Virtue ethics and social context

Alex asked:

In Nicomachean Ethics, book 2, chapter 6, paragraph 10-11, does Aristotle suggest a notion of ethics that is fixed among human societies or does it depend on social context?

Answer by Paul Fagan

On my reading of the extract, I cannot detect any suggestion of fixing ethics or adjusting it for social context. I would consider it to be only part of a greater definition of what constitutes moral virtue; but particularly an argument supporting the doctrine of the mean. With regard to assessing whether Aristotle favoured ethics to be either firmly fixed or dependent upon social context, in my view, would require one to read widely and refrain from focusing upon the smaller extracts. This is because one runs the risk of taking the passage out of context and ascribing the wrong meaning to it.

Bearing this in mind, we may ask ourselves, what was Aristotle’s mission with regard to introducing his version of morality? From my readings of both Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, I would provide the following brief summary for the purposes here. To attain the desirable good of a healthy society, attaining the related good of citizens living well is also required. To achieve this underlying aim, Aristotle wished to instil a morality in individuals to produce people of upstanding character: for instance, at the very least, they would exercise the virtues of self-reliance, courage and generosity: (James Rachels, in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy, lists of 24 virtues which he describes as a ‘reasonable start’ (Rachels 1993: 163)).  Now such virtues would be intrinsically valuable in their own right; however, Aristotle realised that executing some virtues required individuals to make sacrifices and so he recommended introducing an habituation process which included a common education for all. In turn, this would also encourage solidarity amongst citizens leading to a cohesive society with shared values (although, with that said, a few exceptions may be made: such as those individuals who could never become habituated and who would be cast out from society). Overall, a very prescriptive view of virtue ethics has been provided.

However, from a practical point of view, one may expect some differences in the way virtue ethics may manifest itself in differing societies. For instance, physical factors such as climate, altitude and geography may affect peoples’ lifestyles and therefore affect the values that they hold. As would the diet available to people in any particular location: vegetarian societies may find the idea of slaughtering animals to be taboo. Also the customs and religion inherited by any particular society may inform their values. Therefore, societies would exist with different virtues being privileged over others, resulting in the manifestation of differing versions of virtue ethics in those different societies. Hence, social context would be an important factor when virtue ethics is realised in any particular society (and The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes this type of ‘cultural relativity’ as a particular criticism of virtue ethics: see

From this, I would quite simply conclude, that although differing societies wishing to live virtuously may attempt to abide by a standard concept of virtue ethics, it would manifest itself differently due to differing social contexts.

Aristotelian Virtue and Kantian Duty

Zuleika asked:

“In Section I of the Groundwork, Kant draws a distinction between actions that are “in conformity with duty” and actions that are “done from duty”. In Book II, chapter 4, of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle draws a distinction between actions that are merely virtuous (“having some quality of their own”) and actions done “in accordance with virtue”. In what respects are Aristotle and Kant drawing the same distinction? In what respects do their distinctions differ?”

Answer by Eric DeJardin

Hi Zuleika,

Let’s consider a concrete case and use it as we work our way through these Aristotelian and Kantian distinctions.

Essay: Mark is taking a philosophy course with one graded assignment, viz. an essay due at the end of the semester. Mark’s final grade for the course will be determined by the mark he receives on his essay. Since Mark is on academic probation, he needs to pass his philosophy course, which means he needs to get a passing mark on his essay. He considers whether he should attempt to write the essay himself, in which case he might fail the class and be dismissed from the university, or purchase an essay instead, which will guarantee he receives a passing mark.

Let’s first consider how an Aristotelian would look at this case.

Suppose Mark chooses to write the essay himself. He badly wants to purchase the essay, however, and only overcomes this temptation with great effort. In this case, Mark acts in accord with virtue; that is, he acts as a virtuous person would act. However, since he doesn’t want to act as a virtuous person would, he doesn’t act virtuously (more on this below). Aristotle categorizes behavior that is in accord with virtue, but is contrary to an agent’s desires, as continent behavior. Continent behavior is good, but it’s not nearly as praiseworthy as is fully virtuous behavior.

Now let’s alter Mark’s response slightly. This time, he sincerely wants to write the essay himself. But this is because he has a natural inclination to behave honestly, or, put another way, not to cheat. He doesn’t deliberate about what to do; he merely acts as he wants to, that is, in accord with inclination, which happens to be in accord with virtue. Aristotle would say that in this case, Mark displays natural virtue.

To act virtuously, Mark would not merely act in accord with virtue, and he would not merely act as he is inclined to act, though he would indeed do both of these things. For a truly virtuous Mark would in addition act for reasons that he has identified, through wise deliberation (i.e. through the exercise of what Aristotle calls phronesis, or practical wisdom), as morally salient. Only then would Mark’s reliably virtuous behavior be categorized as fully virtuous.

Now, let’s consider how a Kantian would look at the case.

Suppose Mark chooses to write the essay himself because he wants to. That is, suppose he displays an Aristotelian natural virtue. In this case, Kant would say that Mark has acted in accord with duty. However, since his inclinations motivate him to act, he has not acted from duty (more on this below). Kant would say that although his behavior is praiseworthy, it does not merit esteem.

To see a clear case of acting from duty, consider the case Aristotle identified as displaying continent behavior. Mark wants to purchase an essay, but he instead chooses to write it himself. Suppose he acts contrary to inclination because he believes that he has a moral duty to write the essay himself. Although Aristotle would judge Mark’s behavior as inferior to fully virtuous behavior, Kant would say that Mark’s action in this case merits our highest esteem. For Mark is motivated to act from a concern for duty alone, and not from inclination.

But what would Kant say if Mark both has an inclination to write the essay himself and ultimately chooses to act from a concern for duty? Although readers of Kant disagree on this point, I think Kant would say that in this case, Mark has acted from duty, and his action merits esteem. That is, Kant doesn’t see anything inherently wrong with acting in accord with inclination, as long as one acts from duty and not from inclination (in cases in which only dutiful action is permissible).

We can now see that Kantian acts that accord with duty are similar to Aristotelian acts that accord with virtue insofar as neither case is morally ideal. And neither is morally ideal because in neither case is the agent’s action done for the right reason. In the Kantian case, the act is not done from duty, and in the Aristotelian case, the act is not done from wise moral deliberation. (Just how similar acts done from duty — which are fundamentally rational acts for Kant — and acts done from wise moral deliberation are focused on the same sorts of considerations is a matter of dispute.) We can also see how they differ. In the Kantian case, one acts in accord with inclination, while in the Aristotelian case, one may be acting either in accord with inclination or contrary to inclination.

We can also now see how dutiful Kantian acts are similar to virtuous Aristotelian acts. A dutiful Kantian act will be done for the right reason, that is, because it is what duty demands. And a virtuous Aristotelian act will be done for the right reason, that is, because it is what the exercise of wise moral deliberation concludes a virtuous person would do. But we can also now see how these acts differ. For the Kantian, a dutiful act can either be contrary to or in accord with inclination, as long as it’s motivated by a concern for duty. For the Aristotelian, however, a fully virtuous act must be in accord with inclination. If an act in accord with virtue is done contrary to inclination, it’s merely continent behavior for Aristotle.

Are some human beings zombies?

Salah asked:

I am from Alexandria, Egypt, I was born as Muslim, I was, and I still, very devout, I lived a very beautiful spiritual experience. Now I am Sufi, or actually, I discovered that I am Sufi. Through my journey I had spiritual visions, Descartes says: ‘I think, therefore I am,’ this mean that he is sure of his existence, but he is not sure if the world really exist, or the world is real. Now I am pantheist or to be accurate, panentheist. like George Berkeley, through vision, I am sure that there is none other than God and his images, Humans, namely, that existence is composed of God and humans only, the universe is God’s manifestation, namely, universe is none but God. Descartes cogito ends that the world may be unreal, but Descartes thought later that the world is real.

Now through mystic vision, I think the world is unreal, since it is God’s manifestation, but according to presence of human minds, I think that parts of the world are real, namely, having human minds, while other parts of the world are unreal, namely, having no human minds. Humans in these parts are none but philosophical zombies, so from my point of view, some countries are unreal, other countries are real. For example EGYPT may be real, AMERICA may be unreal. Some provinces in Egypt may be real, others may be unreal.

So what is your opinion?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I agree that you say is consistent with George Berkeley’s theory of ‘Immaterialism’, although it is not something he considered. To be, according to Berkeley, is ‘to perceive or be perceived’. All that exists are spirits: God, the one infinite spirit, and finite spirits like you or I. The things we call ‘material objects’ or ‘bodies’ are just ideas in the mind of God. For Berkeley, if you are a human being then you are a spirit.

Though Berkeley would not have approved, within this framework it is logically possible that some of the so-called ‘humans’ that inhabit this world are associated with a Berkeleian spirit while others are not. Human beings lacking a spirit would be ‘philosophical zombies’ (in the sense considered, e.g. by David Chalmers). They act and talk and are in every way indistinguishable from non-zombies, or ‘human beings with spirit’ but for a zombie ‘all is darkness inside’.

We can debate about God’s plan for the world, or even in a scientific mode raise the issue of Occam’s Razor. Maybe I’m the only non-zombie, why do there need to be more? (Someone might think, ‘God made the world just for me, to by my playground.’) However, any such debate would be impossible in principle to resolve. Believe what you like, it makes no practical difference.

Then again, one advantage of believing that ‘all Americans are zombies’, or ‘all Egyptians are zombies’ is that you don’t take zombies into consideration when making a moral decision or formulating foreign policy. Zombies don’t count, period.

      You cannot kill me
      The creature said
      Because I am already dead
      I aimed my shotgun
      At the creature’s head
      And pulled the trigger
      A zombie kill
      Is still
      A kill

      Philosophizer ‘Contagion’

A supporter of Al-Qaeda can still observe with satisfaction as the Twin Towers fall, watch the so-called ‘zombies’ as they tumble to their ‘death’, but the pleasure isn’t the same. Zombies cannot be evil. Zombies cannot be punished, they cannot face the wrath of God. At best, a ‘nation of zombies’ might exist as a warning to those who are tempted towards evil, as a kind of ghoulish animation or tableau showing the worst side of human nature.

That’s a story that some ‘true believers’ might be tempted to believe. I don’t know whether such a narrative would be acceptable on some interpretation of the ‘holy texts’ because I’m not an expert on religion, least of all Islam. I suspect not.

I don’t have sufficient motivation to take an interest. I happen believe the opposite. I believe that religion — all religion — is a contagion every bit as threatening as a zombie apocalypse scenario, and human beings will not be able to live in peace and enjoy their humanity until all ‘true believers’ are extinct.

That’s just my personal belief, mind you. As a matter of high principle, I hold that those of all faiths and none can drink and gain sustenance from the ancient well of philosophy. I’m willing to dialogue with anyone — so long as you are not asking me for my approval of your beliefs. I’m not asking you for your approval of mine.

On wanting to live forever

Shaun asked:

Regarding existential dread/ depression.

I am a big fan of being alive. I love life. And as such, I would like to never die. I’d like my wife and children to never die too. And you, and the person sitting next to you. The idea of a person, a mind, escaping existence, is horrifying.

And so, I feel this existential dread. I feel that all I’ve lived for, all I’ve valued, is without purpose, because in the end, I’ll die.

If I could, I would just accept it. I’m really good at accepting reality, even when it’s painful to do so. And that would more or less solve my problem.

However, given the successes of modern science and medicine; given my understanding of biology, the brain, and the mind; I don’t accept that death is inevitable.

I know, it sounds like denial. But look at the success of science and medicine. From cloning to artificial hearts. 1000 years ago, it would have been considered magical thinking. It would have been regarded as denial.

And so, that’s where I am today. Whether through biological or electronic, or some new technology, I believe that immortality of the MIND is possible. And so, I can’t simply accept that I’ll one day die. Which leaves me vulnerable to the despair I often feel.

How do I grow through this? I wish I could just accept death and be done with it, but I can’t seem to do that, when the potential for immortality is so incredibly close.

Of course, you may not agree with my assessment of technology and medical science, but, assume that I very much do, and that this is part of my problem.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I know exactly what you mean, Sean. To cease to be is a horrifying prospect, and yet it is a prospect we all face — or is it?

On this question, scientific speculation cuts two ways. According to one cosmological theory, the universe will end in a Big Crunch in which every finite entity will be destroyed. So, on that hypothesis, your life may be extended far longer than a natural human life, but you will most definitely die. Your prospects are no better according to the theory that the universe is inevitably tending towards a state of maximum entropy when all chemical processes will cease.

Theories can be wrong. Maybe these theories are wrong.

Leaving questions of cosmology, there seems to be no ‘in principle’ barrier to the indefinite extension of human life by some technical means or other. The problem is that the assumptions that you would need to make to allow indefinite life make it just as likely that there can be any number of ‘Shauns’ produced by a cloning/ copying process. To keep Shaun’s brain functioning, the information has to be copied and saved, maybe uploaded onto disk and downloaded into a fresh brain — or brains.

Maybe you are not the original Shaun but a copy (your home CCTV reveals the original Shaun being kidnapped and a Shaun-copy substituted in his place). By hypothesis, your mind is qualitatively indistinguishable from the mind of the original Shaun. You say you absolutely know that you are the real Shaun, but the other Shaun (or Shauns) vehemently contradict you — even your wife and children are unable to tell you apart.

The notion that, ‘I know where I will be’ is very powerful, and yet it succumbs to standard thought experiments on personal identity. You go into a body-splitter and two Shauns emerge. You say you ‘absolutely know’ that if you find yourself standing on the left then the Shaun on the left is the ‘real’ Shaun, but the Shaun on the right believes precisely the same thing. You can’t both be right!

If you can’t be both ‘Shauns’, then you are neither. Irrespective of whether body duplication ever becomes a technical possibility, there is no ‘mental entity’ that persists from one moment to the next, in the way that your body does.

‘But what if I have a soul?’ — What difference would it make if your so-called ‘soul’ came into existence one second ago? What difference would it make if there were a hundred ‘souls’ inhabiting Shaun’s body? Souls can’t be counted, you can say what you like about your ‘soul’ and not be wrong, because nothing can contradict you. Your subjective experience from moment to moment remains the same, regardless.

You may reply that no thought experiment or clever argument can convince you that your subjective sense of self or soul is not the same entity that began reading this answer a short while ago. But here’s the thing. If you really think that, against all argument, then everything is fine because even if the universe ends, it is still possible that you will survive. Maybe as a spirit floating in empty space. In infinite future time, anything can happen, right?

I dreamt I was a brain in a vat

Stein asked:

Reminiscent of BIV…

I dreamt that only I am a brain in a vat and that I was chosen (due to some action of mine or thinking (of mine), perhaps, or perhaps only randomly).

Now, when I reflect on this, I cannot really say that my dream was just a dream, or that I dreamt at all. Perhaps I hit my head and am unconscious or whatever…

So, either I am a brain in a vat (perhaps in a museum for others to see and inspect) or I am not.

A very depressing thought. It’s like saying, either life has meaning or it has not.

What is the correct way to respond to this, to untangle the entangled or remove the nonsensical (to use Wittgensteinian Words). I mean, is the only option not to think about it, or can you be sceptical, where sceptical means that for all propositions p, we cannot know p (or not-p, for if you knew not-p, you would know the truth value of p), or… argh :-)

What is a proper philosophical answer to this problem, how can I easy my mind :-)

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

You said you dreamt you were a brain in a vat. What is the experience of ‘being a brain in a vat’? The point of the BIV hypothesis is that it is impossible to tell whether you are a brain in a vat or not!

Well, suppose Morpheus comes to your front door and tells you, ‘Hey, guess what, Stein, did you know you’re really a brain in a vat?’ What has he got to do to convince you? How would you go about tricking someone into thinking they are a brain in a vat? Wouldn’t they have to be a bit gullible? (Maybe, maybe not.)

In the Philosophical Investigations, in response to the question, ‘Are you not shutting your eyes to doubt?’ Wittgenstein replies, ‘They are shut’ (PI II, p.224). The point being that doubt, like any other propositional attitude requires reasons. You doubt whether you really have a physical body because… what? simply because you can imagine that you might be a brain in a vat? (Imagining ‘being a brain in a vat’ is harder, for the reason I gave, that by hypothesis your experiences are the same either way, whether you are a BIV or not.)

There are persons who doubt, purely on the basis of things they imagine, and for no other reason at all. These doubts can be tragic or comic, depending on the circumstances. But such doubts are irrational. In the normal course of events, your eyes are shut to that kind of doubt. It doesn’t arise. That’s a pretty strong argument against global inductive scepticism, in my view.

However, the situation would be vastly different if you and I saw on the TV News that a successful BIV experiment had been carried out. More so, if body donation became feasible and there were unscrupulous operators around, kidnapping people and putting the victims’ brains in vats. Whoah!

So… do you and I know that we are not BIVs? If doubt on the question is irrational (barring the TV news announcement) then surely our belief that we are not BIVs counts as knowledge?

This is a trickier question because of contextual considerations. (I’m thinking of David Lewis’s contextual view of knowledge, see my Answer to Demetreus.) Normally, one wouldn’t talk of ‘knowing’ that P when the question whether P or not P doesn’t arise. On the other hand, if circumstances came about where it was necessary to reassure someone that you are not a BIV (say, in a telephone conversation, in the world of our imaginary TV News announcement) you might reasonably say, ‘Look, I know I’m not a BIV because I’ve taken precautions against body-snatching kidnappers!’

You could still be wrong…


How to apply the Categorical Imperative?

John asked:

How ‘universalizable’ does the categorical imperative need to be, i.e. what counts as a relevantly similar circumstance?

Let’s imagine a woman who is in the middle of her Ph.D. and waist-deep in student debt. She discovers she’s pregnant and wants an abortion. The first categorical imperative seems to forbid this, since if every rational agent had an abortion every time, the human species would go extinct. But I’ve heard and read the first categorical imperative articulated such that it takes into account ‘relevantly similar circumstances,’ entailing, I assume, that we only need to universalize this rule to all rational agents who are in such-and-such a financial/ educational situation.

But how fine-grained should we get about this, given that no two situations are 100% identical? The extreme of this would mean that ‘rules’ would be ‘universalized’ only to particular people in particular places at particular times, e.g. ‘All rational agents with X DNA code at Y location at Z time should commit X action.’ Since this would entail cutthroat self-interest, we’d obviously want to disregard circumstances like these, but on what grounds?

So I guess my question really amounts to: how can one identify relevant circumstances, and thereby determine how general or specific the categorical imperative must be, and can one do this within the categorical imperative (i.e. without resorting to consequentialism, etc.)?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’ll stay with your example. Kant’s Categorical Imperative in its first formulation states, ‘Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.’ In this form it appears identical to the Universalizability Principle (see the previous post The ethics of immigration raids).

However, Kant interprets the Categorical Imperative in a much stronger way, as one can see from later formulations leading up to, ‘Act as a lawmaking member of the Kingdom of Ends’ which makes explicit a strong teleological element that is missing from the first formulation. As this is more controversial, let’s put this on one side for the moment and concentrate on the first formulation.

An error often made with the Categorical Imperative is thinking that it can be applied in the same way as a litmus test (pink for acid, blue for alkali). Just plug in your proposed course of action and see whether it is ‘universalizable’. As you point out, everything turns on what words you use to describe what you intend to do.

Kant talks about the ‘maxim’ of one’s action. It is important that your maxim includes the motive for your proposed action, and not simply a description of the action itself. So, for example, ‘I need an abortion because I don’t want to ruin my figure’, is a different motive from, ‘I need an abortion because I am waist-deep in debt and want to finish my PhD.’

Maybe both of these actions are right, or maybe both wrong. Or maybe one is right and one is wrong — how do we decide?

It is possible to make further distinctions within these two examples, but the point is that each increase in ‘fineness of grain’ has to be linked to a plausible reason. ‘I need an abortion because I want one and its Tuesday,’ will not do, nor will, ‘I need an abortion because I want one and my social security number is 12344321.’ Kant doesn’t state this explicitly, but there is a question of onus involved. You need to give a reason for undertaking the proposed action that is recognizable as a reason, and not just some arbitrary fact like the day of the week or your social security number.

Now we’ve got something to work with. I have no comment to make regarding whether ‘preserving one’s figure’ or ‘finishing my PhD’ are good reasons or not. I don’t recall any place where Kant explicitly discusses abortion but I believe it is quite likely that Kant would have viewed it in the same way as he views telling a lie: it is unjustified in any circumstances whatsoever.

The general point, however, is that rather than applying a litmus test we are challenging the agent, putting the onus on them to give a reason for the proposed action that is defensible as such. Kant was a supporter of the death penalty. So ‘I propose to take a life,’ is an action that is defensible if you are an executioner and the life belongs to a convicted murderer, because it’s your job. On the other hand, ‘I propose to take a life,’ is an action that is indefensible if you are pregnant and the life belongs to your unborn child.

Is that a reasonable view? On the face of it, a ‘defensible reason’ is in the eye of the beholder. What is the purpose of human life? Why are we here? Kant has an answer: we are rational beings and rationality is an end in itself. This leads to the final, teleological formulation of the Categorical Imperative in terms of the ‘Kingdom of Ends’. Without this further element, the Categorical Imperative is toothless on the abortion question.


The ethics of immigration raids

Gigi asked:

Hi. I don’t really know if this makes sense, but according to Deontology and the Universal Moral Imperative, are immigration raids considered moral? Meaning that if anyone was able to conduct an immigration raid at any time, would to world still be a rational place?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

There was once a question on Ask a Philosopher about whether it was ethical according to the Universalizability Principle to post questions on Ask a Philosopher. The problem being that if everybody posted a question, then the service would be swamped and unable to cope.

This is absurd, of course, but it highlights the problem of applying the Universalizability Principle without sufficient thought about what exactly is the thing we are universalizing.

You have a hunch that immigration raids are not always ethical, and that this has something to do with the Universalizability Principle. But what, exactly?

Some would say, the more immigration raids the better. Get rid of all those damned illegal immigrants. Others see a problem — can you say what it is? Two words: probable cause.

In the US, to get a search warrant, or an arrest warrant, there has to be probable cause. You can’t just arrest someone and interrogate them on the off chance that they might confess to doing something illegal. You can’t just search someone’s house on the off chance that they have stolen goods stashed. There has to be something, some meaningful evidence to justify the warrant.

In the UK, the law is different, but a case still has to be made, that there is a reasonable prospect that illegality is involved. There have to be grounds for suspicion.

Well, we know which areas of town where you’re most likely to find illegal immigrants. Let’s just start at the end of the street and raid every house. But that’s not enough. The reason that it is not enough is that if the principle according to which the proposed action was accepted, then you could arrest someone for any reason you like.

Now, we’re getting close to the application of the Universalizability Principle.

Suppose it turns out that the proportion of criminals with the name ‘Smith’ is higher than the proportion of Smiths in the general population. Is that sufficient ground for arresting someone on the grounds that their name is Smith? Why, or why not?

Suppose it turns out that stolen goods are more likely to be found in houses that have a green door, than in houses with doors of any other colour. Is that sufficient ground for searching any house with a green door? Why, or why not?

When you’ve puzzled that out, you will have the answer to your question. If the law (where you happen to live) allows immigration raids without ‘reasonable suspicion’ or ‘probable cause’ then according to the Universalizability Principle the law is wrong. It cannot be ethically justified.