Old versus New Virtue – an Hegelian Remark on Virtue Ethics and the Unity of Virtues

High Road, Low Road Green Road Sign with Copy Room Over The Dramatic Clouds and Sky.

This text is a very short version of a paper that I had the pleasure and honor to present at a conference celebrating the 60th Anniversary of G.E.M. Anscombe’s Paper “Modern Moral Philosophy” at the University of Notre Dame, January 21-23 2018.

I. Hegel’s harsh verdict on modern virtue

In his Phenomenology of Spirit (§390), Hegel makes a striking comment on virtue ethics: modern theories of virtue produce only “emptiness” and “boredom”. He claims that they contain nothing real, only pompous rhetoric, and that they try to instill a pretentious sense of moral excellence in their readers with meaningless words. While Hegel criticizes contemporary attempts to virtue ethics quite harshly, he praises their ancient predecessors: Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato provided a robust and substantial account of the practical good and the virtues. Hegel obviously thinks that ancient theories of virtue succeeded where modern theories fail. Hegel explains that the main difference between these two different kinds of accounts is a logical one. He argues that modern theorists falsely depict virtue in the category of generality (Allgemeines) while ancient philosophers appropriately use the category of particularity (Besonderes). Unfortunately, Hegel’s terminology notoriously tends to obscure his arguments. In this text I try to sketch out a systematic reading that might not only help us to decode Hegel’s text but also might show us something about the logic of virtue – independently from Hegel’s other philosophical convictions and the historical context of the Phenomenology of Spirit. First, I will propose my interpretation of Hegel’s distinction between general and particular accounts of virtue (part II). Secondly, I will reconstruct Hegel’s argument why a proper concept of the virtues should be in the category of particularity (part III). Finally, I will mention an important consequence from this claim for the supposed unity of virtues.

II. General and particular virtues

I would like to suggest the following reading of Hegel’s remarks: By distinguishing the generality of modern virtue and the particularity of ancient virtue, Hegel alludes to a difference in scope of virtue norms. Modern theories usually take virtue norms to be “general” in the sense that they apply to all mankind. Virtues are defined as qualities that make a human being good qua human being. They are part of the essential description of the human life-form. The virtuous life realizes a perfect or ideal version of the human life. A vicious person, on the other hand, does not only violate some moral laws, she represents a deviation from this ideal of the human life. The vicious person fails to fully realize her life-form. The vicious person is still a human being, of course, but only in a defective way. This way of thinking about virtue norms as general norms for the whole life-form is reflected, for example, in the expression that a certain virtuous behavior is “humane” or when a virtuous person is called a “true human”. An important logical feature of this modern view is the assumption that particular ethical demands (e.g. of a certain social role) are derived from the general norm. The general formulation of a virtue (“humans act justly”) is supposed to have logical priority over the particular formulation (“judges act justly”). The particular virtues of a judge, for example, are only applications of the general norm to the particular situation of a judge. Ancient virtue ethics, however, are more modest in their claims, according to Hegel. The scope of their virtue norms is limited to the ethical demands and obligations of particular social roles and relationships. They do not purport to describe the good life and good actions of a human being per se, but the actions and life of a good parent, a good politician, a good friend, and so on. The particular norms of social roles have logical priority over statements like “humans act justly”. The latter are only abstractions from the substantial particular norms. To understand what justice is, therefore, we have to start from an understanding of the particular justice of a parent, a judge, a teacher, and so on. The general and abstract formulations are mainly shorthand for the more elaborate particular versions. Hegel’s characterization of ancient virtue ethics might surprise some readers. It is often assumed that Aristotle himself introduced the concept of virtue by the notion of being good qua human being. In the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics he equates the virtuous life with the good human life. Also, his descriptions of the virtues in the following books seem not to be limited to certain social roles. He seems to talk about justice, courage, prudence, temperance, and so on in an unqualified sense and not about the courage of a father and the temperance of a poet. Such passages apparently point to a general conception of the virtues like the one that Hegel attributes to the modern authors. After all, many modern virtue ethicists explicitly posit themselves in the tradition of Aristotle. I cannot defend Hegel’s reading of Aristotle here. Hegel would, however, caution us not to take the mentioned passages too literally. Aristotle often seems to speak about human virtues and human life in a very general sense. Nevertheless, he has a very particular audience in mind. The virtues described in the Nicomachean Ethics are the virtues of experienced and rich Athenian noblemen, i.e., citizens that occupy a particular set of social roles. This particularity becomes quite apparent in the virtue of magnificence (megaloprepeia, NE IV.4-6): The magnificent man is able to donate temple buildings to the city-state, equip warships and host theater festivals – it is obviously a virtue only for the happy few. This kind of dependency of the virtues on social status is even more conspicuous in Plato’s Politeia: In the discussion of his Utopian city, he explicitly differentiates between the virtues of the philosopher-king, the guardians and the workers.

III. Co-operation and Sociality

According to Hegel, ancient virtue ethics have a better conception of virtues than their modern epigones because of a profounder understanding of human nature. Aristotle calls us humans the “social animal”. Human sociality, however, is characterized by co-operation and division of labor to a much higher degree than any other animal. Human societies tend to develop a multitude of social roles with highly specialized functions and activities. The particularity of ancient virtues acknowledges this fact about human sociality. Their virtues mirror the partitioned structure of co-operation. If human life is essentially characterized by co-operation and division of labor, then this also applies to the human good. The daily lives of a scientist and a soldier, for example, differ widely and so do the ethical demands that we place on them. Different social roles have different functions in society. Therefore, to act well means something different in each of these roles. Sometimes these differences might be obscured by the general terms that we use. The sentences “A criminal judge should treat the accused justly” and “Parents should treat their children justly” apply the same adverb “justly”. Nevertheless, they refer to two distinct kinds of norms. Parents who behave like criminal judges toward their children certainly do not act justly. A similar mistake is made by the judge who treats the accused motherly or fatherly. Hegel would not deny that there are still some similarities between the two kinds of justice – after all, it is no coincidence that we apply the same term to both. These similarities, however, are only vague. They do not carry enough content to guide our actions. If we want to know what we should do, Hegel urges us to focus on the particular demands of social roles and personal relationships. The reference to a broad and general concept of a good human being, for example in the form of the advice “Be a good human being!” is less than helpful. There is nothing substantial to be learned about good action and virtuous character by rhetorically pointing to the idea of mankind. For that reason, Hegel criticizes contemporary virtue ethics as “empty” and “boring”.

IV. The Problem of Unity

There is one important consequence of the logical difference between modern and ancient concepts of virtue that I want to mention here at the end of my text: Hegel states that the particularity of the ancient concept allows us to see that the unity of the virtues and the human life-form is a non-trivial problem. Modern accounts tend to overlook this philosophical challenge since they already presuppose the unity of the virtues and of the life-form in a certain sense. If all particular virtues of social roles were only applications of a general virtue to certain circumstances, as modern accounts seem to assume, there can be no true conflict between the virtues. All agents act on the same principles, namely the virtues of the human life-form. Disagreement may occur only about questions of application and contingent circumstances, not about the principles itself. The picture of the ancient account of virtues, however, differs hugely: In human society, many different virtues, which are based on different social roles, interact with one another. There might be incompatible demands and claims due to the different underlying principles. Although the different social roles share common goals, and their functions are mutually interdependent, these common goals and functions are not simply given, as for example, the basic biological purposes of survival and reproduction. From an abstract perspective it seems quite obvious that, e.g., a scientist, a soldier, a judge and a poet co-operate in a society and share common goals. If we look closely, however, it is far from clear how this co-operation is structured and whose ethical demands should have priority over others. To complicate matters: human societies are not static, their goals evolve and with them the specifics of our co-operation changes. Conflicts between ethical demands cannot be resolved by reference to some general notion of human life, they have to be worked out by reflection and creative compromise. The unity of human virtues and the unity of a human life-form are not a starting point of our historical and philosophical enterprise, they are an end – an end that has to be re-evaluated and re-shaped constantly. The human life-form is in an act of constant self-reaction. Hegel believes that the ancient virtue ethics provide us with the proper account to face this challenge.



Martin Palauneck was a visiting student at the University of Chicago in 2013. He is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Leipzig. His thesis pertains G.W.F. Hegel’s take on Aristotle and ancient virtue theory. 

What To Do With Aggression?

Still from the the film Lord of the Flies.

I’m used to Nietzsche’s provocations. Or so I thought. Recently, having taught the Genealogy of Morals to a class of college sophomores—rereading the text through their fresh eyes—I was struck yet again by Nietzsche’s audacity, his willingness to celebrate dark, even heinous, urges—e.g., “the voluptuous pleasure in doing evil for the pleasure of doing evil, the enjoyment of violation.”[1]


In my youth, such exclamations felt like a recognition of sorts, a philosophical expression to sides of myself I had been taught to feel ashamed of. Even if it wasn’t evil per se that I was craving, it was evil insofar as we define it, as Nietzsche seems to define, as violation for sake of violation. It was the pleasure of transgression—transgression of social norms—that I fancied. When I read Nietzsche, I was left with an ethical, even political question: What should I do with my ingrained aggression towards social expectations (even if—and perhaps because—I was very mostly obedient)?


Not long after Nietzsche’s death, Sigmund Freud claimed a disturbing discovery, one that explained some of the former’s provocations: we are all afflicted by a death instinct, thanatos, which drives us to undo the structures and regulations that civilization, especially our modern civilization, imposes on us. While civilization does its best to suppress aggressions, its success is limited, or rather: it causes these aggressions to burst out in immense spectacles of violence. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud appeals to the horrors of the First World War as an example, and had he not died in September 1939, he could surely add a few more atrocities to his list.


Freud’s diagnosis of modern Western civilization—not unlike Nietzsche’s—was bleak. To the extent that it can master thanatos, the price is growing misery since it bars modern subjects from playing out in-born instincts. I believe, however, that his theory gives rise to an ethically productive question: Can we fashion our lives, as both individuals and members of social institutions, in a way that offers our aggressions non-destructive outlets?


The idea that we have inclinations at odds with rational and socially constructive conduct is an old one. In a dominant strand of ethical thought, the imperative is to tame, or—to use Freudian parlance—suppress such inclinations. Immanuel Kant, for example, portrayed moral conduct as a constant struggle between rational duty (expressed by the Categorical Imperative) and our bodily inclinations. Reason must constantly guard against such rebellious forces. It is with this in mind, perhaps, that Nietzsche jabs at Kant: “The categorical imperative smells of cruelty.”[2]


Hegel, Kant’s most famous successor, also likes to jab at the apparent Kantian hostility towards the living body, fraught as it is with urges and instincts. “There is nothing degrading about being alive,” he says in the Philosophy of Right, “and we do not have the alternative of existing in a higher spirituality.”[3] I’d like to suggest that Hegel offers both an interesting construal of our seemingly antisocial aggressions—one that prefigures some of Freud’s insights—and a constructive ethical proposal for accommodating them.


Hegel characterizes desire [Begehren] as inherently aggressive; it subjugates the desired object to the demands of the desiring subject and thereby asserts the subject’s freedom vis-à-vis the objective world. When I desire an apple, I see it as nothing but a potential meal; when I consume it, I turn it into my meal; I make this formerly independent object a part of my subjectivity.


Importantly, this drama of desire has a rational purpose; it is a necessary aspect of attaining individual freedom. Unlike Rousseau, Hegel thinks that man is born unfree. We are thoroughly dependent on the world; we need it. Desire is a step away from dependency, a step towards freedom. It is not a passive need but the active satisfaction of need; moreover, it gives a specific shape to our needs. Feeling hungry, I may need food, but I desire an apple—thereby actively shaping my relationship with the world, asserting a degree (even if limited) of independence.


Furthermore, it is our desirous nature that explains, according to Hegel, why we sometimes even destroy what satisfies our needs. In a curious discussion of child development in his Anthropology, Hegel makes a passing comment: “the most rational thing that children can do with their toys is to break them.”[4] While he doesn’t quite explain this claim, his notion of desire could fill in the lacuna. Toys satisfy a toddler’s need at a certain developmental phase, helping him build various skills. But, he must show himself and others that he is not dependent on them; in breaking his toys he attains greater independence.


It is not only objects that satisfy our desire. In fact, desiring subjects can be all the more satisfying, insofar as they are able to acknowledge our superiority; we can read in their eyes their recognition of us as free, or rather—as more free than them.


Think, for example, about the fictional character of Don Juan, the womanizer for whom seduction is a never-ending task, a repetitive assertion of his masculine power.


Such behavior may strike us as unfortunate, and not for moralistic or anti libertine reasons. It hardly seems like a recipe for a good life. After all, the seducer—even the successful one—seems to be a slave of his own desire, perhaps like a toddler reliant on his toys. Hegel would agree. For him, this basic mode of desire—which treats the world, even people, as nothing but an object for proving one’s superiority—must be transcended if we are to attain more enduring and satisfying freedom.


However, I think Hegel’s originality lies in the realization that this mode of aggressive desire is not only a developmental stage, one we can ideally do away with. We need a sphere in which we can assert our superiority over others, a sphere which serves as an outlet for our inherently aggressive desire. This outlet is the peculiarly modern sphere of civil society, the sphere of the market economy.


In the market economy, the individual is concerned with his self-interest only, “and all else means nothing to him.”[5] He struggles for his subsistence and well-being and accumulates personal property, often by competing with others, outwitting and using them in promoting his own ends. Hegel talks about the modern economic sphere in almost animalistic terms, where “particularity indulges itself in all directions as it satisfies its needs, contingent arbitrariness, and subjective caprice.”[6]


This might seem demeaning, as if human society is no better than a jungle. After all, much of ethical thought is concerned with taking us beyond animalistic urges and behaviors. But Hegel’s point is that such transcendence is impossible, it denies essential aspects of who we are as rational animals. Rather than suppress our animality, we are to offer it a socially constructive playground. This stands to benefit society as a whole, insofar as it increases both personal and social wealth and conduces to innovation and progress.


It appears, however, that the market economy requires precisely what Freud associated with modern civilization, namely, strict obedience to a set of shared norms. How can it afford, then, an outlet for antisocial aggressions? I think that a Hegelian answer could appeal to an alleged similarity between the economy and a collective game. On the one hand, a game requires us to recognize the other participants as peers; we all follow the same rules. In this respect, we must go beyond aggression as a developmental phase, namely, we must recognize others as equals, rather than only as potential satisfaction for our desires. On the other hand, by acknowledging others as peers, we are given a space in which we can assert our superiority over them. Only one (or some) of the players can win the game. One aggression, then, is converted into another, socially constructive one.


It was Marx, Hegel’s most influential critic, who gave us reasons to doubt the idea that civil society—or, specifically, the market economy—is a site of individual freedom. It is not, however, because the market economy is a “jungle” (to use a metaphor many critics of capitalism favor), but because Hegel was still blind to the ways in which the capitalist economy was a site of unprecedented control. For very most of its participants, it is hardly a game—let alone a fair game—in which they can assert their individuality. Nevertheless, even if Hegel’s ethical remedy to our cravings for transgression is a poor one, the problematic that he responded to still calls for attention: What to do with aggression?


[1] Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, Essay 2, §5.

[2] Ibid., § 6.

[3] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §123.

[4] Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Addition to §396.

[5] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §182, Addition.

[6] Ibid., §185.


Gal Katz is a PhD candidate at the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University. His dissertation explores the relationship between individual freedom and modern skepticism in Hegel’s philosophy.


Varieties of Virtue Ethics collection features our scholars

We are very happy to announce a new book that will be of great interest to researchers, students, and general readers concerned with the many contemporary varieties and applications of virtue ethics: Varieties of Virtue Ethics, Edited by David Carr, James Arthur, and Kristján Kristjánsson, from Palgrave Macmillan (December 2016). Edited by two of our Project Scholars, David Carr and Kristján Kristjánsson, both at the University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, the book explores recent developments in ethics of virtue, and includes three essays by scholars of the project Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.


The collection acknowledges the Aristotelian roots of modern virtue ethics, with its emphasis on the moral importance of character, while also recognizing that more recent accounts of virtue have been shaped by many other influences, such as Aquinas, Hume, Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx, and Confucius and Lao-tzu. The authors examine the influence of virtue ethics on disciplines such as psychology, sociology and theology, and also look at the wider public, professional and educational implications of virtue ethics.

Essays in the volume include a chapter by our Virtue project scholars John Haldane, who is the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Distinguished Chair in Philosophy at Baylor University, on “Virtue Ethics in the Medieval Period;” our Principal Investigator Candace Vogler, the David E. and Clara B. Stern Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago on “Virtue, the Common Good, and Self-Transcendence; ” Robert C. Roberts, Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and a joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy, on “Varieties of Virtue Ethics;” and David Carr, Professor Emeritus, University of Edinburgh and Professor of Ethics and Education, University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, on “Educating for the Wisdom of Virtue.”

For more information, including the table of contents, visit http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781137591760.