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?)

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University