Teaching Practiced Liberatory Virtue Ethics

By Evan Dutmer

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“All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” –Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., December 18, 1963, Address to the campus of Western Michigan University

How does virtue ethics respond to the demands of social justice and the evils of systemic social inequality? In particular, how does Aristotelian virtue ethics—a clear example of philosophy as a way of life—further social justice when, in Aristotle’s formulation, it is explicitly self-focused (egoistic) and elitist (exclusivist/exclusionary)? In this short piece I’ll show how my students and I have tried to face this challenge of applying virtue ethics to our lives.

I am one of the Instructors in Ethics in the Department of Leadership Education at the Culver Academies, an independent boarding school in rural Northern Indiana, where I also teach Latin and Ancient Mediterranean Cultures. In this piece, I’ll show how I’ve situated this problem for my 11th graders, and how I’ve tried to draw on resources available within the Aristotelian tradition to engage students in a liberatory virtue ethic. Then, I’ll show how we can try to help students apply this theory to their own practical action.

A Practiced Virtue Ethic

First, a little about how we teach ethics at the Culver Academies. Our ethics course, a required 11th grade leadership class, takes place in the context of a schoolwide commitment to the cultivation of character and builds on Culver’s central mission in whole-person education:

“Culver educates its students for leadership and responsible citizenship in society by developing and nurturing the whole individual – mind, spirit, and body – through integrated programs that emphasize the cultivation of character.”

Our approach to character education is distinctively Aristotelian, building out from a belief in the deep connection between virtue and well-being for a human being (in its highest form, true happiness or eudaimonia), where virtues are mean states concerning emotions between two vices, one of excess and the other of deficiency. (NE 1094a18-23, NE 1107a1-4)


Following in the Greco-Roman virtue tradition, we identify our Cardinal Virtues as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Ambrose, and Augustine did (again, courage, justice, moderation, wisdom). We add two traditional ‘theological’ virtues through modern-day equivalents ‘Humanity’ (love) and ‘Transcendence’ (faith). We identify our Culver Values as constitutive values of our mini-polis (Ancient Greek for ‘city’), the interconnected, education-valuing community structure which Aristotle thinks is central to the possibility of the flourishing of any human beings in virtue. (See Pol. 1252b29-30, Pol. 1278b19-27, NE 1097b8-11.)

We use this framework as a foundation for practicing virtuous activity over the time we have together in a taught course in ethics. We focus our moral practice by virtues of the week, we reflect and engage in student-led discussion and dialogue, we keep notes on our actions, we see the virtues in action on campus, we recognize, express, and regulate our emotions; all with the aim of achieving more virtuous action, little by little, in our lives.

Elitist Virtue Ethics

Despite the universalist aspirations of the above sketch, Aristotle’s virtue ethic has a long history of exclusionary application.  In his belief that Ancient Athens satisfies the requirements of a good polis, able to produce virtuous citizens, for instance, Aristotle takes for granted that the only flourishing important to make this determination was that of the leisured, landed adult Athenian, Greek-speaking males. The majority of the city’s population (women of all classes, all enslaved persons, almost all foreigners, most landless laborers) are excluded from the eudaimonistic calculation. (Pol. 1.4-7, 12, 13; 3.5)

The afterlife of Aristotle’s ethics and politics removes any doubt that his exclusivist vision for the virtue-valuing community went unnoticed. In one prime example, US Southern antebellum slavery apologists used Aristotle to justify the institution of “Negro slavery” in the United States.

The question then is pointed: How can we adapt virtue ethics to explicitly avoid exclusivist and explicitly endorse democratic/inclusivist aims in its practical application?


Liberatory Virtue Ethics

In my ethics classes I aim to inform and democratize our virtue-centered approach by incorporating insights from vibrant contemporary feminist virtue literatures.

In particular, I’ve been inspired by Lisa Tessman’s work in Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles to develop an important corrective and stipulation to the Aristotelian framework here outlined. In it, Tessman details both the great potential of virtue ethics for bringing about greater human flourishing and happiness en masse, especially in the face of widespread oppression and inequality throughout both the developed and developing world, and, at the same time, the historical realities of the eudaimonistic approach as enacted.

This exclusion is incompatible with our aim to produce responsible, global citizens for 21st century society (both at Culver and around the world). Accordingly, I draw from Tessman’s important corrective in my outlines for a eudaimonistic virtue theory for my students that builds in an explicit inclusionary stance:

[We need to combine Aristotle’s theory] with a conception of flourishing implicit in the liberatory goals of communities that are struggling against oppression. This conception of flourishing… should maintain Aristotle’s assumption that the health of a social collectivity is key for any individual member’s well-being. But there will need to be an added stipulation to Aristotle’s version of eudaimonism[:]… one must stipulate that the pursuit of one’s own flourishing cannot qualify as morally praiseworthy (and what one attains not count as flourishing) unless one is engaged, as part of that pursuit, in promoting the flourishing of an inclusive social collectivity. (75-76)

Happily, our shared institutional ethical vocabulary at Culver—“service”—gives us a way to understand this. Our pursuit of flourishing cannot be complete if part of that pursuit is absent radical service to others: to build and sustain an inclusive social collectivity where all can flourish.

Indeed, our institutional definition of leadership grows out of this very concern. We define leadership as “the practice of building and sustaining communities that promote human flourishing.”


Enacting Liberatory Virtue Ethics Inside and Outside Classrooms

But what does this look like? How can we bring this stipulation—that one’s pursuit of flourishing must include promoting the flourishing of an inclusive social collectivity—to life?

In short, I think it requires that we be explicit in our care for each other. On a larger, more abstract scale, it means supporting practices, policies, and leaders who aim to promote human flourishing across the entirety of the social collectivity. More relevantly, on a personal level, it means taking active steps to build and sustain fair, inclusive, belonging-centered practices in communities of which we are a part.

In a class, this means, in part, recognizing, caring for, and tending to each other’s social and emotional well-being. Students in my classes are on a journey of self-discovery and self-betterment, but, all the while, they must aim to bring about a classroom community where all students can flourish. This means that they might need to check their own opinions if they are exclusionary and hurtful; this means that they might need to respect another student’s chance to speak and be heard; this means that they may need to learn more about another person’s experiences, struggles, background, and perspectives; last, they’ll need to recognize their own, each other’s, and the classroom’s unique emotional expressions and needs.

Students and teachers can craft procedures for an inclusive classroom together or draw from online resources to do this. In my classes, for instance, we draw on the Culver CAREs protocol developed by Jessica Harding, our Director of Diversity and Intercultural Life. This protocol helps our students navigate student-led conversations that may touch on sensitive topics relating to personhood, culture, and identity by giving students a no-questions-asked pause that can be applied by an individual student during a particular discussion.

Similar to Marc Brackett’s RULER Anchor Tool of the “Meta-Moment” in his Permission to Feel, the pause or “time out” tool for discussion allows participants to listen and care for one another via an agreed-upon ‘distancing’ and reflecting protocol. When a student says “time out” after another student’s verbal contributions, this means that, for whatever reason, they have felt disrespected or dehumanized in their personhood or identity, and that they need a pause in the conversation. The Culver CAREs protocol, then, asks students to do the following things to reestablish classroom community and other-regard:

Culver CAREs Protocol

Time out!

C Cease conversation

A Acknowledge the act of exclusion

R Reflect upon the act and implications

E Engage with peers and instructor to reestablish trust and connection

Credit: Jessica Harding, Director of Diversity and Intercultural Life, Culver Academies. See also Jana and Baran 2020.

This protocol requires that students respect each other’s autonomy, acknowledge acts which have made some members of the classroom feel excluded, begin a process of restorative, empathizing dialogue, and that they be ready to change their behavior to reestablish trust and connection in the classroom so that all members can flourish. All of this requires rich and rewarding values-centered discussion and requires practice of virtue through recognition, expression, and regulation of emotion.

In the context of a RULER-informed, emotionally-intelligent classroom, this procedure isn’t corrosive to student interaction and free and open dialogue—rather, it amplifies it. Students who may generally remain quiet speak up; students respect the protocol (as it has been outlined as a classroom expectation early on); students learn to trust each other and the instructor to care not just for “getting their point across”, but to care about who is in the room and who is contributing.

Outside of school, and, later, outside of work, this means using our creative energies not solely to the betterment of ourselves and those closest to us. It means using part of our practiced, visible action to the end of inclusive social community for all. Community building, organizing, fundraising, volunteering, activism, mentoring, etc. all have a part in the life of the virtuous person. Students can be encouraged to engage in one of these activities and reflect, share, and speak about their experiences in the classroom environment. At Culver, this means students know their time at the Academies ends in substantive, community-facing service based on the real, material, social, and emotional needs of the surrounding area.

In effect, what our students need today is an Aristotelian virtue ethic adapted to a 21st century, radically-inclusive democracy, already at our doorstep. I hope to have sketched a classroom-friendly way forward here.