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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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Are There Intrinsic Goods?

ONE WAY OF dividing up the different principles by which we acknowledge or ascribe goodness or badness to things (whether objects, actions, goals, states of affairs, etc.) is to suppose that there are some things that are good because they help us achieve other things, some of which must be just good in themselves. The first sort of goodness, the one dependent on the effectiveness of the object of reference (whether physical objects or other type) to perform some function for us or bring something about, is often classified as "extrinsic," as in being outside the object itself. That is, we would not care to obtain or achieve or use such objects if they did not serve our purpose in achieving something else. Some of those things which fit into the class of "something else" are then taken to have so-called "intrinsic" goodness, i.e., to be good no matter what purpose we mean to put them to because we desire their possession just for what they are.

Thus, philosophers have often divided the world of possible goods between the extrinsic and the intrinsic. The notion of extrinsic, or instrumental, goodness is easy enough to understand and largely uncontroversial. We have no reason to doubt the goodness of a thing which serves to get us whatever it is we want, that is to say, we have no reason to doubt its goodness for that purpose. And no one seems disposed to claim that there is no such thing as this kind of goodness (to the extent they are prepared to acknowledge that there is goodness at all). The problem arises when we turn to the moral case, however, for here what we want to call "morally good" produces a special class of things (actions, generally) which, if they are called good just because they are thought to be instrumentally so, do not seem to fit that case.

That is, while there are any number of moral claims we can make, far and away the most important are those which are motivated by concern for another's interest and not strictly for our own. Giving charity, avoidance of doing harm to another, reaching out to support others in moments of pain, respecting their persons, avoiding lying to, stealing from or otherwise injuring them, etc., all typically fall under the moral case. And yet, if we do any of these sorts of things because we wish to obtain some benefit for ourselves, we would not grant that they were motivated in a moral way.

To the extent that we undertake a so-called moral act only to bring about some other good that we want or need for ourselves, that act appears self-interested – and self-interest abrogates the moral basis since, in any case in which self-interest is the predominant basis for acting, a different action, which lacks moral standing according to ordinary moral usage, may be justified or more justified. And so the fact that a presumptively morally good act may be justified by self-interest undermines that very justification for, if some things were different, the same justification would support our acting in what we take to be an immoral way . . . .

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Four Naturalistic Strategies in Accounting for Ethical Claims

The intuitionist account of value claims, which G. E. Moore presented in answer to the is/ought dichotomy first flagged by David Hume, proposes that there are objective facts about what’s good, especially the good thing to do, and that they hinge on a private experience we each have of the good. Just as we know colors by seeing them, so, this thesis goes, we know good actions and objectives by recognizing them (if and when they manifest themselves to us through sensory input). That is, according to Moore, the term “good” can be understood as denoting a property of a thing, just as a term like “yellow” denotes a property which some things may have, namely the property of being the color we call “yellow.” But where yellowness is, as Moore put it, a “natural property” which we know through our direct experience of it (when we see it) goodness counts as a “non-natural property” because it’s not inherent in any of the sensory inputs we have, although there is something about the way we have those sensory inputs that prompts in us the recognition of the presence of goodness alongside the "natural" properties we observe through our sensory inputs.

That is, on this view, goodness is knowable directly through our experience just as the sight of yellow in a thing is. This makes use of the Kantian sense of “intuit,” i.e., of having knowledge of something without the intermediation of other knowledge, of something else. In other words, we don’t need a reason to reach the conclusion that something is good, if it is, because we recognize it directly (just as we recognize that yellow things are yellow).

But Moore offered no explanation of what it is to know what’s good in the way we know what’s yellow and later thinkers, like Philippa Foot, questioned the usage of “intuition” as Moore presented it. . . .

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Searle on the Is/Ought Dichotomy

In continuing to review what's left of my library post Sandy's flood in our region, I came across a small paperback, Theories of Ethics, edited by Philippa Foot. I did remember reading this one and found, as I paged through it, plenty of handwritten notes on the book's pages. I almost never write in book margins. It just seems wrong to me. But I obviously did so at that point, probably reflecting my effort to develop an ethics theory of my own which back in the seventies I was very keen on attempting. Never quite succeeded at it, of course, and nowadays I am leery of any sort of theory development in a field like this for Wittgensteinian reasons. But back then it's apparent I had fewer inhibitions in the matter. Anyway, the book consists of a series of articles gathered, and commented on in a foreword, by Foot who was then the pre-eminent exponent of naturalism in ethics and regarded as a major thinker in the field. One of the pieces she re-printed, it turns out, was an article by our old friend John Searle, How to Derive Ought from Is. It's followed by a piece by R. M. Hare (another major ethical thinker of the time) attacking Searle's position. Hare, of course, was defending his own view that the function of commending is radically different from describing and that one achieves moral claims by combining commendatory principles, to which one chooses to subscribe, with factual assertions to yield logically sound conclusions which serve as particular moral oughts. Searle had offered a different view. . . .

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