Virtue in an Unjust Society: Do We Need a Consequentialist Perspective to Flourish?

By Kaitlin Sibbald, The University of King’s College

In this paper, I will examine the role of virtue in an unjust world. I will begin by giving a brief account of virtue theory, as described by Aristotle. Drawing on ideas from Lisa Tessman, I will subsequently argue that when society is unjust, acting virtuously may prevent people from cultivating virtuous traits, prevent even the most virtuous person from flourishing, and direct those who pursue virtue away from flourishing rather than towards it. Next, I will provide arguments from Tessman and Chris Frakes, who suggest that we may need to redefine or reconceptualize virtues under systems of oppression to promote flourishing. I then challenge this argument by suggesting if we are working backwards from an idea of flourishing to the virtues that are needed to promote it, and if we are willing to adapt these virtues depending on the situation to continue to promote flourishing, then we may be working with a trait consequentialist theory, as advocated by Julia Driver, and not purely a theory of character. Thus, I hope to argue that if we redefine virtues in a system of oppression to promote human flourishing, then we may also be changing virtue theory from being an ethics of character to an ethics of consequences.

Introduction to Aristotle’s Virtues

Virtue theory, as proposed by Aristotle, is an eudaimonistic theory, meaning that it suggests that one should cultivate the virtues that promote human flourishing.  ‘Virtues’ are traits of character that fall in the middle of vices of excess and vices of deficiency (Aristotle 624). While Aristotle gives specific virtues that one should cultivate, some of which are not applicable in contemporary society (Nussbaum 631), Martha Nussbaum argues that Aristotle points to spheres relevant to human life in all times and places where we must find virtue between vices (632). As such, Aristotelian virtues, even though they may pertain to situations such as battle, can be applied and understood as having value in contemporary society.

However, Aristotle describes his theory as a kind of ‘political science’ because he is not solely concerned with the character of individuals, but also with the character and good of cities, as he believes that the two are deeply entwined (Aristotle 616). As Marilyn Friedman defends, Aristotle argues it is only necessary for some members to flourish in order to have a successful community (Friedman 193). It is simply enough to have a system where a few people flourish so they can act as the ‘Person of Practical Wisdom’, while others work towards cultivating their virtues and work towards flourishing, even if they will never actually achieve that state. However, those that do not flourish still require a just community in order to attempt to flourish (616). There are two key pieces in this theory that I would like to highlight. First, because one should cultivate virtues regardless of being able to flourish, there is thus something good about virtues in themselves apart from the fact that they have the potential to promote flourishing for their possessors. Second, for Aristotle, the flourishing of the city is of particular importance, more so than the flourishing of individual members.

What Happens to Virtues Under Systems of Oppression?

For Aristotle, it is necessary for some members of a society to flourish in order to act as the Person of Practical Wisdom for the others that are cultivating their virtues. A system of oppression, as I will describe below, may prevent any person from flourishing. I argue that if no one flourishes, there cannot be a Person of Practical Wisdom for people to appeal to, nor any motivation to cultivate a virtuous character, nor a successful city.

In a system of oppression, it may be impossible for the oppressed to flourish.  If one lives in a system that is oppressing, there are systemic and social barriers that prevent one from cultivating her virtues. Since one may only flourish if she is virtuous, if one cannot cultivate the virtues, then she cannot flourish. For example, someone who does not have a home or shelter is systematically prevented from exercising virtue in the sphere of hospitality that Nussbaum (632) describes. One who does not have enough food to eat is excluded from practicing moderation in terms of consumption. If someone is the target of discrimination and violence, as Tessman (4) describes, she may be unable to cultivate the virtue of playful social association. Therefore, systems of oppression may prevent some agents from cultivating virtues necessary to flourish because they may not have the resources to do so. Tessman refers to this phenomenon as ‘moral damage’ (4); one’s self is damaged because she is not even privy to the sphere where virtue can be cultivated. For Aristotle, a virtuous character is necessary in order to flourish. For those who are oppressed, this may not be possible because they may not have the physical or moral resources to cultivate virtues and are therefore systematically excluded from the possibility of flourishing.

However, it is necessary only for some people to flourish. If we see an oppressive system as one containing the oppressed and oppressors, then it is not necessary, by Aristotle’s terms, that the oppressed can flourish, as long as some oppressors can. This may also not be possible, however, because in oppressing, oppressors are not acting virtuously as they are acting unjustly. If one lives in a position of high status in an oppressing system, her position in relation to the oppressed, may be considered unjust because it is by definition oppressing others. Furthermore, she may see the injustice in poorly distributed resources such as food and water and, because of her virtuous state, be aware of the relevant motivations and feelings for actions and know that she ought to redistribute these resources in a just manner. However, there may be little that she can do to remedy this problem. Even if she were to spend all day and all night for the rest of her life trying to distribute limited resources equally, she would fail to be able to do so because of the wide expanse of the problem. If she is indeed virtuous, then she will feel badly about her inability to act in the way she knows is virtuous. As Tessman describes, in a system of oppression “great injustice force[s] even the most virtuous agent to leave some “ought” unfulfilled and to subsequently be regretful or sorrowful, or ill at ease with her/himself (5). Since virtue requires an appropriate emotional response, which includes feeling distress over suffering, one cannot cultivate an emotion of indifference or unconcern for suffering and still be virtuous. As Aristotle suggests, both decision and action are needed in order to act virtuously and, in order for this to be possible, one must have the resources to do both (628). In a system of oppression, this may not be the case and thus, in a state of oppression, even the most virtuous agent, may be unable to flourish.

Moreover, as the previous example illustrates, oppression may not only prevent people from flourishing and prevent people from cultivating virtues, it may serve to make attempting to cultivate virtues harmful because it moves a person farther away from flourishing. A person who feels ‘regretful’, or ‘sorrowful’ because she is structurally prevented from doing what she knows she ought to, is arguably further from flourishing than someone who does not recognize this tension and thus does not feel the pain associated with an inability to act virtuously. In a system of oppression then, virtue and flourishing are uncoupled; virtue does not necessarily promote flourishing. Thus, we may conclude that a system of oppression may prevent people from cultivating virtues, prevent people from flourishing, and indeed may paradoxically move those who attempt to be virtuous further from flourishing rather than closer to it.

How Virtue Theory Must Work in an Oppressive System

The question that emerges is, if a system of oppression prevents everyone from flourishing, how can virtue theory be useful to someone in one? There cannot be a person of practical wisdom to model virtuous character and, if flourishing is impossible, there may not be any motivation to be virtuous. There are many philosophers who would say that a dismissal of virtue theory, because of its struggle to deal with virtue in systems of oppression, is too quick. Instead, as both Frakes and Tessman suggest, we may need to reconceptualize or redefine what virtues are in order for them to promote flourishing in oppressive systems.

In her exploration of the virtue of compassion, Chris Frakes argues that we need to have a more Buddhist understanding of compassion to overcome the issue of burdening that normally accompanies compassion. She argues that just as we can be led astray by feeling pleasure when we should not, so too is this true for pain (Frakes 103). Thus, the pain and sorrow that accompanies an inability to act compassionately towards those who are suffering is evidence of an improperly cultivated virtue of compassion. On these grounds, she argues that compassion should not be dismissed as a virtue because it has the potential to lead to pain; we should instead reconceptualize compassion so that in cultivating it, we also cultivate a sense of equanimity, where this pain does not hinder one’s stability and composure.

I argue that while Frakes’ suggestion does allow for flourishing within a system of oppression, it does not allow for any way to challenge this system to eliminate or prevent further oppression. This is problematic because it sacrifices the possibility of a flourishing society, which is of greater importance for Aristotle, by promoting the flourishing of the individual. If one acts compassionately but is not emotionally distressed by the fact that there are limits to the compassionate acts she may perform and that she must leave some people to suffer, then she will see no wrong in the fact that these limits exist. Distress and anger at injustice are relevant emotions because they inform us when something is unjust and serve as a call to action to do something about it. If the situation is such that we cannot do something about it, then it points to a flaw in the organization of the situation that prevents people from acting virtuously. If we take for granted that this flaw is irreparable and thus bracket out the emotions that indicate its presence, we simultaneously exclude the possibility that the system could be organized differently to not bring about this injustice. We thus may permanently exclude the oppressed from the possibility of cultivating virtues because we may not even recognize that they do not have the resources to do so. While this may be helpful for the individual because it alleviates distress, she is still either oppressed or oppressing in an unjust society and so the society cannot flourish. And if, as Aristotle argues, the flourishing of society is a greater good than that of any individual (616), surely, it does not make sense to redefine a virtue in a way that allows for a lesser good, by Aristotle’s description, to be promoted instead of a higher one. Thus, although by Frakes’ account, some individuals are able to flourish, the problem that all people are not able to cultivate virtues because they do not have the physical nor moral resources still exists. As such, the city is unable to flourish, which is problematic considering Aristotle argues virtue ethics is a political philosophy (616).

Tessman also argues that in conditions of oppression, it may be necessary to redefine virtues, but she argues that they should be redefined differently than Frakes does. Tessman argues that in a system of oppression, we may have to indirectly pursue virtues by cultivating traits that are not virtues in themselves, but indirectly promote flourishing (165). These traits include ones that “enable its bearer to perform actions with the aim of eventually making flourishing lives more possible overall” (Tessman 165). This may include traits such as excess spitefulness, which, although considered to be a vice, may motivate someone to resist oppression and produce a situation in which flourishing is more attainable. However, this may involve redefining vices, at least temporarily, as virtues, because it demonstrates that vices can be used to promote flourishing, which arguably makes them virtuous.

Tessman also suggests that one may also wish to cultivate traits that allow one to make the best of an oppressive situation and cope with structural barriers that prevent one from flourishing so as not to be overly burdened by the situation. As I have described, these traits allow one to pursue flourishing within a state of oppression because they help to overcome the burden that accompanies understanding significant injustice, but they do not give one any moral tools for actively resisting or changing the oppressive situation.

Why Virtue Theory Becomes Consequentialist

Next, I argue that while both philosophers give noble, yet slightly problematic justification of how we can use virtue theory in systems of oppression, they may also both be neglecting an important factor. The theory that emerges from the adaptations Tessman and Frakes give may not be virtue theory, but may be a form of trait consequentialism.

Both theorists are attempting to maximize the beneficial consequences, in this case the consequence of human flourishing, in an oppressive situation. They both start with the end goal, or consequence, of flourishing in an oppressive system, and then work backwards to determine how we should define a trait to produce the desired consequence. Neither start from what it means to act virtuously knowing that what will follow will be flourishing because both realize that in systems of oppression, this is not the case. Both then suggest that in systems of oppression, we must change our actions, change the virtues that we cultivate, in order to then promote flourishing. This strongly resembles a trait consequentialist theory advocated by Julia Driver that tells us to cultivate the virtues that have the likelihood of providing the most benefit. For Aristotle, flourishing is not something that should be pursued; virtues should be cultivated because they are good in themselves and they may have the happy consequence of bringing about flourishing. And, even in the case that they do not, as Aristotle did not believe that everyone could flourish, there was something good about cultivating virtues themselves that was worthwhile. This is why the ability to cultivate virtues, regardless of flourishing, was so important for the city. However, what Tessman demonstrates is that in a system of oppression, typical virtues are not desirable in themselves and both she and Frakes must give a consequentialist argument in favour of redefining and reconceptualizing virtues. Thus, I argue that under a system of oppression, virtue theory must necessarily develop a consequentialist edge because, in a system of oppression, unless virtues are redefined to promote an end-goal of flourishing, virtues may be harmful to individual persons and further unjust oppression.


In this paper, I explored the internal conflict in virtue theory in a system of oppression. I suggested, with evidence from Aristotle, that it is unnecessary for everyone to achieve a state of flourishing, but that each person should still attempt to cultivate the virtues that, if done successfully, may lead to flourishing. Following, using evidence from Tessman, I argued that in a system of oppression, people are prevented from both cultivating the virtues and flourishing, and that attempting to do so may be harmful to an individual’s moral self. I explored the ways in which Frakes attempts to remedy this issue, by redefining compassion to have it involve a state of equanimity. However, I argued that this may in fact detract from ones ability to take issue with, and thus resist, structural oppression, which does not fit with Aristotle’s argument that the flourishing of a society is of greater importance than the flourishing of an individual. I also explored Tessman’s argument that one may cultivate character traits that allow one to cope with oppression or to resist it, even though these traits may traditionally be considered vices. However, this involves not a focus on character traits themselves, but on character traits that promote the end goal of flourishing. I argue that all of these proposals are trait consequentialist in nature as they all prescribe what character traits must be cultivated in order to achieve the end goal of flourishing. They lack the component of virtue theory that argues virtuous traits are good in themselves, not only because they lead to the possibility of flourishing. Thus, I argue that in systems of oppression where virtuous traits may not produce even the possibility of flourishing, virtue theory must take on a consequentialist edge in order to be able to direct people towards a state of flourishing that would otherwise be prevented.

Works Cited

Aristotle, “The Nature of Virtue.” Ethical Theory: An Anthology, Second Edition. Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau. Singapore: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013: 615-629. Print.

Driver, Julia. Uneasy Virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge Studies in Philosophy, 2001. Print.

Frakes, Chris. “Do the Compassionate Flourish?: Overcoming Anguish and the Impulse Towards Violence.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 14.1 (2007): 99-128. Web. 5 April 2014.

Friedman, Marilyn. “Virtues and Oppression: A Complicated Relationship.” Hypatia, 23.3 (2008): 189-196. Web. 5 April 2014.

Naussbaum, Martha. “Non-relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach”.  Ethical Theory: An Anthology, Second Edition. Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau. Singapore: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013: 630-644. Print.

Tessman, L. Burdened Virtues.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

One thought on “Virtue in an Unjust Society: Do We Need a Consequentialist Perspective to Flourish?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *