On the Limitations of Moral Exemplarism: Socio-Cultural Values and Gender

  • Alkis KotsonisEmail author


In this paper, I highlight and discuss two significant limitations of Zagzebski’s (in Exemplarist moral theory, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017) exemplarist moral theory. Although I focus on Zagzebski’s theory, I argue that these limitations are not unique to her approach but also feature in previous versions of moral exemplarism. The first limitation I identify is inspired by MacIntyre’s (in After virtue, Duckworth, London, 1981) understanding of the concept of virtue and stems from the realization that the emotion of admiration, through which agents identify exemplars, should not be examined in vacuo. Scholars working on moral exemplarism have failed to note that admiration is substantially influenced by prevailing socio-cultural norms and values. I show that ‘the admirable’ varies across cultures and time; and the employment of one’s own emotion of admiration in order to derive the meaning of terms such as virtue and duty would only result in a culture-specific understanding of morality. The second limitation, inspired by Butler’s (in Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity, Routledge, London, 1990) social constructivist understanding of gender, rests on the realization that several features and characteristics of the agent influence their perception of moral excellence. I focus on the issue of gender and highlight that exemplarist theories justify (and perpetuate) a counter-intuitive gender-specific understanding of morality.


Exemplarist moral theory Admiration Zagzebski MacIntyre Butler 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The author declares that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Anderson C (2019) Discourses of ageing and gender. Palgrave Macmillan, ChamCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Annas J (2004) Being virtuous and doing the right thing. Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 78(2):61–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Blum L (1988) Moral exemplars: reflections on Schindler, the Trocmés, and others. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 13:196–221CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bourdieu P (2002) Masculine domination (trans. R Nice). Stanford University press, StanfordGoogle Scholar
  5. Broadie S, Rowe C (2011) Aristotle: Nicomachean ethics. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  6. Bussey K, Bandura A (1984) Influence of gender constancy and social power on sex-linked modeling. J Pers Soc Psychol 47(6):1292–1302CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bussey K, Bandura A (2004) Social cognitive theory of gender development and functioning. In: Eagley AH, Beall AE, Sternberg RJ (eds) The psychology of gender. Guildford, New York, pp 92–119Google Scholar
  8. Butler J (1990) Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  9. Carducci BJ (2009) The psychology of personality. Wiley-Blackwell, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  10. Croce M, Vaccarezza MS (2017) Educating through exemplars: alternative paths to virtue. Theory Res Educ 15(1):5–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Croce M (2019) Exemplarism in moral education. J Moral Educ. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cuffel V (1966) The classical Greek concept of slavery. Journal of the History of Ideas 27(3):323–342CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Eley G (2018) How do we explain the rise of Nazism? Theory and historiography. In: Shelley Baranowski S, Nolzen A, Szejnmann CW (eds) A companion to Nazi Germany. Wiley-Blackwell, New York, pp 17–32Google Scholar
  14. Engelen B, Thomas A, Archer A, Van De Ven N (2018) Exemplars and nudges: combining two strategies for moral education. J Moral Educ 47(3):346–365CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Ferguson J (1958) Moral values in the ancient world. Methuen, LondonGoogle Scholar
  16. Frede D (2018) Equal but not equal: Plato and Aristotle on women as citizens. In: Anagnostopoulos G, Santas G (eds) Democracy, justice and equality in ancient Greece. Springer, Cham, pp 287–306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gauntlett D (2008) Media, gender and identity. Routledge, LondonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Greenwood D (2010) Of sad men and dark comedies: mood and gender effects on entertainment media preferences. Mass Communication & Society 13:232–249CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Haidt J (2001) The emotion dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgement. Psychol Rev 108(4):814–834CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Haidt J (2007) The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science 316(5827):998–1002CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hobbs A (2010) Popular conceptions of virtue. In: Gagarin M (ed) The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 198–200Google Scholar
  22. Hursthouse R (1991) Virtue theory and abortion. Philos Public Aff 20(3):223–246Google Scholar
  23. Hursthouse R (2001) On virtue ethics. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hursthouse R, Pettigrove G (2016) Virtue ethics. In: Zalta E N (ed) the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Accessed 8 December 2018
  25. Kerferd GB (1981) The sophist movement. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  26. Kershaw I (1989) The `Hitler myth': image and reality in the third Reich. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  27. King N (2008) Generic womanhood: gendered depictions in cop action cinema. Gend Soc 22(2):238–260CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kripke S (1980) Naming and necessity. Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  29. Lee D, Lane M (2007) Plato: the republic. Penguin, LondonGoogle Scholar
  30. Lockwood P, Chasteen AL, Wong C (2005) Age and regulatory focus determine preferences for health-related role models. Psychol Aging 20(3):376–389CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Louden RB (1984) On some vices of virtue ethics. Am Philos Q 21(3):227–236Google Scholar
  32. MacIntyre A (1981) After virtue. Duckworth, LondonGoogle Scholar
  33. Meyers TD (2011) Gender in the mirror: cultural imagery and women’s agency. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  34. Milkie MA (1994) Social world approach to cultural studies: mass media and gender in the adolescent peer group. J Contemp Ethnogr 23(3):354–380CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Mizejewski L (2004) Hardboiled & high heeled: the woman detective in popular culture. Routledge, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Mühlberger D (2003) The social bases of Nazism, 1919–1933. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  37. Nussbaum M (1993) Non-relative virtues: an Aristotelian approach. In: Nussbaum M, Sen A (eds) The quality of life. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 242–270CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Nussbaum M (2012) Philosophical interventions. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Pantelia M (1993) Spinning and weaving: ideas of domestic order in Homer. The American Journal of Philology 114(4):493–501CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Putnam H (1973) Meaning and reference. J Philos 70(19):699–711CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Rackham H (1932) Aristotle: politics. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  42. Richard B, Krüger H (2006) The importance of idols in adolescence. In: Steinberg S, Parmar P, Richard B (eds) Contemporary youth culture: an international encyclopedia. Greenwood, Westport, pp 298–306Google Scholar
  43. Rihll TE (2011) Classical Athens. In: Bradley K, Cartledge P (eds) The Cambridge world history of slavery. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 48–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Schmiechen-Ackermann D (2018) Resistance. In: Shelley Baranowski S, Nolzen A, Szejnmann CW (eds) A companion to Nazi Germany. Wiley-Blackwell, New York, pp 126–149Google Scholar
  45. Schneewind JB (1990) The misfortunes of virtue. Ethics 101:42–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Snyder JM (1981) The web of song: weaving imagery in Homer and lyric poets. Class J 76(3):193–196Google Scholar
  47. Solomon D (1988) Internal objections to virtue ethics. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 13(1):428–441CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Tooze A (2011) The German national economy in an era of crisis and war, 1917-1945. In: Smith HW (ed) The Oxford handbook of modern German history. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 400–422Google Scholar
  49. Vaccarezza MS, Niccoli A (2018) The dark side of the exceptional: on moral exemplars, character education, and negative emotions. J Moral Educ 11:1–14Google Scholar
  50. Williams B (1985) Ethics and limits of philosophy. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  51. Zagzebski L (2010) Exemplarist virtue ethics. Metaphilosophy 41(1–2):41–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Zagzebski L (2015) Admiration and the admirable. Aristotelian Society 89(1):205–221CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Zagzebski L (2017) Exemplarist moral theory. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Philosophy, Psychology & Language SciencesUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUK

Personalised recommendations