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.

About Keith Parsons
  • Juno Walker

    "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."

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. But a couple of comments:

    With regard to a species' telos (and specifically with regard to a human telos): a species adapts (or not) to its ever-changing environment – obviously some environments change frequently and rapidly, while some change occasionally and slowly, as well as everything in between – so a species' telos will be a moving target, so to speak, if it can even be said that a species has a telos.

    Whether it's the flourishing of an ecosystem (deep ecologists like Peter Singer), a species (Aristotle, Protagoras, A. Pope), or an individual human (Nietzsche), the common theme is that THERE IS a fact/value distinction, THERE IS NO ultimate meaning or purpose in the universe – so each normative/ethical/moral system must vie for supremacy in the infamous 'marketplace of ideas,' and each evangelist of an idiosyncratic system must present the best reasons/evidence/arguments/rhetoric he can muster in order to convince others of the veracity and/or efficacy of his system.


  • Keith Parsons


    Excellent point! Aristotle, of course, took the world as essentially static and thought that the current economy of nature was permanent. We know now, of course, that it is not. Still, for practical purposes, there is sufficient stability in the nature of the human organism that we, for instance, still live in the same moral universe as Job and Aeschylus. That is why we can continue to read such works for our own immense edification.

  • Philip K

    Keith P,

    Thanks very much for the detailed response. The historical question of how Aristotle argued isn’t that important to me, but I think some clarifications are needed. When I asked about whether the values of a post-Darwin Artistotelian have or need metaphysical grounding, I meant to contrast those values with Aristotle’s, which were so grounded in the notion of a telos. You say we can “employ the vocabulary of contemporary biology to cash out Aristotle’s meaning,” but I don’t think that’s so, the efforts of some naturalistic philosophers, like Ruth Millikan’s, notwithstanding. I grant, of course, the Darwinian’s concept of adaptation (biological function), with the understanding that an adaptation isn’t at all normative. This is very tricky, though, because our artifacts tend to have functions and also to have been designed with some good in mind, and before Darwin biological functions were understood theistically in terms of an analogy between animals and artifacts: God designed creatures with functions because he highly values the creatures and wants them to achieve some goals. Darwin showed how we can keep the notion of a biological function, by understanding it as a natural adaptation, but the cost is that norms are stripped from biology, and the analogy between biological traits and intelligently designed ones is no longer thought to hold except at the most superficial level.

    This becomes even trickier when we equivocate on the phrase “doing well.” Thus, you say that a naturally selected adaptation is a characteristic sort of behaviour that an animal is designed to engage in and to engage in “well.” But Aristotle’s normative question of how humans should live is also interpreted as one about how we can “live well.” There are, though, two senses of “well” that need to be distinguished. A mosquito sucks blood well, but not in any normative sense–at least, not on Darwin’s, as opposed to Aristotle’s picture. A mosquito is efficient at sucking blood and has inherited the ability to do so, but the mosquito isn’t actually serving any objective good by performing its adapted behaviour. There is no magnetic Force for Good in the sky, in Darwinian biology, and that’s why naturally selected efficiencies must always be understood ironically, as merely apparent means without objective ends. When a mosquito does well, then, “well” must be put in scare quotes. A happy life, however, for moral realists who think moral questions are objective, is a non-ironic kind of wellness, not just an efficient tailoring of apparent means to a pseudo end, but a fulfillment of an objective, real good.

    Now, a telos is not a Darwinian adaptation. In Physics, Aristotle explains that a telos (purpose) isn’t just the possibly coincidental end of a process, but is necessarily a good . Thus, for Aristotle, a telos is already normative, prior to any consideration of how people think about happiness, and he has a complex metaphysical theory of final causes, relying ultimately on the peculiar idea of a magnetic Star Wars Force as the ultimate good. A Darwinian has no such theory, so can the Darwinian help herself to Aristotelian ethics?

  • Philip K

    You say that “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” fulfill their function. Can a Darwinian ethicist proceed in the same way? Aristotle didn’t begin by citing popular notions of happiness to see whether we have any such good in the first place. On the contrary, his teleology implies that we have a normative, metaphysically grounded final cause, and the remaining questions are just whether we have an ultimate one and what in particular that ultimate one might be. He critiques popular notions of happiness to arrive at his own answers to those two questions, but the meta-ethical question of whether we have any objective good in the first place is answered at the metaphysical level, with his teleological arguments.

    I’m assuming that a Darwinian ethicist can’t make use of that teleology, so what replaces it? Here are the empirical premises a Darwinian can use: Humans generally want to be happy; we’re naturally selected (adapted) to think and to be social; thinking socially is perhaps the most efficient way of being happy. Now, no normative conclusion follows from those premises. Once again, like mosquitoes, we may be ironically tailored to achieve a good that doesn’t exist. Oh, happiness may exist, but its objective goodness may not. And there’s no argument here backing up the prescription to be happy. Saying that because most people want to be happy, they should be so is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. You can say happiness is an axiomatic good, but the Underground Man shows that this isn’t self-evident; moreover, without teleology, you lose Aristotle’s assumption that of course we have an objective, natural good (such as happiness), because every natural kind has a (normatively understood) telos. It’s true, as Aristotle says, that a highest good isn’t done for any other good, but that doesn’t mean there can be no argument in favour of there being such a good. Aristotle argues for our all having an objective good in the first place, with his teleological concept of a final cause. A Darwinian lacks that argument and must replace it without blatantly committing the naturalistic fallacy. (Alternatively, you can argue there’s no such fallacy, and blur the line between facts and values.) The argument can be indirect, as you say, but it’s got to connect facts with values, without teleology and without ignoring Hume on facts and values. A tall order, and one that Sam Harris, for example, has failed to take down.

    So I think a Darwinian Aristotelian has a *unique* set of problems that derives from the attempt to disentangle Aristotle’s ethics from his metaphysics.

  • Philip K

    Keith P,

    Finally, you raise the problem of whether humans should respect other animals. This isn’t quite the problem I meant to raise when I compared humans to viruses. I grant that as a managerial matter, we may have to care for other species to be happy ourselves. And again, as you say, we may be able to manage inevitable conflicts between species, calculating the necessary sacrifices for the greater good. But my point was meant to be deeper. Aristotle looked at every species, saw that it has a function, and identified the endpoint of carrying out the function as a good. Thus, he connected functionalism and teleology, and he interpreted the telos optimistically. Schopenhauer, by contrast, saw the ultimate, value-laden end point, the Will, as a great evil. And so we can distinguish between optimistic and pessimistic teleology. Those are extremes, but they get at my point, which is that an optimistic interpretation of our particular function (social rationality) isn’t obviously warranted. It’s no good saying there are conflicts between all species, because humans are clearly unique in terms of our control over other species. I think a Darwinian Aristotelian needs an argument for her *optimistic* interpretation of our function. It’s one thing to say we’re good at being rational; it’s quite another to say that being rational is good. More specifically, it’s one thing to say that humans are happy when we flourish, carrying out our natural functions. It’s quite another to say that happiness is an objective good, that we ought to be happy because our flourishing serves a natural good.

  • Keith Parsons

    Philip K,

    Thanks much, again, for the very thougthful response, and I hope I can respond in similar detail again soon. I am a bit busy right now with summer term about to begin. In the meantime, I hope you do not mind if I draw your attention to the terrific book by Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right (SUNY Press, 1998), where he argues that Darwinian biology supports an Aristotelian ethic. Thanks once again.

  • Philip K

    Keith P,

    I’ll look for your response.

    Judging just from the Amazon and Secular Web reviews, it seems that Arnhart identifies the good with the desirable, deriving ethical norms from natural, universal, biological desires. So what would Arnhart’s premises be that license any prescriptive conclusion? There seems to be a pragmatic move: to achieve our desires, we need rules or conventions and so we have hypothetical imperatives. I didn’t get into this in my last response, but I’d argue that hypothetical imperatives are equivalent to descriptions, not to prescriptions. Thus, if a Darwinian or an Aristotelian theory ends up only with hypothetical, pragmatic imperatives about the “best” way of achieving desires, the theorist doesn’t yet have a theory with ethical implications about how we (merely) ought to act.

    Does Arnhart say something like, “If you have an instinct for raising a family, then you ought to respect other people’s similar instincts, since following some such rule is the most efficient way of satisfying your instinct”? If so, he’s not yet prescribing the instinct or even the rule. Suppose you have the instinct to raise a family and you agree that the most efficient way of achieving that desire is to respect other people’s similar desires. And suppose you violate the rule and harm someone else’s family. In so far as the rule is part of a hypothetical imperative, the harming violates only norms of instrumental rationality, not ethical norms. The violator would either miscalculate the probabilities of different means of achieving her goal or else ignore her rationality altogether and act out of some nonrational capacity (the brain is, after all, modular). I just don’t see the relevance of such failings to ethics.

    Arnhart seems to share Aristotle’s optimism, as though it were self-evident that natural selection produces goods rather than evils or indeed rather than morally neutral traits, like reason or instincts. Suppose we were living in the worst of all natural worlds, like Schopenhauer’s. Natural selection would design organisms that are efficient in achieving evil ends. They’d have natural desires, and those desires would have negative rather than positive ethical value. Why believe we’re living in the optimist’s rather than in the pessimist’s world?

  • Dianelos Georgoudis


    Conway’s game of life is a cellular automaton which can be used as an analogy of a mechanistic universe. Now in that automaton there are so-called gliders, i.e. simple configurations that remain stable and move in a straight line. Would it make sense to say that a glider’s telos is to remain stable and move in a straight line? I don’t think so. The concept of telos entails proper function, and proper function cannot be naturalized (or at least to my knowledge nobody has found a way to do so).

    One could argue that the game of life automaton is too simple for us to derive from it any knowledge about reality. But, as it happens, it has been proven that the game of life can be used as a universal Turing machine. Assume that our physical universe is deterministic. Then there is game of life initial configuration that is one-to-one equivalent to the history of our universe. If there is telos in our universe then there should be telos in that game of life automaton too. But how can that be? Indeed how can particular regions in that cellular automaton be “good” and others be “bad”?

  • Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons wrote:
    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….
    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.
    Given that humans evolved from non-human animals, aren’t we simply adapted to survive and procreate, to pass on our genes to the next generation of human animals? There is nothing ‘distinctive’ about this goal or telos, it is just the same goal that is imposed on all species of plants and animals.

    Although I might agree that the continuation of the human species is a good thing, I don’t see why I should make the goal or telos of evolution into my own personal objective. If the survival of the human species depended on me becoming a ruthless murderer (as in Nazi ideology), might not it be reasonable for me to decline to make the objective of the survival of my species the highest or most ultimate goal of my life? Might I not reasonably choose to be a decent, kind, and considerate person even at the cost of the ultimate survival of my species?

    Also, why should we look to what is distinctively human? Why is what is distinctive about us any more important than what we have in common with other species of animals?

    I can imagine a different world in which all animals were rational (imagine the famous bar scene from Star Wars or just about any scene from the Narnia movies). In such a world, rationality would NOT be distinctive of the human species. But that means that in such a world, what Aristotle considered to be most important about humans would be insignificant, if the world had contained different sorts of animals than it happens to currently contain. Why should what is most important and essential to morality be grounded in such a random and contingent fact, in a circumstance that might easily have been otherwise?

    I suspect that what is distinctive is what Aristotle focused on because doing so would yield the answer that he already had in mind: rationality. If rationality had not been distinctively human, I suspect that Aristotle would have looked for some other way to justify the conclusion that rationality is what is most important for humans.