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Can Moral Goodness Be Based on Naturalism?

ONE OF THE moves in the field of modern moral or ethical philosophy has been to claim that moral judgments of goodness, of what's right for people to do, can be determined by considering the best way for a person to live, i.e., what's good for humans as humans. Among such "goods" are, of course, survival and a full belly and shelter in a storm. But these are taken to be mere animal goods, what any living organism will want for itself in general, i.e., whatever is necessary to survive well, and will include the absence of pain and debilitating conditions. Alone these do not offer a basis for making moral claims, a distinctively human activity. For this we have to go further and look to what's good for humans as humans. And here we come up against the usual problem of determining which things qualify in this respect.

Aristotle supposed the goodness that suited human kind lay in the achievement of a certain balance in one’s life and that this represented the best state a person could be in, i.e., the state in which a human being might be said to do best, to flourish in much the same way as a well watered plant, placed in nutrient rich soil and provided with plenty of sunlight or an adequately fed beast, given the opportunity to exercise sufficient for its health and mental condition might do well. For Aristotle developing various human traits in the best way represented that same sort of phenomenon for humans. He posited that humans do best when they find and adhere to a middle path between extremes of behavior.

Thus, Aristotle famously defined things like courage as a human virtue to the extent it represented a midpoint between the alternatives of timidity or cowardice, on the one hand, and rashness or foolhardiness on the other, courage thus being seen as the condition of knowing when to step up and risk oneself, rather than always fearing to do so, or doing so without regard to any and all consequences. Aristotle proposed that other human qualities, like wisdom, could be seen similarly in this way, as the midpoint between stupidity or dullness, on the one hand, and over attachment to thinking everything through so that one never reached the point of choosing one’s actions and acting, on the other. Charity, on this view, similarly represents the state in which we balance our own needs with those of people we should care about, etc., neither refusing to help those in need when we can nor helping others to such an extent as to impoverish ourselves or those dependent on us.

For Aristotle, to be in the best, or happiest, human state was just to be balanced in this way because it led to the best sort of life a person could live, one that both most satisfactorily served the person himself or herself and also those around him or her (from one's own family to one's community). It generated, Aristotle believed, the best results overall. A happy man in this Aristotelian sense was then a virtuous one where virtue represented such moderation between behavioral extremes.

Other philosophers of the ancient world thought the idea of living rightly, choosing the right sorts of things to do similarly depended on having some form of human happiness as one’s objective. This was often and variously defined in a variety of ways by thinkers of the ancient world, from Aristotle’s concept of virtue to the notion of living in a state which exercised a human being’s unique cognitive faculties to the fullest or achieving a life of moderation which offered a person just enough to keep him or her satisfied but not so much as to bring on undue cares (through excessive pursuit of wealth and the worry and strife that accompanies such concerns) or which might lead to slothfulness or dissipation. Still other ancient thinkers counted human happiness as the state of having sufficient pleasure in one’s life, through the temperate enjoyment of the finer things, and others thought it was to simply achieve a state in which one stood in equilibrium with the world’s vicissitudes, to be unbroken by the trials and tribulations of a lifetime.

The happiest state for persons, of course, may be defined in any number of ways and each definition will find its adherents. The naturalistic notion in ethics aims to propose, as these approaches show, that there is some core state or condition in life that is the common goal for most human beings insofar as they are human beings.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and his student, John Stuart Mill formulated the doctrine of utilitarianism, a philosophy that took this naturalistic notion a step further by arguing that the moral good is the achievement of happiness in general rather than for any single individual. Each individual’s moral thrust, on this view, is thus the maximization of happiness in the world of mankind over all rather than pursuit of his or her own personal happiness. Thus, the morally good acts are those which tend to increase the sum total of human happiness and reduce the total of human suffering.

It was precisely this view that G. E. Moore challenged in the early twentieth century with his proposal that equating goodness with any of the things, or sorts of things, we happen to call good represents a logical mistake. In showing that “good,” as a predicate, always serves to attribute something to something else, he reminded his readers that even happiness might not always be a good thing, nor might any of the particular forms of it which various moralists, philosophers and ordinary folks might happen to favor. There are always cases in which that which someone calls happiness could fail to qualify as being the right choice to make, as being good. Sometimes being happy isn’t the right goal at all (if making someone unhappy in this or that moment will save a life, say) and sometimes the happiness of most at the expense of the unhappiness of a few looks to be morally wrong. Moreover, happiness itself is such a wide open concept that it is hard to distinguish which notion of happiness is the right one in any given case.

Moore’s answer to this kind of utilitarianism was to propose that the term “good” must be understood as picking out something other than what it modifies, i.e., that it acts like those words which represent things that cannot be further analyzed. To the extent that “yellow,” say, just names a color which we know by sight (having learned to use the term “yellow” properly) so “good,” Moore argued, just names a quality which some things, acts and states of affairs have but which thing does not, itself, admit of further analysis. What’s good is good because it is and we learn the term by encountering this quality in things. But Moore’s answer left those who followed him dangling.

If what was good (Moore thought things like friendship, thoughtful conversation and beautiful objects fit the bill) was knowable on encounter, there was little room for discussion. The intuitive account Moore gave thus solved little with regard to debates about goodness and, finally, served only to replace the idea of happiness relied on by utilitarians. Moore’s answer to utilitarianism was to say the moral task was not to maximize happiness or some equivalent but to maximize “goods,” leaving the latter notion open to the intuitions of each individual. This offered no better basis for engaging in moral argument, i.e., the task of convincing and guiding others, and ourselves, to the right behaviors.

Because of the fundamental problem with reducing the matter to one of moral intuition, Moore’s account soon led to a rejection of the idea that words like “good” had any cognitive content at all. With Hume, who wrote some two centuries earlier, those who came after Moore rapidly began to question the notion that “good” and its cognates denoted anything at all. Instead the idea of emotivism took hold, a notion which sees terms like “good” as doing expressive duty in language only, i.e., of simply serving to express one’s feelings about things. To say anything is good, on such a view then, is just to express one’s emotional bias. Approval of a moral sort then becomes no more than to say “ah!” or “hooray” with regard to the usual moral referents.

Of course, this leaves moral valuing without any real capacity to support reasoned debate, undermining the very enterprise of making moral judgments on which individual moral claims rely. In the mid-twentieth century, Oxford philosopher R. M. Hare set out to tweak this non-cognitive account by proposing that such expressive judgments actually do serve a purpose in discourse, i.e., they enable us to commend – a linguistic function as important to us as the descriptive. Such commending or prescribing (hence the term “prescriptivism” as applied to Hare’s approach), is part of our daily discourse no less than denoting and emoting are and, as such, can no more be sacrificed than the other uses. To enable prescribing or commending usages of “good” to perform their function, Hare proposed that they achieve logical validity when combined, in syllogistic fashion, with premises that include a statement of a principle to which we subscribe as well as a statement (or statements) of fact which activate the principle. Thus, if we subscribe to a principle that says one should keep one’s word when one gives it, then, if the facts include our having given it, to be consistent with the principle we have adopted, we must also keep it. If such a principle were also one that we chose to apply to others as well as to ourselves, that is to universalize, then that principle is also what we count as a moral one. Prescriptives thus have as much logical traction as the more familiar descriptives which deal entirely with factual assertions.

But Hare’s approach had the flaw noted by contemporaries like R. W. Beardsmore and others that, on his view, one’s choice of moral principles is wide open. If so, then there are no constraints on moral prescriptives, i.e., anything can be thought of as morally compelling including believing that all sorts of trivial things, like the color of your shoes on Wednesday, to the extent we are prepared to universalize the claim, have moral significance. Beardsmore argued that this trivialization of the moral case does as much to undermine it as the notion that there are no objectively determinable moral standards at all. It also allows for a certain anarchy in the moral sphere with people picking and choosing their own underlying moral principles as it suits them. * * * *

In reaction to the problems kicked up by emotivism and prescriptivism, the latter part of the twentieth century saw a revival of the naturalism of the ancients which Moore had attempted to discard. This naturalist rebellion reintroduced the idea that what is morally good to do can be shown to derive from certain phenomena which are demonstrably good for human beings and that there are just some things which humans need and want, just because they are human, the pursuit of which underlies the moral claims we tend to make. To the extent we humans get moral judgments wrong, it can be shown, on this view, that we are just confused about what we should be pursuing in our lives, what we should really want because, of course, we do really want those things if only we could see it. Thus the job of the moralist becomes the project of making others see what is, indeed, right, as in what’s best for them.

Thinkers like G. E. M. Anscombe and Philippa Foot, among others, spearheaded this naturalistic rejection of non-cognitivism – even as the old non-cognitivism morphed into new versions hinging on methodologies that convert the subjectivism implicit in it to something supportive of rational discourse, e.g., Jesse Prinz' "sentimentalism" (which seeks to lay out a logical structure that enables subjective beliefs to be understood as generalized among groups and to thus form a basis for argument among, at least, the members of those groups). But the real question for naturalism must lie in how the naturally occurring states and phenomena are seen to be equated with what we mean by “good.” Duncan Richter, a modern interpreter of Anscombe's ethical ideas argues that there are some things which just have what he calls “intrinsic goodness” and it is the recognition of this that enables a naturalistic account to proceed.

The idea that there are some undeniable human goods is very compelling, especially when we step back and try to imagine how some kinds of things which we are inclined to favor could be otherwise. With Anscombe, Duncan Richter asks whether murder can ever be a good thing. The very idea of it, he argues, implies its badness, its wrongness. Similarly he thinks there are a great many things that might be taken as human goods such as love, compassion, generosity and justice. These are, by their very nature, things ordinary humans want and need all the time. What makes them human goods is not the issue for him though. He does not argue for their evolutionary basis in terms of our species’ genetic inheritance or for the role of historically developed social beliefs, reflecting the learned behaviors of generations in the real world. Nor does he argue for Anscombe’s own account, that such beliefs about what’s good reflects how we have been made by a just God. The important issue for him is not how we know these “goods” are good, but that we do.

But even the idea that we do is not certain, especially if we cannot say how we do. If Moore’s response, that goodness is an intuited, non-natural quality, is unsatisfying, then a naturalistic response, which sets out to equate such uses with something inherent in the notions themselves, seems no less so. What’s needed is to understand how anything we call “good” may come to be that. And a naturalism that simply asserts that some things just are good, or otherwise, seems to get us no further than Moore’s unelaborated intuitionism.

Richter’s reply is to suppose that the goodness in question in the various cases is just “intrinsic” to those items. By this he seems to mean such goodness is an inseparable part of our understanding of the things in question. With this, however, the naturalist idea seems to come full circle to the position it was first marshaled to reject, namely that goodness is a basic kind of phenomenon that cannot be explained or argued for and so must simply be understood as recognizable on “sight.” Superficially, there seems to be less oddness to a notion that some perfectly natural phenomena in our experience are just held by us to be good or right, by dint of the kinds of creatures we are, than to buy into the idea that good is a non-natural quality whose presence is recognized by an unelaborated intuition.

Yet even so the question remains as to how we can know that some things, like murder, are always wrong while others, like love, compassion or generosity (the sorts of things Duncan Richter counts as intrinsic goods) are always good? Richter qualifies his explanation by noting that these things are good only to the extent that there are no mediating circumstances, i.e., that in and of themselves, and absent extenuating factors, such things just are either right or wrong, good or bad for us to do while the presence of extenuating circumstances may change the calculus without undermining the notion of their intrinsic goodness. He agrees, that love, however good it must seem to us to be in the abstract, may sometimes be wrong anyway (an instance of adulterous love, for instance, might not qualify as right because of the extenuating factor that it causes harm to other parties or undermines the institution of marriage itself, i.e., it leads to, or produces, other, stronger "bads"). Richter allows that even what he calls "intrinsic goods" (or their counterpart "intrinsic bads") may be subject to what he calls extrinsic factors which may vitiate, or at least outweigh, their intrinsic quality.

But his view hinges on a claim that there is such a quality at all, i.e., that there is something in the thing considered, or in the concept of it, that counts as intrinsic goodness or badness. Yet he doesn’t say where it is – or what we are to look for, other than to suppose that humans must be seen, in general, to desire and benefit from it. What sort of thing is good in this way then, aside from being that which an observer, or a conceptualizer of it, happens to think about it? And if it can't be shown to be anywhere else, either in the phenomenon or in the conception of it, then what have we left other than the supposition that it's to be found only in the opinion of the human observer?

But then we are back to the moral relativism which we had sought to divest ourselves of, which we must divest ourselves of if the moral valuing game is to work as advertised. Of course, it may not work that way but, if not, then it loses its force to compel us in any rational way and we are then no better off than we had been with Moore’s intuitionism or with non-cognitivism or any of its subjectivist variations.

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