Son of Naturalism and Norms

First, apologies if I am boring the hell out of everyone but a few of us fanatics with yet another sequel on naturalism and norms. It is just that I think the issues are very important, and I have gotten such terrific feedback on these points, that I am going to post a couple more replies to Philip K. and Dianelos.

Philip K,
Your commentary raises a good many deep issues, so many that pursuing them all would take us far afield and far exceed the space we have to address matters here. I think that the essential point that divides us is still the one about how we are to move from fact to value. How do we move from “doing well” in the sense of efficiency, as a mosquito is adapted to suck blood with efficiency, to a notion of “doing well” that has normative significance, indeed, that can serve as the summum bonum grounding our ethical norms. Let’s suppose that there are objective biological (encompassing psychological) criteria for the identification of the conditions that constitute human flourishing or well-being (eudaimonia). Suppose that that we discover that humans have distinctive and highly developed natural capacities that include a capacity for living a social life with other human beings and also include a capacity for rational behavior, behavior based not upon instinct or impulse, but upon a process of rational deliberation. Suppose further that, employing intuitive, non-tendentious notions of happiness, we observe that (given a modicum of physical and material well-being) the happiest people are those who most fully actualize their potentials for social and rational living. Since the moral and intellectual virtues are the habitual behaviors that are most conducive to actualizing those potentials, we note that the virtuous are the happiest. Conversely, those who do not interact successfully with others or who permit their rational faculties to decay will experience frustration, failure, loss, alienation, and meaninglessness.
OK, supposing all of this (and, of course, these suppositions might be challenged), we are still left with a seemingly glaring problem. As you state so trenchantly, just because humans are good at being rational, this does not entail that rationality is good. On what basis do we identify what humans are good at as being normatively good any more than what mosquitoes are good at? Yes, humans may experience happiness when doing what they are naturally good at, but why is this more morally significant than the sense of satisfaction a sentient mosquito would have at sucking your blood?
As compelling as many philosophers consider these questions to be, they rest upon assumptions that naturalists reject. Most fundamentally, naturalists reject the dichotomy between fact and value. It is a biological fact that certain states, conditions, and ways of living are valuable for human beings in that those things promote the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of humans, which well-being constitutes the ultimate, intrinsic value for humans. As the naturalist sees it, to admit this but then demand “OK, but why should we desire the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of humans?” is to ask a question that is pointless if not meaningless. What is the sense of this “should?” “Should” in the sense that every rational being qua rational is bound to respect it? But naturalists reject such categorical imperatives. “Should” in the sense that it is dictated by a moral imperative that rests upon something deeper and more valuable than human well-being? What could that be? The will of God, perhaps? But if God does not value our well-being (at least in the long run), on what grounds would we consider him good? This is why the doctrine of an eternal, punitive hell has always been such a stumbling block. A God who condemns much if not most of the human race to eternal torment is certainly not, prima face, a being worthy of being considered good.
There is indeed a sense in which the naturalist can say that you should value human well-being. You should value it because that is what is objectively valuable. However, the “should” here is not really distinct from an instrumental or prudential sense of “should.” If someone wants to know what they should value in order to be happy, then you can tell them that they should value those things that will really give them happiness, not just the illusion of happiness. Prescriptions are a particular form of descriptions: Doing this will make you happy; doing that will not. The moralist’s orders are like doctor’s orders. Thus, you can admonish your 17-year-old not to value a life of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, because such a lifestyle, though titillating in the short term, is not conducive to long-term happiness. In general, for naturalists, there is, and can be, no in-principle distinction between moral and instrumental or prudential goods. Why do the right thing (e.g., abstain from stealing, cheating, lying, etc.)? Because you want to be happy and people who base their lives on theft, deception, and falsehood will not be happy people.*
The consequence, as I noted in an earlier post, is that the naturalist has nothing to say to someone like the Underground Man who honestly does not value human happiness, not even his own. If someone seriously asks me “Why should I value happiness?” I would be tempted to offer a flip answer: “Well, gee, why don’t you try misery for a while?” If someone asks “What is so great about rationality?” likewise I could say “Practice irrationality for a while and see what it gets you!” If the Underground Man replies “I have tried misery that is what I want!” The only answer I could give is “OK. You are welcome to it. Just don’t try to spread any of that misery to me, or I will make you miserable in ways you won’t want!” When people have cut themselves off from rational persuasion, threats must suffice. Further, the Underground Man’s repudiation of happiness is no evidence at all against the naturalist’s identification of the highest good with well-being, no more than a crackpot’s refusal to be reasonable is a rebuttal of logic. Intentional perversity is something that no system of ethics can address.
*One of my favorite scenes in any movie is the very instructive one at the end of The Godfather, Part II, where Al Pacino as Michael Corleone is shown sitting all alone at Christmas, recalling a Christmas of many years before. Most of the friends and family in his recollection are either dead, several killed by him, or will no longer speak to him because they hate or fear him. A life of plots, murder, and lies has gotten him wealth, power, and utter misery. He has it all and he has nothing. At a much lower artistic level, consider the women in Sex and the City (I am basing this judgment on the two or three episodes I ever watched). They have beauty, intelligence, education, wealth, and a degree of freedom that hardly any women throughout history have enjoyed. Yet they are utterly miserable? Why? Because they are nincompoops. They consistently make irrational, selfish, self-deluded decisions and are then astonished and appalled when things turn out the way they always do. Aristotle would fully agree: Crime does not pay, and neither does stupidity.
The questions about Conway’s “Life” and proper function are interesting issues, but are red herrings here that would deflect discussion onto tangential topics. If the notion of telos is the stumbling block, we can do without it. Larry Arnhart, in the book I mentioned earlier, Darwinian Natural Right notes that there are a number of natural desires, common to people across cultures and through history. When these desires are not satisfied people are unhappy and their lives are truncated in a number of ways. When these desires are fulfilled, humans flourish. Alternatively, we may speak of human ecology as Owen Flanagan does in The Problem of the Soul. These are two leading accounts of ethical naturalism, and neither one appeals to the concept of the human telos. I talk about it because I think that Aristotle was on to something. I am not an Aristotelian fundamentalist; I just think that he was a close to right on ethical and political issues as anyone could be 2350 years ago. I also think that a post-Darwinian can accept that when Aristotle talked about the human function, he was talking about something important and real. Humans are supremely, I would say uniquely, well adapted to live the lives of social and rational creatures. Further, humans are happy when their social interactions are successful and their decisions are based on evidence and sound reasoning. Conversely, they are miserable when they are social failures, e.g., nobody likes them (think what a happy camper John Edwards must be these days), and when they have to live with the consequences of irrational decisions. Aristotle may have meant a lot more in talking about eudaimonia and the human telos, but I think what he said at least encompasses what I summarize in the previous three sentences, which I think are true and important.

About Keith Parsons
  • Philip K

    Keith P,

    Thanks again for your response. I too am very interested in these issues, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to think them through with you. You’ve certainly laid your cards on the table. And indeed, after our exchange, I think I’m clearer now on the heart of the disagreement. You say the crucial issue is naturalism itself. When a moralist challenges the idea that the ultimate value is human well-being, the moralist departs from naturalism, embracing some presumed higher standard that actually amounts to the equivalent of theistic nonsense.

    As a technical matter, I doubt “naturalism” could be defined in a way that supports your point without begging the question. If naturalism allows for quantum mechanics, the multiverse, and the extra dimensions in string theory, I think it allows for what Nagel calls the view from nowhere, for the mysterian’s radical rejection of anthropocentrism which puts us in our place according to a higher standard, regardless of the consequences for our happiness.

    But the heart of the matter for me is optimism versus pessimism. The optimist reduces ethics to pragmatism, the point being to figure out practically how best to live in the world we find ourselves in, which includes our adaptations and natural functions. The optimist presupposes, however, that this world should be *accepted* and so our natural capacities are assumed to be fundamentally good, the ethical task being the prudent use of them.

    The pessimist, by contrast, opts out of this natural scheme, this game that has been rigged by our genes, by natural selection, and ultimately by the history of the cosmos. I think you’re quite right to speak of the Underground Man as frustrated and alienated. But you wind up making a strawman out of that pessimist. The pessimist’s problem isn’t irrationality. Recall the Underground Man’s distinction between Mice and Men. Mice are the hyper-rational introverts who over-analyze everything and never act, whereas Men are the extroverts who act without thinking. If anything, pessimists are Mice and so their problem is the excessive use of reason.

    Moreover, the pessimist’s problem isn’t that he “wants” misery. The truth is closer to Kant’s duty-centered morality. The pessimist rejects not naturalism so much as the natural world–as a horrible absurdity! You can find this rejection in most sects of deluded, western monotheism, but also in more philosophical eastern religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism), and in other forms of asceticism and even transhumanism. The pessimist feels a duty not to partake in the natural world, but to be liberated from it. The game that nature hands us is the race to be happy: use your capacities well, develop virtues, and think about how best to get along in society, all ultimately–and absurdly–for the sake of passing on the genes. The pessimist chooses not to run in that race and thus not to be happy. This choice is not due to a masochistic love of suffering. Instead, the choice is comparable to flight from a monster in the typical horror movie.

  • Philip K

    Keith P,

    The pessimist regards the natural world as monstrous and can’t imagine feeling happy or content despite knowing of some of the many horrors in nature, including (1) more suffering in the wild than all of us put together could imagine; (2) our dire existential situation of being alone in an inhumane, alien universe (see Lovecraft), guaranteed personal death and the pointlessness of all our endeavours which turn to dust in time, with our full consciousness of those bitter facts even while our biology drives us to continue living; and (3) our being puppets of genes and of other natural forces, with the illusion of being more autonomous than we are and with the implications that romantic love (hormonal imbalance) and social justice (retributive punishment of criminals), for example, are frauds. For those sorts of reasons, the pessimist forgoes the struggle to be a good little member of homo sapiens, rebelling against nature.

    Aristotle says we should use our reason and join society. Too much reason is a vice that prevents you from fulfilling your natural end. But what he didn’t contend with is the fact that reason leads to pessimism about nature and society. The pessimist feels unable to join society, especially now with so much scientific understanding of the inhumane forces that play themselves out through our natural, functional efforts. Socrates was too rational, too subversive; he saw through the shams of his society and chose to die rather than help maintain the charade. He stands as a pessimist compared to Aristotle, an optimist. Whose worldview makes for the higher morality?

    The pessimist’s rebellion is either pitifully wrongheaded or it has a higher moral value than the natural pursuit of happiness. The optimist thinks the former, the pessimist the latter. Now, you’ll emphasize the need for the higher standard’s *objectivity.* After all, anyone can stipulate or feel attracted to some value that trumps happiness. Theism might make supernatural, otherworldy values objective, but theism no longer speaks to most educated people. However, I think the rightness of the pessimist’s rebellion might be objective in a secular way: pessimists like Socrates are knowing or unknowing members of a transhuman movement, with the hope being that, as Nietzsche said, we can create a radically new type of person, with new values that are authentically ours instead of deriving from natural forces that make us puppets. The hope is that the superiority of that new type of person, the Ubermensch or transhuman, to the natural homo sapiens with his parochial quest for private well-being, will be manifestly objective, that the new person’s awesome deeds, born from the pessimist’s contempt for the old, functionally natural person, will trivialize the exercise of natural virtue.

    I know the main objection to this transhumanism is just to point to the Nazis. But the Nazis’ main fault, their anti-Judaism, was hardly new enough to be transhuman, nor was their motive for vengeance against the nations responsible for the Treaty of Versailles, nor was their fascist cult of personality which made the Nazis look to Hitler alone as the superhuman. Nazi rhetoric capitalized on pessimistic progressivism, on the desire for a new, superior type of person, but the Nazis themselves weren’t psychologically superior to the average natural person. It remains to be seen whether we’ll take such control over our evolution that we’ll leave behind the biological pursuit of happiness in favour of more creative pursuits.

  • MikeN

    My first comment here, so forgive me if I'm out of my depth, but it seems to me that we end up in a bit of circular reasoning here- you need to be moral, honest, upright etc. to be happy, but when we look around we see plenty of people who seem to be flourishing with out these noble attributes.
    And the answer seems to be oh, that's not real happiness because to be really happy you need to be moral, honest etc…

    I recall having the same arguments with followers of Ayn Rand, who also (at least so she claimed) based her morality on the Aristotlean standard- "man qua man".

    As for the examples, how about the original Godfather? He dies wealthy and respected by his peers, surrounded by a loving family, passing the family busines down to a beloved son, his only regret that his family hasn't achieved total respectability in two generations- but his son assures him "we'll get there'.

    Then, in peaceful old age he has a sudden heart attack and dies quickly while playing in the garden with his beloved grandson.

    Or one could balance "Sex and the City" with (at a still lower level) "Entourage", where the boys are even dumber and shallower but do have a lot of fun.

    As for "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" and the misery of John Edwards, the day after reading that I saw a picture of Keith Richards and Bill Clinton coming out of a New York restaurant together, both in their 60s smiling, wealthy, admired by their peers and the public, their faults dismissed as peccadilloes, bathed in the golden light of nostalgia.

    The idea that there is some natural justice in the world where people will suffer for their sins seems to be fairly counter-intuitive.

    After all, even though Heaven and Hell or reincarnation don't exist, they were thought up to answer the question of how is it that the wicked flourish and the righteous suffer in this world.

  • Philip K

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Philip K

    Mike N,

    Another movie to add to your list is Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which Allen explicitly takes on the supposed link between morality and happiness. In the movie, in case you haven’t seen it (spoiler alert), a murderer gets way with his crime and ends up being happy, with no guilty conscience. You raise a good point, which I’d put as follows: Aristotle’s optimistic notion that morality and happiness are linked is similar to the theist’s more delusional optimism that if they’re not linked in this life, they’re at least linked in the next one, in which God will judge everyone with perfect justice.

    There’s another point that seems implicit in what you said: with respect to whether an immoral person can be happy, the issue is the role played by the conscience and intellectual integrity, and this is also relevant to the point I’ve been making about optimists and pessimists. Not only is a pessimistic character not suited for happiness, because of the pessimist’s conscientiousness, but the pessimist regards happiness under certain conditions as itself immoral according to the higher, existentialist moral duty to be authentic, to have intellectual integrity, and so to not be an accomplice to inhumane natural forces.

    In the case of Crimes and Misdemeanors, for example, a pessimist would say that the murderer is more or less happy in an Aristotelian sense (despite his act of murder, he has many virtues), but because he lacks conscientiousness or the pessimist’s appreciation for the horrible absurdity of our situation as animals on Earth, the murderer is immoral according to a higher moral standard (besides being a criminal according to the law). Even though he explicitly doubts that there’s a God, the murderer lacks inner pangs of regret and self-loathing, because he isn’t pessimistic in general and thus misses the thousands of other opportunities for such happiness-killing feelings, afforded him by our daily horrors. One such horror is our having a relatively high standard of living in the West thanks to an oligarchic military machine that oppresses and impoverishes large foreign populations, including those in the Middle East who’ve suffered for decades under Western-installed dictators. A pessimist can’t enjoy driving, knowing that the low cost of gas in the US is thanks to a partnership with the inhumane Saudi Arabian regime, and that’s just one of many examples of the folly of happiness.

    I think it was in a Doctor Who episode I was watching the other day, but a character said that “sadness is happiness for deep people.”

  • Keith Parsons


    You are not "out of your depth" at all. Good post. To get right to your point: Yeah, I have seen Keith Richards and other aged rakes grinning, but to me it looks like the grin of a death's-head. I don't know how old he is now, but he looked like ten miles of bad road twenty years ago. The fact is that the rock star lifestyle does take its toll. I recall some of the other icons of my misspent youth: Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass, and others who did not make it far enough to look like bad road. More instructive were comments I heard a couple of years ago from David Crosby. He was talking about the hippie/counterculture days of the late '60's and he said "We were right about peace. We were right about love. We were wrong about drugs." Being on his second or third liver, he ought to know.

    Nobody questions that rockers have loads of fun before they burn out, overdose, or choke on their own vomit. Gene Simmons said that he wanted to be a rock star so he could have unlimited amounts of sex. Nice work if you can get it, huh? Actually, when I was a dateless 17-year-old chess club and science club geek, that would have sounded great. Now that I am in my late fifties and happily married (but still pretty nerdy) I hope I have gained a bit of wisdom.

    I think part of that wisdom is to realize that John Stuart Mill was right when he said that pleasures differ in quality as well as quantity. That is, some pleasures are so qualitatively superior to others that you would not trade them for any amount of the inferior pleasure. The life of a wise person is infinitely qualitatively superior to the life of a fool, even when the wise person's life is difficult and the fool is having fun. Better to be Socrates having a bad day than Sarah Palin having a good day.

    If the life of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll is the way to go, then the denizens of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World must really be happy. Actually, their lives are horribly stunted. Their lives are vapid, passionless, loveless, and superficial, and they are kept ignorant, childish, incurious, and docile. In short, they are living in a fool's paradise. Nope. Better to be Aristotle frowning than Keith Richards grinning.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Thank you for your posts on Naturalist and Aristotelian ethics.

    Keith Parsons said…

    There is indeed a sense in which the naturalist can say that you should value human well-being. You should value it because that is what is objectively valuable. However, the “should” here is not really distinct from an instrumental or prudential sense of “should.” If someone wants to know what they should value in order to be happy, then you can tell them that they should value those things that will really give them happiness, not just the illusion of happiness.

    Is the goal of my life to promote the happiness/well-being of human beings in general or to promote my own happiness/well being?

    If the former, then how do you distinguish Aristotelian ethics from utilitarianism?

    I suspect that Aristotle's answer would be that a person who is selfish and self-centered will tend to be less happy or have less well-being than a person who has the moral vitues of generosity, kindness, justice, etc. In other words, it is in one's self-interest to be a morally good person, to seek the happiness and well-being of others, and not just my own happiness and well-being (thus the buddhist paradox: seeking happiness is a sure way to fail to find happiness).

    I'm not so sure that there is such a convenient correspondence between self-interest (my own personal happiness and well-being) and altruism (concern with the happiness and well-being of others). But let's suppose for the sake of argument that there is such a correspondence.

    Nevertheless, can't we imagine a world in which self-interest and altruism did not so neatly correspond? Certainly, we can imagine particular circumstances in which an individual would be forced to choose between self-interest (my own personal happiness/well-being) and the interests of other human beings (the happiness/well-being of others).

    Would Aristotle, faced with such a world or faced with such particular circumstances, advocate chucking concern with the happiness and well-being of others?

    If so, then it seems to me that a Kantian criticism of such a ethic is quite reasonable: this makes morality too fragile, too dependent upon random contingent facts, circumstances that might well have been otherwise.

    If not, then wouldn't this mean sacrifice of my own happiness/well-being for the sake of the happiness/well-being of others (Utilitarianism)?

  • Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said…

    Suppose that that we discover that humans have distinctive and highly developed natural capacities that include a capacity for living a social life with other human beings and also include a capacity for rational behavior, behavior based not upon instinct or impulse, but upon a process of rational deliberation. Suppose further that, employing intuitive, non-tendentious notions of happiness, we observe that (given a modicum of physical and material well-being) the happiest people are those who most fully actualize their potentials for social and rational living. Since the moral and intellectual virtues are the habitual behaviors that are most conducive to actualizing those potentials, we note that the virtuous are the happiest. Conversely, those who do not interact successfully with others or who permit their rational faculties to decay will experience frustration, failure, loss, alienation, and meaninglessness.
    The conclusions here appear to be empirical. Observations of human activities and behavior are supposed to establish the conclusions. So, the conclusions are contingent facts, and thus we can imagine observing and discovering the opposite to be the case.

    I think it is worth considering the hypothetical circumstance that we make the necessary observations of human activity and behavior and it turns out that rationality or the development and exercise of intellectual virtues tends to make people unhappy, frustrated, alienated, etc.

    Would rationality thus destroy itself?

    The very discovery and establishment of the conclusion that "Rationality makes people unhappy" would itself be based on rationality. We would not simply guess or assume this conclusion to be true, or believe it to be true on a whim or just because one wanted or desired it to be true. So, apart from developing some significant degree of rationality and intellectual virtue, one could not legitimately arrive at the conclusion that "Rationality makes people unhappy". But then, at that point it might be rather difficult to just cast rationality aside, like an old pair of shoes.

    Furthermore, if one did cast rationality aside, then one would, presumably, no longer be impressed by the careful and thoughtful investigation that led to the conclusion that "Rationality makes people unhappy". A person who embraced irrationality might completely ignore and disregard any conclusions based on careful and thoughtful investigation of a question.

    Indeed, a person who tossed rationality and intellectual virtues aside, might even maintain the belief that "Rationality makes people unhappy" and yet not draw the obvious and logical conclusion that one should not try to develop intellectual virtues if one is interested in being a happy person. Thus, an irrational person who held the belief that "Rationality makes people unhappy" might, nevertheless, strive to develop intellectual virtues, believing (illogically and falsely) that doing so would help make himself or herself a more happy person.

    In other words, not only is rationality required to discover and establish the conclusion that "Rationality makes people unhappy" but rationality is also required in order to put that discovery into practice in a logical way to derive the potential benefits of that bit of knowledge!

    The paradoxes involved in the choice to be rational or irrational suggest that this choice is logically distinct from other choices that might initially seem analogous. Can we really add up the pros and cons of being rational, in the way that we can weigh the pros and cons of buying versus leasing a car?

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