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The Good Life

What We Still Know After the Modern Age

by Charles Siegel


copyright © 2016


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Ethics and Human Nature

The main tradition of classical philosophy had a clear idea of the good life, based on the flourishing of human nature. Modern philosophers rejected this tradition because they believed it is not logically prossible to derive ought-statements from is-statements, so it is impossible to base ethics on human nature.

This book shows that this logical principle is false. You can derive ought-statements from teleological is-statements, statements about function, goal, or purpose.

Philosophers rejected classical ethics not because of a logical problem but because they rejected Aristotle’s teleological view of nature. In the seventeenth century, philosophers accepted the new physics, which explained nature on the basis of mechanical causes, not of goals. If nature is not teleological, then it is impossible to base ethics on human nature.

Yet we still think teleologically about human nature when we base our idea of health on the proper functioning of our basic physical capabilities. Likewise, by basing the idea of arete on the proper functioning of all our capabilities, we can develop a version of classical ethics that is still convincing after the modern age.


Selections from The Good Life

Chapter 1: Two Views of Nature

The most important classical tradition of moral philosophy is based on the idea of natural flourishing. The nature of an acorn is to grow into an oak tree, and the nature of a baby is to grow into an adult with full human abilities. Gardeners help trees to flourish, to develop their natures fully. The virtues help people to flourish, to develop their human nature fully.

This classical tradition assumes that living things have natural goals, and it was originally based on the view that all of nature was teleological. In Aristotle’s Physics, inanimate matter has goals, like living things. For example, fire rises upward because its goal is to reach its natural location in the heavens. Matter moves toward its natural goals, just as the acorn grows toward its natural goal of becoming an oak.

This teleological view of nature was exploded in the seventeenth century, when the new physics of Galileo and Newton showed that matter moves because of forces that act on it, not because of its natural goals. Because they believed that all nature is composed of matter, many seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophers thought the new physics could also explain the behavior of living things. Some, such as Descartes, believed that we could explain the behavior of plants and animals in purely mechanical terms, but that humans had a soul that was not controlled by mechanical causes. Others, such as La Mettrie, believed that we could also explain human behavior in purely mechanical terms.

By destroying the teleological view of nature, the new physics undermined classical moral philosophy. The final causes of Aristotle, the natural goals at which things aimed, were replaced by the efficient causes of the new physics, the forces that make matter move. Matter had no inherent goals, so living things, which are made of matter, also had no inherent goals. Philosophers tried to create new ethical theories that were compatible with this new view of nature, but as we will see, they failed to create a firm foundation for moral philosophy.

The new physics helped pave the way for the industrial revolution by making it possible to develop technologies that use the forces of nature. And if living things - plants, animals and, if you do not believe in the soul, also humans - are nothing more than complex arrangements of matter with no inherent ends of their own, then you can manipulate living things with no more qualms of conscience than you have when you manipulate other resources used by the industrial economy.

This ideology was useful from the seventeenth century into the twentieth century. At that time, the West needed to overcome scarcity, so it needed to abandon scruples that stopped it from unleashing modernization.

But today, we need to control modernization, to subordinate technology and growth to human values. At a time when some scientists are claiming that they will soon "improve" humans through genetic engineering, we need to respect human nature enough to make a wise choice of biotechnologies. At a time when economic growth has become a threat to the environment, we need to be able to decide when we already have enough to live a good life. We need to modernize selectively, in ways that improve our lives - so we need some idea of the good life.

Reviving the main classical tradition of ethics, based on nature and on human nature, can move us beyond the moral theories of the age of modernization and can make it clear that we should modernize in ways that promote natural flourishing.

This classical moral theory is usually called "natural law," but this term is misleading. It implies that nature somehow has laws like the laws in the law books, so it also implies that there must be a Law Giver, putting off many people by bringing in religious issues that are not essential to this theory.

"Natural law" is actually a bad translation of the Latin "jus naturale." The English word "law" usually has the meaning of the Latin word "lex," a law enacted by the state. The Latin word "jus" is sometimes used to mean a law that is based on usage or custom and has not been enacted formally by the state, but it is also used to mean "right" or "justice," and jus naturale usually seems to have this second meaning - to mean that certain acts are wrong because they are in conflict with nature. Instead of "natural law," jus naturale should be translated as "natural morality" or "natural ethics."

Chapter 6: Facts and Values

Modern ethical theory has been stymied by the principle that ethics cannot be based on observation of human nature because it is logically impossible to derive normative conclusions from factual premises. In this view, ought-statements and is-statements are two logically different types of statements about the world, so you cannot derive one from the other. As we have seen, Hume was the first to make this claim, saying:

"… of a sudden I am surpris’d to find that instead of the usual copulation of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether unconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it."

We obviously cannot come to conclusions about what is based on premises about what ought to be. Hume and the ethicists who followed him believed that we just as obviously cannot come to conclusions about what ought to be based on premises about what is, because these are two different types of relation or affirmation.

We have seen that this principle has forced modern ethical theory to be empiricist (based on the "is") or rationalist (deriving the "ought" directly from reason). But despite its immense historical influence, the idea that it is logically impossible to derive ought-statements from is-statements is simply an error.
In this chapter, we will look at some cases where you have two is-statements as premises and you very obviously can derive an ought-statement (but not an is-statement) from them as a conclusion.

We will see that it is logically possible to derive ought-statements from teleological is-statements - statements about function, purpose, intention or some other telos.
We will distinguish between ought-statements that aim at some arbitrarily chosen end and ought-statements that aim at some natural end. We will call these two types of statements conditional imperatives and natural imperatives.

Conditional Imperatives

A conditional imperative (or "hypothetical imperative," as Kant would have called it) tells us that we ought to do something in order to achieve some end we have chosen but not that we have an absolute moral obligation to do it.

For example, if someone stops me on the street and asks me how she can get to the library, I might answer her by saying, "You ought to walk three blocks straight ahead."

But I am not using the word "ought" in an absolute moral sense here: if the person is going to the library to steal books or to murder the librarian, then (in the absolute moral sense) she ought not to go there at all. My statement really means, "In order to get to the library, you ought to walk three blocks straight ahead."

We can formulate my advice to this person as a syllogism with two premises that are is-statements and a conclusion that is an ought-statement:

Your goal is to walk to the library.
The library is three blocks straight ahead.
In order to walk to the library, you ought to walk three blocks straight ahead.

Notice that is not possible to draw a factual conclusion from these two factual premises. You cannot conclude "In order to walk to the library, you will walk three blocks straight ahead," since something may prevent you from actually walking there. From these two factual premises, the only conclusion you can derive is the ought-statement "In order to walk to the library, you ought to walk three blocks straight ahead."

This example shows very clearly that Hume and the ethicists who followed him were wrong to say that is-statements as premises can only lead to is-statements as conclusions, not to ought-statements.

Natural Imperatives

A natural imperative tells us that we should do something for the sake of a natural end. For example, we should exercise and avoid smoking so our lungs can do a good job of carrying oxygen to our bodies, or we should give food to starving people so they can live. In this case, we do not choose the purpose arbitrarily: it given by nature.

Here is a syllogism that lets us derive a natural imperative from two is-statements:

The function of the lungs is to supply the body with oxygen.
Aerobic exercise improves the ability of the lungs to supply the body with oxygen.
For your lungs to function well, you ought to do aerobic exercise.

Likewise, this syllogism lets us derive a negative natural imperative from two is-statements:

The function of the lungs is to supply the body with oxygen.
Smoking cigarettes reduces the ability of the lungs to supply the body with oxygen.
For your lungs to function well, you ought not to smoke cigarettes.

These syllogisms are similar to the syllogism used above to derive a conditional imperative. Here, too, it is not possible to draw a factual conclusion from these factual premises, only an imperative conclusion. You cannot conclude that you will exercise and will not smoke, since many people know the factual premises but are too weak willed to act on the obvious normative conclusions. You can conclude only that you ought to exercise and ought not to smoke.

If we expand these syllogisms by adding the premises "It is good for any natural capability to function well" and "We ought to pursue the good," we can drop the conditional clause from the conclusion and simply conclude: "You ought to exercise" and "You ought not to smoke cigarettes."

Because it is self-evident that it is good for any natural capability to function well and that we ought to pursue the good, we can state these natural imperatives without the conditional clause - just as your doctor does when he tells you, without any qualification, that you ought to exercise and that you ought not to smoke cigarettes.

These natural imperatives let humans and other living creatures flourish, and they are maxims of natural ethics.

Practical Syllogisms

The syllogisms we have just looked at are related to what logicians call practical syllogisms, syllogisms that have two factual premises and have an action as their conclusion. Though Aristotle did not use this term, historians of philosophy always trace practical syllogisms back to his discussion of syllogisms that lead to action.

Aristotle uses examples where the major premise is simply a desire: "I want to drink, says appetite; this is drink, says sense or imagination; and straightway I drink." He explains that "the actualization of desire is a substitute for inquiry or reflection."

Aristotle also uses examples where the major premise is a universal imperative based on human nature: "one conceives that every man ought to walk, one is a man oneself: straightway one walks," explaining that "the mind does not stop to consider an obvious minor premise; for example, if walking is good for man, one does not dwell upon the minor ‘I am a man.’"

The first of these examples is related to what we call conditional imperatives. It is not absolutely good for me to drink, since I may desire to drink so excessively that I am undermining my health. We can just derive the conclusion, "In order to satisfy my desire, I ought to drink."

The second is related to what we call natural imperatives. We can derive the conclusion "In order to actualize my human nature, I ought to walk" - which we can shorten to "I ought to walk."

There is one difference between the conclusions of Aristotle’s practical syllogisms (the actual acts of drinking or walking) and these ought-statements. Practical syllogisms lead immediately to action; but if some interruption prevents immediate action, you make an ought-statement instead of acting.

For example, if I want to go to the library and I know where it is, there is no interruption and I can simply act. We have the practical syllogism:

My goal is to walk to the library.
I know that the library is three blocks straight ahead.
(There is no verbal conclusion. The conclusion is my action of walking three blocks straight ahead.)

However, when there are interruptions that prevent immediate action, similar syllogisms conclude with an ought-statement instead of an action.

For example, there is an interruption if the person who acts does not know all of the factual premises. This is what happens when someone stops me on the street to ask for directions to the library, and I tell her to walk three blocks ahead. There is an interruption before the action, because she knows that she wants to go to the library, but she does not know where the library is. After she tells me that her goal is to go to the library, I know the two factual premises, so I can form the syllogism:

Your goal is to walk to the library (which she told me).
The library is three blocks straight ahead (which I already knew).
In order to walk to the library, you ought to walk three blocks straight ahead (which I tell her because I know the two factual premises that let me draw the conclusion she should act on).

If she knew both of the factual premises herself, there would be a practical syllogism instead of an ought-statement: she would simply walk to the library rather than stating a verbal conclusion. Since I know both premises but I am not the one who acts on them, the syllogism leads to an ought-statement rather than an immediate action. I make the verbal ought-statement so that she can take the action.

The conclusion could also be an ought-statement rather than an action if I am acting on a practical syllogism but I am threatened by some sort of interruption. For example, I begin with the same practical syllogism as before:

My goal is to walk to the library.
I know that the library is three blocks straight ahead.
(There is no verbal conclusion. The conclusion is that I begin walking to the library.)

But on the way to the library, I pass a bakery, and I am tempted to stop and eat, even though stopping will not leave me with enough time to do my work in the library. At this point, rather than just continuing to walk straight ahead without thinking, I might stop for a moment, look in the bakery window, and then say to myself:

I ought to walk straight ahead to the library.

In this case, I was acting on a practical syllogism, and then I verbalized the conclusion of that syllogism as an ought-statement to encourage myself to keep walking rather than being stopped by this interruption.

Moralistic ought-statements generally work this way. There is something that I know I ought to do or someone else ought to do, but some desire conflicts with my doing it or her doing it, so I make an ought-statement to encourage myself or her to do what is right. When I feel like eating too much, I remind myself that "I ought to keep my weight down," when I feel lazy, I remind myself that "I ought to do my work," and when I feel like lying to someone to swindle him out of his money, I remind myself that "I ought to be honest."

No doubt, we could give other examples of when people use syllogisms that lead to action, and when they use syllogisms that lead to ought-statements. But here, we just need to point out that, if two factual premises can imply an action as their conclusion, as Aristotle says of practical syllogisms, then two factual premises can also imply an ought-statement as their conclusion, because an ought-statement is a recommended action.

Human Nature and the Good

Most philosophers since Hume and Kant have claimed that we cannot derive moral principles from observations of human nature because it is logically impossible to derive ought-statements from is-statements.

In reality, the sort of natural imperative described above derives ought-statements from observations of human nature that tell us about the functions or inherent goals of people’s natural capabilities. Once we see that there is a natural capability with an inherent telos, we can conclude that we ought to do what is needed to allow the capability to achieve its telos.

There are some capabilities that everyone would agree on. Everyone can see that our lungs have the function of breathing, so we ought to exercise because it helps the lungs function well, and we ought not to smoke because it prevents the lungs from functioning well. Likewise, it is clear that there is a human ability to understand things, so it is good to be intelligent and knowledgeable and bad to be stupid and ignorant, and that there is a human ability to make music, so it is good to be musically talented and bad to be tone deaf. We ought to do things that develop our abilities, such as studying to develop our intelligence, and we ought not to do things that destroy our abilities, such as drinking so much that we destroy brain cells and dull our intelligence.

Yet there are disagreements about other human capabilities.

There are obvious examples where cultures have discovered capabilities that earlier cultures did not know about. Presumably, even the earliest humans realized that it is good to be healthy and bad to be sick, good to be strong and bad to be weak. Yet primitive societies did not know that people are capable of reading and writing. After literacy was invented and after societies realized that reading and writing are important human capabilities, they virtually all agreed that it is good to be literate and bad to be illiterate. Today, we all agree there is something wrong with someone who has a defect that prevents them from ever learning to read, and there is something wrong when someone is denied an education and does not have the opportunity to learn to read. Once we understand the factual premise that people have the capability of reading, we accept these normative conclusions.

Historically, disputes about the rights of different groups of people often depended on claims about their natural capabilities. For example, traditional Western societies believed that women did not have the capability to become fully educated or to manage their own business affairs, because they were too weak and emotional. When women began to do these things and showed that they did have these capabilities, this evidence of their capabilities was used to argue that they ought to be educated and independent so their capabilities could be fully developed. The factual premise that they had these capabilities led to the normative conclusion that they ought to be allowed to develop these capabilities.

Again, in most cultures at most times, people believed that it was good to follow society’s customs and rituals without questioning them. Philosophers in classical Greece, and many people in the West after the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, began to believe that we have the capability of using our conscience and our reason to decide what is right and wrong, so they believed that people should have freedom of conscience and freedom of thought to let them develop and use these capabilities. These capabilities still are not universally acknowledged: there are still religious authorities who claim that ordinary people should follow their doctrines unquestioningly, because most people are not capable of thinking about these questions for themselves.

These historical examples show that disagreements about human nature - factual disagreements about what capabilities people have - lead to disagreements about how people ought to live. The different factual premises lead to different normative conclusions.

There is no logical problem that stands in the way of deriving values from the facts about human nature. A teleological is-statement can imply an ought-statement. Because factual statements about human capabilities involve implicit teleology, they can imply ought-statements.

When medical studies first showed that smoking reduces lung capacity and can cause lung cancer and emphysema, everyone saw that these is-statements implied the ought-statement that people should give up smoking - and even philosophers should be able to follow this obvious train of reasoning.

Chapter 7: The Sciences Versus Scientism

Classical natural ethics was not abandoned because it is logically impossible to derive ought-statements from is-statements. It was abandoned because the West moved from a teleological view to a non-teleological view of nature.

When Hume first suggested that you cannot derive normative statements from factual statements, he was reacting to philosophers like Hobbes, who tried to base ethics on the new physics. Hobbes claimed that matter moves in the ways that the physicists describe, mechanically causing our appetites and aversions, and that therefore we ought to base ethics on these appetites and aversions. Hume was right to say that you cannot derive ought-statements from this sort of non-teleological is-statement. There is no more reason to base ethics on these mechanical causes than there is to base ethics on the fact that gravity makes stones move downward.

If you have a non-teleological view of nature as a whole, then it makes sense to say that we cannot derive normative statements from factual statements about nature, and philosophers like Hume and Kant had this view of nature in the back of their minds when they rejected attempts to base ethics on human nature.

Today’s philosophers sometimes say that we cannot revive natural ethics because we cannot go back to a teleological view of nature, like Aristotle’s. But in fact, the philosophers who tried to use the new physics to explain everything just replaced one dogmatic view of nature with another.

The Aristotelians were dogmatic to explain all of nature in teleological terms - to explain even the movement of falling stones in terms of final causes. They took the bit that they did know about biology, and they used it to explain all of nature.

Materialist philosophers from Hobbes onward were just as dogmatic when they tried to explain all of nature in terms of the new physics - to explain even the behavior of animals and people solely in terms of mechanical causes, as if they were clockwork automatons. They took the bit that they did know about the motion of matter, and they used it to explain all of nature.

In fact, we do not have a single totalizing theory that lets understand nature as a whole. We can understand the motion of inanimate matter in terms of mechanical causes, but we cannot understand living organisms without also thinking about function: the function of a plant’s leaves is to gather sunlight, the function of the eye is to see, the function of the intellect is to understand, and so on.
Modernist philosophers replaced the old dogmas of scholasticism with the new dogmas of scientism. Individual sciences let us understand parts of nature. Scientism uses these sciences as a starting point for speculative theories that try to explain everything.

We should be more modest and recognize that we can see that inanimate matter moves according to the laws of physics, that life developed according to the laws of evolutionary biology, and that human reasoning is valid if it follows the laws of logic; but we have not found one set of scientific laws that explains it all, from the big bang, to the human intellect, to the validity of the laws of science that are discovered by the human intellect.

We can understand pieces of nature, but we do not have a single theory that explains everything, so there is no value to windy generalizations about everything, such as "we cannot go back to a teleological view of nature."

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