Naturalism and Norms (Postscript)

Philip K asks some very probing and incisive questions about ethical naturalism (EN) in his comment on my post “Naturalism and Norms.” These questions raise issues too large and too important to be addressed in the very limited space of a comment box, so I am making a new post.

He puts two questions to the ethical naturalist:
Here are two questions, then. First, is it an empirical discovery that the members of each species have a natural purpose, a proper endpoint? Second, is the ethical naturalist who rejects Aristotle’s teleology bereft of a rationale for speaking of ultimate, bedrock value and thus of the value of happiness which is the source of norms and of morally right actions?
The first question is an epistemological one: How do we identify the telos of an organism? Are there rigorous biological criteria, or is telos-talk inevitably speculative? In particular, we might add, even if we can identify the telos of a shark, isn’t a human a vastly more complex kind of being, with vastly greater plasticity of behavior than a shark’s, and doesn’t this make it much harder to specify a human telos? The second question is an ethical (or meta-ethical) one: Even if we can identify the nature of human flourishing with sufficient precision and clarity, don’t we still have to ask whether such flourishing is right? After all, and most obviously, has not human flourishing clashed, to the point of extinction, with the flourishing of other species (the dodo, the great auk, Steller’s sea cow, the passenger pigeon, etc.)? Is it not (as Peter Singer argues) mere speciesism automatically to favor the human good over the good of other species? Maybe, as deep ecologists argue, it is the flourishing of an ecosystem that should be the standard of goodness, not the flourishing of a single species, even the human species. Without a deeper grounding for our judgment, a metaphysical grounding, says Philip K, what basis is there for saying that the goals in fact identified with the human telos are right? (Philip K: I hope I have expressed your claims and queries accurately. I very much do not want to set up a straw man. Please set me right if I’ve missed your meaning).
These are very good questions and need to be addressed by every ethical naturalist. First, what are the criteria for identifying an organism’s telos? Indeed, the very term is alien to contemporary biology, however important it was for Aristotle’s natural philosophy. Are ethical naturalists wedded to a pre-modern biology? As sciences progress, some terms become outdated and are replaced by new ones. For instance, Mendel’s “factors” have been replaced by the modern geneticist’s term “gene.” Yet, with some of the old scientific terms, we can still identify their referents using contemporary vocabulary (such is the case with Mendel’s “factors;” see Lindley Darden’s Theory Change in Science, OUP, 1991). Likewise, with Aristotelian telos; biologists no longer use the term, but we can see what he was getting at and see that the term picks out something real and important about organisms. We may, for instance, employ the vocabulary of contemporary biology to cash out Aristotle’s meaning, but, really, for the purposes of philosophical discussion, it is not necessary to get too technical. What Aristotle was talking about is not something arcane or unfamiliar.
Take the mosquito. Living as I do in a Southeast Texas swamp, I confess that it is very hard for me to admire a mosquito. Still, when you consider what a mosquito is designed (“designed” by the blind watchmaker, natural selection) to do and how it does it, you have to (very grudgingly) admire its efficiency. Mosquitoes live by extracting the blood of endothermic creatures (like you and me). To accomplish this, they fly quite rapidly and silently; they accurately detect the copious carbon dioxide we endotherms exhale, and they zero in on us by detecting body heat. They extract blood quickly and painlessly and so are generally gone by the time our allergic reaction starts the maddening itching reaction to the anticoagulant they inject. Further, they reproduce like crazy, even in a hundred year drought, as I found out when I ventured out in shorts a couple of nights ago. I don’t think we are saying anything mysterious or in dire need of clarification when we say that mosquitoes flourish in Southeast Texas.
In general, Aristotle’s teleological talk takes note of facts that have been commonplace for naturalists all along. Different kinds of organisms have different ways of meeting the challenges of their environment, e.g., some are top predators and others are bottom feeders. Further, organisms possess phenotypic features that are organized to adapt them for given lifestyles in a given environment. Had cheetahs gone extinct in the Pleistocene and currently were found only in fossil form, any paleontologist would immediately recognize by its bodily proportions that it was a creature designed for speed, designed to make its living by chasing down and subduing the swiftest prey. We see, then, that in addition to adaptations that they share with other creatures, organisms possess distinctive adaptations, perhaps unique to their kind, that equip them to do the characteristic things they do and to do them well.
Ethical naturalists ask: “What are humans distinctively adapted to do? Of course, we share many adaptations with other animals since we have to meet many of the same environmental challenges they do, but are there any natural capacities that stand out in humans, and signify that we are particularly well adapted to live in certain distinctive and characteristic ways?” Conversely, can we identify a certain lifestyle that humans seem particularly, indeed uniquely, well-adapted to live? Aristotle held that we can. Humans are particularly well adapted to live the life of a rational creature in society with other rational creatures, so he identifies this as the human telos. Aristotle says that the human is a political animal, and he adds trenchantly that only a beast or a god can live successfully outside of society. Perhaps he overstates the case. There have been those who chose to live as hermits, but, sifting out those who shun human society due to mental illness, religious fanaticism (like St. Anthony), or who have suffered some dire personal trauma, it is amazing how few voluntary, permanent hermits there are. It is hardly surprising that solitary confinement is a severe punishment, and that those subjected to such confinement for long periods will often become psychotic. We are social creatures.
As for rationality, Aristotle says that this consists of two distinct capacities—the ability to think rationally and the ability to adapt our behavior according to rational rules. We use both of these capacities when we engage in the distinctively human activity of deliberation. We consider, alone or in conversation with others, the best means of achieving our goals, and we adopt the plan that promises to work best. Skill at deliberation is called phronesis, practical reasoning, by Aristotle.
It is remarkable how broadly Aristotle characterizes the human telos. He certainly does not play the role of current evolutionary psychologists who try to explicate the details of social behavior in evolutionary terms. Aristotle’s claim does not require detailed defense, like Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate, against proponents of the tabula rasa view. True, if human nature were completely plastic and malleable, so that the social engineer’s dream is fully realizable, then there could be no ethical naturalism. Surely, though, it is pretty uncontroversial to say that humans are naturally social and have a unique capacity for basing their behavior on the outcome of rational deliberation. To deny even this minimal natural endowment for humans would seem to be an extreme view that would require a heavy burden of proof.
What is the practical value of identifying the human telos? Aristotle does not identify that telos and then deduce the nature of happiness from that. On the contrary, he begins with common notions of well-being or flourishing (eudaimonia) and observes, correctly, that humans do best when they actualize, to the fullest extent that they are capable, those distinctive human capacities for rational and social living. Further, there are particular virtues or excellences, habitual ways of acting, that constitute the ways of maximally actualizing those potentials. In short, people are happiest when they exercise the intellectual and moral virtues and so excel at living the life of a rational, social animal. This is an empirical discovery about human beings.
What, though, is so great about human happiness? Doesn’t human flourishing, as we have noted, often interfere with the flourishing of other living creatures? A more basic philosophical point is this: Doesn’t the ethical naturalist have the responsibility to show that what is is right? Supposing that ethical naturalists have, in fact, identified the nature of human flourishing, and, indeed, shown that it is something which rational humans do value, is there not the more basic and inescapable duty of showing that such a state should be valued?
Despite the seeming urgency of this last question, I do not see that eudaimonia needs or can have a deeper justification. What would such a putative justification look like? Philip K mentions a metaphysical grounding, but any attempted metaphysical grounding would seem to try to rest ethics upon metaphysical facts rather than (as with EN) physical facts, and it is just not clear how metaphysical facts could do this job any better than physical ones. Is goodness, for instance, grounded in the nature of God? What makes God’s nature good? To say that God’s nature is “essentially” or “by definition” good is merely to make a comment de dicto; we would not call a being “God” who was not of a perfectly good nature. Such statements tell us nothing about what really constitutes the goodness of God’s nature.
Any system of ethics that identifies a summum bonum will be unable to give a straightforward answer to the question “What makes that good?” Obviously, you cannot invoke an even higher good to justify your highest good. You can support the plausibility of your choice of the summum bonum indirectly by showing that it accords with our usual ethical intuitions and judgments and by showing that competing accounts are implausible. I think EN could be defended in this indirect way at least as effectively as any other ethical view.
(Philip K: I notice that you take up these issues in your long exchange with Dianelos, so I will just let it drop.)
What about other organisms? What is their place in EN? Wasn’t Aristotle a speciesist? Actually, he and every other ethicist up to Jeremy Bentham, undoubtedly were. For Aristotle, ethics was a human concern. The idea that non-human animals are part of our moral community would have seemed bizarre to him. I think one of the great achievements of the growth of the science of ecology over the last forty or fifty years has been to demonstrate that the human good is inseparable from the good of other species and the health of ecosystems in general. Aristotle was right, so far as he went, but now we see that the human good must be conjoined with, or even subsumed under, a broader, more inclusive good. I, personally, would go even further. I think that E.O. Wilson’s beautiful book Biophilia indicates that we have a natural, deep, even spiritual connection to the other creatures with which we share this planet. A world without tigers or butterflies would be immensely poorer for human beings.
What about the inevitable conflicts between species? Darwin, when he played the role of Devil’s chaplain, would recount the gruesome, horrifying aspects of nature, like the ichneumon wasp that paralyzes but does not kill its prey, a fat caterpillar, and deposits its eggs in the body of the victim. The wasp larvae hatch and slowly devour the living caterpillar from the inside, saving the vital organs for last, so that the meat stays fresh as long as possible. Doesn’t ichneumon flourish at the expense of the caterpillar? Do we want the ebola or rabies viruses to flourish?
There are, of course, conflicts even within the human species such that the flourishing of some must be impaired to permit the greater flourishing of others. For instance, local communities are economically harmed and some people lose their livelihoods when the government closes a military base. Yet, closing the base may be a budgetary necessity that serves the good of the population as a whole. When such conflicts arise, it we decide what to do on the basis of utilitarian standards. The same sorts of standards could apply in adjudicating conflicts between species. Is the survival of the snail darter more important than the benefits of a new hydroelectric dam? Well, we have to ask how preserving endangered species will benefit all creatures involved (including ourselves) and honestly weigh that in the balance against development.
In sum, I think that EN faces the same sorts of challenges as any other theory of ethics, and has the resources to address those challenges at least as effectively.

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About Keith Parsons

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