Some Reflections on the Jubilee Centre 2019 Oriel College Conference

Students always seem to return to the same seats they chose randomly on the first day of their studies. So habits and traditions are quick to form. One of those traditions, which has long been established at Oriel, is that I say a few closing words on the final day. It is a great privilege to have most of the “great and the good” from the field of applied virtue ethics and character education gathered on the first weekend in January every year. However, it is also risky. Think of a meteorite hitting the college and that would be more or less the end of applied virtue ethics as we know it!

Although the papers given here have represented a variety of approaches and not all been sung from the same hymn sheet, there is a strong Aristotelian chorus humming somewhere in the background. So allow me to offer a few Aristotle-inspired reflections on the main theme of the conference, also making references to a few – but for reasons of time just a few – of the papers given here.

“Are virtues local or universal?” may just seem like a reiteration of the old undergraduate textbook staple about moral relativism versus universalism, but couching this question within the context of quasi-Aristotelian virtue ethics adds layers of considerable complexity to it. It problematises the problem, as the postmodernists would put it!

First, there are a few well-rehearsed quotations from Aristotle which seem to speak for the basic universality of human virtues and the emotional responses underlying them. There is the well-known claim about us finding out “the more we travel how akin human beings are to human beings” and the contention that “affections of the soul – are the same for all; and what these affections are likenesses of – actual things – are also the same”. All this is supposed to be based on a common human nature – and Aristotle obviously was not aware of the genome editing that Nancy Snow persuaded us here could possibly alter human nature in artificial and radical ways. There is little in the Rhetoric of the Nicomachean Ethics to indicate, for example, that justice is not a universally grounded human virtue with just scant “local” variations. However, in the Politics, justice suddenly seems to be relative to constitutions. If we understand justice there to denote a civic virtue, that claim would seem odd, especially because Aristotle seems to consider the moral virtues developmentally and logically prior to the civic ones. Warren Von Eschenbach, in his paper, made an interesting distinction between universal civic virtues and more constitutionally or culturally relative “public virtues”. This distinction could possibly make sense of Aristotle’s apparent dithering although it is not his distinction.

Despite Aristotle’s general universality leanings with regard to at least the moral virtues, he makes them relative to individuals in at least three ways. The first is variance according to developmental levels or ages – Robert Jack showed us how you can find the same in Plato. The second is variance according to individual constitution – witness the famous case of the unique virtue of temperance in eating for Milo the athlete. The third is the relativity of some virtues to social status and resources, witness the Bill Gates-style virtues of magnificence and magnanimity which I could not possibly exhibit, simply because the University of Birmingham does not pay me well enough to become a public benefactor! These virtues thus make a mockery of Aristotle’s own unity-of-virtues thesis, and even more surprisingly, they do not seem to make their possessors very happy. Aristotle’s magnanimous man is a pretty miserable, blasé and world-weary sort of guy.

So there are significant Aristotelian nuances that cut across any simplistic universal-versus-relative distinction.

However, Aristotelian or any other moral philosophy aside, the topics discussed at this conference have assumed renewed significance in recent years with the unexpected upsurge in localisms of all sorts: nationalism, populism, monoculturalism. A couple of speakers here have cited insights from Michael Ignatieff’s paper about how many non-elite groups, especially those living under oppressive or impoverished conditions, do not recognise the relevance or necessity of a universal core of moral virtues. There is reason to take those concerns seriously, especially in light of Igor Grossman and Justin Brienza’s startling findings, presented here, that lower social classes reason more wisely than the higher ones! The problem with some of the most recent forms of localisms and relativism, however, is that they are self-defeating because of their post-truth stance. If all truth is relative, then there is no reason to believe “the truth” that all truth is relative!

We have had some nice responses at this conference to radical forms of moral localisms; for example the Prentice, Jayawickreme et al. paper about morality as a basic psychological need and James MacAllister’s musings on the relative merits of following Nussbaum or MacIntyre in countering relativism. Ben Perks even went as far as suggesting that “cultural relativism is dead”, citing studies of how adverse childhood experiences affect people in all cultures in uniform ways. I am afraid, however, that the news of the death of cultural relativism is slightly exaggerated – at least when one speaks to 1st-year undergraduate students!

What is true, however, is that the centre of gravity is moving away from more traditional forms of “what is true in one culture is not true in the next” to more insidious forms of theories which reject the very reason-responsiveness of the moral reactions that make moral universalism plausible – but may actually also undermine standard forms of moral relativism. It is no coincidence, for example, that quite a few papers here dealt with moral situationism and how it kills off any idea of Aristotelian phronesis; I am thinking here of the papers by Natasza Szutta, for example, and Mario De Caro and Maria Silvia Vaccarrezza.

This conference has been slightly more theoretical than some of our previous ones, and educational themes have not been as prominent. However, those still remain part and parcel of any virtue ethical stance on the deeper theoretical topics. Jonathan Jacobs reminded us of the standard Aristotelian position here that “the most plausible and constructive approaches to moral education are approaches that encourage the development of virtues”. However, as Jonathan also observed, virtue can be realised in ways that allow for a great degree of individuality and local nuance. Helen Haste raised the challenge that any culturally transferable model of character education will be both “scientifically unsound” and “politically inept”, but as an antidote to that claim, William Damon’s argued that the very idea of human growth – as distinct from mere change – requires a non-relativistic stance.

I talked about an Aristotelian chorus humming in the background at the conference, but as we have seen from these quick examples of the topics explored, the discussion has taken us in directions that Aristotle would never have dreamt of. As a final note, the papers by Kevin Gary and by Josu Ahedo and David González posed questions that are unique to the Western capitalist societies that we are living in today. Even if we happened to agree on some minimalist universal conception of moral virtues, as so many speakers have argued for here, the questions remain whether such a minimalist conception would have any practical, educational traction in societies that are as consumerist and performance-driven as ours are, and where even laudable conceptions of moral virtue suffer from the flatness and disenchantedness that comes from not paying enough attention to the aesthetic dimensions of lives well lived.

As usual, we will announce the theme of Oriel 2020 early this year with a deadline for papers on 1st July 2019. You can keep up to date with news about upcoming conferences by subscribing to our Newsletter here.


Professor Kristján Kristjánsson is the Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues


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