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The Inadequacy of a Naturalistic Virtue Ethic (Part 2 of 2)

By Jonathan Pruitt 

 (continued from part 1)

Objections to Teleology

One of the main concerns is the role that teleology plays. According to Foot, individuals have a telos; they are meant for thriving as a member of a certain species. But it is unclear what this really could mean in a naturalistic world. To say something has a telos means it has a purpose essentially. Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that insofar as a virtue ethic is teleological, it requires “at least one central functional concept, the concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential purpose or function.”[1] Having a purpose, and having it essentially, means that a thing has a purpose by its very nature. One obvious way to say that teleology is both genuine and morally significant is to say that a thing was made by a person with certain intentions and purposes. An artist might design and paint a picture with the intention of bringing happiness (a moral good) to others. It is the artist’s intention that gives the painting moral significance. But the naturalist cannot say that humans are relevantly like paintings.  It does not make sense to say that nature “intended” an animal for something any more than it makes sense to say that a puddle of water was intended to fit in the hole it finds itself. This is because we normally think of teleological properties like being meant for X or being intended for Y as irreducibly mental properties. And the only thing we know that can have intentions or meanings is a mind. However, human beings are not the product of any mind, on naturalism, but of matter and the laws of physics. The same amount of intentional care that went into making puddles fit holes went into making us biologically fit for life; granted, there is more sophistication to the latter, but, on naturalism, the amount of intentional care is the same. That being the case, it stretches language beyond the breaking point to say that, on naturalism, we are intended or meant for anything.

Perhaps this objection can be turned back by means of clarification. What then does Foot mean when she says there is a way humans should be? To get that answer, we first have to know what she means by “human” and, second, what she means by “should.”

In responding, the naturalist faces an immediate difficulty. The naturalist cannot even say “there is a way humans are” without controversy because such a statement presupposes certain views about the nature of the category of species and thus what the term human actually means. Specifically, Foot argues that “human” is a real metaphysical category.[2]  Species in general must refer to real metaphysical categories if Foot’s system is going to work because it is by appeal to these categories that she can say what counts as specifying conditions. If the category of species were only fictional, contingently assigned to living things by human animals, then no meaningful norms can be grounded in them. So then, Foot needs there to be a genuine “human nature” to ground her theory. However, David Hull thinks naturalism cannot provide a way to account for this. Hull argues that in light of the impersonal, atomistic world of naturalism, there is no space for metaphysically robust concepts like “human nature.”[3] He says,

The implications of moving species from the metaphysical category that can appropriately be characterized in terms of “natures” to a category for which such characterizations are inappropriate are extensive and fundamental. If species evolve in anything like the way that Darwin thought they did, then they cannot possibly have the sort of natures that traditional philosophers claimed they did. If species in general lack natures, then so does Homo Sapiens as a biological species. If Homo Sapiens lacks a nature, then no reference to biology can be made to support one’s claims about “human nature.” Perhaps all people are “persons,” share the same “personhood,” etc., but such claims must be explicated and defended with no reference to biology. Because so many moral, ethical, and political theories depend on some notion or other of human nature, Darwin’s theory brought into question all these theories. The implications are not entailments. One can always dissociate “Homo sapiens” from “human being,” but the result is a much less plausible position.[4]

The upshot of this is that even having the term human refer to a class of things which share the same nature will not work on naturalism. Human only refers to a nominal way of grouping animals by their traits. However, by human Foot means a real metaphysical category. The trouble is that there is no way for naturalism to ground that meaning.

This also undermines Foot’s normative concept of “should.” To see why, let us consider what Foot means by the locution “should.” It is worth quoting her at length on this:

What, then, determines the truth of the teleological propositions…? We start from the fact that it is the particular life form of a species of plant or animal that determines how an individual plant or animal should be: the Aristotelian categoricals give the ‘how’ of what happens in the life cycle of that species. And all the truths about what this or that characteristic does, what its purpose or point is, and in suitable cases its function, must be related to this life cycle. The way an individual should be is determined by what is needed for development, self-maintenance, and reproduction: in most species involving defence, and in some the rearing of the young.[5]

Thus, by should Foot means individuals ought to exhibit the features which constitute the ideal for their species. But, the argument above has been that Foot can only consistently use species in a nominal way. Species do not really exist, on such a worldview; therefore, there is nothing to make teleological propositions true. From that it follows that there is no way a thing should be. All that naturalism allows for is descriptions of how things are. There is no such thing as a categorical moral “should.” (There are instrumental shoulds, presumably.)

Objections to Eudaimonia

But for the sake of the argument, let us grant Foot that humans have a telos so that there is a way a human should be and that moral evaluations follow from that. Still, what constitutes the ideal is a complete accident of physics. The ideal is further contingent on some arbitrary selection of a specific moment of time in human evolutionary history. What is ideal now could change in the future and it will change if Darwinism is correct. The result is that what is morally repugnant now may not be in the future. This is the view that Angus Ritchie calls “strong evolutionary ethics.”

The fact that the good is contingent on a species also leads to other puzzles. For example, if we suppose that Star Trek’s Borg were a real species, we could not disagree that their assimilation of other species was good for them as Borg, even if it were bad for us as humans.[6] Or, as Angus Ritchie has pointed out, the good for a cancer cell is in direct conflict with the good for a human. In cases of Borg and cancer, there are contradictory goods. And if the survival of cancer cells isn’t an intrinsically good thing, why is the survival of human beings, on this analysis? The fact that Foot distances herself from utilitarianism makes the challenge all the more pressing.

This at least seems like a problem. Intuitively, we think that the good is a trans-species thing. Part of the problem is that the term “good” is so slippery. In one sense, it is obvious and uncontroversial that if there is such a thing as Borg nature, then there is a good for Borg. But our intuitions about the moral good are such that this good cannot be totally determined by the way a species is. This good is supposed to be objective and necessary. It does not depend on anything, especially accidents of nature. So if the good for Borg or cancer is a real, moral good, it is because it stands in the proper relation to the moral good.  Foot thinks the intuitive problem is due to confusion about what we mean by “the good.”[7] According to her, goodness can only be determined by references to species; there is no good outside of that. However, the Borg and cancer puzzles show that there are real problems with identifying the good with the biology of a species.

Objections to the Role of the Virtues

Another problem with virtue in Foot’s theory arises from the conjunction of the role of the virtues and the implications of her naturalist ontology of human persons for human freedom. Aristotle says virtues are those practices that we “choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy.”[8] Virtues both lead to happiness and constitute it, but they are also intentional practices, chosen for good reasons.  Aristotle’s concept of the virtues presupposes a certain view of human persons, namely that they possess at least the power of rationality and volition.

But is such a view at home in a naturalist worldview? Perhaps not. There have been serious challenges to the naturalist’s ability to have confidence in human reason. For example, Alvin Plantinga has powerfully argued that the conjunction of naturalism and atheistic evolution undermines the possibility that humans actually have reliable cognitive faculties. Evolution, after all, is not aimed at producing reliable ways of knowing, but only survival through replication. But there are also concerns about the naturalist account of volition or human freedom. Mark Linville and Angus Ritchie have given similar arguments more delimited to moral cognition in particular.

One view of human freedom is called libertarianism. On this view, a person has the power to choose between alternatives. If presented with the choice of eating either Lucky Charms or Raisin Bran for breakfast, Susan, by her choice, determines which cereal she will eat. The word determines is important here. The libertarian thinks that humans actually act upon the world; they are the ultimate cause of their own actions. (Source theorists assign primacy to this aspect of free choices—that the agent in question is the source of the action—rather than the ability to do otherwise; on occasion, such as after an individual has formed a good enough character, choosing not to help someone in need might become a practical impossibility, without the agent’s freedom being impaired; a source analysis would make good sense of this.) So if Susan chooses Lucky Charms over Raisin Bran (the only rational choice!), the cause of the choice is Susan herself. However, this view of human freedom is problematic for naturalists precisely because a libertarian free will is generally thought to require an immaterial soul.[9] John Searle says that “our conception of physical reality simply does not allow for radical [libertarian] freedom.”[10] And naturalist John Bishop admits, “Agent causal relations do not belong to the ontology of the natural perspective.”[11]

Instead of thinking as humans as unified, immaterial souls, naturalists tend to hold that humans are (highly complex) collections of atoms and molecules. There is nothing special about the parts that make up humans. The laws of physics that operate in the world operate the same way on the parts a human body. This is why Daniel Dennett says, “according to naturalism, “we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, and growth.”[12] Susan’s choice of Lucky Charms is determined by the physical interactions of the parts that make her up, and environemental factors functioning deterministically, and not by Susan herself—in the sense that would satisfy most source theorists. In fact, Dennett thinks that though most people imagine they have a libertarian free will, there is no “I” that steers a human; “the little man in the brain” is illusory.[13] Along these same lines, Sam Harris says, “What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery—one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contributions of chance).”[14]

However, some naturalists think that despite the fact that our actions are determined by physical laws, human freedom still exists. The view that determinism and free will are consistent is called compatibilism. Usually “freedom” is not understood to mean “to exercise volition between two alternatives,” but “to do what one desires.” A free action is still caused, but in the right sort of way. Susan desired Lucky Charms and so she does what she desires to do, even if she could not have done otherwise except in a counterfactual sense. Or, as naturalist Sam Harris puts it, to say one could have done otherwise “is an empty affirmation.”[15]

Now let us return to what Aristotle said about the virtues. He said that a person will practice the virtues because they are judged to be good and to bring about a desired end. This works easily with a libertarian, common sense understanding of free will. But it is more difficult to say that a person practices the virtues because she thought it was a good idea on naturalism. She may indeed think it was a good idea to do, but such thinking plays no causal role in her action. Harris and Dennett think that we tell ourselves a fictional story about why we make the choices we do (I chose to exercise because I think it is good for me), but these are only stories, useful fictions. The real reason has only to do with brain chemistry. Other naturalists speak in terms of reasons as causes, and wish to retain room for what they dub genuine deliberation—but to my thinking this is rather difficult to square with the deterministic implications of a naturalistic world, at least at the macroscopic level. At any rate, onsider what it  means for a virtue ethic if naturalists like Dennett and Harris are right. It follows that persons cannot direct their lives toward a certain end. Instead, they are only directed by nature. Practicing the virtues may be a good thing to do, but we cannot be any more (or less) virtuous than nature has determined us to be. It is also difficult to see how a person could be held deeply culpable for failing to be virtuous or be deeply praised for being virtuous. After all, she could not have done anything besides what she in fact did. Ascriptions of praise and blame, at least intuitively, seem to require that a person could have done otherwise, at least most of the time. Deterrence and rehabilitation are categories that can be explicated on naturalism fairly well, but not anything like retributive justice or giving people their just desserts.

Such reflections do not show that a virtue ethic and naturalism are, in fact, incompatible. However, they raise questions about how comfortable the fit really is. If we want to be virtue ethicists and naturalists, we will have to lower our expectations about what counts as virtuous activity. It cannot be, as Aristotle said, an action chosen by an agent for good reasons that is both a means and end of human flourishing. (Indeed, most naturalists have already abandoned conceptions of formal and final causes so central to Aristotle’s paradigm.) Instead, we must incorporate the compatibilist idea that humans are determined by nature so that they could not do otherwise. Then virtue ethics becomes more about describing what happens to lead to happiness, rather than actually pursuing it. Ethics becomes predominantly descriptive rather than prescriptive. This, to my thinking, seems a rather deflationary kind of ethic. If we want to retain Aristotle’s more robust ethic, we will likely have to adopt a worldview besides naturalism that better explains the role of the virtues.

Conclusion

Earlier I said that for a virtue ethic to be successful it must  explain three facts: (1) that humans have a telos, (2) that achieving the telos is the highest moral good for a human, and (3) that the way to bring about that telos is through the practice of the virtues. In light of the objections raised above, it seems that a virtue ethic requires a set of metaphysical commitments that naturalists do not have the resources to make. Therefore, the NVE is not well grounded. If you want to be an intellectually satisfied virtue ethicist, you should look for a more promising worldview than naturalism.

Notes: 

[1] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 69.

[2] Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness, 36.

[3] David L. Hull, The Metaphysics of Evolution, Suny Series in Philosophy and Biology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989). 73.

[4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Foot, 33.

[6]  Gary Watson expresses a similar objection: “An objective account of human nature would imply, perhaps, that a good human life must be social in character. This implication will disqualify the sociopath but not the Hell’s Angel. The contrast is revealing, for we tend to regard the sociopath not as evil but as beyond the pale of morality. On the other hand, if we enrich our conception of sociality to exclude Hell’s Angels, the worry is that this conception will no longer ground moral judgment but rather express it.” See Gary Watson, “On the Primacy of Character,” in Identity, Character, and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology, ed. Owen Flanagan and Amelie Rorty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 462-3.

[7] Foot, 36.

[8]Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Chapter 7. W.D.  Ross translation.

[9] J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imgao Dei. 44. There are other, non-theistic ways, of trying to explain how a human can have libertarian freedom. One possibility is pan-psyhcism. On this view, the universe itself has latent mental powers. When put in the right combination, minds occur. Another option is emgergentism. According this view, an entirely new substance emerges from certain physical arrangements. These theories, if true, might allow for libertarian freedom. But, it is not clear that either one deserves the title of “naturalism.” Both are also highly controversial, and for good reasons, such as their relatively obscurantist elements.

[10] John Searle as cited in J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 44.

[11] John Bishop as cited in J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 46.

[12] Daniel Clement Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 1st ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1991). 33.

[13] Daniel Clement Dennett, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 30.

[14] Sam Harris, Free Will, 40.

[15] Sam Harris, Free Will, 37.

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