TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Values, Virtues, and the Language of Morality

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Flaminia Incecchi looks at Jay Gupta’s “Values or Virtues, Nietzsche or Aristotle?” from Telos 174 (Spring 2016).

In “Values or Virtues, Nietzsche or Aristotle?” Jay Gupta outlines the way that value discourse stifles normative intention and the ethical imagination. The aim of the paper is to “suggest that the language of values disguises a deeper, normatively richer language of virtue, and . . . point[s] to the importance of recovering that language in the modern age, as well as the difficulties that must attend such a recovery” (108).

Before exploring the merits of the article, I wish to offer a few clarificatory notes. Recently, there has been a conspicuous number of thinkers that have advocated a return to virtue ethics. Perhaps the most notable among these is Elizabeth Anscombe, who, with the paper “Modern Moral Philosophy,” uncovers the supposed banality of modern moral philosophy and points to the ways in which moral discourse has retained elements of the Christian ethical tradition. Anscombe points to the “mesmeric force”[1] of the term “ought” that moral theory has maintained in its philosophical baggage. This kind of moral theory ignores the fact that the term belongs to the era of Christianity and is now almost poisonous and of great disservice to normative debate. Accordingly, Anscombe dismisses the consequentialist tradition by arguing that it is unable to a priori rule out certain acts.[2] In light of these observations, the only option for moral philosophy is to return to a version of virtue ethics.

Now, Gupta’s article is not straightforwardly making the groundbreaking claim that we should abandon an ethical system or a way of thinking about ethics. His paper is important for moral philosophers, but perhaps even more so for political scientists or political theorists of a liberal or neo-liberal orientation, or those who are embedded in it. Gupta wishes to put under scrutiny the omnipresent term “values” and to show that it is not as benign as the utterers of such a term think it is. In his view, “values discourse tends to oscillate between moral quietism and brute assertion” (108). With this claim, Gupta coveys the idea that the term is used with an ambivalent, and doubtlessly ambiguous, function. On the one hand, it is a descriptive term to define the values of some culture x. When “values” is used in this way, it does not subject the values of culture x to scrutiny or evaluation. On the other hand, the term is also used to describe the values of culture x in relation to those of culture y, and when this happens, the speaker creates a “dialectic of values,” conferring to the term a normative depth. In those instances, the term is stretched to serve a moral competition, so to speak, where the values of a culture can ethically trump the values of another. The moment of difference is therefore problematized and ceases to belong to a moral quietist realm, thus entering the sphere of confrontation. Further, in light of these observations, it is also mistaken to speak of “universal values,” because the term is not equipped to deal genuinely with a normative agenda. Therefore, for Gupta, it is a mistake to ascribe a normative dimension to the term, for it entered the discourse of moral philosophy as a descriptive term.

To show why this is the case, Gupta traces the philosophical origins of the term to the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, who:

explicitly uses the term “values” like a variable that brackets off normative validity. In a way, this usage exhibits the same indifferent quantitative logic as a mathematical variable. . . . For Nietzsche, the term “values” in its technical philosophical employment is a metaethical term in the service of the genealogist who pursues a purely descriptive enterprise, an abstract variable with a fungible content that changes according to individual psychology, social context, historical conditions, and so forth. (118)

Therefore, Nietzschean values are descriptive, essentially a postulation of the values of x, without assessing validity.

Gupta then traces the original use of “virtue,” which, unlike “values,” “functions analogously to a constant, or perhaps more precisely has the non-fungible determinacy of a proper name. The original and proper employment of the term is invested with a determinate qualitative meaning that embeds validity” (118). Therefore, when we speak of the value of courage, both parties recognize the importance thereof, which is to say that the speakers value courage as an ideal that bears ethical significance. How the speakers “paint” the image of the courageous is a different matter. Both will have different ideas of what it means to be courageous or, to put it in Aristotelian terms, of what the courageous man is like. The picture painted when using “virtue” is therefore of mutually agreed terrain regarding the worth of courage, but a different mode of presentation of what courage entails. That courage is something valuable in itself depends on the agreement on the idea that courage is part of the array of virtues proper to an excellent human being.

The lesson we are to draw from uncovering the philosophical origins of the terms “values” and “virtues” is the following: “to understand the Nietzschean character of values discourse is to become philosophically aware of the basic character of our moral discourse. . . . But perhaps the ultimate referent toward which our intuitions reach when we use the term ‘values’ with normative intent is actually something like virtue?” (120). To show why this is the case, Gupta points to cases where the two terms are used interchangeably, like when we talk of the values of courage, generosity, and so on, where these terms properly refer to virtues, not values. This example proves that “what is said by ‘value’ in such instances is actually meant to be virtue, with all its rich normative meaning and implication. That is, perhaps values are a conceptually impoverished version of virtues” (120).

While I agree with Gupta on the omnipresence of values discourse, the paradoxical nature of the term, and the inaptness of “values” to describe “universal values,” I am skeptical of his normative suggestion that what we mean by “value” is something akin to “virtue.” At the beginning of the article, Gupta mentions some of the values that we often hear; among those we find: tolerance, democracy, and freedom. I believe it is a stretch to consider those “virtues,” not simply because they are not part of the set of Aristotelian virtues, but also because to elevate them to the status of virtues would be tantamount to saying that the other party engaged in the conversation implicitly or explicitly regards them as virtues. As we have seen, the crucial element of virtues is that they are a constant, and their importance is recognized by the participants in the debate even if they diverge on what the essence of that virtue constitutes. To ascribe this agreement to terms that are usually labeled as “values” is to buy into an absolutist conception of a right or wrong Φ (where Φ is to be read as a form of government, behavior, or practice) that simply recasts the problematized difference that we encounter in values discourse. What I mean by this is that contexts rich with values discourse on tolerance, freedom, rights, and so on are confrontational ones, where those who label these terms as valuable are creating a dialectic between us and them. It is implicit in this discourse that “they,” whoever “they” are, do not possess such values or do not regard these as values. This is why it is dubious to adopt a virtue discourse instead of a values discourse, because not much would change. Of course, on the part of the speaker, there would be a certain honesty in using the term “virtue” as opposed to the falsely benign disguise of “values,” but from the contexts where these terms are used, it is easy to make the inference that for the speaker these are indeed virtues. Cultures where the values of tolerance (and so on) are invoked, see them as virtues, as they shape what a good society should be and presumably, the good society is theirs, precisely because they are making the utterance. Nevertheless, the veiled violence is still present: we see the virtue of tolerance, you do not. For us tolerance is what constitutes a good society but not for you. The political context of value discourse always has an implicit audience that constitutes them. For instance, the powerful claiming “we in the West see democracy as a value/virtue,” necessarily implies that there is a non-West somewhere that does not value democracy. This is even more evident in the language of universal values, as the latter are always dictated by a someone, without the necessary global consensus. Substituting value discourse with virtue discourse still generates “brute assertion,” without the possibility of oscillating back to “moral quietism.”


1. Elizabeth Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy 33, no. 124 (1958): 1–19; here, p. 6.

2. Ibid., p. 17

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