Friday, July 13, 2007

Aristotelian constructivism in moral theory: THE MANIFESTO.

I finally graduated (Ph.D.) with my thesis on the distinction between well-being and other modes of value. Now I am cultivating a new project, which I hope I will have the chance to develop. This new idea I am going to call "Aristotelian Constructivism in Moral Theory".


1. Intro to Aristotelian Constructivism Aristotelian Constructivism in Moral Theory, like Rawls' Kantian Constructivism or Scanlon's constructivism tries to argue in favor of a type of moral reasoning, and defines moral truths as the truths which derive from that type of moral reasoning. It differs from the more famous Kantian forms of constructivism in the nature of the concepts it involves. While Rawl's Kantian Constructivism involves the idea of free and equal moral persons, the idea of the reasonable, and the idea of the social role of morality, and Scanlon's constructivism the idea of reasonable agreement among reasonable agents, Aristotelian Constructivism involves the concepts of eudaimonistic (so-called) virtue ethics.

2. Judgement The final judgement of the goodness of a theory which is a form of Aristotelian Constructivism is its ability to provide a good guide to practical deliberation which fits, in terms of wide-reflective equilibrium, with our considered judgments about what good practical deliberation and wisdom is, and with the criteria of goodness the theory itself uses.

3. A formal definition of Aristotelian constructivism. I shall therefore say that a theory is a form of Aristotelian Constructivism if it defines a form of moral reasoning based upon four concepts, namely,

  • virtue: a trait of character or skill that makes a person who has it admirable for that reason

  • flourishing (aka living well or having a good human life): flourishing should not be confused with well-being, if one has a narrow idea of well-being, similar to health, or if one thinks that well-being can and ought to be defined in abstraction from moral and perfectionist values. Living well, in this sense, involves the element of success and of meaning. In Aristotelian constructivism, it is a-priori that flourishing includes bare living (or surviving), as defined by biology but is not limited to it. Moreover in Aristotelian constructivism, it is a-priori that, ceteribus paribus, developing the virtues is part of flourishing. So the idea of human flourishing is partly constituted by the idea of the virtue, and that the perfectly good life features the development of the virtues to an excellent degree.

  • human nature: a conception of the limits and possibilities of development of normal human being. In Aristotelian constructivism, it is a-priori that the content of human nature constraints the possible contents of the notion of flourishing. It does so in two ways: 1) the"bare-living" aspect of flourishing follows from a biological account of human nature 2) flourishing is constituted by a range of activities that are characteristic of human nature 3) flourishing cannot exclude any of the activities that are characteristic and fundamental of a life that we can recognize as distinctively human (e.g. parenting).

  • Moreover the definition of human nature constrains the possible range of virtues, since a virtue ought to be an excellence that is compatible with the possibilities open to human nature. A virtue for humans cannot be the same thing as a virtue for things that do not have a body.

Any form of Aristotelian constructivism offers a theory of the relation between those terms, R. A classical example of R is the following:

R1: it is a necessary condition of a character trait or skill being a virtue that it contributes to the flourishing of the possessor of a virtue

But more generally, a specification of R will constist in a specification of the following universal formula:

  • ur-R: it is a necessary condition of a character trait or skill being a virtue that its possession by/absence in the x-number of human beings in the K-community characteristically (partially) contributes to/undermines the flourishing of the x-number of beings in the J-community

Notice that "community" is a set of beings, whose criterial definition is a parameter to be defined in the specific Aristotelian and constructivist theory under examination. A possible research project consists in determining the right definition for R (and for community).

4. Recursivity A characteristic feature of any theory that is a form of Aristotelian constructivism is that it has a recursive element: namely, virtue . Virtue appears both as a constituent of flourishing (although flourishing involves more than virtue, namely bare living and those activities that are characteristic and fundamental in any life that we can recognize as distinctively human.) Is this circular? Not necessarily.

5. Practical reasoning Another aspect of Aristotelian constructivism, something that makes it similar to the constructivits theories of Scanlon and Rawls, is that its purpose is not the philosophical definition of a set of moral standards, but rather the philosophical definition of a form of practical reasoning.

The theory provided by the combination of these terms by means of the relation R which is a specification of Ur-R should be considered as part of a method of reasoning for determining what one should do if one is virtuous, in specific situations, but only in special cases, when one is criticized, or it is unclear what virtue requires. Suppose that one is just, and is uncertain on the question of what justice requires him to do. Let us suppose that in our theory, R is R1. He may then reason following the reasoning scheme RS-R1

  1. such and such is human flourishing

  2. it is a necessary condition of X being a virtue that it characteristically promotes the flourishing of the person who has it

  3. performing F1 hinders my flourishing

  4. a person who has the virtue X would not do F1, he would F2 in this circumstance

Discovering the right value for R means discovering the reasoning scheme R.S. which which makes sense of our considered judgments about virtue, the good life, and human nature, and which proves to be a useful and full of insights in guiding our deliberation.

The claim of Aristotelian constructivism is that there are at least certain situations in which practical deliberation taking the form of 1-to-4 is unavoidable. Aristotelian constructivism does not hold that agents need to deliberate like this all the time. Nor do they need to deny that in certain occasions it might be satisfactoty to appeal to the type of practical deliberation defined by Rawls for the political realm and by Scanlon for the moral realm (see esp. What We Owe to Each Other. Harvard University Press.) The distinctive claim of Aristotelian constructivists is that at least in certain occasions, this type of deliberation is necessary, in that it is better than the alternatives. By saying "better", an Aristotelian constructivist means "more conducive to human flourishing".

6. Anti-foundationalism Notice that according to Aristotelian constructivism the contents of flourishing, virtue, human nature, community (not R) are not based on prior metaphysical truths, but are assumed to be "learned" through moral learning, and then "slowly revised" by applying the scheme of reasoning RS in actual deliberation. This holds also for the content of human flourishing. Let us suppose that the real form of Aristotelian constructivism is given by R1. Aristotelian constructivism holds that some time it would be good (that is, conducive to flourishing) to make the reasoning 1 to 4, starting from our conception of flourishing and ending in our conception of what a virtue requires from us. But the conception of flourishing from which we start does not derive from some prior metaphysical or naturalistic truth only. In fact, we are allowed to change our conception of flourishing in order to make it fit with other considered conviction about just, corageous, etc. action through reflective equilibrium.

7. The notion of human nature is partly empirical and partly normative.

It is empirical in that biological theory, which is a partial account of human nature, gives content to the idea of biological survival of the organism, which is an aspect of human flourishing. That is to say, our best "empirical" knowledge about biology tells us what people require in order to survive in the narrow biological sense. But the notion of human nature has also a mixed empirical and normative content, in that psychology and sociology are necessary to define what makes up human living when it involves more than mere survival. And the notion of human nature is also normative and empirical in a further sense, in that in order to say what counts as human flourishing we must form a conception of those activities that are characteristic and fundamental in any life that we can recognize as distinctively human. Here "distinctively human" presupposes a judgment that is both empirical and normative at the same time, because the content of the concept of what is "distinctively human" can be adjusted in order to reach the highest reflective equilibrium with the notions of human flourishing, and with the idea that the virtues contribute to human flourishing, spelled out in details. This entails that the theory implies a blurring of the distinction between fact and value.

8. The re-evaluation of the importance of metaphysics in ethics.

Some (all?) the conceptions of human flourishing are parts of a specific metaphysics, i.e. a specific global weltanschaung or theory of everything. Since there is a conceptual relation between what counts as human nature, what counts as human flourishing, and what counts as a virtue, theories of human nature have – in Aristotelian constructivism – a normative value. It might be argued that whatever normative importance metaphysics has, it must follow from some prior normative assumption about the normative importance of metaphysics. Moral truths cannot have a metaphysical basis: metaphysical truths are truths about what there is while normative truths are truths about how we ought to act (or to think, or feel). Deriving normative truths from metaphysical truths entails a violation of Hume's law.

Against this, Aristotelian constructivists hold that Hume's law is false. First of all, Aristotelian constructivists reject the fact/value distinction. Aristotelian constructivists are not afraid to pose the existence of metaphysical truths which have direct normative consequences, because they have a post-positivistic conception of metaphysical truth, according to which metaphysical truths are truths for a being whose receptivity to truth involves, already, a non-merely passive, but a value-laden eye.

8. Questions:

A. What distinguishes Aristotelian constructivism from a version of utilitarianism, such as utilitarianism of character or motive? Answer:

It might appear that Aristotelian constructivism does not differ substantially from consequentialists: it postulates the existence of valuable states of affairs (namely states of human flourishing) which are also states of well-being or states which are good for someone, it defines the virtues as character traits that are most conducive to such states of affairs, and it finally defines right (or virtuous) action as action which follows from a virtues character.

Despite the appearances, there are some remarkable differences. First of all, standard forms of consequentialism presuppose an idea of the good that is compelling in its own right (as a conception of a state of affairs that is “worth promoting”). This state of affairs is conceptually independent from the idea of virtue, and it provides a logically independent criterion for what state is a virtue. Utilitarian, or better welfarist, forms of consequentialism, which define the good as states of well-being (states which are good for someone), also assume that we knowledge about what is ultimately good for someone should be prior to knowledge about moral virtue or human perfection, and logically or metaphysically independent from it.

Against this, Aristotelian constructivism provides a recursive definition of flourishing, one that it includes a-priori the development of those human capacities which are regarded as virtues. Moreover, from the epistemological point of view, Aristotelian constructivists do not think that our knowledge of what counts as good, and our knowledge about human flourishing can derive from intuitively plausible premises, which are independent from our knowledge about what counts as virtuous behavior.

That is to say, Aristotelian constructivists reject the idea that the account of human flourishing ought to be "normatively insulated from” an account of what character traits are admirable or count as excellent or virtuous. In other words, while utilitarianism is based on a "foundationalist" and "atomistic" idea of moral theory, based on independent but intuitively valid premises about the good, Aristotelian constructivism holds that we cannot justify a conception of human flourishing in abstraction from our conception of virtue.

B. In Aristotelian constructivism, it is a-priori that flourishing includes bare living or surviving, as defined by biology, and that the realization of more complex human possibilities adds ceteribus paribus to human flourishing. But what counts as biological health, and what counts as a human possibility, is the object of biology and social science. Aristotelian constructivist hold that all the notions of biological health and of what counts as a human possibility are in reflective equilibrium with the notion of flourishing and through this with the concept of a virtue. But since the concept of a virtue is a moral one, this makes human nature (a fact) depend (in part) from morality, that is to say, from justifiable beliefs about what ought to be done or ought to be the case. Isn't that absurd?

Answer: Aristotelian constructivism assumes that there is no clear boundary between matters of fact and matters of value. There is no scandal in revising a theory about human nature if it contrasts with a plausible account of flourishing, just as there is no scandal in revising a moral theory if it is based on a theory of human nature that is not coherent with our best knowledge of psychology or sociology.

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