Aristotelian Approach to Ethical Theory: The Norms of Virtue

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The project of this work is to combine an interpretative study of Aristotle’s thinking about the foundational elements of ethical theory with the formulation of a theory of ethical normativity that is based on those same elements, but that is independently formulated and analyzed. In particular, the book argues that virtue ethics, of an Aristotelian type, can provide a coherent and satisfying theory of normativity, although this has sometimes been denied in modern scholarship. Normativity is sometimes thought to require a theory of a deductive type, in which ethical norms are derived from the principle of universalization (Kant’s view) or from a universal principle, such as, in Utilitarianism, the maximization of human happiness. The claim here is that normativity can also, and more plausibly, be established inductively through an examination of human nature—as understood through a variety of means, including the ethical agent’s own sense of what human nature consists in and scientific psychology—and the interrelated Aristotelian ideas of virtue, happiness, and particular relationships. The suggestion is that, if norms are grounded in this way, we can establish a normative framework that corresponds to the reality of human shared and individual experience and that is, therefore, more cogent than one that depends (deductively) on abstract, universal principles. This Aristotelian, inductive, theory is offered as embodying a cogent account of ethical normativity, which represents a contribution to current philosophical debate on the nature and basis of ethical norms.


“The larger background for this striking new study is the modern revival of virtue ethics, which is inspired by, but does not merely reproduce, Classical Greek theory…… Thinkers such as Philippa Foot, Michael Slote and Rosalind Hursthouse have offered systematic accounts of virtue ethics in a climate of intense debate about the merits or demerits of this approach in relation to more familiar types of modern theory. In recent years, the polemical stance of Prichard, or MacIntyre and Williams, has become less common, and there have been moves on both sides to identify common ground without giving up the core character of the different approaches. This is the context in which Susan Allard-Nelson’s book has been produced. She follows scholars such as Julia Annas, Martha Nussbaum and Nancy Sherman in highlighting the resources of ancient ethical theories such as those of Aristotle and the Stoics for developing modern versions of virtue ethics. But this book has its own distinctive contribution to make to this line of enquiry. It argues that virtue ethics, of a broadly Aristotelian type, can provide a coherent and satisfying theory of normativity…..In the course of developing these ideas, Allard-Nelson confronts head-on a number of objections sometimes made to the idea that virtue ethics of an Aristotelian type can provide a basis for contemporary theory…. This lucid and informed book has much to offer to students and scholars of ethical theory, both ancient and modern.” – (From the Preface) Christopher Gill, University of Exeter, UK.

Table of Contents

Notes on Terminology and Translation
1. Principles, Guidelines, and Particular Facts
2. Human Nature, Telos, and the Human Capacity for Excellence
3. The Development of Character: Human Excellence, Emotion, Neurobiology, and the Moral Virtues
4. Partiality, Universalizability, and the Function of Normative Theory

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