Grad Student News: Jenna Yuzwa WCPA Presentation

November 10, 2021

Philosophy MA student Jenna Yuzwa will present her paper "Aristotle Does Not Need to Tell Me Whether I’m a Hero: Aristotle’s Account of Virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics and What a Procrustean Endeavor in the Supererogation Literature Reveals About Our Modern Approach to Ethics" at the Western Canadian Philosophical Association's 57th Annual Meeting in Victoria on November 12-14. 

ABSTRACT: In recent decades, there have been some attempts to demonstrate that virtue ethics can accommodate supererogation, while others have denied that the former is reconcilable with the latter. While there are many forms of virtue ethics and while this ethical theory has been associated with many different philosophers including Plato, Hume, Nietzsche as well as those in the Confucian and Buddhist traditions, just to name a few, it is most commonly and frequently associated with Aristotle – who is often proclaimed to be the ‘father of virtue ethics.’ Regardless of the position one takes regarding the question concerning the putative compatibility of virtue ethics and supererogation, philosophers tend to overwhelmingly refer to Aristotle and Aristotle alone to make their case, rather than other thinkers who have been associated with virtue ethics. But Aristotle was not a ‘virtue ethicist’ – to say that he is, is simply an anachronism. By referring to him as a virtue ethicist one distorts and overlooks crucial components of his thinking. Why then, do many philosophers insist on referring to Aristotle in this way, and why is there an urgent need to prove that virtue ethics is or is not compatible with supererogation?

What follows is not an attempt to answer the question of whether virtue ethics can accommodate supererogation. To attempt to answer such a question is ultimately a Procrustean1 endeavor. A close examination of the literature surrounding this question reveals that regardless of the stance they take, these philosophers share a common assumption – that is, they think that an ethical theory must be capable of justifying and explaining the moral status of a given act. Such an expectation is a modern one, and upon a detailed analysis of Aristotle’s account of virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics, it becomes clear that this expectation did not belong to Aristotle. Aristotle was instead concerned with questions about how we ought to be and how we ought to live. To expect that Aristotle’s account of virtue meet the expectation of justifying and explaining the moral status of an act not only imposes an aspect of our modern conception of ethics on his thinking thereby distorting his view, but this expectation more broadly also carries the very real risk of facilitating unethical rather than ethical behavior.

1. Thanks to Hesam Mohamadi for suggesting this term when I could not quite put my finger on what I wanted to articulate.