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Blog Post

Are the Virtues Universal?

30th June 2015

In a collection of notes apparently recorded by his son Nichomachus, Aristotle reportedly maintained that the human good consists of virtuous activity. We flourish through virtue and are better off living a virtuous life. But what constitutes virtue? And is it the same for all people everywhere? Or do virtues like honesty, for example, mean one thing in one place and another thing somewhere else?

Many cultures certainly express the virtues in different ways. Supposedly many doctors in China will not tell cancer patients that they may die, but this is not regarded as dishonest or disrespectful because (I am told) it is widely believed in China that cancer is incurable. Women of the Dani tribe in Papua traditionally expressed their grief for the loss of a loved one by cutting off a finger. People in the West also disagree quite a bit about the ethics of practices like abortion and same-sex marriage.

Does it follow that the virtues are relative, different in different places? The answer is obviously, “Yes, in a way.” People do express the virtues in different ways. But this is different from saying that honesty means being truthful in one place and a liar in another. The virtue of honesty is one thing everywhere and people have more in common than different when it comes to virtue.

It is a common fallacy that ethical disagreement or difference is proof that there is no truth about it. In fact people disagree about lots of things without thinking that there is therefore no truth of the matter. People disagree about God’s existence, but no one thinks it therefore follows that there is no truth of the matter about this. There is a God or there isn’t and one of either believers or unbelievers is right while the other wrong about it.

Second, all societies need just, loving, honest people and ordinary healthy people want to love and respect others and to be loved and respected in turn. This is just commonsense, but growing empirical research supports it. Survey based research and studies of the world’s wisdom literatures, such as the work being done by positive psychologists, provides evidence that several virtues—including the Four Cardinal Virtues of wisdom, courage, justice and temperance—are common across time and culture. And if research in happiness studies is on track, this coincidence is no accident. Evidence in that field suggests that universal human goods like gratitude, family, friendship, and creative activity are our best bets for a happy life. By contrast many things highly valued in the West, like career, wealth accumulation, and consumer goods do little to promote our happiness.

Against this skeptics of common human virtues like to point to differences like those above. But Aristotle’s dictum that we need the virtues to live well is compatible with differences in how people express the virtues. What differs for different peoples is primarily the conditions of their lives, or else their beliefs about those conditions, not the virtues needed to live well in those conditions. The Chinese doctors who do not tell their cancer patients that they will die are not doing so because the Chinese do not need or value honesty, but because they do not believe that cancer is curable. Similarly the Dani practice of finger cutting is apparently partly rooted in the belief that cutting off a finger can prevent future family misfortune. Were the beliefs of the Chinese and the Dani more like our own, they would likely express virtues of honesty and love more like us, too.

None of this is to deny that some genuine disagreement about the virtues exists. Certainly it does. But such disagreement will be at the extremes and in these cases we can be mistaken about what the virtues really are, just as we can be mistaken about the existence of God. In such cases, one side is in the right and the other is in the wrong.

When and how do we know? Well, sometimes it just seems rather obvious when something is inconsistent with virtue. Female genital mutilation, for example, does nothing to promote the good of either women or men and probably much to harm them. It would be a good thing if this practice withered away.

On the other hand, when our beliefs about our life’s conditions are mistaken we are liable to go wrong. If Chinese doctors ought to be more truthful with their patients, that is because many cancers are in fact curable. If the Dani ought to keep their fingers, that is because cutting them off probably does not prevent future family misfortune, and may make it more likely as family women lose the capacity to work independently (one also wonders why if it did Dani men should get to keep their fingers). Similarly highflying go-getters in the West ought to spend more time with their families and friends and far less time working merely to accumulate wealth and stuff.

Many of a relativist bent are uncomfortable with the idea that some people are right and others are wrong about ethics. Doesn’t this idea license the kind of violence and oppression historically carried out under colonization in the West and currently being done by, for example, ISIS in the Middle East?

It would be silly to deny that a sense of moral righteousness has sometimes motivated the oppression of others. But of course it has also motivated their liberation, so this point cuts both ways. More importantly is the point that without the possibility of moral error, it is hard to see why anyone would ever hesitate to impose their morals on others. If I cannot be mistaken, what reason do I have to respect your wishes? On the other hand if I can be mistaken, maybe I should hear your point of view before acting.

Not only do common human virtues exist, the objectivity of morality requires that we exercise a kind of moral humility. We should sometimes be open to different ways of doing things because we do not know everything and can learn something new about how to live well from others. From this it does not follow that anything goes. If relativists are relativists because they believe that we ought to be tolerant of and open to difference, they are making a mistake. Tolerance, open-mindedness and humility are objectively important virtues that we should never compromise. As Aristotle said, it is through them, alongside personal virtues like temperance and courage, that we can live flourishing lives.

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