This article critically discusses Pierre Bourdieu’s views on ethics and normative evaluations. Bourdieu acknowledged that people hold ethical stances, yet sought to show that these stances are – unconsciously – conducive to obtaining symbolic power and legitimizing hierarchy. The first part of the article looks at this argument and charts the shifts it went through particularly in the early 1990s. The second part discusses ontological and empirical critiques of the ethics as ideology argument and suggests the latter to be more salient, as Bourdieu proposed his argument as an empirical rather than as an ontological point. The reason why he nevertheless found the ethics as ideology explanation fitting to nearly all the cases he studied, as the third part argues, is not simply that reality ‘obliged’ him to do so, but his circular definition of symbolic capital as qualities that are worthy of esteem. This definition makes his argument of ethics as ideology unfalsifiable and impedes him from distinguishing between cases when legitimate power is the aim of ethics and between those when it is merely their side effect. The article concludes by suggesting ways in which Bourdieu’s work can be fruitfully incorporated into the study of ethics once the tautology is resolved.
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