How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity July 11, 2010

In a previous post, I discussed the intrinsic connection between being and goodness and between functional activity and being.  I argued, for example that the various components of a heart need to function as a heart to be a heart and similarly that a human being must act morally to realize her humanity.  Specifically, I claimed that she does not realize her humanity to the extent that she fails to be moral (not, however, that she does not realize her humanity at all in such cases.) Eli raises the most immediately pressing question such an analogy raises:

This is a really thought provoking post. I would certainly agree that something can be considered to be x when it fulfills the function of x (a heart is only a heart when it pumps blood.) This idea of function becomes a little more problematic when you move outside the material realm and make the assertion that not acting morally makes you less of a human being. How is being moral so central to the purpose of being human?

I distinguish between ethics and morality, so let me first address the broader ethical framework in which I think morality fits.  And I will stick to humans since we’re all humans here.  Presumably.

Human ethics, as I see it, is simply about how to maximally thrive as a human being.  I think what a human being is is a specific set of highly complex, interrelated, mutually coordinating and amplifying functional powers, all of whose rudiments stem essentially from our specifically human genetics and which can take a great variety of different forms when they interact with a range of different cultures and other environmental variables.

We exist as a function of all our various powers as they are configured and coordinated in any number of ways at any given time.  Right now I am existing as a sitting, typing, breathing, philosophizing, writing, language-using human being.  And that’s not even the whole list, there are all sorts of powers at work in me at any given time and their total contributions constitute my existence at any given time.

I am whatever I am doing at the moment.  This is the existentialist dimension of my thought.  Where I am a Nietzschean existentialist rather than a Sartrean sort, is that I interpret what “I am doing” to essentially mean “what my component powers are doing”.  Whatever my emotions are doing, whatever the numerous cognitive faculties in my brain are doing, whatever the rest of my body is doing, etc., all function together to make me “occur”.  I am the resultant function of all of those more basic functions.  They are wholly constitutive of me.  There is no remainder left of “me” (except conceptually) if you take them all away.

Now to apply the heart analogy, just as the heart has a characteristic function which it needs to carry out in order to be a heart in the doing of heart activities, so all of our cognitive and emotional powers have characteristic functions through which alone they are realized.  My memory is not a memory to the extent that it cannot remember, my love is not a love to the extent that it does not love, my computational skills are not computational skills to the extent that I cannot compute, etc.  To the extent that my brain functions to remember, to love, and to compute, I am a remembering, loving, and computing being.  And to the extent that it does not do those things, I am not those things.

If I am not born with a specific functional capability or do not have much of a particular kind of ability there is not much I can do by way of actualizing my humanity in that specific way or to an extent that someone else might (assuming there are no technological fixes by which I can remedy my deficiency).

But to the extent that I have a functional capability at all and to the extent that through a combination of its “natural” strength and my exercise of it in practice I can make it more powerful.  I have a power with potential which can be realized.

But what if I do not want to realize my potential?  Why must I do that?  What does this have to do with ethics?  Ethics is, presumably about norms for how we should function: how we should realize our potential for action in particular circumstances and in the broader projects of our lives.  How do these insights answer those questions?

The first thing I would point out is that since my being is constituted by its very powers, to outright destroy all of them would be to destroy myself.  To be myself, I must exist through my functional powers.  They are my existential precondition.  They must function for me to function and therefore, I have an intrinsic interest as me, that they function.  I take this to mean that I have a norm, a guiding principle, which comes from this existential precondition.

But that does not mean I need all of them to function.  For one thing, I have more functional possibilities than I could ever realize.  I can, for example, theoretically develop any of a long list of possible skills but in practice must choose to devote my energies to some rather than others because time and resources are limited.  I might opt to develop 18,250 skills to the level possible from one full day’s training if I do nothing every day for the next 50 years but train in a new skill each day the whole day.   But I could never that way realize any one of those skills the way that someone with a more modest handful of skills and hundreds or thousands of days of training will realize them.  So, for this reason, among others, there must be choices made and trade offs accepted with respect to our powers, we cannot maximally realize all our powers simultaneously.

But are there any norms to guide us in choosing which functionalities to focus on developing and which ones to either moderately or minimally attend to, neglect altogether, or, even, outright expunge from ourselves to whatever extent possible?

Let’s start with the easiest one, functional tendencies we should eradicate from ourselves as much as possible.  These are things we could do, or are inclined to do, which harm ourselves or others with not enough benefit to other functional powers of ourselves or others to net an overall increase in human flourishing and/or pleasure in the world.  If I have a tick that makes me scratch my eyeballs until I bleed, I should want to extirpate that functional tendency as best and as fast as I can.  It only damages my other functions in which I am embodied and through which I express and increase my overall power.

I can neglect other functional possibilities.  I might be able to develop into a highly skilled backgammon player or rock climber or musician and, yet, find that the energy and effort involved in these pursuits might take away from other projects which could function on so greater a level with my full attention as to make my life an overall more powerful one.  If redirecting my focus to backgammon, rock climbing, and musicianship significantly diminished primary powerful pursuits without sufficient compensation for them in replacement power realized, it’s not worth it.  For other people those functional possibilities might be more central to their own most powerful lives than they are to mine.

How do I go about deciding which functional powers to maximize and in what ways?  My natural talents give me clues about how I might function relatively powerfully in a way that draws on what is already “well-working” within me.  My interests also give me a clue as to what parts of myself I will enjoy developing enough that I will put in the necessary dedication to make myself powerful with respect to them.

I take it to be that since being is inherently good, maximally being is inherently greatest. My ideal is to become as powerful as I can, as highly functioning overall–with the combination of all my distinct functionalities taken together functioning with as many “units” of power (however this might be informally measured) as possible.

But whither morality?  Why is being a moral human being a necessary and centrally constitutive part of being a fully powerful human being?  There are several reasons.

1. I am an Aristotelian in the sense that I think that our various moral virtues are moral powers.  Like Aristotle I think we have various inclinations, which I call functional possibilities, which we naturally find ourselves experiencing.  I am inclined towards anger, I have the functional possibility of realizing myself through the emotion of anger. So in order to figure out the extent to which I should do this I must ask myself, “If I function at full anger what will this do to my other functional powers?  What will it do to my overall sum functional power?

Well if I am so seething with anger that I destroy relationships that are beneficial to my pursuits of my various powers, then I have harmed my own ability to fully actualize.  If I am so consumed with anger and let it function at full blast such that all I am is a seething manifestation of unbridled rage, then I can hardly concentrate on a game of chess or on a paying job or on love of friendship or, even, on the cognitive tasks involved in acting upon my anger in ways that satisfy my ends (be they merely selfish ones or just ones).

So, anger needs to be dialed back, usually quite a bit and always at least somewhat, so that there is room for parts of me to flourish too.  Anger is good for helping motivate my desire for justice when it functions as a response to injustice.  Anger is good for helping me change my own course when I do something that should make me angry with myself.  In those cases I become angry and express myself through, and am embodied in, my anger.

But I should only function as angrily as is productive to the development of the more directly productive powers within me, those functionalities which produce results which reflect greater power in me and extend my power further out beyond myself.  And, quite often, anger tends to be counter-productive to my larger purposes in life and to thwart my other powers.  So, it must be a power used with precision so that it only enhances and never diminishes my overall power.

And a similar account of the rightful feeling and expression of all the emotions can be made.  Each moral virtue involves a well calibrated emotion which ably functions to make me feel towards any given thing an emotion that rightly corresponds to the thing’s objective value (or values) to me, to my associates, and to humanity (and animals and valuable things) at large.  To respond to the world with emotions which lead to the proper orientation towards action is a power humans are capable of.  When we respond with the most productive emotions, this is, therefore, intrinsically good for us as an intrinsic expression of one of our functional powers through which we can manifest ourselves as human.

So, morally appropriate emotions, properly calibrated to objective value in the world, express a functional power and, therein, realize my humanity and so are intrinsically good for me.

2. My functional power extends beyond the limits of my body.  When I help build a building, my powers as a builder continue to function for as long as the building stands.  And for as long as another building I constructed in a shoddy way wreaks havoc on its occupants, I continue to function poorly.  This is why, out of a proper desire to express myself through excellent outward manifestations (an emotion we call pride), we should take pride in our work.  It is our outward expression through which we function, sometimes long after we are gone even.

When I teach you a skill, I function through your skill every time you use it.  If I teach you ideas my mind functions outside my body through your mind every time you think those thoughts.  And when they are true thoughts which you accept and which, based on their truth, lead you to more truths and to more powerful effects in the world based on those truer understandings of the world, my mind functions through that whole process.  My power plays a role in all those further developments insofar as I was an indispensable link in that chain of causation.

For me to empower people is to multiply my own power by infusing them with my power (metaphorically—nothing New Agey and mystical going on here, there is no bullshit Secret) such that forever more (or at least for a while more) it functions with their power and becomes a part of their power.

The greatest rulers are the greatest sources of empowerment for their peoples.  We take a crude, weakling’s and tyrant’s view of power when we imagine power as the destruction and debilitating subordination of one’s rivals or of one’s people (or of another people). To have real “world power” means to really power the world.  Thomas Edison is the master of the modern universe.  His inventive powers function throughout the world every night.  Everything we ever do which requires light bulbs has a contribution from a man long dead.  That’s power.

And rulers whose laws lead to fertile grounds, sound infrastructure, and flourishing people find themselves efficacious in all the food and institutions and thriving, powerful human lives which are all traceable to their shrewd lawmaking.  Every time you express your freedom of speech to your own benefit as a human being, feel the power of the authors of the First Amendment flow through you.

So, no matter what our capacity, be we builders, teachers, writers, rulers, parents, humanitarians, doctors, citizens, lovers, friends, plumbers, inventors, computer programmers, sanitation workers, chefs, cooks, etc., performing our tasks well in the ways that our roles are best able to aid and empower other people, allows us to function powerfully through their further successes.

And, of course, a great part of morality obviously entails our contributions to other people’s lives and empowering them as we would have them empower us (to suggest a slight modification of the Golden Rule).  So, in performing these sorts of actions to the best of our ability too, there is often a great deal of morality through which we realize our humanity as maximally as we can.

3.  Morality requires of us in many cases a commitment to principles which are inconvenient and on the short run do not aid our direct, maximal, individual flourishing according to our most prized powers.  Sometimes, principles of fairness or generally beneficial codes for behavior would thwart our immediate purposes.  Such overriding moral principles are justifiable to us because as human beings, it is our empirically observable nature to be materially, emotionally, culturally, politically, intellectually, and socially utterly dependent on a well-functioning social order if we are ever to maximally realize a great number of our powers.  And this should make us properly humble and appreciative of the enormous extent to which we not only function in and through others but also others also function in and through us.

Our fundamental dependence on such orders gives us a rational reason to prioritize principles which uphold that order even to our immediate detriment.  It is usually irrational in practice to undermine that foundation.  In these cases, strong powers of reason and commitment to moral principle are crucial human powers through which we can flourish even as we preclude ourselves from other forms of flourishing we might prefer in that instance.   The net result, I think, actually usually increases our total functional power in these cases, after all, insofar as our self-restraint helps to keep a thriving social order thriving.  Moral citizens can take pride in this contribution to society.

So, this is a third way in which to function morally is to function powerfully humanly.

And, as a “bonus”, when we temperately uphold the principles which uphold the social order, in the long run, those benefits again have the potential to make us more powerful than had we played a role in unraveling of the social fabric (or a crucial piece of it) for short term gains, only to find it not there for us later on when we needed it next.

4.  So far, I have focused on motivations for morality that refer eventually back to the conditions of our own flourishing according to our own powers.  We can also, of course, be motivated morally (I think) by love and investment in others for their own sake.  Sometimes (and probably usually morally ideally) we should empower others not out of explicit thought for how our own power can flourish through theirs as a result, but we should (and do) empower out of intrinsic love of those we empower for their own sakes.  In such a case, I think we realize certain powerful and powerfully efficacious social virtues and, through them, our humanity.

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

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