Cultural relativism

Samurai standing on stairway in night forest with the red moon on background,illustration painting

Note: This is a 3-part series of the essay Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and Moral Relativism.

Part III: Cultural Relativism


Many people come to affirm moral relativism because there is so much moral disagreement, both within a culture and across cultures. These people think that the fact that there is no agreement is a sign that there is nothing to agree about, no objective truth that cuts across cultures.


This disagreement isn’t recent either.  Certainly the Jews and the Romans profoundly disagreed about how to live, about what was OK to do and say and what wasn’t.  The ancient historian Herodotus, who was writing in mid fifth century BC, relates the following anecdote of the King of Persia:


He summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians…who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing (Herodotus 440BCE; trans. Sélincourt, 1988, pp. 219- 20).


Insofar as we take Herodotus to be putting forth a view here, it would be what we now call cultural relativism.  This is a species of moral relativism insofar as it says that morality is relative to cultures, and it is shared cultural beliefs and practices that determine what is morally true for the people who are born into it.  So, what is morally true for an aboriginal tribe in what is now called Australia is true for them but not true for we Americans, and vice versa.


Cultural relativism is a species of moral relativism.  A cultural relativist believes that morality is relative to cultures, and that it is shared cultural beliefs and practices that determine what is morally acceptable and mandatory for the people who are brought up under them and for no one else.


A version of cultural relativism was put forward in 1947 by the American Anthropological Association, in response to the UN Declaration of the Universal Rights of Man.  The AAA was against such a universal declaration on explicitly relativist grounds.  They argued that moral belief and practice is entirely determined by culture and that there is no way to legitimately demonstrate that the values or customs of one culture are superior to any other.  They further chastised western political institutions for imposing their own culturally situated ideology of “universal rights” upon other nations.  In their statement on human rights, the anthropologists asked:


How can the proposed declaration be applicable to all human beings, and not be a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in the countries of Western Europe and America?[i]


Their worry was that the declaration of universal human rights was just colonialism masquerading as liberation.  Unmask this, and all we are left with is the ideology of the “white man’s burden” all over again.   So, instead of declaring a regime of universal rights that all cultures had to respect, the anthropologists argued for “respect for differences between cultures” which is “validated by the scientific fact that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered.” (1947, 542)  The anthropologists also claimed explicitly that:


Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any declaration of human rights to mankind as a whole. (Ibid)


The first thing to say about this fascinating document is that its appeal to science does no argumentative work.  For just as there is no “scientific” method to “qualitatively evaluate” moral beliefs, there is also no “scientific” method to determine that qualitative measures are the only legitimate standards of knowledge.  To say that science hasn’t yielded an adequate moral theory is just to state the obvious and pretend that something substantive follows from it.  But we cannot infer from the fact that science doesn’t yield moral knowledge the conclusion that there can in principle be no moral knowledge, as moral knowledge may simply not be scientific in character.


Setting debates about what moral knowledge is aside, notice that here we have the familiar refrain to “respect diversity” rather than interfere and impose, because moral standards are relative to cultures, and that failure to recognize this belies a crude parochialism.  This position doesn’t have to assume, by the way, that other cultures have to respect diversity as well, so it needn’t be self-defeating in the ways we have previously discussed. [There is a complication here, however, about a so-called “right of men to live in terms of their own traditions” casually asserted in the document, but let’s be charitable and pretend it isn’t there]. The statement just says that within our western culture we should respect diversity and be tolerant of cultures dramatically different from our own.  This may mean, by the way, that women continue to be treated as inferiors to men and denied political rights, education, and any semblance of control over what happens to their bodies, that homosexuals may be executed, that honor killings may continue, or any other number of things that look like moral atrocities from our contemporary western point of view.  The consistent cultural relativist will, on these matters, have to live and let live.


We can further complicate this issue.  In her wonderful essay, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” Mary Midgley describes the following custom of Samurai warriors in Medieval Japan:


There is, it seems, a verb in classical Japanese which means ‘to try out one’s new sword on a chance wayfarer.’  (The word is tsujigiri, literally ‘crossroads-cut’).  A Samurai sword had to be tried out because, if it was to work properly, it had to slice through someone at a single blow, from the shoulder to the opposite flank.  Otherwise, the warrior bungled his stroke.  This could injure his honor, offend his ancestors, and even let down his emperor.  So tests were needed, and wayfarers had to be expended.  Any wayfarer would do.”[ii]

What interests me so much about this example is that it brings up yet another iteration of cultural relativism, what Bernard Williams has called “the relativism of distance.”[iii] Williams is deeply skeptical that one can judge any culture when there is significant historical distance between the judger and the time period judged. Williams thinks that moral beliefs are radically contingent, such that it would be a mistake to assume the authority to judge those who came before us. According to Williams, judging the past is basically an empty, self-congratulatory exercise; it is patting oneself on the back for having the good fortune to be born in more enlightened times.  More specifically, Williams argues that appraisal of the past does not satisfy two conditions for genuine moral judgment: (1) shared interests and projects in common, and (2) a practical question of what to do.


What can we say to Williams or to our benighted anthropologists?  Is it true that we should refrain from judging cultures?  This is a difficult question, to be sure, because we should be wary of the dangers inherent to judging others—they are real.   But one thing seems certain to me, and that is that adopting cultural relativism doesn’t solve the problem of our relationship to the past and to other cultures, but arguably just makes that relationship more strained and insincere.


For one thing, as Mary Midgley herself pointed out, if we adopt relativism in either sense, it makes learning from other cultures and time periods very difficult (if not impossible).  For if we cannot censure another culture we also cannot praise it (for that too, would be to make a moral judgment about it, which I have blocked myself from doing). In order to enter into genuine dialogue and exchange with another culture or time period, we have to be able to identify what we find good and what we find bad in it—otherwise we are entirely closed off to it.  If we cannot enter into this conversation, which depends on moral judgment, then we have no hope of converging on a shared worldview and we have no hope of genuine cultural exchange.  A dialogue can only take place from where we are, a place of real commitments to specific values. Insofar as relativism asks us to give up our commitments, it asks us to be isolated and closed off from other cultures and time periods.  It encourages us to see the other culture as radically other, thus blocking any genuine attempts to seek common ground and a common identity.  This tends to drain the value out of historical and cross-cultural engagement, which can have dangerous political implications.


I want now finally to return to our opening remarks about the dictatorship of relativism.  I want to suggest that there is something totalitarian about relativism after all.


When all truth is relative, which really means when there is no intelligible notion of truth at all, the rational discourse that is a necessary condition for a viable democracy becomes impossible. As rational animals, we cannot escape the fact that we have to form beliefs and make choices that are informed by them, and we cannot escape the fact that some of these beliefs are going to inform our most basic social institutions.  Some values of necessity must prevail over others. If we refuse to acknowledge any objective measures of truth that are publicly accessible and in principle available to anyone, then all we have left to determine which beliefs and values determine social life is individual or collective will to power (whether this be the will of the oppressor class to maintain its status, or the will of the oppressed classes to gain power, is of no matter).  In such social conditions, the clever and ruthless will prevail, and in absence of the power to persuade people to follow them, they will have to resort to violence to ensure that their private vision prevails over its competitors.


So freedom and equality really do depend on truth, they really do depend on some publicly accessible measure to which those in power can be held to account. And so we were wrong to think that relativism is a friend to democracy and equality. Quite the contrary, it is its enemy. For truth helps us to transcend ourselves; without truth, we inevitably collapse into ourselves, into our own private needs and desires.  In that condition, we will either dominate or be dominated; either way, we will not be truly free.


[i] “Statement on Human Rights” American Anthropologist, Vol. 49, No. 4, part 1 (Oct-Dec, 1947), pp. 539-543.

[ii] Mary Midgley, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” Heart and Mind, St. Martin’s Press, 1981.

[iii] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Routledge, 2011.

Partial relativism and skepticism


Note: This is a 3-part series of the essay Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and Moral Relativism. Part I was “Why worry about moral relativism?”

Part II: Partial relativism and skepticism

People may think that what they read in their chemistry, physics, and biology textbooks are objectively true, or at least, that there is some reality that could determine whether the claims in these books are true or false, but that there is no objective truth to be found in a book on ethics, politics, or aesthetics.  That is, one could think there are truth makers relative to some domains and no truth makers relative to another; in the latter sort of domain, all perspectives are equally valid because there is nothing that could serve as a measure to adjudicate between rival truth claims.  Such a view would not be self-refuting.  But that doesn’t mean that the view is any good (self-refutation is a pretty low bar for theorizing). I will limit myself to discussions of moral and cultural relativism.


Before I talk about what moral relativism is, let me stave off confusion by saying what it isn’t.  It isn’t moral skepticism.  The moral skeptic doubts our claims to possess moral knowledge. But this is not the denial of objective truth; rather, it is a denial that we have reliable access to that truth.


Alternatively, a skeptic may deny that moral claims function like regular beliefs at all.  On this view, moral claims are just statements about one’s own personal preferences, such that moral disagreement is an illusion.  Disagreement is an illusion because statements of preference are not truth-apt—they are not susceptible of being true or false.  If I say I like ice cream, and you say ice cream is gross, we are not disagreeing about anything objective.  We are saying something about ourselves—viz., that you and I have different reactions to eating ice cream; I have a pleasure response, and you don’t.  Similarly, if I say I don’t like murder and you say you do, we aren’t disagreeing about objective facts about what it is ‘to kill the innocent’ but merely stating our own responses to it when it happens.


There are other forms of skepticism, but skepticism is not our topic. The moral relativist thinks there are no objective truths that could settle moral claims, but that moral claims do assert private or personal truths. Consider a moral disagreement like this: Lucy thinks that rape is impermissible is true, whereas Linus thinks that rape is permissible is true.  Both claims can be equally true according to the relativist—true from each person’s first personal perspective.  But neither claim is objectively true, and so neither claim demands our allegiance.


One thing that is weird about this point of view is that it can in principle have no practical upshot, because as soon as one tries to make moral relativism practical one is caught in a performative contradiction.  For example, suppose you are at a frat party and you see Jack trying to rape Jane, who is only semi-conscious.  Suppose you believe that rape is wrong—really, terribly wrong—in which case you will want to stop him.  But you cannot stop him if you are an ethical relativist, because you will have no ground on which to do so.  As a relativist you are committed to the belief that Jack’s value judgments are true for him and equally as good as your own, and Jack plainly doesn’t think that rape is wrong.  Perhaps he thinks it expresses his will to power, or perhaps he thinks so long as he has drugged a woman and makes sure that she doesn’t get pregnant, then he isn’t really doing anything bad to her.  Let us suppose that you are a decent person, so you are horrified by what Jack is doing and thinking.  As a relativist, however, you have undermined any ground you might have otherwise had to object to his behavior.  As an ethical relativist, you cannot impose your belief, your truth, on someone else.   At best you can say that what he does is upsetting you, but of course, Jack will only stop if he cares about that.  But Jack doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that puts other’s needs before his own; I mean, think about what he is doing to Jane.  Hopefully you can see the problem.


All this is to say that the ethical relativist can only be a relativist in theory but not practice.  That’s pretty weird, because we typically think that our ethical beliefs are supposed to translate into action—they are supposed to be practical.  But now it looks like the only time this is possible is when my actions only concern me, because only then would I not be imposing on anyone else in trying to realize my own private vision of the good.  Good luck identifying what actions those are!  If you can find any—and I personally doubt that you can—they will certainly be few and far between.  Most of what we do either directly involves others or affects others in fairly obvious ways.


This point about the practicality of judgments about the good is important, so I want to dwell on it a bit longer.  I have already argued that we cannot escape making judgments and having beliefs—as creatures with an intellect, this is our plight. But we are not merely knowers, we are also actors, and so we have to deliberate from a first person perspective not only about what to believe but also about what to do.  But just as the question about what to believe is transparent to the question about what is true, so also the question about what to do is transparent to the question about what is good or desirable to do.  When we choose some action in some circumstances, we choose it because we think it is in some sense good (either that it is pleasant, that it is fitting, or that it is instrumentally useful to the attainment of some other good we are also trying to secure); alternatively, we choose some action because we think that it avoids some evil, but avoiding evil is just a way to maintain or preserve one’s good. So, just as the intellect orients us to the truth, the will orients us to the good.  For this reason Aquinas says that the will is a rational appetite, it is a capacity or tendency to pursue what the intellect judges is good to pursue.  But no one wants to choose what is merely apparently good—people want things that are really and truly good for them.  According to Aquinas’s theory of vice (where vice is the opposite of virtue, the dispositions to act well), even the vicious person is after real human goods.  For instance, the greedy man is after wealth, a real good; the greedy man’s trouble is that he wants this good inordinately, which causes him to wrong others and sacrifice higher goods, which ultimately causes him to wreck his life.


So, from within the first-person perspective of human experience—of deliberating, making choices, and acting—moral relativism looks like it is a denial of central and inescapable aspects of human experience.  And this is because the moral relativist holds that there is no such thing as objective goods for humans to seek in their choices.  But then choice itself starts to look pointless, if not impossible.  For if choice isn’t about getting onto real goods, why choose anything at all?  The very act of choice seems to depend on the thought that you can secure a real good for yourself—perhaps even a good life on the whole.  And again, as rational animals who must make choices, a commitment to the pursuit of real goods seems to be our plight.


The fact that ethical relativism is deeply impractical and untrue to human experience certainly undercuts the motivation many had to adopt it in the first place.  For if one adopted relativism because she was practically committed to advancing values like freedom, equality, and tolerance, she now finds herself in the awkward position of being unable to advocate effectively (if at all) on behalf of it, and equally unable to realize this value and maintain her relativism.  For as soon as she tells someone else to be tolerant, she is contradicting herself. If tolerance, freedom, and equality are really goods, then they are truly goods, and things that are truly good ought to be realized in our individual and collective actions; indeed, we should arrange our lives and our societies so that we can secure and maintain these goods.  Once we see that relativism undermines these possibilities, it becomes rather less appealing.


Tomorrow: Cultural Relativism


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

Why worry about moral relativism?

Lost in the rain

Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and the Moral Life

Part I: Why worry about moral relativism?

The title of this essay, “Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and the Moral Life,” refers to Pontius Pilate’s question to Christ in John’s Gospel.  Of course, it is hard to say what exactly Pilate’s intentions were in raising this question—perhaps it was to absolve himself of any consequences of his actions, perhaps it expresses his skepticism that truth is all that relevant to the deeply pragmatic and compromised political decisions he has to make, including the judicial condemnation and execution of an innocent man, or perhaps it is a deep skepticism that anyone can, as Christ says, “bear witness to the truth.” But however we interpret that scene, one thing is certain: Pilate’s question is a perennial and personal one for all of us; it has not and it will never go away.  It is a question we will inescapably confront, again and again, precisely because, as rational animals—i.e., creatures with an intellect and will who make judgments, assertions, and choices—we cannot avoid seeking what is objectively true. The truth is inescapable for us because even if we try to say that there is no objective truth, we are thereby trying to say something objectively true.  This reality about us, that we seek out and must conform ourselves to the truth in every sphere of human life, is what all forms of relativism, which is the denial of objective truth, attempt to deny.

But why should we worry about relativism?  The answer is simple: because young people often think they have to be relativists.  Certainly students in my classes, especially my classes in moral theory, are often scandalized by the idea of making truth claims.  The tacit assumption they bring into my class is that making moral judgments is a bit presumptuous, illiberal, and worst of all, unkind.  Of course, the intelligibility of these objections to making moral truth claims depend upon very serious moral truth claims of their own—viz., that it is truly bad to be illiberal and unkind, that humility is truly good, that it is truly good to respect one another’s life choices, and so on. I will return to this point later on.  For now, I want us simply to notice the following interesting fact: that the principle reason to adopt moral relativism in the first place, which is the idea that there are no objective truths about what is good or bad in human life, depend upon moral beliefs that are taken to be objectively true.  This self-contradictory stance is the first sign that there is something deeply wrong with moral relativism.

But perhaps the worry is deeper.  Perhaps relativism is worse than just philosophically unserious or insufficiently reflective—perhaps it is positively bad for society and needs to be actively guarded against.  Consider the following remarks from then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his homily to mark the beginning of the conclave that would eventually elect him Pope:

“We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”[i]

Ratzinger’s remarks are a bit cryptic and certainly dark.  Obviously a dictatorship is something we don’t want to be building up unawares!  But why would Ratzinger call relativism a dictatorship?  If relativism is the idea that there is no objective truth such that all opinions are basically on a par, to many ears that sounds pretty democratic and tolerant, the exact opposite of an authoritarian dictatorship!  Moreover, in a liberal, democratic society such as ours, in which we all have an equal right to determine the future course of things, relativism may present itself as the only workable perspective—viz., the only standpoint from which one can be truly liberal and respect others.

A natural response is to say that Ratzinger is getting things backwards.   It isn’t relativism that oppresses us; rather it is the appeal to objective truth that is intrinsically illiberal—the real threat to individual liberty and personal autonomy.  Relativism simply encourages everyone to “speak their own truth,” as Oprah would say, and to live according to their own personal and authentic vision of the good life.

In this talk, I am going to suggest that a truly liberal democratic order—one that preserves true freedom and equality—depends upon mutual recognition of and respect for objective truths, most especially, objective truths about the nature of human beings and human life, and what human beings need in order to live well and flourish together.

To show this, I will first go through a variety of kinds of relativism that one might encounter these days, arguing that each version is both problematic and unappealing.  Along the way I will say a few things about what I think truth is generally, why truth is inescapable for us as rational animals, and why truth is necessary for a proper account of freedom.

  1. Varieties of Relativism
  2. Protagorean or global relativism

Not all relativisms are equal, and some are easier to dismiss than others.  Let us begin with the most vulgar sort, the kind of thing well-meaning people sometimes say but don’t really believe.  This is the sort of relativism that is often attributed to the Sophist Protagoras (a character we know about because of Plato’s discussions of him).  Of course, being called a sophist is not a compliment, so as you can imagine, Plato was not a fan. The idea, roughly, is that there is no such thing as an objective measure of truth independent of us, so there is no way to adjudicate between your own beliefs and anyone else’s.

For example:  Jane says that global temperatures are rising due to greenhouse gas emissions; Jack says that the current warming trends are part of the natural order of things, and that greenhouse gas emissions have made a negligible contribution to the current upward tick.  The relativist comes along and says that there is no truth of the matter either way, because there is no mechanism that could serve as a measure to determine which belief, Jack or Jane’s, is objectively true.

We have to be careful here, because relativism isn’t just disagreement; after all, genuine disagreement depends on the idea that there is some objective truth and thus something to disagree about. Relativism also isn’t the skeptical claim that we cannot be certain about our access to reality—that the evidence is too complicated or tricky. Relativism is the much stronger claim that each belief is equally true or equally good qua belief.  The world is as it appears to you, and the world is at it appears to me.  But this is all that there is and there can be: mere appearances.  Or, if we want to talk about reality, there is your reality and my reality, but we needn’t think these realities will converge upon a single reality independent of our own individual perspectives.

This view is famously self-refuting. Suppose that you go to study under Protagoras, and he tells you all about relativism.  Why is he telling you this?  Presumably he is trying to teach you something he believes is true.  If he did not think it was true, why would he assert it and try to get you to believe it?  It is obvious that, whether he admits it or not, Protagoras thinks that relativism is true, and not simply for him.  And he has to think this, otherwise believing in, asserting, and teaching relativism to his students are pointless and absurd exercises.  Protagoras’s theory is self-refuting, because its content is at odds with the nature and purpose of theorizing and teaching in general: putting something forward as true, as something that other right thinking people ought to believe.

To defend these claims I should say more about truth in general and how it relates to judgment, assertion, and belief.  But first, let me say something about what I (following Aquinas) think truth is.  Traditionally, philosophers have thought of truth as the way things are, so truth is related to being.  Propositions—the judgeable contents of judgments, assertions and beliefs, like ‘it is raining now in Anchorage Alaska’—are either true or false.  So, it either is the case or is not the case that ‘it is raining now in Anchorage.’  I don’t know, and so I don’t have a belief about it either way, but the way things are right now in Anchorage is going to settle whether anybody’s belief is good or bad.

Now, Aquinas thinks that truth is not simply the way things are but the way things are in relation to the intellect.[ii]  The intellect, or the capacity for knowledge and understanding, relates one to being by way of truth.  A judgment or belief is good or bad if it is true, and for it to be true is to relate the person to reality in the proper way.  For instance, to know that there is a podium here is to be related to the podium in a certain way.  As Aquinas says, it is an adequatio between the intellect and the thing (res).

So, to believe some proposition, p, just is to take p to be true; to assert something is to say that this is the way you take things to be.  Aquinas would agree with the Harvard philosopher Richard Moran, who argues that belief is transparent to the truth.[iii]  That is, from the first-person perspective, I treat the question of my belief about p as equivalent to the question of the truth of p.  This means that if I am deliberating about whether to believe that it is raining in Anchorage, I am deliberating about whether it is true that it is raining in Anchorage, is to deliberate about whether it is actually the case that it is raining in Anchorage. When I am trying to make up my mind about what to believe, I am trying to figure out the truth—the activity of theoretical deliberation is unintelligible without reference to the truth.

To see how close the connection is between belief, truth, and reality, consider the following scenario.  Imagine someone thinking to himself, as he looks out the window, that it’s raining, and then conjoining this with the thought that he doesn’t believe that it’s raining.  This doesn’t seem possible.  For this reason, Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that, “if there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely,’ it would not have any significant first-person present indicative.”[iv]  The reason for this is that to believe something is to have settled the question for oneself about the way things are.  Of course, I may be wrong.  But to believe something is to make a claim that can in principle be correct or incorrect, and the measure here is truth, the way things are, or reality itself. From the first person perspective, the commitment to something beyond my own psychology is unavoidable.  To believe and to judge is to transcend one’s own perspective, it is to put oneself in relation to things and to be held accountable to things beyond one’s self.

For this reason, Aquinas says that truth is that towards which the intellect tends by it nature, and that it is through intellect that we are open to reality.  For Aquinas, truth is a relation between two terms, reality (res, things or beings) and intellect, our capacity to judge or know. I think we can think of truth in this sense as something along the lines of a constitutive principle, one that both defines and measures the activity of the intellect.  That is, truth, as the constitutive aim of belief or judgment, both defines a belief as what it is—it is an aiming at truth—and it provides a measure of whether the belief is good or bad, because it is a good belief if it is true and a bad belief if it is false.  As thinkers, believers, and asserters, we cannot escape truth.  We are naturally and inescapably oriented towards truth in virtue of having an intellect in the first place—in virtue of being rational animals. We cannot turn our backs against the truth without thereby rejecting what we are.

Let us return now to global relativism.  According to global relativism, everyone’s beliefs are true in a private sense.  But now we can see that the idea of a private truth, of one’s own personal authentic truth, is nonsense.  To make a judgment, form a belief, or to assert something is to do something essentially public; even if I never share my belief with anyone else, it still has an essentially public character, because belief makes a claim about the way things are independently of my perspective upon them. In judging, asserting, or believing, I am holding myself accountable to the world, to reality, which is a publicly accessible thing.  Therefore, if you say you believe that there is no objective truth, no way that things really are, this amounts to saying that you don’t believe in belief.  But of course, to say that you believe that there is no belief is to have a belief and to take that belief about belief to be true.  There is no way to escape a commitment to truth; as rational animals, it is part of our nature.

This brings us back around to the ultimately self-defeating nature of global relativism.  The relativist cannot help but assert his relativism, and in so doing, he cannot help but take it to be true for more than just himself. The relativist cannot escape what he is: a creature with intellect, by nature oriented to the truth.

Tomorrow: Partial relativism and skepticism


[ii] ST I Q16

[iii] Richard Moran, Authority and Estrangment, Princeton University Press, 2001

[iv] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. By G.E.M. Anscombe, Pearson, 1973.

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

Community in the Classroom

Screenshot 2017-11-28 11.30.15

Note: This post is a reprint from the November 2017 article in Fulbright Hearts and Minds. The piece and more information about the Fulbright Specialist Program can be viewed here.

In August and September 2017, Professor Candace Vogler from the University of Chicago spent three weeks in residence at the Institute for Ethics & Society at The University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney, supported by a generous grant from the Fulbright Specialist Program.

Candace is a world leading moral philosopher, and one of the most creative minds at work today on how to translate the insights of moral philosophy into improving tertiary education environments.

Her expertise dovetails with the Institute for Ethics & Society’s research strengths in moral philosophy and ethics education.

Candace and researchers at Notre Dame share the conviction that integrating moral philosophy into university curriculums has a unique role to play in contributing to the intellectual and moral formation of all university students.

During her visit at Notre Dame, Candace delivered a public lecture, gave two keynote conference papers, taught a master-class on the history of moral philosophy, and facilitated a pedagogy workshop on creating community in the classroom.

She also consulted with researchers and senior leadership on how to develop connections between moral philosophy and professional education – a particular passion for Notre Dame in its commitment to providing an excellent standard of training for the professions.

The visit made a huge impact on students and faculty at Notre Dame, and led to the Institute for Ethics & Society being named an official partner institution with the University of Chicago’s $2.2m John Templeton Project “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life” – a partnership which will bring the Institute for Ethics & Society into a global community of scholars and allow it to further develop its research expertise in moral philosophy and ethics education.

Professor Sandra Lynch, Director of the Institute for Ethics & Society was responsible for the successful FSP proposal. “Winning this grant has opened many doors for us and stimulated our thinking, especially in relation to ethics education. Not only did we have the pleasure of engaging with and learning from Candace for three weeks, but the link has enabled us to begin building research linkages around the world.

“A number of our researchers have been admirers of Candace’s scholarship for many years. This grant has provided us with a pathway to continue benefitting from Candace’s expertise in the future, and we also expect it will provide a platform for discussion and dissemination of our research in years to come as we interact with scholars of moral philosophy and ethics education around the world.”

The impact of this specialist visit was also felt in the wider Australian academic community. Activities associated with her visit saw researchers and students from universities across Sydney, as well as from the University of Oxford, University College London, and Princeton Theological Seminary, gather at Notre Dame to learn from Candace.

The Place of Virtue in a Meaningful Life


Call both one’s efforts at being a good person and the ways of thinking, feeling, and responding to circumstances that develop while one works to be a good person ‘virtue.’ Let a ‘meaningful’ life be a life imbued with a sense of purpose or significance—a life that is full, engaging, and engaged, where the fullness comes of something more than mere subjective interest and enthusiasm.  It can seem as though virtue and meaning have very little to do with each other. Whatever sort of struggle might be involved in working to be a good human being can seem like something personal—an individual quest to have a beautiful character or a shining soul. Having a meaningful life, on the other hand, looks like the sort of thing that will require that I go beyond the business of working toward having a lovely soul and into a larger world where I try to find things that are genuinely worth pursuing, and devote myself to their pursuit. In this talk, I will work to bring the two together, partly by urging a different account of virtue, partly by developing a slightly more articulate account of meaning in human life, and always by drawing on work by Thomas Aquinas.

Learning to be Good

It may be that talk about virtue has never been common in ordinary life. It may be that the only common talk about virtue in North America happened a long time ago and was primarily concerned with women and their sexual habits, where ‘virtue’ was a matter of chastity. But in the latter part of the 20th century, Anglophone philosophers started talking about virtue again, and we now confront a wide variety of different kinds of talk about virtue in both moral philosophy and areas of empirical social science directed to exploration of moral psychology and moral education. By most of these lights, a specific virtue is a character trait that tends to make its bearer a better person than she would be without it, and the sorts of virtues that are topics of inquiry are acquired virtues—virtues that develop through training and practice. There are accounts of virtue that find their philosophical ancestor in the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. There are accounts of virtue that draw extensively from the work of Roman thinkers like Cicero. There are accounts of virtue rooted in work by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. The theorist of virtue I have found most useful is a scholastic neo-Aristotelian—Thomas Aquinas.

For Aquinas, there are four cardinal virtues—practical wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage. We need all four. Michael Pakaluk puts the point this way:

A virtue is a trait that…makes someone such that his activity—what he does, what he is responsible for—is reasonable. But there are four basic types of such activity: his thinking itself, as practical and directed at action; his actions ordinarily so-called…; and how he is affected. This last category splits into two, Aquinas thinks, on the grounds that acting reasonably in the realm of the passions involves regulating both the passions by which we are drawn to something and the passions by which we are repulsed from something. These two sorts of passions imply two sorts of tasks or achievements…which the ordinary distinction between the virtues of temperance and courage confirms (ST I-2.61.2 resp.).

I am happy to go into detail about the work of the virtues with you in discussion, if you like. For now, the point is just that the virtues foster coordination and cooperation among our various powers in such a way that we can pursue human good, and avoid what is bad for us, smoothly and well. And for Aquinas, even a fully virtuous person is likely to make mistakes in trying to act well.

Secondary virtues—generosity, for instance, or humility, or gratitude or kindness—work to strengthen and support the operation of cardinal virtues. Cultivating virtues is part of sound moral development. And sound moral development is crucial to human life, on this view. Unlike nonhuman animals, humans need more than just a combination of good fortune, instinct and training to lead good lives. We need developed characters.

Some contemporary neo-Aristotelians (and some more venerable theorists) think that acquired virtue is all that we need to lead a good human life. They think that living virtuously is enough to make us happy, and that, since virtue is its own reward, living virtuously ought to be enough to make our lives full and meaningful as well. For those who think that virtue is all that we need, what virtue does, for the most part, is make each of us a stronger and better person. This will give the virtuous person a measure of resilience when things do not go her way. It will help guide her when exercising virtue looks to put her at a tremendous disadvantage—as it will, for instance, if she called upon to deliver truthful testimony in court condemning a mob boss, or if she is called upon to care for an infirm parent who is demanding, ungrateful, and generally unkind, or if being mindful of the needs of her children and spouse requires turning down a very shiny job offer in a distant place. Virtuous activity can put the virtuous person at risk of death, misery, or serious personal disappointment. And, in general, one would have to be appallingly lacking in imagination to be incapable of thinking of anything more exciting to do than pay debts, help those in need, or work hard not to lie, cheat, abandon others, or steal when bad acts offer big rewards.

Aquinas knows that virtuous action can put the virtuous person at a disadvantage, as far as worldly success is concerned. He does not think that having developed a good character will, all on its own, make everything go well for the virtuous person. But his understanding of virtue has two features that are uncommon in other accounts of virtue, both of which give virtue a proper place in a meaningful life.

First, any specific virtue is directed to the common good, for Aquinas. Although he shares the general Aristotelian conviction that my virtues, if I have any, are good for me, the benefit that I get from my own good character is not the most interesting thing about my virtues for Aquinas. What my virtues do is direct me to good larger than just my own welfare and the welfare of those in my inner circle. Although what Aquinas means by saying that virtue is directed to common good, in the first instance, is not exactly what a contemporary Anglophone philosopher would generally mean by invoking common good, Aquinas’s understanding is not opposed to what we would mean either. It is just that the common good of interest to Aquinas operates on a cosmic scale. One could, for example, develop an interesting form of environmental ethics by meditating on Aquinas’s thought about common good. The commonality at issue reaches out toward the whole of creation.  The human community is, of course, part of creation.

Second, and relatedly, Aquinas does not think that happiness and a sense of meaning in this life are the highest objects of aspiration for us. The highest object of aspiration is eternal happiness in a resurrected life. We cannot get that for ourselves without God’s help, but, in a strong sense, it is what we are made for, and virtue in this life supports us in our efforts to be right with ourselves, right with our fellow creatures, and right with God.

So much for a very quick introduction to virtue.  What place do our efforts at moral self-improvement have in meaningful lives?

Meaning in Human Life

Questions about what makes life meaningful are relatively new questions in European philosophy. It looks as though the topic started to rise up explicitly for European thinkers in the wake of what was called “The Great War,” and again, with different urgency, in the wake of their Second World War, partly in response to the utter destructiveness of these ventures and pointedly in response to the way that neighbors turned on neighbors during efforts to annihilate Jewish people, gypsies, people with leftist political views, homosexual people, disabled people, and, in a different way, Slavic peoples, and to enslave many other peoples by the axis powers. In mainstream English-language philosophy, the topic did not get much currency until late in the twentieth century, and is only beginning to have spark more interest now. Part of the reason that mainstream Anglophone philosophers are reluctant to wade into questions about meaning in life is that there is no single, clear, precise characterization of what counts as meaning in this area.

There are desiderata—conditions that any adequate account of meaning in human life ought to meet if the view is to be a view about the sort of thing that despairing people find elusive and people leading significant or meaningful lives have. Anglophone philosophers being the kinds of intellectuals that they are, every one of the points I am about to list as reasonable starting points for thought about what makes life meaningful has been contested by at least one of the people taking up the question in the last thirty years. I will, for all that, move forward boldly rather than allowing us to be caught in the details of the disputations. Again, I am happy to trace the disputations for any of them if you like.  Here are what I take to be reasonable starting points for thought about what makes life meaningful:

  1. Meaning in human life is not merely a matter of subjective satisfaction with how things are going—people with tremendous hardship and burden can be leading tremendously meaningful lives even when they do not expect that their efforts in any of their areas of activity will succeed.
  2. Meaning in human life has an important objective dimension—I can take it that my life has not been worth living and be wrong (one can think of this as one aspect of an ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ principle); by the same token, I can take it that my life is filled with meaning and be wrong.
  3. Related to (1) and (2), to whatever extent assessments of happiness in life are importantly subjective, happiness is distinct from meaningfulness.
  4. Whatever kinds of activities, relationships, ways of living, or experiences contribute to meaning in human life, meaningful lives are better than meaningless lives—that is, ‘meaning’ is not a purely descriptive term in this setting.
  5. Related to (4), there is an important distinction between meaning in life and moral status (however moral status is assessed)—full lives, empty lives, and lives that are neither especially full nor especially empty have moral status.

There are various ways to carve the territory of recent Anglophone philosophical work on the meaning of life. One clear line of distinction demarcates naturalist views from supernaturalist views.

Supernaturalist views hold that our relations to, and participation in a spiritual order is crucial to having a meaningful life. Such views, notice, might be true even if there is no such thing as the variety of spiritual order postulated by the relevant supernaturalist theorist of meaning. If there is no such order, then our lives are not lives that can be meaningful, by these lights. Some supernaturalist views are distinctively theistic—ordinarily, these are monotheistic views focused on our relation to God.  Other supernaturalist views find a spiritual order in the natural world, sometimes linked to pantheistic or polytheistic understandings of that order. These latter varieties of supernaturalism have not been explored extensively in the Anglophone philosophical literature. The philosophers have stuck with monotheism, for the most part. There tend to be three important dimensions to monotheistic supernaturalist views about the meaning of life:

  1. Metaphysical dimension: God’s existence is necessary to ground meaningful lives because an infinite, essentially good, almighty creator and legislator God anchors objective value generally, and the objective value of human life as part of this.
  2. Relational dimension: A meaningful life is informed by sound (if necessarily incomplete) understanding of God and involved in practical engagements that bring individual human beings into right relations with God.
  3. Ethical dimension: It is not possible to be in right relations with God unless one is also in right relations with others.

Naturalist views, on the other hand, hold that there is no supernatural, distinctively spiritual order, but that this is no hindrance to thinking about what makes life meaningful.  On such views, I could find meaning in life through pursuit of truth or justice, or by understanding my life as made possible by the struggles of people who came before me, hoping to carry good forward to those who will come after me.

This is the territory in which contemporary Anglophone philosophical exploration about questions of the meaning of life hangs out. Within each of the categories, there are many divergent views, and, by most philosophers’ lights, no one strand of thought on the topic is entirely fully developed at this point. There is, however, a common thread that runs through all the work, as near as I can tell, a thread that takes some of its coloring from the usual ways of distinguishing questions about meaning from questions about happiness. It goes like this—in virtually all contemporary work (except work committed to thoroughly subjectivist naturalism), meaningful lives are meaningful in part because those leading meaningful lives operate with an understanding of their lives as participating in a good larger than their own welfare or advantage and the welfare or advantage of those they regard as members of their intimate circle. What sort of “larger” is involved in this larger good? Thaddeus Metz offers the following proposal:

[T]he concept of meaning is the idea of connecting with intrinsic value beyond one’s animal self. The animal self is constituted by those capacities that we share with (lower) animals, i.e., those not exercising reason. These include the fact of being alive, the instantiation of a healthy body, and the experience of pleasures. These internal conditions may well be intrinsically valuable, but they do not seem to be the sorts of intrinsic value with which one must connect to acquire significance. To say that the concept of meaning is the idea of relating positively to intrinsic value beyond one’s animal self is to say that while merely staying alive or feeling pleasure logically cannot make one’s life meaningful, connecting with internal goods involving the use of reason, and with all sorts of external goods, can do so [“The Concept of a Meaningful Life,” in Joshua W. Seachris, editor, Exploring the Meaning of Life, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), p. 88].

Perhaps more than any other Anglophone analytic philosopher working on questions about the meaning of life, Metz is immersed in the whole of the relevant contemporary literature. He covers the waterfront better than anyone else.  And he is acutely aware of the points at which his treatment of the concept departs from some recent analytic work on the topic. For all that, one can complain about various features of Metz’s account of the concept of meaning from a Thomist point of view. Here are a few of them.

First, Metz’s way of distinguishing what we share with non-human animals from our distinctively human capacities diverges from Aquinas’s metaphysics of human nature. For Aquinas, we are the animals with intellect. Intellect is not the same was what contemporary philosophers mean by ‘reason.’ In an early work, Aquinas remarks on aspects of nonhuman animal apprehension and appetite that have something of reason in them:

It should be noted…that not only in the apprehensive powers but also in the appetitive there is something which belongs to the sensitive soul in accordance with its own nature and something else according as it has some slight participation in reason, coming into contact at its highest level of activity with reason at its lowest….  Thus the imaginative power belongs to the sensitive soul in accordance with its own nature, because forms received from sense are stored up in it, but the estimative power, by which an animal apprehends intentions not received by the senses, such as friendship or hostility, is in the sensitive soul according as it shares somewhat in reason….  The same principle is verified also in regard to the appetitive power.  The fact that an animal seeks what is pleasurable to its senses (the business of the concupiscible power) is in accordance with the sensitive soul’s own nature; but that it should leave what is pleasurable and seek something for the sake of a victory which it wins with pain (the business of the irascible), this belongs to it according as it in some measure reaches up to the higher appetite [Disputed Questions on Truth, q. 25, a.2].

It is hard to separate the most complex operations of nonhuman animal apprehension and appetite from their simplest human counterparts. For all that, intellect sets humans apart from other animals on this view, and, among intellectual creatures, humans are further distinguished by having discursive reason—we are, as Aristotle might put it—the chatty animals. This is, for Aquinas, part of the way in which we are animals.

Second, not just any intrinsically valuable, discursively assessable goods will count as goods to which we can connect in a way that confers meaning on our lives. Active participation in a thriving human community, for example, will only count as lending significance and meaning to one’s life if that community is, itself, ordered to justice and guided by due concern for the common good. If we had to find a slot for Aquinas in the contemporary philosophical taxonomy, he will count as a supernaturalist for whom the metaphysical, relational, and ethical dimensions are all intertwined.

Finally, concern about virtue is kept at a distance in Metz’s treatment of meaning. If we wanted to ask Aquinas to speak to questions about meaning in human life, virtue would have a secure, central place in our discussion.


Putting Virtue in its Place—A Thomist Picture

How will a friend of Aquinas handle a question about the place of virtue in a meaningful life?

First off, a friend of Aquinas, if I understand those of us who are friends of Aquinas, will urge that a properly virtuous life will, insofar as it is virtuous, be a meaningful life. It may not be a happy life, on any ordinary understanding of happiness. I can be as wise, just, brave, and temperate as you please but face ethical circumstances so challenging and hostile that my good character makes me a target for abuse rather than an esteemed person. In this sense, a Thomist account will square with the first and third of the starting points for an account of meaning.

Second, the fact that even a person with a full complement of acquired virtues—a strong character—can make mistakes and will occasionally have good reason to regret her decisions and her actions squares with the objectivity constraint on claims to meaning in human life. I might throw myself into a cause, for example, after careful consideration and in good conscience only to find that the thing I fought for was not worth fighting for.

Third, because acquired virtue on Aquinas’s understanding is perfective of my nature as a human being, virtuous lives are better than vicious lives in a sense isomorphic with the sense in which meaningful lives are better than meaningless lives.

Perhaps most importantly, because acquired virtues are directed to common good in the first instance for Aquinas, a genuinely virtuous life will, by necessity, involve the right kinds of relations with intrinsically valuable internal and external goods to meet the kind of criterion for meaning sketched by Metz (echoing dominant trends in contemporary Anglophone philosophical work on the topic).

In this sense, pulling Aquinas into conversation with contemporary Anglophone philosophers on questions about meaningful lives gives through about virtue a central role in thought about meaning.


Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Vogler gave this talk at Valparaiso University as part of their programming on the theme of the pan-humanities seminar taken by every freshman, and the theme this fall is “human meaning and purpose.” She was hosted by the Department of Philosophy at Valparaiso University. 





The Role of Epistemic Virtue in the Realization of Basic Goods

Preston Bradley Hall (Chicago). Photo by Chris Smith.

Note: Anne Baril was a participant in the Virtue, Happiness, & Meaning of Life 2016 Summer Seminar. This post is an excerpt of a piece originally published June 6, 2017, on the blog Imperfect Cognitions, where Baril summarizes a paper she recently published in Episteme.

Click the above link to Imperfect Cognitions for the full post.

Getting clear about the nature of epistemic virtue is an important first step not only for empirical investigations, but for philosophical investigations as well. Is there some more-than- 
merely-instrumental relationship between epistemic virtue and well-being, or between epistemic virtue and some contributor to well-being, that can be uncovered through philosophical, rather than empirical, investigation?

This is one of the questions I seek to answer in my work. What I have found is that epistemic virtue–on at least one plausible interpretation–is importantly implicated in the realization of some of the goods that are widely believed to be instrumental to, or even constitutive of, well-being: goods such friendship, autonomy, and aesthetic experience. There is (what I call) a constitutive overlap between epistemic virtue and many such goods.

Take, for example, aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience, understood as a general type of good, is realized in token instances – for example, in viewing Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, or reading George Eliot’s Silas Marner. It is not a passive experience that just ‘washes over one’; it consists in a certain kind 
of active engagement. It consists in charitably interpreting the work; transcending one’s 
familiar or default cognitive standpoint to open-mindedly engage with it (Baehr 2011: 
103); honestly assessing it; confronting the darker parts of human nature; not being overly 
influenced by others’ opinions about the work. What one is doing, in part, in the active experience that is aesthetic experience, is exercising epistemic virtue – for example, intellectual charity, open-mindedness, intellectual honesty, intellectual courage, and intellectual autonomy. In this sense there is constitutive overlap between epistemic virtue and aesthetic experience.

What exactly the upshot of this is for well-being depends on one’s account of well-being. But finding extensive overlap between epistemic virtue and goods like aesthetic experience supports the view that that epistemic virtue is an integral part of the kind of personality that is well-suited to realize the most important goods in one’s life. And this, in turn, goes a long way towards showing that–despite the anecdotal and empirical evidence cited at the beginning of this entry–epistemic virtue’s net contribution to a person’s well-being is a positive one. Epistemic virtue makes us better off.


Anne Baril is a Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis.  She has research interests in ethics, epistemology, social and political philosophy, and their intersection.  In her current central research project, she argues that epistemic virtue is both integral to the development of moral character and a constitutive contributor to well-being.