Martha Nussbaum on Objective Virtues: An analysis
Updated: Mar 29
Part of the Philosophy Papers series
Nussbaum, in her publication, ‘Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach’ (1988), discusses how virtues can be grounded on an objective and universal account of the human good. She argues that a relativist view of virtue ethics couldn’t rationally criticise the norms and traditions of other cultures. Nussbaum highlights out that negative cultural conditions, traditions, and norms such as slavery, racial inequality, and economic inequality couldn’t be improved with relativistic ethics. Yet, we can rationally criticise these norms, and Aristotle himself used the virtues to criticise other cultures. Nussbaum references Aristotle’s criticisms of the Spartans, the Cretans, and the Carthaginians in his Politics as examples (1981, pp. 139-158). He criticises their cultural practices by appealing to a universal framework for defining virtues. This framework, Nussbaum argues, is made up of the common spheres of human actions. These spheres are common among all people because they are fundamental actions to being human. These actions would include the management of property, speaking truthfully, composure in the face of danger, and others.
These actions provide common ground on which various cultures can find unity in how they approach virtuous behaviour in these different spheres. This doesn’t necessarily mean these cultures will agree on what the virtuous actions are in these spheres, but it allows a common reference point rather than arguing from the very different frameworks that each culture has based their virtues on. Nussbaum argues that this universal framework allows for the development of what the best action in these spheres is while not descending into relativism. This ability to revise what was previously considered the most virtuous action allows for cross-cultural dialogue to shape existing perceptions of virtues. This will bring about a greater perfection to our ethical conceptions and allow for progress in cultures that are bound by vicious traditions and norms. Nussbaum gives an example of how this framework allowed for the debate of what is virtuous in these different spheres. Aristotle’s conception of megalopsuchia (or greatness of soul) was understood as having a healthy amount of self-worth, which for Aristotle was to view one’s life as very valuable. However, the stoics, the church fathers, and the medieval scholars began to argue about what was a healthy amount of self-worth. This led to the Christians prioritising humility over Aristotle’s megalopsuchia as the healthy amount of self-worth.
However, there are a few objections that can be made against this argument. The first is whether we should base virtues on the common spheres of human action. It appears other virtue ethicists have their own basis for how we should define virtues. Alasdair MacIntyre argues that the basis of virtue is not the common spheres of human action but through socially established complex activities that foster internal goods through the activity’s excellence (2007, pp. 187-196). St. Thomas Aquinas argues that virtues shouldn’t be based on the action itself but on the dispositions of human nature and their ends (2012). These alternate frameworks pose a problem for Nussbaum’s argument as these frameworks also claim to objectively define the virtues. MacIntyre points out that different frameworks for defining virtue have led to significantly different lists of virtues that have contradicted each other (2007, pp. 181-185). Benjamin Franklin’s utilitarian basis, Homer’s societal role basis, and Aquinas’s telos of human nature basis for defining the virtues all approach the definiendum in ways contrary to Nussbaum and end up with varying lists of virtues. This creates a need for some standard which these frameworks can be judged against to see which one best reflects the true nature of virtue. MacIntyre argues that there is no standard of rationality on which a universal framework can be built (2019). If there were a universal standard of rationality, then most people would be convinced by it. Yet, there is no single universal standard that all agree upon, and therefore, no universal standard of rationality currently exists. We are left to ask why the standard of objectivity is best found in Nussbaum’s framework compared to any other one, and this undermines her claim to objectivity.
The next objection argues that if something can be revisable, then it can’t be considered objective. Objectivity implies a truth beyond subjective experience, and revision implies the changing of one’s mind to correct a previous mistake. However, the changing of one’s mind is a subjective experience. Therefore, something that can be revised cannot be considered objective. Here we should distinguish the two main parts of Nussbaum’s argument. The first is the framework for defining virtues, and the second is the virtues themselves. In relation to the framework, Nussbaum argues for the objectivity of her framework based on its utility for finding common ground among differing cultures. However, this is not the only possible basis for an objective framework, as argued by my previous objection. Thus, it seems as though the framework itself is open to revision and cannot be considered objective. Regarding the virtues, if they can be revised within a truly objective framework, then while that framework may be objective, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the virtues considered within it are objective. I’ll give an example to illustrate this argument. Say that there is a paddock, and the objective nature of this paddock is that it ought to only be filled with cows. However, the farmer who owns this paddock has never seen a cow before and thus fills it with an assortment of animals he believes to be cows. The problem here lies in the farmer’s subjective experience of what he considers to be a cow. Likewise, an objective framework still needs to be filled by subjects discerning this framework, and this can cause problems where declared virtues (or cows) maybe not objectively speaking be virtues.
Nussbaum’s response to these objections may be that any objective standard for producing a framework to define the virtues would necessitate principles of human action shared among all cultures. If a framework excluded the principles of some culture, then it reasonably couldn’t be considered universal. As to the frameworks proposed by other philosophers, they hold assumptions that may not be shared by all cultures. Aquinas’s assumption of the truth of Catholic tradition is not universally held, and MacIntyre’s assumption of a need for a culture to have complex activities may not be universal among all cultures. Therefore, her framework does the best job to define a universal framework. She may also argue that revision does not infer that there are no objective virtues whatsoever, but only that our understanding of those objective virtues becomes more perfect with each revision.
Aquinas, S. T. (2012). Summa Theolgiae (L. Shapcote, Trans.; J. Mortensen & E. Alarcón, Eds.). Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine.
Aristotle. (1981). The Politics (T. A. Sinclair, Trans.). Penguin Books.
MacIntyre, A. (2007). After virtue: a study in moral theory (3rd ed.). University of Notre Dame Press.
MacIntyre, A. (2019, 26 July). Moral Relativism Reconsidered To What End?, University of Notre Dame. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zr2uI3oJUT0
Nussbaum, M. C. (1988). Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach. Midwest studies in philosophy, 13(1), 32-53. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4975.1988.tb00111.x
 Prima Secundae Partis, Q. 49 A.4