider the goal, the purpose, the end, or the telos of the item under consideration.

Review this material in the lecture What's the Purpose? (after timestamp 25:51) by Michael Sandel.

    • How does Kant disagree with Aristotle’s regarding the purpose of the state?
    • What would Kant say the state cannot decide?

Michael Sandel says that Kant thinks Aristotle made a mistake. Kant and Rawls believed that it would be a form of coercion to base laws or principles of justice on any one particular conception of the good life – that would violate individual freedom. Kant believed the purpose of law is to set up a fair framework of rights where people can determine the good for themselves. "Freedom is the capacity to act autonomously." Nietzsche would have agreed with this sentiment.

Review the lecture The Claims of Community (up to timestamp 24:00) by Michael Sandel.

    • How are Alasdair MacIntyre's beliefs similar, and different, from Aristotle?
    • Do you agree with MacIntyre's belief that we should discuss virtue ethics in the 21st century?

Alasdair MacIntyre (1929– ), the Scottish philosopher, supported virtue ethics in a quasi-Aristotelian sense, but took it to another level. He discussed his concept of the narrative conception of the self in which human beings are storytelling creatures. We cannot seek the good or virtues as individuals, since we are part of our historical community.

"I inherit from the past of my family, my tribe, my city, my nation a variety of inheritances, debts, expectations and obligations."

MacIntyre disagreed with contemporary liberals and individualists who believed our only responsibility pertains to who we choose to be, and the responsibilities we choose to assume.

For example, individualists believe we are not responsible for the actions of our parents and our community. MacIntyre and other communitarians argued that we cannot separate ourselves from our community's history. We have certain duties, loyalties or obligations that are due in accordance with our membership to, and solidarity with, a certain group.

Review the article Alasdair MacIntyre and the article Virtue Ethics from Wikipedia.

5d: Describe the philosophical arguments for and against major political issues, like accessibility accommodations for persons with disabilities, patriotism, and same-sex marriage.

Casey Martin was a professional golfer and coach. He suffered from a birth defect in one leg that hampered his ability to walk. In 2001 he sued the PGA over the right to use a golf cart under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    • Do you think Casey Martin should be permitted to use a golf cart, given his disability?
    • Would this accommodation be fair to the other golfers, if they are not permitted to use a cart?
    • Would this accommodation defy the purpose or essential nature of the sport?
    • Can you extend this discussion to our understanding of justice, and distributive justice?

Michael Sandel uses the Casey Martin story to argue why he believes Aristotle would disagree with the Supreme Court ruling—because the requested accommodation would compromise the essential nature or telos of the sport of golf (which includes walking the course).

Sandal asks that if Aristotle's view of justice is about fitting people into certain social roles, and matching virtues with the appropriate honors and recognition, what role does teleological thinking leave for freedom? How does society's determination about what I should do (my purpose), leave me regarding my ability or freedom to choose my role and my purpose for myself? Kant and Rawls would argue that teleological theories of justice threaten the equal basic rights of citizens. Because people disagree about the nature of a good life, we shouldn't try to base justice on our answer to that question.

Sandel summarizes, "Much modern political theory takes that worry about disagreement over the good as its starting point, and concludes that justice, and rights, and constitutions should not be based on any particular conception of the good or the purposes of political life, but should instead provide a framework of rights that leaves people free to choose their conceptions of the good, their own conceptions of the purposes of life."

Review the lecture The Good Citizen (until timestamp 27:01) and Freedom vs. Fit (from timestamp 27:02 to ) by Michael Sandel and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the case PGA Tour, Inc. vs. Casey Martin.

    • Define patriotism and nationalism. What is the difference?
    • Do citizens have a certain obligation or duty to their state, to demonstrate patriotism and nationalism?
    • What aspects of patriotism are positive characteristics and might become negative characteristics?

Review the lecture Where Our Loyalties Lie (after timestamp 24:00) by Michael Sandel and the article The Problem of Patriotism and the Left by Gerry Hassan.

    • How does this debate relate to Aristotle's beliefs about purpose, the state, and leading a good life?
    • To what degree is the state responsible, required, or permitted to define the good life on issues such as same sex marriage?
    • How would Aristotle, Kant and Rawls respond to this question?

The Supreme Court Case, Lawrence vs. Texas, which concerned the issue of same sex marriage, provides an example of a recent debate about society's understanding about marriage, and its purpose or telos as a social institution.

Review the lecture Debating Same Sex Marriage (up to timestamp 24:01) by Michael Sandel and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the case Lawrence v. Texas.

5e: Explain the issue of cultural relativism and whether or not there can be an absolute moral standard applied to all cultures.

    • Define cultural relativism.
    • What is Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous quote? How does it relate to cultural relativism?
    • Define cultural ethics. Can cultural ethics and absolute standards exist or are they mutually exclusive?
    • What does Nietzsche’s eternal return of the same mean? What does it have to do with ethics and with cultural relativism?

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1800), the German philosopher, helped shape the idea of cultural relativism, a philosophical concept that contradicts Plato and Aristotle's view that an ideal or perfect understanding of everything exists and that we should act according to that ideal notion.

Nietzsche argued that our cultural background colors how we perceive things. For example, Nietzsche explored how our society determines what is good or bad when he examined the genealogy, or the origins, of how our morality is constructed. He said that we can go back in history and find examples of how the actions we now consider to be right, just, or noble, were once regarded as evil.

In the same way, Iván Szelényi explains in his lecture, Nietzsche on Power, Knowledge, and Morality (from timestamp 10:23), "Tell me what you think is evil and I'll go back in history and I will show you instances of what you think is evil was actually admired and was seen as ethical." We need to critique our moral values and create our own thoughts about morality rather than simply accept what we have been told (Nietzsche is a strong critic of the church in this regard). Nietzsche said, "We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers and with good reason. We have never looked at ourselves."

in his 1887 book, The Gay Science, Nietzsche tells the story of a madman who proclaims that European society has killed the Christian notion of God and that "God is Dead" in favor of science, nature and humanity. By killing God, people can now take steps to overcome dogma, superstition, intolerance, conformity, and fear provided they do not find a new slave master to enter into a new type of slavery.

In the same book, Nietzsche asked what we would do if we had to live our lives over and over again, "once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence."

Nietzsche suggested we should live our lives as if there is no Christian afterlife, as if we will have to live with the consequences of our choices and actions over and over, regardless of whether we will receive eternal reward, or get to heaven according to Christian doctrine. We should not act altruistically and with kindness simply because doing so will get us to heaven. We should act morally because we determine it is the right thing to do. This thought experiment is called the eternal return (or reoccurance) of the same.

Review Nietzsche’s description and critique of morality in the lecture Nietzsche on Power, Knowledge, and Morality (from timestamp 10:23) by Iván Szelényi.

Review Nietzsche's thoughts on cultural relativism in Theories Responding to the Challenge of Cultural Relativism from The Business Ethics Workshop

5f: Compare and contrast Nietzsche and Sartre on the existentialist concepts of freedom and responsibility.

    • Why does Nietzsche describe Christian ethics as passive and subservient?
    • How has Christianity influenced our attitudes about ethics?
    • What does Nietzsche mean by will to power?
    • What does Nietzsche mean by a noble soul?
    • In what ways are Nietzsche's ideas about morality similar and different from Aristotle and MacIntyre’s virtue ethics?

Nietzsche wanted to find a middle ground between the repressive, prescriptive doctrine of Judeo-Christianity morality, and nihilism, which describes a world that lacks meaning, value and purpose.

The death of God results in nihilism, but Nietzsche introduced the three metamorphoses in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Human beings can transform themselves from a camel (an obedient soul that carries and comes to resent its burdens), to a lion (a free spirit who is free from the past, tradition and authority), to a child who wills its own will, knows the joy of life, and enjoys the innocence of perpetual creation. This spiritual transformation characterizes Nietzsche's vision of the flourishing life.

Nietzsche's will to power referred to the human desire to assert domination or mastery over others, oneself, or the environment. The will to power, as Nietzsche described, can be beneficial or hurtful and refers to a certain ambition, endeavor to achieve, or striving for excellence. For example, a philosopher or scientist directs their will to power to find truth, an artist channels a will to create, and a businessman works to become rich.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes, that a noble soul has reverence for itself. He writes, "But that the passion which seizes the noble man is a peculiarity, without his knowing that it is so; the use of a rare and singular measuring-rod, almost a frenzy; the feeling of heat in things which feel cold to all other persons; a divining of values for which scales have not yet been invented; a sacrificing on altars which are consecrated to an unknown God; a bravery without the desire for honour; a self-sufficiency which has superabundance, and impairs to men and things. Hitherto, therefore, it has been the rare in man, and the unconsciousness of this rareness, that has made men noble." (GS 55)

Review Nietzsche’s description and critique of morality in the lecture Nietzsche on Power, Knowledge, and Morality (from timestamp 10:23) by Iván Szelényi.

    • Define existentialism.
    • What characterizes modern man more than anything else according to Jean–Paul Sartre? How does the answer to this question relate to existentialism?
    • What does Sartre's suggestion that existence precedes essence mean? Why is it especially pertinent for human beings?
    • What does the ethics of absolute freedom mean in Section IV of the lecture? How does it relate to Sartre’s existentialism?

Jean–Paul Sartre (1905–1980), the French philosopher and playwright, is often associated with the term existentialism. He argued that, contrary to Aristotle's belief, humanity does not have a predefined essence or nature, so people must decide for themselves what it means to exist. In this way, existence precedes (or comes before or supersedes) essence. In other words, existentialists do not believe that human beings possess an inherent essence, nature, identity or value. Individuals, through their consciousness, create their own values and determine their own life's meaning.

Human beings are free to choose their own course. They cannot blame their environment, circumstance, or chance for their successes and failures. Rather their actions and choices make them who they are.

    • Name some similarities and differences between Nietzsche’s and Jean–Paul Sartre's ideas about morality.
    • Define existentialist. Are Nietzsche and Sartre both existentialists?
    • Describe how Nietzsche and Sartre differ from Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and John Rawls.
    • Do you think Nietzsche and Sartre help us describe moral and political theory? Or do they point us in the wrong direction?

Review Sartre's thoughts on existentialism in the article The Ethics of Absolute Freedom by David Banach.

Unit 5 Vocabulary

      • Alasdair MacIntyre
      • Citizen
      • Cultural ethics
      • Cultural relativism
      • Deficiency
      • Distributive justice
      • Eternal return of the same
      • Ethical
      • Ethics of absolute freedom
      • Excess
      • Existence precedes essence
      • Existentialism
      • Family (according to Aristotle)
      • Friedrich Nietzsche
      • Genealogy
      • God is Dead
      • Habit
      • Habituation
      • Jean–Paul Sartre
      • Justice
      • Lawrence v. Texas
      • Matter of habit
      • Merit
      • Moral dessert
      • Narrative conception of the self
      • Nationalism
      • Natural desire (according to Aristotle)
      • Natural ruler (according to Aristotle)
      • Natural slave (according to Aristotle)
      • Nature
      • Noble soul
      • Paternalistic laws
      • Patriotism
      • Purpose
      • State (according to Aristotle)
      • State of character
      • Teleological reasoning
      • Telos
      • The mean (also called "the golden mean")
      • Village (according to Aristotle)
      • Virtue
      • Virtue of character
      • Will to power

Last modified: Wednesday, July 17, 2019, 6:59 PM