Virtue Ethics Devalued

Virtue ethics consists into worshipping abstractly defined virtues: wisdom, prudence, courage, temperance, justice, happiness (Eudaimonia)… I will explain why this is erroneous.

Virtue ethics was founded by Aristotle, who considered slavery to be necessary… (Let me add immediately that Greco-Roman slavery was apparently by far the worst of those suffered by the Middle Earth in the last 5,000 years; only the Muslim habit of impaling slaves who had attempted to flee compares: and look what Islam did with civilization; in other ways the Muslims did not treat their slaves as badly as the Greco-Romans; the fact both civilizations collapsed is no coincidence.)

By approving of slavery Aristotle contradicted several of the eight virtues he claimed to found ethics on. The fact that the founder of virtue ethics could not make virtue ethics work, is telling. Indeed the “virtues” are derivative, not absolute. I have, and will show, this in other essays. Let me offer just a few words here.

It was virtuous for Aristotle to enslave. Yet slavery is unnatural.

It was so unnatural that, arguably, it caused the fall of the Greco-Roman empire (by enabling Senatorial plutocracy, which undermined the Republic). A civilizational collapse is no way to survive.

The Franks, who took control of the West, soon outlawed slavery, thus contradicting Aristotle, and enabling a civilizational system which survives to this day. So debating the nature of ethics is all very practical: it’s about why, when, how, and for whom, or what, to go to war. Look towards the Middle East for practical applications.

Naturalist ethics is much better than abstractly defined “virtues”. If one thinks about deeply, surviving as a species (or group) is the fundamental purpose of moral behavior. Ethics, or “mores” comes from “habitual character”. What’s more “habitual” than what insures the survival of the species. True, wisdom, foresight, prudence, fortitude are necessary to insure survival. But they are consequences.

Some brandish “religion” as something natural ethicists ought to respect. But there is more than 10,000 “religions” known, each of them actually a set of superstitions to enable the rule of some oligarchy (who adores the Hummingbird god of the Aztecs, nowadays?).

“Religion” means to tie (the people) together. A secular set of beliefs can do this very well, as long as it embraces the Republic of Human Rights, and, thus, survival. Indeed, human rights are best to insure long term survival of the species. They define the virtues Aristotle extolled, but could not define properly enough to insure the survival of his civilization (which was soon destroyed by Alexander, Aristotle’s student and friend).

The Republic of Human Rights is the only religion upon which all human beings can agree on, and, thus, the only one to respect, and found ethics on.

To this the editor of Scientia Salon objected (September 25) that:

“This idea that because Aristotle lived in a society that condoned slavery therefore virtue ethics is bullocks keeps rearing its ugly head, but seems to me a total non sequitur. You might as well say that we should throw out Newtonian mechanics because, after all, Newton was also interested in alchemy and the Bible.”

My reply:

I was unaware that I was ambling down a well-trodden road. Thus I can only observe that the notion that virtue ethics was a personal sin of Aristotle, although admittedly ugly, is entirely natural (as a naïve, untutored, independent mind, such as mine, discovers it readily).

Slavery, as practiced in Athens’ silver mines, and, later, Roman ore mines, was the worst. It was quickly lethal. And it did not stop with treating foreigners as less than animals. Aristotle’s student, and others he was familiar with (senior Macedonian general Antipater) enslaved all of Greece, shortly thereafter.

When the mood is to enslave, it does not stop anywhere, short of the brute force of invaders (and that’s exactly what happened).

Greco-Roman slavery was particularly harsh. There were much milder forms of slavery in Babylon, a millennium earlier, and Egypt used no slavery (except for captured enemy armies).

Peter Do Smith claimed that I suffered from “presentism” by condemning slavery. I guess, in the USA, slavery is just yesterday, and condemning it, so today.

But the Germans, at the time, condemned slavery, at least to the industrial scale the Greco-Romans engaged into it. Archeology has confirmed that small German farms did not use slaves.

Resting all of society upon slavery was not cautious: as soon as the Greco-Romans ran out of conquest, they ran out of slaves, and the GDP collapsed (it peaked within a couple of decades from Augustus’ accession to permanent Princeps and censor status). Another problem was the rise of enormous slavery propelled latifundia, giant Senatorial farms which put most Romans out of employment, and fed plutocracy.

Newton’s researches in… shall we call it proto-chemistry? Or Biblical considerations, were not viewed by him, or any smart observer, as consequences of his mechanics.

Aristotle’s ethical shortcomings were not restricted to his opinion on slavery, and one can only assume that they were consequences of his general ethics. Whereas Demosthenes was a philosophical, and physical hero, ethically, Aristotle sounds like someone raised at the court of the fascist plutocrats, Philippe and Alexander of Macedonia. As, indeed, happened (his father was physician to the Macedonian crown).

There were consequences to Aristotle’s ethics. Alexander had ethical reasons to annihilate Thebes, and sell surviving women and children into slavery. It’s natural to wonder if he shared them with his teacher. Another example of even heavier import: Aristotle’s enormous influence on Rome’s first moralist, Cicero. Cicero, literally, invented the word “morality” by translating the Greek “ethics”.

Aristotle comforted important Romans, centuries later, into the comfortable mood that ethics was all about feeling virtuous.

When Consul Cicero repressed savagely the Conspiracy of Cataline, without bothering with proper judicial procedure, he felt himself to be the incarnation of the eight virtues.

Cicero’s enormous ethical breach helped demolish the democratic Republic.

At all times, tyrants have proclaimed themselves virtuous. That’s tyranny 101. Proclaiming that, from now on, virtue will dominate ethics, besides being self-evident, and thus empty, is just self-congratulatory. Self-congratulations lay at the evil end of the spectrum of the examined life.

Instead, as Demosthenes pointed out, ethics ought to rest on survival. If the aim was survival, the non-conflictual, disunited approach to Aristotle’s bankrollers (Philippe and Alexander) was suicide.

Greece recovered freedom 23 centuries later. Thanks to the European Union.

Patrice Ayme’


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20 Responses to “Virtue Ethics Devalued”

  1. Peter D.O. Smith Says:

    “Virtue ethics consists into worshipping abstractly defined virtues: wisdom, prudence, courage, temperance, justice, happiness”
    I would put it differently. It is not a question of worshipping abstract virtues but one of being true our nature. The virtues are an expression of a deep need for moral worth, for a feeling that we are worthy persons. We experience this need because it is our moral behaviour that integrates us into society and gains us acceptance in society.

    Turning now to Aristotle and the problem of slavery. The problem here has nothing to do with the ethical system itself. In fact all three main ethical systems of the time condoned slavery. The problem has to do with moral boundaries. We extend moral worth to people inside our moral boundaries and deny moral worth to people outside our moral boundaries. These boundaries were variously determined by family, tribe, language, customs, ethnicity and geography. Over a long period of time we have extended our moral boundaries, making them more inclusive. This is the truly great achievement of our species.

    Your argument is a form of presentism where you project present conditions back into the past and then judge the past accordingly.

    “Naturalist ethics is much better than abstractly defined “virtues”.”

    And what does ‘naturalist ethics’ mean? The virtues are the natural expression of our deepest striving for moral worth. What could be more natural than that.

    • gmax Says:

      You don’t know much history. You just think you do. Slavery, Athenian style, or Spartan style, was nrarly unknown in yhe rest of the world.

      You also do not realize “Virtue Ethics” is a right wing extremist thing. Pathetic.

      • Patrice Ayme Says:

        Yes. Peter Smith actually made another comment saying I was just repeating myself, not having a conversation, and did not know history (!) But, as often when people are in their box, he did not evoke new, or detailed facts. So it was more akin to insults… Insults about the virtues of ethics, brrrr…

  2. Mario Roy Says:

    September 25, 2014
    Massimo, I agree, it is a total non sequitur. Under his point of view we should throw out the work of Copernicus, Kepler and Descartes because they believed in God or even Plato´s work because he felt that the Demiurge is out there. It also means that is difficult to understand that human and social evolution is subject to fluctuations and backtracks, which also means that we have to be charitable with ourselves.

    “The Franks, who took control of the West, soon outlawed slavery, thus contradicting Aristotle, and enabling a civilizational system which survives to this day”.

    Well, you forget the Christian movement that fought against the Roman plutocracy and slavery and paid for it, many Christians were thrown to the lions. Indeed, we need to be charitable with ourselves.

    • dominique deux Says:

      The Christians were much, much worse than the Pagans, whom they gleefully fed to the lions as soon as they grabbed power. Why don’t you read that great historian, Gibbon. A leftist to be sure.

      The early Christians were very close to Daesh.

      • Patrice Ayme Says:

        Indeed. Christians complained bitterly of the repression they suffered under Marcus Aurelius: six (6) were executed in 20 years (after trials). The worst repression, by far, was under Galerius. It may have led to the execution of 3,000 (it was a question of refusing to recognize the authority of the state). However, within two generations, Christianity established a terror regime which, in some parts (Portugal) lasted 15 centuries. And millions died under the Christian cross.

  3. bledcarrot Says:


    September 25, 2014 • 11:28 pm

    @Patrice Ayme

    “Virtue ethics was founded by Aristotle, who considered slavery to be necessary… Thus Aristotle contradicted several of the eight virtues he claimed to found ethics on. The fact that his founder could not make virtue ethics work, is telling. Indeed the “virtues” are derivative, not absolute. “

    I think this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I’m not sure there is any ethical system that could outright preclude slavery as arguably morally permissive. You could make a consequentialist argument in favour of it by pointing to the aggregate benefits as outweighing the individual suffering of the slaves (or even the averaged benefits for that matter), or even that the outcome for the slaves was a better one for them as individuals (this is precisely one of the arguments slave owners in the South made against the abolishinists). Deontology, on the face of it, also doesn’t seem to naturally preclude slavery, for instance by claiming certain people lack the minimal capacity for rational morality and are thereby not deserving of moral consideration. I mean have a look at some of Kant’s attitudes towards and comments on Africans if you don’t believe me. Your own apparently preferred naturalist ethics wouldn’t necessarily preclude it either.

    Part of the point of the ongoing project of debating and discussing ethics is to refine and develop our moral views, to weigh competing interpretations and moral claims within any given ‘ethical system.’ In other words, there is no system, even absolutist systems, that are set in black letter law and don’t require interpretation (and therefore open them up to debate). Even Divine Command has been endlessly debated and re-interpreted by theologians over the centuries.

    The point isn’t that there might be arguments for slavery to be made within these frameworks (and therefore they should be rejected outright), it’s whether we have developed better arguments within them that show it is less desirable or permissible. And we have.

  4. pshakkottai Says:

    Hi Patrice: “Virtue ethics consists into worshipping abstractly defined virtues: wisdom, prudence, courage, temperance, justice, happiness (Eudaimonia)…”
    In India there are temples to all these virtues and people worship them. Some more goddesses “time “ shown dark and young because the past and future are dark and we perceive only the young present. “ energy “ shown as “Shakti” the consort of Shiva the god of dance and destruction. Destruction is necessary for life as cell death.
    India is a strange country!

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      dear Partha: Your input is always appreciated. Keep it coming.

      India is full of deep and troubling wisdom. The Ancient Greeks were greatly aware of Indian philosophy, and learned much that way. Contacts were extensive before the Islamist embargo (after 650 CE).

      Greek numbers went to India, before that, and got greatly improved there, with the introduction of the zero (so called “Arabic” numbers… Actually Greco-Indian).

      The Greeks also divinized wisdom, among other virtues. Athena and Sophia are examples of this. (I pursue the tradition with my daughter, Athena!)

      Much of that Indian religio-philosophical lore is of extreme contemporary philosophical interest. Much of it is actually understood intuitively by the institutional memory of a country such as France (which goes well beyond the Abrahamic religious meek and short-sighted craziness). Thus, when France acts, consulting Shiva is often much more apt than evoking Jesus Christ in any way.

  5. ejwinner Says:

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Ejwinner: thanks for the long reply. I will study it when I have time (but now I’m at party!) I find more than strange to call “ethology” silly. “Silly”, really? I doubt Aristotle would have said so.
      Ethology brought the greatest progress in ethics in centuries.

      • ejwinner Says:

        First, I apologize for the first link, which is to an essay I wrote in response to Peter Smith’s article, and misplaced here. I actually wanted to link to an article explaining why I am not a secular humanist, which has a longer discussion on the supposed inheritance of ethical behavior. To cut to the short of it, I am very pessimistic about the human animal’s capacity for ethical behavior, I think it needs considerable working through.
        My criticism is not about ethology per se, but about your use of it, which reflects an optimism that the socialization skills inherited through evolution guarantee us a species that functions ethically by nature.
        But animal behavior, just as such, is ethically neutral. Any animal does what it must according to instinct, and higher order animals then do what they can in order to attain increased pleasure. Among some animals certain socialization skills are clearly inherited, others learned, still others indicate dispositional tendencies. In sorting these out, no values can be assigned to them except insofar as they clearly demonstrate survivability. Consequently, behavior that we would find appalling among humans, must be granted survival value if it reappears generation after generation – e.g, domination behavior and intra-group violence, abandonment of the old and weak, males killing the young in order to get the female back into estrous, etc.
        Inherited socialization, especially as a survival mechanism, comes as a package deal. If we were to depend only on our evolutionary inheritance to guide us socially, I fear we would prove the most appalling of species, to ourselves.
        But fortunately humans are, as animals, the least instinct driven, and most capable of learning. Also, we get to decide for ourselves which behaviors are ethical and which appalling.
        Consequently, ethological data can only get us so far. Drawing analogies between what we want for ourselves, and what we see other animals doing, is a very risky business. My own preference is to allow ethological data to be just what it is, knowledge about specific animal behavior, and set the analogies aside.

        • Patrice Ayme Says:

          Ejwinner (and others!). Just published a 2,600 words attack on Aristotle’s ethics, and, unfortunately I am invited at big mandatory party I’m only 2 hours late, already. So sorry, and more later! :-)!

  6. dominique deux Says:

    Slavery is an absolute evil, and I think establishing a kind of horror scale between slavery-based societies is a bit of a non-starter.

    However, if you really have to do it, using as your sole criterion the punishment meted out to escaped slaves falls short of the mark. Escaping was a direct assault on the owners’ property rights and as such, earned the harshest penalty in the current society. It is a bit like assessing a country’s road safety record by the victims’ mode of death (flattening, incineration…). (Shall I remind you that in French Caribbean colonies, a common punishment for escaped slaves was limb mutilation and exposure, leading to an excruciating death). Numbers are lacking, as well as the legal environment. Contrary to common belief, slave owners normally did not have the right of life and death over their slaves. And that goes also for the Greek-Roman society. (it could work either way, as a Roman slave owner, even if inclined towards leniency, had no choice but to turn over an escaped slave to the judicial machinery, with no hope of acquittal: Dura lex sed lex, as Cicero no doubt would have quipped).

    Also, even in slavery societies, there were (isolated) voices which fully recognized the inherent evil and danger of the system. You know the story of the Roman senator who submitted a bill to introduce compulsory clothing for slaves, and his colleague shooting down the idea with “You really want them to realize how many they are?”. So, you are right to indict Aristotes on this, even though his other contributions to science and philosophy have to be assessed on their own merits.

    Of course slavery is alive today – in Asia much more than in Africa, as a matter of fact (UN reports). And much of the so-called “reforms” being touted by the Pluto-owned “economists” are a devious but determined way of going back to it, since they advocate the alignment of Western society with the oh so successful Dragons.

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