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Human Nature and Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 April 2012

Rosalind Hursthouse
The University of


Given that it relies on claims about human nature, has Aristotelian virtue ethics (henceforth AVE) been undermined by evolutionary biology? There are at least four objections which are offered in support of the claim that this is so, and I argue that they all fail. The first two (Part 1) maintain that contemporary AVE relies on a concept of human nature which evolutionary biology has undercut and I show this is not so. In Part 2, I try to make it clear that Foot's Aristotelian ethical naturalism, often construed as purporting to provide virtue ethics with a foundation, is not foundationalist and is not attempting to derive ethics from biology. In Part 3, I consider the other two objections. These do not make a misguided assumption about Aristotelian ethical naturalism's foundational aspirations, nor question AVE's use of the concept of human nature, but maintain that some of AVE's empirical assumptions about human nature may well be false, given the facts of our evolution. With respect to these, I argue that, as attempts to undermine AVE specifically, they fail, though they raise significant challenges to our ethical thought quite generally.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2012

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1 One of the objections comes from Bernard Williams. The other three are ones I have heard made at conferences over the last ten years or so, and occur in articles too numerous to be cited.

2 Nicomachean Ethics, translated and edited by Crisp, Roger, Cambridge University Press, 2000, Book 2, Chapter 1Google Scholar.

3 Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Rowe, Christopher, philosophical introduction and commentary by Sarah Broadie, Oxford University Press, 2002Google Scholar.

4 Sterelny and Griffiths note that ‘The contrast between polymorphic and monomorphic traits is standard in biology’, defining monomorphic traits as traits that ‘exist in the same form in every “normal” individual. Leg number is monomorphic in humans.’ Sterelny, Kim and Griffiths, Paul A, Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999) 346Google Scholar.

5 Arnhart, Larry, in Darwinian Natural Right, (New York: SUNY Press, l998)Google Scholar might be an exception to this claim.

6 Williams, Bernard, Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972)Google Scholar‘Moral Standards and the Distinguishing Mark of Man’, and Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985) chapter 3Google Scholar.

7 Nussbaum, Martha, ‘Aristotle on Human Nature and the Foundations of Ethics’, in Altham, J.E.J. and Harrison, R. (eds.), World, Mind and Ethics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 86131CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Bernard Williams, ‘Replies’, Op. cit. 200.

9 Philosophical Investigations §127.

10 Ibid, §122.

11 Foot, Philippa, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 16CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 See, for example, his ‘Comment’ on de Waal in de Waal, Frans, Primates and Philosophers (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 ‘Replies’ in Altham, J.E.J. and Harrison, R. (eds.), World, Mind and Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 199CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 ‘Evolution, Ethics and the Representation Problem’, in Making Sense of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 109Google Scholar.

15 Kim Sterelny and Paul E.Griffiths, op.cit note 3, 8.