Response to Taner

Taner,

Thanks for the long post and the many insightful points and queries.

Since Aristotle is the founder of naturalized ethics, it is really important that we get him right. Aristotle does not base his ethics upon “human nature,” but what he calls “the human function.” (Sorry, I don’t know the Greek) The human function comprises the way of living for which nature has suited humans. That is, just as the Great White Shark is suited (as the Richard Dreyfus character says in Jaws) to swim, eat, and make little sharks—and to do these things very well—so nature has also adapted us to live a certain way and to do it well. What humans are uniquely well-suited to do is to live the life of a rational being in a political society with other rational beings. That is, just like other organisms, nature endows the human creature with potentialities which, when fully actualized, permit that creature to fulfill a particular set of functions in an optimal manner.

There is a crucial difference, however, between the way those potentialities are actualized in humans and the way they are actualized in most other animals. A shark does not have to practice at being a shark (so far as I know). The shark develops its sharky potentials automatically and unreflectively. With humans, however, it takes hard work, discipline, and practice. Learning to be human is a lot like learning to play the piano. The intellectual and moral virtues for Aristotle are the distinctive, habitual practices whereby humans achieve excellence in fulfilling their natural function. Those who practice the moral virtues (i.e., those who are courageous, temperate, just, generous, etc.) are precisely those who will, in general, have the greatest success in living harmoniously and fruitfully with other people.

Aristotle recognized as clearly as anyone else that the vast majority of human beings do not live virtuous lives. If “human nature” is how we spontaneously act, without training and discipline, then “human nature” is often at odds with the fulfillment of the human function. We all too often spontaneously pursue the greedy or myopic ends. A human must learn to be, e.g., courageous or temperate by doing courageous or temperate acts, says Aristotle, just as we learn to play the piano by practicing. The upshot, then, is that the standard for Aristotle is the human function—what nature has suited us to do, not “human nature”—what people in fact tend spontaneously to do. Happiness, eudaimonia, is defined not in terms of what people actually do, but in terms of what they are distinctively suited to do, that is, to live lives of intellectual and moral excellence. Aristotle’s concept of happiness is akin to Maslow’s idea of self-actualization. Those few self-actualized persons (like, say, Socrates) who do live the life for which we are best suited are the ones who are genuinely happy, even when their lives are difficult. Fools, on the other hand, cannot be happy even in the midst of pleasures. Better to be Socrates having a bad day than Sarah Palin having a good one.

It is also very important not to read alien or anachronistic notions into the Aristotelian view of teleology. For Aristotle, teleology is a thoroughly naturalistic concept; indeed, telos is a distinctive feature of physis (nature). There is no sense in which for Aristotle (as opposed to the Christian Aristotelians) that natural ends are intended, planned, or chosen. Indeed, some top Aristotelian scholars like my mentor at Pitt, Jim Lennox (also an expert on Darwin) see no contradiction at all between Aristotelian teleology and Darwinian evolution. Why are sharks so well suited by nature to swim, eat, and make little sharks? Why are they so well adapted to perform these functions and thus achieve their telos to be a top predator? Aristotle could only say that they were so adapted by nature; after Darwin we can explain how it happened.

The upshot is that even a post-Darwinian ethicist can identify natural states that, when achieved, constitute flourishing for the human organism. We can also recognize that humans do not attain that state automatically or by instinct, but only by choice and habituation. Even modern-day naturalists can recognize a standard other than how the majority of humans do act. We can recognize as valuable things other than what the majority do value (John Stuart Mill got confused on this point in Utilitarianism). Thus, the majority may value watching Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, and Survivor (I am appalled to know people with Ph.D.’s who do), yet it is not just snobbery to say that a steady diet of such stuff will make you less happy and well off in the long run. Read a good book, or at least switch over to the Discovery Channel every now and then. A mind is a terrible thing to waste watching meretricious, moronic shit. You really will be happier if you develop your mind instead of lazily letting it deteriorate on a diet of intellectual junk food.

But might we not remake the human function? Indeed, is this not just what Aldous Huxley imagined in Brave New World? By the year A.F. (After Ford) 632, a combination of genetic engineering and operant conditioning has transformed humans into docile, hedonistic, agreeable, conformist, fun-loving creatures who live a life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll and hardly ever cause any problems for the authorities. Even their religion (weekly “solidarity services”) consists of taking drugs and having orgies. All great art and music is, of course, kept strictly hidden, surreptitiously enjoyed only by the World Controllers. Even the alphas, the most intelligent caste of people in BNW, were kept emotionally immature and strongly discouraged from engaging in independent thinking or forming deep emotional attachments (there are no families and total sexual promiscuity is the rule).

Now I was seventeen years old when I first read BNW, and I had a hard time seeing a downside to it. The solidarity services in particular sounded much more interesting than our Sunday services at Alexander Memorial Presbyterian. Now, of course, the way that people live in BNW appalls me, but should it? If, like John the Savage in the novel, I were brought into BNW from outside, would I have any basis for complaint about their way of living? It would horrify me that Shakespeare and Beethoven were unknown. But, hadn’t people been changed so that they could no longer understand or appreciate Shakespeare or Beethoven; great art and music would be confusing or painful for them. People’s capacities had been changed. The human function had been changed. If the human function sets my standard, what right have I to complain or criticize?

Something that John Stuart Mill said that was not confused was that goods differ qualitatively as well as quantitatively. Bentham said “pushpin (bowling) is as good as poetry” if it gives the same amount of pleasure. Mill recognized that poetry might give a kind of pleasure that is so qualitatively different from the form that bowling gives, that it is misleading to try to weigh them in the same quantitative scale. Still, it might be possible to compare them. How? Ask someone who enjoys both bowling and poetry to tell you which one they would sacrifice if they had to give one up. Mill says that the qualitatively superior pleasure is the one genuinely preferred (and not preferred, say, because of an ideological or religious mandate) by one who has had a full experience of both.

At one time in my life I listened to music like Black Sabbath (I did mention that I was once seventeen). I have since listened to Mozart. Having had experience of both, I judge that Mozart is (infinitely) qualitatively superior to Ozzy Osbourne. If you have had experience of the sorts of superficial pleasures of the inhabitants of BNW, and you have also experienced the real depth and meaning, it is not arbitrary to judge that the latter are, objectively, qualitatively superior to the former. The people in BNW are still human and are compelled to lead an emotionally and intellectually stunted life, a life inferior to the one they could have been allowed to live. We can therefore rationally oppose any plans to change human beings so that they are constrained to live in such a stunted state.

What, though, if we discovered a different species, one truly incapable of the sorts of fulfillment and pleasures we find most enriching? Suppose, for instance, we discovered intelligent beings that were naturally adapted to a eusocial lifestyle, like honeybees? Among these eusocial beings, a worker really would experience her greatest fulfillment and well-being in serving the Queen. An ethical naturalist would have to say that many of our values, such as our notions of individualism and autonomy, simply would not and could not be values for such creatures. Would not such beings—entirely reasonably—have a very different set of values and duties? Indeed, the Good for these beings would be different than the Good for humans. For us it is self-fulfillment; for them it is serving the Queen. In short, ethical naturalism seems to imply that values are species-relative. I see no real problems with that.

As for our views of non-human animals on a naturalistic perspective, there is no reason why the well-being of members of other species cannot or should not also be important to us. My cats’ well being is more important to me than the well being of very, very many human beings. Given a choice between saving my cats and saving a lifeboat full of right-wing radio pundits, TV preachers, and Tea Partiers, I’d save the kitties and let the lifeboat of idiots go to the bottom. I would sleep like a baby that night. Indeed, I would argue that an important part of human happiness involves valuing the happiness of at least some kinds of animals.

Note: I will not be posting or commenting on this site for the next couple of weeks. I do appreciate responses, and I will be able to reply when I am communicado again.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02877111630003823406 Jim Thompson

    I was ok with this till he dissed Ozzy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Hi Keith,

    You write: “ Aristotle could only say that they were so adapted by nature; after Darwin we can explain how it happened.

    Darwinism (by which term I shall here mean the naturalistic interpretation of Darwinism, i.e. the idea of unguided natural evolution) can explain the shark’s nature to swim, eat, and make little sharks. It can also explain the human nature to value the good things (which you and I agree are objectively good). But it does not explain what it is that makes these things good. It does not even explain what “good” means. Thus, it seems, if our world is Darwinian then our talk about “good” is nonsensical/non-cognitivist.

    You rightly point out the crucial difference that the shark fulfills its nature automatically, whereas we don’t. But, given the causal closure of the universe which all naturalists affirm, what can possibly be that difference?

    When I listen to knowledgeable naturalists like you, I often get the feeling that, while making a point for naturalism, you speak in a way that only makes sense on theism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    Apropos to all of this, is this discussion at Prosblogion that pulled in some heavy-weights like Alastair Norcross and Wes Morriston. Here they tackle the issue of whether or not objective morality fits with naturalism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10241800889412941036 Ranzabar

    Trying to conclude a interpretation-as-fact of the human condition through the analysis and interrogation of the relationship between theism and philosophy fails because the counterparts are construct of the human mind. Physical nature doesn't know nor care that we are assigning taxonomies to the world we perceive nor does it take into consideration the cleverness of our discourse when the sun eventually expands and absorbs the earth a few billion years from now.

    While entertaining, contemplating Socrates doesn't address the simple fact that I am are here because there are a few quadrillion Higg's Bosons with my name on it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    One of the problems with Aristotelian ethics is its false analogy between humans and other species. A shark is well-suited to doing a handful of things, because its genes keep it on a short leash, as it were, giving it only a few specialities that work in a particular habitat and in a particular arms race. By contrast, humans are on a much longer leash and our skills adapt us to a wide variety of environments. Saying that humans are suited to being rational and that therefore happy, functional humans are rational ones, doesn’t supply the least bit of content to a definition of our function, because a great many contrary actions are equally rational. Sharks do well under water, not so much on land.
    Rational creatures do well in the ocean, on land, in the arctic, in the jungle, in the desert, in the mountains, in big cities, in small towns, and even in outer space. How so? Because rational creatures have highly plastic brains that can model a wide variety of situations and thus figure things out and build technologies that make those creatures highly flexible.

    Adding that happy, functional humans are those who live with fellow humans in a political society doesn’t help, because humans are good at living also on their own or in many types of society. Again, the problem is the disanalogy. Sharks are controlled by their genes and are thus adapted to a relatively narrow, well-defined life, whereas we have much more self-control and thus adapt ourselves to a wide variety of settings and situations.

    Who is to say that humans live better in societies than on our own? What if our social instinct were to cause us to be nationalistic, and nationalism in turn were to cause wars that may one day render us extinct? Would it still be true that happy, flourishing humans are social rather than introverted loners, even were the extroverts unintentionally contributing to everyone’s demise?

    Aristotle might say that nationalism is irrational since it’s an extreme. The rational way to be social is to love one’s society but not too much. How much is too much? Well, Aristotelians say it’s very hard to know how a virtuous person would behave, since the right balance must be struck in a context, taking into account many factors. The only way to know whether national, militaristic pride is a vice or a virtue is to see whether the ethical leaders of a community have that pride. And who decides who those leaders are? Does the will of the majority rule?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    For example, were the ethical leaders of the US under Bush the neoconservatives, who certainly had that pride, or the liberal critics who marched against the Bush regime? The neocons certainly flourished: not only did they get to the White House, but most of their policies have been reaffirmed by Obama’s regime, to the dismay of Obama’s progressive voters. So it looks like in American society, nationalistic pride is a virtue, which means liberal critics of Bush not only owe the neocons an apology, as Glen Greenwald says, but their failure to get caught up with the gut-based hype for the American war machine indicated their defective, vicious (sickly, as Nietzsche would say) personality type.

    A different kind of society, though, will have its own ethical heroes and thus its own standards. Pacifist societies will praise peace-lovers and will regard national pride as a dangerous eccentricity. But the problem here isn’t just relativism. It’s that it’s dubious to try to restrict what humans excel at doing. Again, the problem isn’t just that many humans fail to hit the mark; it’s that there are many marks because our main skill is to create targets for ourselves, and whether an activity counts as a standard isn’t an empirical matter, but is itself up for debate. Societies will disagree about how rational, social creatures should behave, and each society will point to its own virtuous heroes as exemplars. Is our function, then, finally, to trust arbitrarily in a particular community’s standards? But many people excel at dropping out of their community, lacking any such faith, sometimes even overcoming much training. Again, their rationality puts them on that long a leash to natural forces. So Aristotle’s concept of human function seems vacuous.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said…

    "…just like other organisms, nature endows the human creature with potentialities which, when fully actualized, permit that creature to fulfill a particular set of functions in an optimal manner."

    and:

    "Happiness, eudaimonia, is defined not in terms of what people actually do, but in terms of what they are distinctively suited to do, that is, to live lives of intellectual and moral excellence."
    =============

    comments:

    1. Talk of "nature endows the human creature with…" strikes me as similar to "God endows human creatures with…" Nature is being given the role of benefactor. But perhaps mother nature is not so loving and kind. Perhaps we should say, instead, that "nature has cursed the human creature with…"

    2. Another analogy with the idea of divine purposes for human beings (that bothers me) is the arbitrariness at the heart of the matter. God's commands create morality, according to some theists. But then if God had commanded that we torture children for the fun of doing so, then it would be our moral duty to torture children for the fun of doing so.

    Doesn't putting the mindless, thoughtless, random 'actions' of nature at the foundation of morality result in the same sort of arbitrariness? If nature had made me so that I was best suited to constuct thermo-nuclear weapons and spread death, misery, and destruction throughout the universe, would this be a good reason for me to live my life with this 'function' or 'potentiality' as my primary motivation?

    Perhaps nature has in fact made me so that I am best suited to be a kind, considerate, and rational person, but since there is no thought or plan or purpose behind the way nature has constructed me, things might well have been different, and I might just as easily been constructed to be best suited as a thermo-nuclear god who finds fullfilment in bringing death, destruction, and misery to the universe.

    3. Why should I be moral? or why should I be ethical, if being ethical means following a path that was layed out by the unthinking, unknowing, unpurposeful activities of nature? With divine command theory, I can at least take some comfort in the idea that the path layed out for me had some thought or purpose to it, deriving from an intelligent person.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    "Why should I be moral? or why should I be ethical, if being ethical means following a path that was layed out by the unthinking, unknowing, unpurposeful activities of nature?"

    But those blind 'paths' don't always leave you a choice, do they? If you are moral 'by nature,' and violate that nature by being immoral, you not only risk societal (or external) punishment, but you are almost certain to punish yourself internally with guilt and/or other types of moral suffering. Perhaps "nature' has taken away some or all of your free will in this regard.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said…
    "The upshot, then, is that the standard for Aristotle is the human function—what nature has suited us to do, not “human nature”—what people in fact tend spontaneously to do. Happiness, eudaimonia, is defined not in terms of what people actually do, but in terms of what they are distinctively suited to do, that is, to live lives of intellectual and moral excellence."
    ==========
    comments:

    Let me see if I understand this correctly. Morality ("moral excellence") is grounded in human excellence. The primary objective is to 'Be the best that you can be', and morality is derived as a subset of the implications of this primary objective.

    In otherwords, the RIGHT is based on the GOOD. What makes morality worthy of my attention and effort is its connection to and support for my becoming a GOOD human being, the best that I can be. Being moral is a part of what is involved in the project of becoming the best that I can be.

    This would seem to rule out the claim that it is my moral duty to become the best that I can be, since moral duties are logically derived from the objective of becoming the best that I can be.

    I suppose that means that Aristotle was attempting to reduce morality to rationality, or to ground morality in rationality, where rationality is conceived of as implying the persuit of the GOOD. This avoids the problem of circularity, at least in terms of the immediate justification of morality.

    Do I have this right, so far?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Chris said…

    "But those blind 'paths' don't always leave you a choice, do they? If you are moral 'by nature,' and violate that nature by being immoral, you not only risk societal (or external) punishment, but you are almost certain to punish yourself internally with guilt and/or other types of moral suffering. Perhaps "nature' has taken away some or all of your free will in this regard."

    Response:

    I agree. I would prefer not to be punished, or to suffer feelings of guilt, other things being equal.

    But if nature had constructed me and my world so that being honest, kind, fair, and considerate of others would lead me to be punished and/or to feel guilty, should I then blindly follow nature and be dishonest, cruel, unfair, and selfish?

    Furthermore, many people would justify dishonesty, cruelty, unfairness, and selfishness by claiming that this is a 'hard, cruel world' in which we are subject to danger and suffering by naively adopting the virtues of honesty, kindness, and justice.

    There is certainly a degree of truth in this claim. Nice guys do often finish last, and evil people do often prosper. The rules of morality appear to be applied by societies in an even more biased and inconsistent way than are the laws of a society.

    If justice and kindness are not their own reward, then the rewards of society might better be obtained by ignoring the demands of justice and kindness.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    More on the 'hard, cruel world' idea…

    Recall that both Socrates and Jesus were put to death by their societies. Honesty and justice did not lead to societal rewards in those cases.

    I have a contemporary example to add to the mix. The other day I and a fellow liberal Democrat were complaining about our disappointment with Obama, and
    his failure to implement truly liberal policies.

    I then commented, in partial
    justification of Obama, that "You do realize that if Obama actually put in place the sort of policies that we believe to be good and just, that he would be dead within a matter of weeks or days.

    "If Obama could somehow cut the defense budget in half and increase taxes on rich people and large corporations and re-directed that towards re-building American infrastructure, and towards decent health care and jobs programs
    for the poor and unemployed, and towards bailout of people facing foreclosure on their homes, and towards promoting quality education for all Americans, someone would put a bullet through his head before any of these policies could actually be implemented."

    Justice and kindness are often punished rather than rewarded.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    Bradley,

    What you say is true – I look at it as another sign we live in a naturalistic world, and that there is no objective morality. The fact that justice and kindness often go unrewarded or, at times, are even punished follows. They are still enough of a reward both socially and to those individuals who are ‘aligned’ that way to continue being advocated by enough people (though barely, at times). Socrates and Jesus are aberrations, and our prisons are full of non-flourishing evil people (and some innocent ones as well).

    As to philosophical moral justification, well, I can’t offer anything there. It’s too complex of a subject. But I think there’s a certain ‘protection’ built into our morality by natural/cultural selection. There seems to be a very common moral structure to humanity, at least according to psychological studies (although I suppose a theist would say that God is the reason for that). So I don’t think the ‘everything is permitted’ objection to naturalistic or non-objective morality is a realistic one. Few people will rush out to rape and pillage if they are suddenly unable to justify their moral beliefs.

    Psychopaths, of course, are immune to morality either way – BTK was a prominent member of his church. William Lane Craig (not a psychopath, of course) justifies both objective morality and God’s Old Testament atrocities (I have always thought that theists must inevitably be forced into divine command theory, whether they like it or not).

    And then there is the ongoing trouble in the Catholic church, so so-called objective morality doesn’t seem to be any more effective than any other kind – though perhaps that’s too glib, and adding a ‘divine’ or ‘objective’ quality does somehow strengthen morality for some/many people – I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some effect.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Chris said…

    "As to philosophical moral justification, well, I can’t offer anything there. It’s too complex of a subject. But I think there’s a certain ‘protection’ built into our morality by natural/cultural selection. …So I don’t think the ‘everything is permitted’ objection to naturalistic or non-objective morality is a realistic one. Few people will rush out to rape and pillage if they are suddenly unable to justify their moral beliefs."
    ==============
    Response:
    I agree that we are not in danger of immediate moral chaos in the face of the absence of a solid philosophical justification of morality.

    However, how well a philosophy or worldview accounts for morality and sheds light on the nature of moral judgments does seem to be an important criteria for judging the merits of that philosophy or worldview.

    If Aristotelian Ethics is the best that naturalism has to offer in this area, then it seems no better than theism, at least in terms of that specific criterion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    "However, how well a philosophy or worldview accounts for morality and sheds light on the nature of moral judgments does seem to be an important criteria for judging the merits of that philosophy or worldview."

    I'm not sure how you mean 'accounts for' there. Accounts for their (historical) origin? Then I think naturalism is clearly superior through the use of ethology, evolutionary theory, psychological studies, etc., which do shed at least some light on the nature of moral judgments. If you mean justifies or determines what is truly right and what is truly wrong in some 'objective' sense, then I agree that naturalism is no better than theism.


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