Aristotelian Virtue Ethics and Modern Liberal Democracy


Almost all proponents of virtue ethics tend to recognize the source of their approach in Aristotle, but relatively few of them confront the problem that source poses. How virtuous ethics ought to be related to politics in modern nation-states?  In liberal democracies, political authorities are not supposed to dictate or legislate the good of individuals; they are supposed merely to establish the conditions necessary for individuals to choose their own life paths. If, as Aristotle argues, the good life for a human being is a virtuous life and if human beings cannot acquire the habits needed to make them virtuous if they do not receive a correct upbringing, and this upbringing needs to be supported and preserved by correct legislation, it is not clear how citizens of liberal democracies can become virtuous, because the laws of the regime do not explicitly identify, reward, and honor virtuous behavior.

Martha Nussbaum advocates an “Aristotelian social democracy” which seeks to provide all human beings with the capacities they need to choose the best way of life. Arguing that the modern nation-state is incapable of providing its citizens with the education they need to live a good life, Alasdair MacIntyre looks to smaller, tradition-based communities. But, because political action is coercive and truly ethical or virtuous action is voluntary, Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen insist, ethics and politics should be strictly separated. In this article, Catherine Zuckert examines each of these attempts to revive an Aristotelian understanding of ethics, bringing out the advantages and problems involved, as well as showing the ways in which the three different proposals intersect.