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.

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