Tuesday, August 28, 2007

equal opportunity for goods and equality of goods for which people are not responsible

Susan Hurley has pointed out that the following two notions are equivalent:

equal opportunity for goods = equality of goods for which people are not responsible

". Perhaps the end of luck egalitarianism is not equality of goods for which people are not responsible, but rather equality of opportunity for goods. However, if these are equivalent, the above argument from ends to means still holds. Are they equivalent? I suggest that they are, and my argument for this suggestion is my reply to this objection. Roemer calls his interpretation of luck egalitarianism ‘equality of opportunity’, which is one expression of the choice exemption, in the way I have just explained. 16 However, let us consider the relationship between equality of goods for which people are not responsible and equality of opportunity for goods in more general terms, to see why they are equivalent."
"Background and context: the talented choice dilemma"
In Sypnowich, Christine. The Egalitarian Conscience - Essays in Honour of G. A. Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Oxford Scholarship Online. Oxford University Press. 28 August 2007

Goes on here

the dilemma of political philosophy

It just occurred to me by reading discussions regarding distributive justice and luck-egalitarianism, that a big source of problems for political philosophy is that devising rules for the organization of political societies requires to regard human beings in two different perspectives.

Think about Rawls' argument against equality and for the difference principle (which has been famously attacked by G. Cohen). Rawls argues that differences in income are required to make people willing to work more. They are treated as incentives, and when the effect of the existence of incentives on production goes to the advantage of the worst off class in society (which might happen through a suitably revised redistribution scheme) income differences are justified.

Cohen's famous remark is that people are responsible for their choices, and therefore they don't have to expect an incentive. People should work more for moral reasons.

Now it is striking that Rawls and Cohen place human beings in two radically different perspectives. When Rawls thinks of incentives he treats human psychology as a given. One might express this by saying that his view of people's psychology is (in that respect) instrumental. The incentive argument treats individuals as means not as ends, in so far as they are provided incentives in order to elicit a behavior which will be used for a goal - the good of the worst off class in society - which is not their goal in that behavior. And why can we say that it is not their goal? Because if the good of the worst off class in society were the goal for which they were doing the extra hours of work, they would not need an incentive to do that in the first place. But what is most important is that here Rawls is looking at social realities as formed by individuals regarded in a "third-person" perspective, as if they are natural objects, whose behavior is (partly) explained by certain natural (psychological) laws.

In Cohen's reply, on the contrary, human beings are regarded as free wills. Cohen's expects people to work extra hours for an egalitarian ethos. Cohens thus treats people as free will, as agents which are responsible for the choices they make and the reasons they have.

So maybe this indicates why political philosophy is so difficult and there are so many different schools, methodologies, and ways to understand and explaining them. Because political philosophy wants to address us simultaneously as moral agents and as agents who are victims of their own psychology. It has to do the former if it wants to be taken seriously at the normative level (the normative level requires criticism of existing customs and moral psychology), and it has to do the latter if its prescriptions want to apply to the social world (which is, after all, made by humans in flesh and bones, not by pure rational, noumenal actors).

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Playing God with human nature.

Rebecca Roache on Ethics etc discusses arguments in favor and against that sort of bio-engeneering that she calls "human enhancement" ("that is, the use of medicine and technology to raise human capacities above what we might consider to be normal", as she writes) based on the notion of "human nature". I posted a reply there, saying that intuitively the strongest objection against the development or the making available of technologies for human enhancement has to do with their threatening human equality and diversity. (Equality, in so far as they will allows the richest and more powerful to develop their competitive advantage as against the poorest, and diversity in that the process is subject to market pressures and it will prize those capacities that are of current market value as opposed to those which are truly valuable or can be discovered to be valuable.)

This is the sort of reasons that I would give for my opposition against the development or availability of technologies of human enhancement. However, this argument relies on further undiscussed premises, namely that human equality and human diversity are valuable. These premises are far from self -evident (they are even contradictory, when diversity and equality are understood as referring to equality and diversity in the same respect.) I myself do not believe that equality as such is unconditionally valuable.

In this point, I shall try to explain why I think that the sort of equality and diversity that are threatened by human enhancement techniques are important. The funny thing is that my explanation for this connects back to the fundamental theme of that threat, namely whether human nature has direct normative implications.

In this post, I argued for a view of flourishing that was connected to the idea of human nature, where human nature is understood not so much in terms of empirical generalizations, but in terms of those features which are central for our self-image as humans, features such that if somebody were lacking them we would not recognize her anymore as a human being. This applies also at the species level: the philosophically interesting notion of human nature regards features such that we would not recognize as "human" a species that did not have such characteristics.

Now I think that human equality is a fundamental aspect of human nature in this sense. One of Aristotle's arguments in favor of "constitutional government" was the fact that no man on earth is superior to every other man and every other group of man in virtues and judgment. (Aristotle famously wrote - in the politics - that a group of somewhat average virtuous man can be wiser, collectively, than the most virtuous individual.) While Aristotle thought that this reasoning included only males and Greeks, I believe it applies to the human species in full generality. Similar remarks were made by Hobbes, who wrote in the Leviathan that no man is cleverer than others to a significant degree (he also wrote, relevantly, that no man was stronger than others to such a degree that a group of other people could not threaten his life).

Now such facts about humans are the sort of facts, I believe, that characterize the human species to such a degree that a species to which these facts did not apply would not be anymore recognizable as the "human" species anymore. Human enhancement, therefore, threatens a sort of equality which is deeply importance in that it characterizes ourselves as species in a way that is central for our self-image as humans.

This example is also useful to explain the sort of reasoning which leads, I believe, to determining something as an aspect of human nature in a normatively significant sense. The idea of human equality that I just spoke about is one of these truths which, although empirical or descriptive in a sense, is subject to moral learning of a sort. It became to be part of our self image as a species, historically speaking, in a process that is marked by significant moral change (some people would say "progress"). I believe that the statements that humans are equal in the sense I just described looks as a factual descriptive statement, on the face of it, but could cannot be justified in "purely" empirical terms, or better, to people who see the world through morally distorted lens and who are not cognitively impaired or irrational (in any other sense-if you like).

The process through which we acquired the image of ourselves as a species of individuals who can be different, but not so significantly different that any one man is distinctively superior to any other man (or group) was clearly marked by its dependence from the acquisition of a "moral" outlook. And I believe that still any possible justification for this claim cannot work if it is taken in isolation from a certain way of framing and weighing "empirical observations", which in turn is not independent from our moral outlook . And this is true, despite the idea that the business of descriptive propositions should be that of "mirroring" the world, according to the "naive realist view".

A similar reasoning can be made about the idea of diversity. The idea of diversity that I have in mind is one that is coherent with the sort of equality I have referred to above. Side by side with equality, a mark of the human species is the diversity in people's traits, characters, and faculties. This type of diversity is not in opposition with equality, on the contrary it makes it possible. For the reason why people can be said to be equal in some fundamental sense, is that there are so many different traits, characters, abilities, and so on, - in short - there are too many dimensions along which the value of a human being can be determined or appreciated. This makes it difficult if not impossible, to compare the "excellence" of two different people (as everybody who has more than one friend knows).

Friday, August 24, 2007

Identity Politics?

This guy here, called "the stranger" argues that in the U.S., democrats win in the cities and republican win in the countryside. I have no opinions about the accuracy of the analysis. What I want to comment upon is the prescriptive conclusion of the author, namely:

"If Democrats and urban residents want to combat the rising tide of red that threatens to swamp and ruin this country, we need a new identity politics, an urban identity politics, one that argues for the cities, uses a rhetoric of urban values, and creates a tribal identity for liberals that's as powerful and attractive as the tribal identity Republicans have created for their constituents."
and then, especially:

"We can create a new identity politics, one that transcends class, race, sexual orientation, and religion, one that unites people living in cities with each other and with other urbanites in other cities."
So it is implicit in the reasoning of this person that a political group will win not by trying to persuade those who do not agree already with the preferred platform, but by selling the preferred platform to those who already buy into it.

I find this logic rather shaky. What do you think about it?

Google Custom Search

I've finally discovered how to add a search engine for my blog in my blog. (I know there is a "search this blog" function in the navbar. but I do not find it very visible.)

For people who do not know about it, there is a service (free, as usual. But we know Google expands its empire this way), called "Google Custom Search" http://www.google.com/coop/cse/, which allows you to create a search engine which ranges over the sites that you decide.

Given that I liked the idea, I also created and added in the same site a "Philosophy Blog's Custom search", adding all my favorite blogs, like "Philosophy etc.", "PEA Soup", and many other philosophy blogs beside those I listed in my favorite link's section of the site.

This is its independent address:


Hope you enjoy.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

well-being vs. flourishing

Is there anything more than a verbal difference between the notion of “well-being” and the notion of “flourishing”?

I think there is. But it makes only sense to analyze the nature of this distinction by looking at the
conceptual connection between well-being/flourishing and other elements of the philosophical theories to which they belong. It is not enough to question our common-sense intuitions about the two notions: the difference between the two is too subtle to be discovered in this way.

Both notions concern the idea of a good life, in some sense. But “well-being” is normally used by welfarist utilitarians and welfarist that are deeply influenced by that tradition (e.g. the majority in the English speaking tradition) to refer to a notion of the “good” which makes most sense of a dichotomy between “personal well-being” on one side and “the well-being of others” on the other. To put it in a diagram, it is something like:

with personal well-being and morality conceived as two distinct values or goals. The promotion of personal well-being is conceived as the goal of prudence or practical rationality, when the latter is narrowly conceived. It is the sort of theoretical object that allows to describe the problem called “prisoner's dilemma”.

The notion of flourishing is used mostly by Aristotelian philosophers. It indicates the good life in a somewhat broader sense than well-being. It corresponds to a life in which the different needs of a being that is rational and social are satisfied and in equilibrium. It assumes at the outset that a human being is a social animal and that it can develop well only in a context which develops well. In a diagram:

Flourishing is understood as a broader notion of the quality of life, which includes all those activities which are human beings in general exercise, and that are part of what makes them human. Since some of these activities are not self-interested ones, or are forms of altruistic behavior, the relation of flourishing to the virtues and to forms of behavior that are not clearly self interested is one of part to whole.

New revision: stoicism and hedonism

I have revised the following log, which also badly needed it:


Hedonism and Stoicism: a comparison

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

New revisions

I finally found the time to revise two posts that needed it badly, namely:

"Why Dworkin thinks there must be volitional well-being?"



"Dworkin: challenge and impact"


I have revised the latter substantially. In this post I wanted to shed some light on Dworkin's distinction between the "impact" and the "challenge" model of critical well-being. I had had the right intuition, but the post was totally confusing and impossible to follow. Now I think that I have managed to express my point clearly.

Monday, August 20, 2007

could anybody be of help

I know this is desperate....

This event is taking place in Berkeley

Tue Oct 9, 2007
Howison Library — 4:10 pm
Townsend Visitor
Hilary Putnam (Harvard University)
Gödel, Chomsky and Human Nature

were anybody to make a recording or take notes for her own use could she make it public or send it to me? I'm too curious....
(and too distant to attend. I wish I could pay prof. Putnam a flight to Italy)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Human essence, human flourishing and liberal rights.

The most important questions of ethics are, arguably, what is a virtuous behavior, and what counts as a good life.
According to a philosophy inspired by Aristotle, the answer to this question depends largely from our answer to another question, namely: what is human nature? This is because in order to live well or flourish one must exercise those activities that are characteristic of human nature to a high degree.

Many people think that human nature cannot be defined.

Other people think that, even if human nature can be defined, it has no importance for moral questions whatsoever, and even for the question "how should I live?", "how can I flourish?".

Those people are usually political liberals, who think that a human being should be free to give his life the shape he or she prefers, provided that they do not provoke serious harm in others. They also believe that if we take seriously the idea that human beings have a nature, and that questions concerning flourishing depend on them, we will sooner or later abandon liberalism, the idea that certain basic individual freedoms should be protected by the institutional arrangements of a just polity.

You will now see that illiberal consequences do not follow necessarily from thinking that the idea of human flourishing is partly determined by the idea of human nature . I shall now try to present what, in my view, was the biggest discovery of Ancient Greek reflection, and how this discovery puts us in the right direction to solve the question about the human good and the nature of the virtues, a direction that does not undermine, but on the contrary supports, the idea of a liberal community.

According to Aristotle the highest good is what is always wanted for its own sake and is never wanted for the sake of something else. This is widely agreed to be happiness. (Nicomachean Ethis, book I). But everybody can agree about this, and still disagree with anybody else about what happiness consists in. According to Aristotle, in order to answer this question we must ask ourselves what is the proper activity (function/ergon) of a human being. And this cannot be anything but that of living a certain kind of life. What kind of life? Since living is an activity, it must be the life that comprises the highest activity a human being is capable of. But what is this?

Aristotle's answer to this question was: rational activity, that is, the activity of the rational part of the soul. Aristotle, like Plato, identified the three most basic types of activity which are characteristic of a human living thing with the three parts of the human soul: the vegetative part (or activity) concerning growth and reproduction, the perceptual part or activity, and the rational part or activity. The reason why he picked up the rational part of the soul as the one in whose activity the proper business of a human being consisted is easy to see: while we share the vegetative and the perceptual function with other living things, only man (and women) can be said to be properly rational. Hence the proper function of a human being is the exercise of the rational part of the soul, and happiness consists in the excellent exercise of this function i.e. thinking and acting according to the excellence of the rational part of one's soul. (Nicomachean Ethics Book I, 7).

As an account of human happiness, this formulation, as Aristotle recognized, leaves still a lot of ambiguity. We still do not know, for example, what is the most excellent way of using the rational part of the soul consists in. As he himself put it, this is only "an outline of the good; for we must presumably first sketch it roughly, and then later fill in the details."

I think that we can follow Aristotle and start from the assumption that rationality is so characteristic of our own picture of ourselves as a species, that we should not accept any account of human flourishing which does not include the exercise of rationality understood in some way. I will now take some further ideas from other Greek authors and try to spell out a view of human nature and of human flourishing that fits most naturally with these Aristotelian foundations, and - as I hope it will be clear - can be appropriated by contemporary liberals. The view that I am laying forward - I believe - can fill some of the gaps that Aristotle's account left open, while remaining in substantial agreement with his way of conceiving the nature of such fundamental problems.

How do we know what it means to exercise the rational part of the soul well? In order to start this question, let us come back to the idea that the ideal of excellence which applies to a human being must have some connection to his nature. But what is human nature? In a way, we have already answered this question, by saying that human nature consists in the exercise of his rational activity. This is in fact what characterizes human beings in opposition to other living beings. But "rational activity" is very vague. It seems that rational activity can be the feature of a life that is very evil, and even of a life that is full of sorrow for the person who is living it.

It seems that in order to account well for the idea of human flourishing, we cannot simply identify it with the excercise of rationality. We need a thicker characterization of our object. Following Aristotle, it is natural to try to develop this thicker characterization taking it from an examination of human nature.

But here a fundamental difficulty arises: it seems that - beside human nature - human beings live in too many different ways - think about the life of an opera singer, a fisherman, a priest, the member of an aboriginal tribe, a computer programmer, a thief, a womanizer, an Islamic fundamentalist attempting to bring out some political change by means of violent means (e.g. terrorism), so that to identify one of these ways of living with human nature means to either deny the fact of human diversity, or to express some arbitrary preference for one way of life and against some other.

I believe that, at this stage of the inquiry, we cannot reject or close our eyes in front of this fundamental truth of human existence. This means, in a way, that there is no way to circumvent the problem the diversity of human ways of life presents us with. On the other hand, we should ask us whether this is really a problem for our account. Some philosophers have reached this stage and have concluded from it that the whole Aristotelian project of understanding the virtues in terms of human flourishing, itself understood in terms of the perfection of human nature is bound to fail.

On the contrary, I believe that what we have found at this stage is simply the beginning of a plausible answer. What we should do is simply to examine what is common and irrenunciable in all those ways of life for which the question whether they are valuable or worth pursuing arises at all. I shall assume at the outset that all ways of life for which the previous question can be sensibly asked.

What all these ways or project of life have in common is their being projects. By this I mean, that the way of life of the an opera singer, a fisherman, a priest, the member of an aboriginal tribe, a computer programmer, a thief, a womanizer, an Islamic fundamentalist are all ways of life in which we can presume that the subject whose life it is in question sees something in that life as good or worth pursuing, and does some short term (or even long term) planning of her actions in such a way as to achieve the desired result.

But what does it imply that one regards some goal of life as worth pursuing? It implies, at least, that one asks oneself the question whether that goal is valuable in the first place. For what distinguishes a human being from an animal, and what clearly applies to all the people which we have described, is that the main aims around which their life is adopted as an aim in virtue of the implicit or explicit recognition of its worth. The life the an opera singer, a fisherman, a priest, the member of an aboriginal tribe, a computer programmer, a thief, a womanizer, an Islamic fundamentalist is something more than a sum of instinctual responses or automatic reactions. It is a life which, even when it is not fully autonomously chosen, is still chosen in some minimal sense or at least endorsed and valued.

I believe that the following transcendental principle is true: we cannot regard a way of life or one of our life's structuring goals as good or worth pursuing if we are not able to entertain the question whether they are good or worth pursuing. A person who is not able to conceive what it would mean that his own life goal is worthless cannot be said to be able to appreciate its worth. This is not to say that a person must often or at least more than seldomly actively doubt the worth of her own life project, an attitude that certain historically minded philosophers identify with the rise of "modernity". In some extreme cases it may only mean that one is able to regard other goals as worthless or less worth, and has therefore the conceptual resources to understand what it would mean for his own life project to be worthless or to have less worth than she currently ascribes to it. (That is to say, he is able to conceive a goal as viewed, from a subject's point of view, as an unworthy goal.) Without this capacities, a person could not be said to value a life goal or project at all.

But if we concede this, we must also concede that such a person must have the capacity to question the worth of his or her own project- if only in a way that is emotionally superficial and practically ineffective. And if this must is conceded, it is not so difficult to conclude that human beings are at the most fundamental level beings whose nature is that of asking themselves the question concerning what is good and worth pursuing. For if I am not able to ask this question, I cannot have the conceptual capacity of distinguishing worthy from worthless activities, and therefore - in virtue of the former reasoning - of regarding anything as worthy at all, and of having a life which is a human life in the fullest sense.

It follows from this, that whatever goal a man or a woman has, it must also have the goal of discovering what human flourishing or happiness is.

The activity of looking for an answer for the question "what is the good life" is - I believe - the most certain among the characteristic or essential features of human nature. If this is true, we can understand why some philosophers believe in the existence of an unsurmontable "is-ought" gap. It is true that there is no direct connection between how most people live and how one ought to live. (This the only way in which there is an is-ought gap.) But this is true only because human nature is not defined by a statistical generalization about human behavior. The truth about human nature is that human beings are not born with knowledge of what is they ought to become, and that they need to conquer this knowledge, because they cannot have lives that are fully human without it.

This is, I believe, the deepest truth which was expressed in the philosophy of Socrates, and - to a lesser degree - in that of the philosophers which viewed themselves as his followers. For the ever lasting heritage of Socrate's thought was, beside the idea that a good life is a virtuous life, an even more revolutionary principle, namely, the importance of an examined life.

Someone wrote that the essence of man is that of not having an essence. This sentence is a truth hidden by a contradictory form. For we can ascribe an essence to a human being, which is, as the former statement suggests, that we need to discover what truly defines our flourishing, perfection as human beings. So we both have and do not have knowledge about the human essence, since what we know is that its essence is that of needing to discovery what its essence is.

Aristotelian philosophers believe that the notion of human flourishing is connected to the notion of human nature. Therefore, if flourishing consists in acting according to the excellence of one's nature, and a man or woman's nature is that of having to discover what flourishing is, human flourishing includes the activity of discovering what a good life is (and the virtues that are necessary for it).

Let us finally come to the question of what are the virtues. If flourishing consists in acting according to the excellence of one's nature, and a man or woman's nature is - most deeply- that one has to discover what flourishing is, a man or woman cannot reach perfection or flourish in the fullest sense without those virtues which are required for the possibility of this discovery. We can therefore conclude that the following principle is plausibly true:
If x is a stable disposition, required for leading a life which has among its goals that of discovering what human flourishing is, x is a virtue.

This account includes traits which are related to the characteristic ways in which human beings, as a species, learn to find answers about human flourishing, namely, by joint activity and dialogue. (This is clearly an anthropological universal if there is any.) It therefore includes traditional virtues such as honesty, but also patience, perseverance, tact, openness towards others, open-mindedness, trust, intelligence, respect for established traditions, etc.

Moreover, the Aristotelian conception of flourishing which is conceived as an excellent development of one's being, leads to view the virtues are not only means but also aspects of human flourishing, because virtues can be conceived as aspect of the mind or aspects of rational activity. They are both conditions of flourishing and aspects of that which flourishes.

Notice that in this reasoning I have started from the life of a person whose actions are structured around a goal to which he or she ascribes some worth. Of course, there might be someone who spends her own life sitting in front of tv eating chips without finding anything good or worthwhile in what she is doing, keeping on on that kind of life just out of inertia, just out of lack of or inability to desire to do anything different from that. But these lives enter in our account of the diversity of human ways of living in a different way from the former ones. The life of such a couch potato is not even a "way of life" in the fullest sense, by which I mean a way of living which might challenge our beliefs about the good life and the virtues, in the same way as we might feel challenged by the other ways of life I quoted. Alternative ways of life are not cases in which action, thinking, control and meaningfulness are reduced to some minumum, but lives which are built around a goal that are different and sometimes unconciliable. They are actualized by people who are able to take that goal as a premise for action and as a source of meaning for his daily movements and actions.

We can now finally see why there is no real contradiction between this sort of Aristotelian moral theory, which grounds statements about the good in statements about human nature, and liberal institutions. For this moral theory clearly supports in its own way liberal institution: it contributes to what Rawls calls an "overlapping consensus" over the way our polities have to be ruled.

If you are an Aristotelian in political theory, you will think that that one of the goals of the community and of the government it express is that of fostering the good life of the individual which compose it, and that the "good life" in this sense is also a virtuous life. Or more succinctly, a government must not only protect the life or the interest of its members but also (and for that reason) attempt to make them more virtuous.

Many philosophers think that if you believe this, you cannot favor liberal institution. But if my account of human nature, flourishing and of the virtues is right, this is wrong. For only an institution which guarantees certain basic liberties, such as freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and freedom of political partecipation and activity does not preclude its members the most fundamental opportunities to flourish and develop the virtues, as they are conceived here. Without basic liberal rights there cannot be the soil in which flourishing human beings, who possess virtues such honesty and open-mindedness, can grow.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The partiality of truth and philosophical methodology.

Hegel's idea of dialectics is no longer fashionable: we no longer think of different philosophical theories or viewpoints as rational stages in a progress which leads unavoidably to the absolutely true theory of everything.

However, I tend to agree with Hegel, and disagree with current analytical philosophy on a fundamental idea. Let me explain. Whenever I consider a philosophical theory or position it seems to me to be partly right and partly wrong. But philosophical theories do not seem to be wrong in the same way in which theories in the natural science are. Philosophical theories seem to be wrong in that they are partial and one sided: they contain some truth, but only the partial truth.

Consider for example moral theories. The most popular candidates for truth nowadays, namely Kantianism, Constractualism and Utilitarianism, all seem to capture and adequately reflect some features of our moral experience. But they seem to go wrong when they try to reduce those aspects of our moral experience which do not fit in their schemes to those ones for which they account.

My personal sensation is that in philosophy we should always strive to achieve a better and more plausible synthesis of those competing lines of research that we receive from the tradition. I cannot see how we can hope to improve our philosophical understanding of the world unless our attitude towards different theories is that of understanding the (partial) truth they express. As a matter of fact, nobody has ever managed to refuse any big philosophical system or theory, and as Korsgaard insightfully writes ‘[u]sually the “standard objections” that one school of thought raises against another are question-begging in deep and disguised ways’ (Creating the Kingdom of Ends, p. xiii). Real progress seem to derive from our striving to understand what aspect of the human condition a particular philosophy captures and gives expression to; and if different philosophical theories capture and express different aspects of the human condition, there is no reason why real philosophical progress should not obtain from the attempt to achieve a better synthesis, one that is faithful to the complexity of human experience. This idea of philosophical progress and understanding is distinctively "Hegelian", in that it assumes that the philosophical theories which our tradition deliver to us are at best some form of partial truth, and that it is our duty, as philosopher, to try to overcome their limitations. It is also Hegelian in that it thinks that the truth of previous theories ought to be preserved within a broader philosophical outlook, rather than rejected.

If this is true in general, it suggests that we should assume that progress in philosophy and science cannot be achieved by sticking to the same methodological and epistemological principles. Scientific progress seems to take place when a somewhat fallibilist attitudes is adopted by researcher. The scientific marketplace sees often competing explanations for the same phenomena; and the success of one often determines the fall of the other. Moreover competing explanations are in most cases contradictory, and they cannot live well together. (An apparent contradiction is the co-existence of general relativity and quantum mechanics. But physicists are currently unsatisfied with this.) Last but not least, when we deal with naturalistic scientific explanations it is very difficult to see how we could preserve the truth of two competing theories by uniting them into one. Of course there are huge exceptions to this in the history of science, viz. the capacity of general relativity to explain the results of Newton's mechanics in its own terms. But these are events that happen rarely in the history of science: within periods of "normal" science what we find are competing explanations of the same phenomenon, which all share certain assumptions, and do not attempt to incorporate the results of competing theories in the same way in which Newton's laws could be obtained from general relativity when applied to a special context.

On the contrary, the most widespread attitude in analytic philosophy is to assume that the right way to develop philosophical understanding is to mimic the idea of the cultural marketplace as formed by various competitors for truth over a certain subject. I do not doubt that what every scholar searches is a deeper understanding of the philosophical issues that interest her, and that the theories of adversaries are carefully studied and understood. However, the way to enter the debate is that of finding a hero to defend or an adversary to attack. One normally works over some details of a theory with the hope to refuse the objection raised by the adversaries. This kind of work is useful because it leads to a greater understanding of a theory and of its possibilities; but if I am right, our real goal cannot be that of proving a certain theory wrong or a certain tradition right. Philosophical understanding works in a different way.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

What is the relation between virtue and human flourishing?

In a previous post I laid forwards the basic idea of Aristotelian Constructivism. Aristotelian Constructivism proposes itself as a method of/guide to moral reasoning, and claims itself to be better in this role than alternative methods (such as contractarian reasoning, as explained by T.M. Scanlon in “what we owe to each other”).

Aristotelian constructivism holds that there is at least a certain significant part of moral reasoning in which the notion of a virtue and of human flourishing play a ineliminable role. (It does not hold that all moral reasoning must work in this way. More often than not, moral reasoning is based on premises that do not need to be made explicit.)

Supposing that we want to determine whether X (e.g. charity) is a virtue. This kind of reasoning is based on discovering or making clear to oneself what a virtue requires by connecting the notion of virtue and flourishing in the following way:

1. X is a virtue and it consist of such and such

2. X is (typically, if unconditionally exercised) necessary to the flourishing of person P

3. such and such way of acting is not necessary for the flourishing of person P

4. X is not a virtue

One big question is the character of the premise “2”. Eudaimonistic virtue ethics is normally understood as involving the following claim:

2a X is (typically, if unconditionally exercized) necessary for the flourishing of person whose virtue it is

The problem with 2 is that it allegedly cannot account for virtues such as benevolence or justice.

It is tempting to substitute 2' with some principle in which virtues are connected not the the flourishing of a single individual but to that of the community, for example:

2b X is a virtue only if its possession by a higher number of individual leads to a higher level of flourishing of more individuals in the community.

The problem with “2''” is the same as the problem of the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number: you cannot both aim to increase the total of happiness and the number of people who are happy. If “2'' is understood as a maximizing principle of the usual sort, so that the total level of flourishing is what counts, the principle faces all the usual problems deriving from aggregation by sum. If levels of individual flourishing are simply added this leaves open the problem of how to deal with virtues which tend to increase total flourishing at the expense of the people who are worst off in society.

One could therefore try to formulate an “altruist” version of the principle which does not look at the maximizing consequences of their existence, but at its impact on every single individual, such as the following:

2d: X is a virtue only if were everyone to lack X some virtuous person in the community would be reduced to bare living and could not flourish as an individual, or would die.

The problem with this sort of formulation is that it leads to ignoring virtues which are of some importance for human flourishing, but are not required for human existence, such as kindness. One of the strengths of virtue theory, as opposed to ethics of principle, is that it sensibly allows for an inclusion of traits of character which very much determine the way a problem is handled, such as kindness. And we do not want to loose this welcome feature of virtue theory.

Something similar applies to a “sufficientarian” formulation of 2, something along the lines of

2e: X is a virtue if any increase in the number of people who have that trait brings more people to have a satisfactory level of flourishing.

Here again, kindness would be a counter-example. Although kindness contributes to human flourishing, it hardly helps to move from the worst conditions to a “barely enough” condition.

One may imagine an “egalitarian” definition of this principle, for example:

2f: X is a virtue only if the increase of the number of people who have it leads to a more equal distribution of degrees of flourishing

This formulation suffers from all the usual paradoxes of equality. Equality is hardly a compelling ideal in itself when it can only be achieved by making everybody worse off.

Therefore, I believe that the problem of justifying the existence of virtues which are “other regarding” should be dealt with in a different way. Our starting point should be the notion of what it means of a human being to flourish, in the light of the fact that man is a social animal, and that the human condition is characterized by the fact of dependence on others, for example dependence as children, as ill people or as old people. As we have seen, the idea that developing the excellences of one's nature (that is the virtues) is part of what it means for a man to flourish is true a-priori in any form of Aristotelian constructivism. Flourishing involves not only developing the excellences of a human being qua human being, but also those excellences which are required by the execution of those roles which are normally constitutive of human nature. It can be claimed that the role of a care taker is one of these role, in so far as every one is a father or a mother, or at least some mother and father's child. A role as care takers follows, typically, for a human being, in that as a mother or a father he/she must be able to take care of a child: a child needs the care of a mother or of a father in order to flourish.

This argument will be refused by those who think that we cannot just assume that giving birth to a child is part of “typical” human life, or that, even if we concede that it is, we cannot derive any normative consequence from it. Conceding this, notice that even a person who decides – for quite legitimate reasons, as it may happen – not to have children, is the son or daughter of someone else. And it is a fact about human lives that those “someone else”, our mothers and fathers, get old, and when they are old their son and daughter must have certain virtues in order to make them flourish.

But how are the facts about human dependence to be included in a definition of the relation between the virtues and human flourishing. I propose the following:

2g: X is a virtue only if x is (typically and if unconditionally exercised) required for my flourishing or x is/would be required for the flourishing of those individuals that depend upon me /would depend upon me if I were fully flourishing.

The conditional clause “if I were fully flourishing” states that the virtues must not be defined in terms of the contingent situation of the person who happens to have them, but in terms of ideal human conditions. (The clause might be substituted with “if I were leading a fully fulfilling human life”). The conditional clause links the nature of the human virtues to a conception of flourishing and human nature which is not necessarily that of the individual whose flourishing is in question, but that of the “typical” individual of the species. It is not at all implausible to argue that – in general – a fully flourishing life includes the growth of children. This by no means entails that one has the moral duty to reproduce or have children. (No such thing as a general moral duty to do flourish makes sense.) In this formulation, even what counts as a virtue, for a person who decides not to have children, can depend on an ideal model of human flourishing, which includes having children.

This formulation allows us to include other regarding virtues which follow naturally if we think about what a young baby needs and what his parents must be able to give him. But the relations of dependency which are constitutive of an account of a fully flourishing life are not limited to having children. We might think, as Aristotle did, that a fully flourishing life includes friendship. And it might be argued that the willingness helping a friend when he is in a condition which makes him dependent on others is constitutive of our ideal of flourishing. If that is true, it allows us to include as virtues all those traits of character which are required for one's friends to flourish, and this already leads to postulating most of the traditional other – regarding virtues.

It might be argued that in this way I am giving egoistic motives to have other regarding virtues, and this is incompatible with the way these virtues are understood when they are exercised authentically. But I am not justifying other-regarding virtues upon such motives. Remember that I have said that the virtues are excercised unconditionally by those people who are flourishing (and who are responsible for the flourishing of other people.) The virtues which a good friend has – in virtue of which he is a good friend – cannot be like the disposition to do what is good for a friend only in so far as this ensures that I have more of the good of friendship. They are virtue only if they are exercised - as I stated - unconditionally.

Therefore I believe that 2g is a good formulation of the connection between the virtues of a person and human flourishing, that is to say, his own flourishing and that of other people. ù

I also believe that 2g can be supplemented by other two principles, which are in a sense implicitly included in it, namely:

2h: X is a virtue only if X is required for sustaining the growth and development of valuable practices


2k: X is a virtue only if X is required for a life which has among its fundamental goals that of discovering the nature of human flourishing.

A few words about 2h. 2H is not really an addition over 2g, since it only makes what is already included in 2g more explicit. For he flourishing of an individual requires that the individual takes part in practices that make him in contact with things that can be valued and are valuable. But what is a practice? A practice is not any collective technique. There are collective technique which are not practices, because the people who engage with them do it only instrumentally, for granting themselves some good which is not the good of a practice. (For example I might work as a bounty killer, or as a drug dealer, for the sake of money.) In opposition to that, an authentic practice (e.g. fishing) has something like a good which is both the goal of a practice and recognized as a human good by the people who take part in it. (Food is both the goal of fishing, and something that fisherman recognize as generally good for humans.) We can also talk about goods that are internal to a practice in a different sense, such as for example the various forms of excellent execution of skills in sport or artistic fields. (MacIntyre cites often the case of chess. Becoming acquainted with the game of chess means that we learn to recognize goods that are internal to the game of chess, such as the execution of intelligent moves. This holds even if one starts to get involved with chess for the sake of external goods, such as the pleasure which follows from winning, or, in MacIntyre's fanciful example, if one starts to play chess as a child, because one can win candies.)

The distinction between practices and mere collective techniques cannot be made in a value-free language. We have said that the idea of a practice is partly constitutive of our idea of flourishing: a person can only flourish to the extent that he partecipates to some human practice. But this means that the reverse is also true: the idea of flourishing is partly constitutive of the idea of a practice, in that the distinction between practices and collective techniques can be spelled out by means of that.

I have not talked of 2k. Let me just say that I take it to be the most sensible lesson of ancient ethics, and to arise from the most plausible formulation of Aristotle's Ergon argument.

Hence I propose the following as an account of the relation between virtue and human flourishing

2J: X is a virtue only if

a. x is (typically and if unconditionally exercised) required for my flourishing or x would be required for the flourishing of those individuals that would depend upon me if I were fully flourishing.

b. X is required for sustaining the growth and development of valuable practices; and

c. X is required for leading a life which is characterized by the activity of discovering the nature of human flourishing.

Do you find that this is a good formulation? Do you find that there are any good counterexamples?