What are some criticisms of virtue theory?

Selected Criticisms of Aristotle's Ethics:

       Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli

Criticisms of Aristotle’s Ethics:  

1. Aristotle looks for the function of human beings, but why assume there is a function, and why assume there is a unique one?  “What is the function of paper [writing, wrapping, lining, etc.]?” 

2. In his Inventing Right and Wrong, J.L. Mackie contends that:

as guidance about what is the good life, what precisely one ought to do, or even by what standard one should try to decide what one ought to do, this is too circular to be very helpful.  And though Aristotle’s account is filled out with detailed descriptions of many of the virtues, moral as well as intellectual, the air of indeterminacy persists.  We learn the names of the pairs of contrary vices that contrast with each of the virtues, but very little about where or how to draw the dividing lines, where or how to fix the mean.  As Sidgwick says, he “only indicates the whereabouts of virtue.”   

This critique is echoed by many.  Robert Louden, in his “Some Vices of Virtue Ethics,” for example, contends that while Aristotle tells us that right acts are those which are means between extremes, it is almost impossible to determine how to apply this conception in actual situations:  

...virtues are not simply dispositions to behave in specified ways, for which rules and principles can always be cited.  In addition, they involve skills of perception and articulation, situation-specific “know-how,” all of which are developed only through recognizing and acting on what is relevant in concrete moral contexts as they arise.  These skills of moral perception and practical reason are not completely routinizable, and so cannot be transferred from agent to agent as any sort of decision procedure....Due to the very nature of the moral virtues, there is thus a very limited amount of advice on moral quandaries that one can reasonably expect from the virtue-oriented approach. 

He concludes that virtue-based ethics can not be of any use in applied ethics or in casuistry. 

3. Robert Louden also offers the following criticisms of Aristotle’s sort of virtue-based ethical theory:

another reason for making sure that our ethical theory allows us to talk about features of acts and their results in abstraction from the agent is his conception of what he is doing is that sometimes even the best person can make the wrong choices.  There are cases in which a man’s choice is grounded in the best possible information, his motives honorable, and his action not at all out of character.  And yet his best laid plans may go sour.  Aristotle, in his Poetics, suggests that here lies the source of tragedy....Virtue ethics, however, since its conceptual scheme is rooted in the notion of a good person, is unable to assess correctly the occasional (inevitable) tragic outcomes of human action. 

A third reason for insisting that our moral theory enable us to assess acts in abstraction from agents is that we need to be able to identify certain types of action which produce harms of such magnitude that they destroy the bonds of community and render (at least temporarily) the achievement of moral goods impossible. 

A fourth reason for insisting that a moral theory be able to assess acts in abstraction from agents and their conception of what they’re doing is that people’s moral characters may sometimes change. 

...the focus on good and bad agents rather than on right and wrong actions may lead to a peculiar sort of moral backsliding.  Because the emphasis in agent ethics is on long-term, characteristic patterns of behavior, its advocates run the risk of overlooking occasional lies or acts of selfishness on the ground that such performances are mere temporary aberrations—acts out of character. 

...we do not seem to be able to know with any degree of certainty who really is virtuous and who vicious.” This means that moral skepticism is a serious problem for a virtue-based ethical system.   

4. In her The Therapy of Desire, Martha Nussbaum offers the following criticisms of Aristotle’s ethical theory:

Aristotelian dialectic...makes several controversial assumptions about the nature of the ordinary person’s ethical beliefs.  It assumes that these beliefs are essentially healthy: truth is in there, along with whatever is false, and in such a way that, in the process of scrutiny, the true beliefs will turn out to be the “greatest number and the most basic.”  Since the beliefs in question are for the most part socially taught, the procedure also assumes the relative health of the surrounding society.  Moreover, the method assumes that the most important beliefs lie close to the surface of the interlocutor’s reason in such a way that they can be elicited by calm dialectical questioning.  And finally, the method appears to assume that everyone who ought to be helped by the dialectical process can be so helped: it points to no troublesome gap between the availability of rational “therapy” and the needs of its intended recipients. 

  Such assumptions seem to Epicurus at best naive, at worst obtuse and callous.  He invites us to look at ourselves, at our friends, at the society in which we live.  What do we see when we look, and look honestly?” 

Nussbaum continues this discussion by questioning each of these assumptions in turn: people with unhealthy beliefs (“victims of false social advertising”), a sick society (“whose sick teachings about love and sex turn half of its members into possessions”), “people who are profoundly ignorant of what they believe and what motivates them,” and a process which helps only those who are already well off and have a “liberal education.”  She concludes the passage by maintaining:

Epicurus challenges us, then, to recognize that Aristotelian dialectic may be powerless to help where help is most urgently needed, powerless to criticize where the need for philosophical critique is greatest.  A philosophy that stops here is not only impotent but also callous: a tool of exploitation, an accomplice of misery.  The powerful challenge compels us: can we recognize both the depth of social ills and the delicate complexity of the human psyche and still remain believers in the calm give-and-take of “Aristotelian” ethical argument? 

Nussbaum also maintains that:  

Aristotle cares too much about self-sufficiency and rational control to admit love in all its terribleness.  He permits many risks, but he despises slavery too much to admit to intrinsic value a kind of relation in which we are so completely within the power of another, inhabited, intertwined, with no hard core to our natures.  The Stoic remedy is a contraction of boundaries.  But if we refuse this remedy, we must, it seems, learn to imagine ourselves with new images: not as safe house-dwellers in the solid edifice of our own virtue, but as beings soft and sinuous, weaving in and out of the world, in and out of one another. 

5. In his “Natural Affection and Responsibility for Character,” Gregory Trianosky maintains that:

...although one’s attitudes, emotions, reactive capacities, and skills are or can to some extent be developed by will, no effort of will, however sustained, is sufficient for their development.  Character is the product not only of voluntary action but also of the activity of temperament, along with upbringing, childhood experiences, social environment, peer expectations, and pure happenstance.  And not only temperament but all of these things are not themselves the product of some exercise of agency, whether voluntary or nonvoluntary.  Hence, no Aristotelian account of responsibility for character can succeed. 

6. In her “Aristotle and the Politicization of the Soul,” Elizabeth Spelman maintains that:

...Aristotle does not try to justify his view about the natural rule of men over women by reference to a general principle about ruling and subject elements, for he quite explicitly refers us in particular to the constitution of the soul.  There we find ruling and subject elements, but they are highly personalized entities whose relationships are described in terms of political relationships among human beings.  In light of this, we must conclude that Aristotle’s argument for the natural rule of men over women is circular.  He argues for the position that men by nature rule women.  How do we know that they do?  We know this because the rational element of the soul by nature rules the irrational element.  And how do we know this?  This is where we come full circle: Because men rule women (and also because masters rule slaves, because tutors rule children).  In fact the rule of men over women provides us with a means of understanding the kind of relationship among parts of the soul; and, coupled with the assumption that men represent the rational element and women represent the irrational element, it provides us with a means of establishing that in the soul the rational element rules the irrational. 

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J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (N.Y.: Penguin, 1977), p. 186. 

Robert Louden, “Some Vices of Virtue Ethics,” in Ethical Theory Classic and Contemporary Readings (first edition), ed. Louis Pojman (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1989), pp. 311-320, pp. 313-314.  This article originally appeared in The American Philosophical Quarterly v. 21 (1984), pp. 227-236. 

Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1994), pp. 102-103.

Gregory Trianosky, “Natural Affection and Responsibility for Character,” in Identity, Character, and Morality, eds. Owen Flanagan and Amelie Rorty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), pp. 93-109, p. 104. 

Elizabeth Spelman, “Aristotle and the Politicization of the Soul,” in Social and Political Philosophy: Classical Western Texts in Feminist and Multicultural Perspectives, ed. James Sterba (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1995), pp. 63-72, p. 69. 

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Last revised on: 12/01/2013.