It worked for Aquinas, but would it work for us?

I want to pull something Keith Parsons just said from out of the comments, since it ties in nicely with some questions prompted by one of the books I’m currently reading. Keith said:

. . . collapsing the fact/value distinction does not need neuroscience; it goes back to Aristotle. Really, the idea that there is a fact/value dichotomy has only become entrenched in ethics since Hume’s “discovery” that you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” Ancient, medieval, and early modern ethicists almost always took for granted that the “good for man” is a natural condition and that ethical duties aim at actualizing that naturally good state. Christianity did not change this fundamental outlook; it just added that the highest state of human happiness is one in communion with God. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” said Augustine. The “fact/value” distinction would have puzzled Aquinas as much as Aristotle.

This is all very reasonable; I won’t dispute it. But will this work for us—for post-Humean, post-Darwinians with no use for teleology superimposed on nature?

The way I understand it, in such an Aristotelian framework, moral “ought”s do not just fall out of a description of what is good and harmful for humans as we find ourselves. An Aristotelian can also make sense of a question like “what ought human nature to be?”—their conception of nature is infused with teleology (final causes and whatnot) which helps them to identify when human nature goes off-track. A Christianized Aristotelianism can make this even clearer. It can avail itself of conceptions of Natural Moral Law which is, even if imperfectly, inscribed in human nature as we find it. Moreover, it can portray human nature as corrupted (in ways depending on whatever interpretation of Original Sin they prefer). So it isn’t just about human nature; actual human nature itself is subject to moral criticism depending on how it deviates from an ideal in the mind of God. (I can also give Muslim Aristotelian examples, but in these parts, this is probably more familiar.)

But what happens when human nature is understood as just a fact within nature in general, with no teleology to supply a moral context? After Darwin, human nature is an accident—a set of brute biological facts spit out by a notoriously nonteleological evolutionary process, all set in the context of a nonanthropomorphic physical universe devoid of any overarching purpose. This is one of those things that bothers, for example, intelligent design proponents when they object to a conception of nature that reduces to mere physical chance and necessity.

So, say a secular philosopher wants to ground morality in facts about human nature. What recourse does she have in responding to questions that require an evaluation of human nature itself? A Christian or a Muslim can make sense of the statement that humanity is not what it ought to be. What can the secular, modernized Aristotelian do?

Now, I am sure this isn’t a pressing question most of the time. Ordinary, relatively uncontroversial notions of what is good or harmful for human flourishing may be perfectly decent tools for a secular moralists for many questions we are likely to encounter.

But not all of the time. What happens if you discuss a science fiction story in an ethics seminar, and some of the students take the side of the aliens in their conflict with the human species? If you extend “good for humans” to “good for sentient life,” do you not end up with a concept that is too thin to do any moral heavy lifting? (The question of why we should care about others just gets magnified.)

What happens when you discuss animal rights, or claims of moral concern about wilderness that need not even contain any sentient life? If you try to translate all that to concerns about the psychological well-being of humans, aren’t you indulging the very anthropocentrism under challenge?

What happens when you encounter possibilities of radically changing human nature by means of technology, especially biotechnology? Tinkering around the edges of, say, our reproductive biology, might still be discussed in terms of concepts of flourishing and suffering rooted in our present biology. Even that strains arguments based on “human nature.” But what about prospects of acquiring so much control over our biology and psychology and every way of being in the world that the very idea of human nature becomes impossibly unstable? In such a fluid, vertigo-inducing environment of radical choices that can alter our nature and moral intuitions at every step, what use is “good for humans” as a guide?

I think such examples suggest that “human nature” can only be a part of the story when it comes to understanding moral oughts. And that is fine—a partial success is still nothing to sneeze about.

But there is a subtext to such concerns for those of us interested in arguing about gods. That is, a theist can easily portray the partiality of such an account as a defect. After all, morality understood relative to primary needs of humans as we find ourselves is still relative—such a morality does not have the overarching, absolute, ideal-in-the-mind-of-God quality that the One True Morality must have. And by denying overarching teleology to nature, secular moralists are refusing to avail themselves of a very obvious solution to their problem.

This doesn’t bother me. As far as I see, people value certain things, and this valuing is always in the context of their particular interests and agreements. I expect these to be plural, conflicting, incommensurable, and unstable. In the absence of supernatural teleology, I don’t expect to discover a secular analogue of a One True Morality.

But for many secular moral thinkers, this sort of thing is, apparently, a problem. If so, can we really say we see a way out? What prospects can a modernized, non-teleological Aristotelian offer? (Keith?)

Lessing’s Broad Ditch and Brad’s Lesser Ditch
Interview with Prof. Axgrind
Critical Thinking is Bigotry
ISIS Violence IS Religious
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Wes


    As you can imagine, A LOT has been written about this. I don't have time to summarize, but I can point you in the direction of some good work, if you are interested.

    Philippa Foot's Natural Goodness, Rosalind Hursthouse's Virtue Ethics (especially the last section), and Michael Thompson's papers "Three Degrees of Natural Goodness" and "Representation of Life" (the former paper can be found here, but the latter is the most relevant and succinct, but is not online; I have a copy I'd be happy to email to you if you'd like).

    To give you some kind of idea of the general topic (though, please don't make any conclusions based on these), here are a few examples of how contemporary philosophers find something like teleology.

    Here are some statements we take to be true:

    Dogs are quadrupeds.
    Humans have 32 teeth.
    Bees sting to save their hives.
    Wolfs hunt in packs.

    There is, of course, a problem in quantifying these propositions. Good, ol' Tripod is still a dog, but is no longer a quadruped; Mississippians are still humans (though an entire family may not have 32 teeth between them; calm down, folks; I'm from Mississippi, and I'm only kidding … sort of); etc.

    We say something true in the propositions above even if they do not apply universally.

    We can also say the following:

    A bee that doesn't sting to save its hive is defective.
    A wolf that doesn't hunt in a pack is defective.

    Now, here's another proposition we accept as true:

    Humans are social animals (like some, but not all, other animals).

    This is true whether or not a certain individual isn't social. In the same way that humans are bipedal, but a person born without a leg or with an extra is still human, so humans are social animals whether or not every human ends up being that way.

    Like we say of bees and wolfs, then, a human that is not a social animal is defective.

    What characteristics must a human have to be a social animal? Generally speaking (and this is where I'm simplifying WAY TOO much), the virtues are those traits of character needed to be a social being and the vices are those traits of character contrary to being a social being. (I'm leaving out the concept of rationality, which is extremely important, but perhaps this is a rough estimation).

    I highly recommend Thompson's paper that I will happily send you if you'd like (Keith and I have had several conversations online, if you'd like to check with him whether or not I can be trusted not to send you a virus or something :) ).

    Sorry, busy day.

  • Wes

    "wolfs" = "wolves"; embarrassing. :(

  • Hiero5ant


    Is a couple who uses contraception "defective"? Or is the move from functions grounded in past biological selection pressures to moral purposes perhaps a bit more facile than at first glance?

  • Wes


    Again, I highly recommend the works I mention above, as I don't have a lot of time for blogging.

    The idea is NOT that every natural thing is morally significant. Particularly, one looks at those things which make humans good social creatures. In other words, there can be natural defects that are not moral defects. Morality deals with human's social features and their rationality.

    There is a better summary discussion of this in the Stanford Encyclopedia's entry "Moral Naturalism" (found here; pay special attention to the section "Neo-Aristotelian Naturalism"; it includes explanations and counterarguments to that position).

    Sorry I don't have more time to explain.

  • Hiero5ant

    I'm familiar with the SEP piece and reserve the right to remain unimpressed. I just see another attempt at "essentialism by fiat" that's actually less compelling than its pre-darwinian ancestors. Humans are no more essentially social than we are essentially heterotrophs or any other historical accident of biology; privileging one attribute over another is an exercise in arbitrariness. There simply is no principled distinction to be drawn (about, say, contraception use) that's going to shelter our secular liberal values on one side while banishing paternalistic urges to the other.

    A person who thinks radical income inequality is politically sustainable is wrong on his own terms. But a person who places greater subjective weight on his values of autonomy and liberty come what may than he does on political stability is not. Nothing in any variant of Aristotelianism, modern or otherwise, addresses this. It's a bait-and-switch trick with ends and means that I wish so many nontheists would stop finding so enchanting.

  • Wes


    As far as I can tell, the SEP post doesn't take a position one way or the other. In fact, it seems to push the same objection you make (i.e. the one about privileging one attribute over another).

    I hope you have come to your very strong opinion after having read Hursthouse, Foot, and Thompson, and not simply an encyclopedic entry.

    BTW, what argument do you use to justify the conclusion that "… a person who places greater subjective weight on his values of autonomy and liberty come what may than he does on political stability is not[wrong]"? I'm pretty sure I disagree, but would like to know the argument by which you came to that conclusion.

    Personally, I'm glad most philosophers (theists and non-theists alike) do not find your subjectivism enchanting.

  • Hiero5ant

    I hope you have come to your very strong opinion after having read Hursthouse, Foot, and Thompson, and not simply an encyclopedic entry.

    Been there done that, got the t-shirt, the graduate degree, the student loan debt, and the near-galvanic immunity to arguments from name-dropping to prove it.

    what argument do you use to justify the conclusion that "… a person who places greater subjective weight on his values of autonomy and liberty come what may than he does on political stability is not[wrong]"?

    You snipped the crucial qualifier — the one emphasized in italics in the preceding sentence. Such a person is not wrong on his own terms. He is not making any sort of mistaken prediction about macroeconomics, or neurochemistry or something, which is amenable to refutation by data. Value judgments have targets, but no subject matter, and hence nothing to be wrong about in the way a badly drawn map or an incorrect belief on the age of the earth have something they can be wrong about in the terms in which that belief is expressed.

    Personally, I find the notion that we are not morally obligated to something in the realm of the non-human (the will of god, the Dictates of Pure Reason, the levels of oxytocin in our brains) to be atheism's most precious treasure. Rorty's 'The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy' is a great text in this regard. I deeply admire the good intentions behind attempts like this or The Moral Landscape to naturalize ethics, I just wish they could find their way to do it without falling back on quasi-theological modes of dogmatizing (i.e. Realism)

  • Wes

    Been there done that, got the t-shirt, the graduate degree, the student loan debt, and the near-galvanic immunity to arguments from name-dropping to prove it.

    Didn't really mean to be "name-dropping." I made it through my PhD program without reading Rorty, for example (mine was an analytic department). The version of the argument I'm referencing is pretty unique to Hursthouse, Foot, and Thompson, and I'm not sure it has had time to seep into mainstream curriculum yet. I was hoping that whatever conclusions you'd drawn about it came from careful consideration of these individuals' works.

    You snipped the crucial qualifier …

    I guess I don't see the relevant difference in your further explanation. You say that the person in your thought experiment is not mistaken in a way that is amenable to refutation. You go on to make a number of other assertions (i.e. value judgments have no subject matter, can't be wrong in a way a map or an incorrect belief on the age of the earth), but I still would like to see the argument on which these assertions are based. I disagree, as do most other people who do this for a living. In light of that, I would think assertions are less appropriate than arguments.

  • Hiero5ant

    I got through my program without reading a single page of Rorty either, and coming across him later made me weep for lost time. But my distaste for moral realism had been earned long before then. And I've had plenty of time to cut my teeth arguing with internet atheists since then to get a pretty solid feel for the peaks and gulleys of the conversational landscape on this topic.

    You say that the person in your thought experiment is not mistaken in a way that is amenable to refutation.

    I feel like there is some sort of Klingon cloaking device on the qualifiers at the end of my sentences.

    Not amenable to refutation by data. A father who smacks his child upside the head and yells "be nicer to your little sister!" is trying to change the boy's desire structure. He is not bringing economic or neurochemical research to the table of which the boy was previously unaware.

    At the end of the day, the moral realist claims that people he has a moral disagreement with are ignorant about some particular fact which he has privileged access to, and which when known constitutes an authoritative reason for changing one's behavior. Changing people's moral judgments they say is just a matter of throwing more facts at them, and if they persist in error it must be because of some defect in their rationality. But I am no more morally obligated to change my condom use because ejaculation evolved for some purpose than I am to change it because Yahweh designed it for some purpose — the truth or falsity of either claim carries no moral weight. Ejaculation, respiration, tool-use, digestion, and being social mammals are all just things natural selection happened to find amusing in our ancestors. These are all important facts to know about who we are, and how we're limited in what we might become in the near future. What I object to is the idea of picking one out of a hat and ordering other people around on that basis, and calling people who disagree with your orders either conceptually confused or insufficiently educated in biology.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis


    You write: “ After Darwin, human nature is an accident—a set of brute biological facts spit out by a notoriously nonteleological evolutionary process, all set in the context of a nonanthropomorphic physical universe devoid of any overarching purpose.

    Actually, the evolutionary process is teleological by definition. Unfortunately, there exists a tendency to conflate teleology with purposefulness. Even though it is true that all purposeful worlds are teleological, there may be teleological worlds which are not purposeful. Purposefulness implies teleology, teleology does not imply purposefulness.

    Rather, in my understanding, teleology is entailed in the concept of causality. Whatever it is that makes X cause Y, makes Y be the “telos” of X. In other words: X (including its causal powers) is "directed" towards Y. A human is “directed” to having 32 teeth, so having 32 teeth is part of the telos of being human. This is a simple, and in my mind uncontroversial idea. If you believe that the universe is causally ordered then you believe in a teleological universe in the sense used by Aristotle and Aquinas.

    Perhaps the confusion comes from the following: Given the teleology in nature Aquinas *argues* that such teleology cannot exist unless an intellect is there to ground it. A naturalist can easily disagree with Aquinas’s argument without denying the obvious fact that there is such a teleological directedness in nature.

  • Blue Devil Knight

    Wes could you please send me that THompson paper? My email is bluedevil \dot\ knight (account is with yahoo). Thanks. I have no strong opinion but the view you are adumbrating is interesting, seems to pick out one dimension of something real and interesting. Will need to think/read more before I have an opinion.

  • Wes

    Sent. Enjoy.

  • Taner Edis


    Sorry for the delay; just got back.

    I'd be interested in seeing the Thompson paper, especially if you're going to allow me to be really lazy by emailing it to me.

    From what I've seen about Aristotelians, they are not especially interested in (or even equipped for) answering the particular questions I raise here. But perhaps this is an exception.

  • Wes

    Sent. Enjoy.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Taner Edis said:
    "So, say a secular philosopher wants to ground morality in facts about human nature. What recourse does she have in responding to questions that require an evaluation of human nature itself?"


    I think part of the concern here (correct me if I'm wrong) is with the problem of circularity. If we ground morality in human nature, then what can we use to ground this fundamental assumption? If we again appeal to human nature, that seems to beg the question and to amount to circular reasoning.

    The same sort of question arises with divine command theory. If God's commands are what grounds morality, then what can ground this fundamental assumption? If you say "God is perfectly good, so what God commands must also be good", then there appears to be circular reasoning at the foundations of your morality. How can God be judged to be 'good' when his commands are the very basis for making such judgements?

    A problem of circularity also occurs with moral relativism as a normative theory. If what is morally good or right is based on the moralis of one's culture or society, then how can one justify the fundamental assumption that one should adopt the morals of one's own culture? Alternatively, since it appears possible to critique the morals of one's own society, how can one do so if the morals of one's society are the very grounds for making moral judgements?

  • Philip K

    I enjoyed reading the back-and-forth between Wes and Hiero5ant here. I agree with Hiero5ant about the quasi-theological flavor of secular attempts to ground moral realism. John Gray argues that secular liberals generally are hard-pressed to prove they’re not stealing their values from the Christian worldview. The best response here, I think, is that those religious values in turn were naturally selected, that they’re much older than any monotheistic religion and that they derive from kin selection, the handicap principle, or some such biological means of proliferating genes.

    But this biological response to Gray confuses cause and justification. The origin of individual, human rights may ultimately be biological, but assuming our species has more self-control than do other species, with respect to our ability to act contrary to biological tendencies, another explanation is needed for the enduring belief in those rights. A partial explanation is surely that, being relatively autonomous, rational creatures, many people favour liberal values for normative reasons; that is, they think these values are the best ones to have.

    But this leaves the question about the identity of these normative reasons. Do the reasons come from biology? Assuming the liberal notion, that an individual human has inherent dignity, initially served the pseudo-interests of our genes as a pseudo-strategy by pseudo-Mother Nature, does that fact justify that notion? Why should a person care about the genes?

    The moral realist is surely right that there are facts of the matter with regard to morality. Morality isn’t entirely up-in-the-air; for example, secular liberal values may have biological origins. But that fact comes in at the wrong level of explanation; it just doesn’t suffice as an answer to any normative question about those values. When a secular liberal says that the 911 terrorists were morally wrong in treating innocent bystanders as means in their ploy to glorify Allah, they’re not reporting an etiological fact about the biological basis of liberal values.

    What other facts does an Aristotelian moral realist point to? Even after Darwin, naturalistic philosophers like Ruth Millikan talk about our biological functions. So Wes says “a human that is not a social animal is defective.” This sort of talk infuriates me. Were the (fictional or otherwise) characters of Jesus or the Buddha defective? They were certainly antisocial (Jesus is said to have spent a long time isolated in the desert, and Buddhism encourages people to detach themselves from everything and to meditate a lot in private). But millions of people praise those two as divine. Social values make sense only when the society itself is laudatory. When the society is defective, as in a totalitarian state, for example, rebellious, antisocial values become heroic. And if all societies are naturally more or less flawed, antisocial personalities are always more or less praiseworthy.

    And whence the functionality of naturally selected traits? Just because natural selection affords an explanation of why a member of a group exists doesn’t mean a biologist as such can explain why the trait should behave as certain other members do. Again, the etiological fact enters at an irrelevant, non-normative level of explanation.

  • Bradley Bowen

    How can one justify the assumption that human nature is the ground of morality? Appealing to human nature as the basis for such a justification would seem to beg the question.

    How can one justify the assumption that divine commands are the ground of morality? Appealing to the perfect goodness of God as the basis for such a justification would seem to beg the question.

    Normative ethical theories or fundamental principles run into a problem of circularity. One can try to reduce morality to prudence (as with social contract theories).

    However, if morality is something more than enlightened selfishness, such a reduction will not be possible.

    In any case, a normative moral theory or principle should line up with our intuitions about the rightness and wrongness of specific actions. If a moral theory implies that torturing children for the fun of it is a moral duty, then that moral theory is no good, and should be abandoned. If a moral theory does not imply that torturing children for the fun of it is morally wrong, then that moral theory is also defective and needs to be scrapped.

    If a normative moral theory/principle lines up with our intuitions about the rightness and wrongness of certain actions, then that is evidence that supports the correctness of that moral theory.

    There are also puzzling cases and gray areas in morality, and a good normative moral theory should either show that such a case falls in the borderline between right and wrong, or else it should shed light on such a case, making it clearer which side of the divide that action falls on.

    We also have intuitions about moral principles, and a good normative moral theory should line up with those intuitions as well. The normative theory should confirm or support those moral principles that our intuitions indicate are correct, and should disconfirm moral principles that our intuitions indicate are false, and for moral principles that are of unclear status, the moral theory should either confirm that intuition (by showing the principle to be partly correct and partly incorrect) or it should shed light on the principle making it clearer whether the principle is correct or not.

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