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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 . . . .

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Ethics in Wittgenstein: Early and Late

There's a sharp dichotomy in Wittgenstein's later approach to ethics from what we find in his earlier work. Just as there's a recognizable break between his approach to philosophy and the kinds of claims he makes in The Tractatus and those he later presents us with via his later writings, especially Philosophical Investigations, the change in his approach to moral questions, though less visible because he is less explicit, is noticeable and important. In the Tractatus and in the wake of his immediate return to Cambridge in 1929 after more than a decade's hiatus, Wittgenstein takes a transcendental position vis a vis ethics. It's something, he asserts, that cannot be talked about but can only be felt in one's life. The Tractatus, he tells us, is really an ethical work though only a small part of it (near the end) actually addresses ethics explicitly (and, indeed, somewhat cryptically). There he tells us ethics cannot be talked about, is among those things we can only point mutely at. Later, in his address to the Heretics Society at Cambridge in '29 he says this more explicitly. Ethics involves values we hold for human behavior but there's nothing to be said about it philosophically. We would all be better off to maintain a studied silence on the matter for there is no deriving oughts from is claims, just as Hume told us. But if one could speak of ethics, write a book on the subject, it would shatter the world, he pronounces.

The later Wittgenstein seems to have kept his word on maintaining silence on the subject though ethical concerns run through his personal writings (see especially those published posthumously under the title Culture and Value). He did not contribute anything in philosophical discourse directly pertinent to the matter of ethics . . .

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Obligation and Goodness

As Duncan Richter has pointed out, Anscombe and some others reject the idea of duty-based ethics, of morality as obligation. Setting aside, for the moment, Anscombe's additional rejection of the term "moral," as it is ordinarily used, and her apparent preference for "ethical" in lieu of "moral," and taking both terms, for argument's sake, to be roughly the same in ordinary use, what we're left with is the question of whether the idea of obligation underlies moral judgments or vice versa. That is, do we have certain obligations because we recognize them as morally good or do we find the morally good by recognizing certain obligations which we cannot shirk? Richter writes that Anscombe rejected the idea that moral claims were founded on duties of this sort and, in doing so, apparently rejected the very notion of a duty-based ethics . . .

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