Friday, September 8, 2017

A defense of natural law eudaimonism

My main objection to natural law ethics has for a long time been that it looks egoistic because it is eudaimonistic. One version of that worry is the “one thought too many” objection: You should just do good to your fellow humans because they are who they are, because they are your fellow human beings, or something like that, but definitely not because doing so leads to your flourishing.

I think there is a nice—and probably well-known to people other than me—response to this version of the worry, and to many similar “one thought too many” worries. To put this “one thought too many” worry more abstractly, the worry is that the metaethics will infect the reasons for action in an unacceptable way. But the response should simply be that, first, what metaethics asks is this question:

  1. What makes the reasons for action be reasons for action?

Here, read “reasons” factively as “good reasons” or even “good moral reasons” (I don’t actually distinguish the two, but many do), not as motivations. And, second, insofar as R is my reason for my action, I am acting on account of R, not on account of R being a reason. Compare: what causes the fire is the match, not the match’s being a cause.

Thus, the natural lawyer should say that what makes the fact that an action promotes the good of my neighbor be a reason is that I flourish (in part) by intentionally (under this description) promoting the good of my neighbor. But the reason for the action is that the action promotes the good of my neighbor, not that I flourish by intentionally promoting the good of my neighbor. The natural law answer to the metaethics question (1) is this:

  1. R is on balance a reason for action if and only if, and if so then because, I flourish by acting on R.

We do in fact flourish by intentionally promoting the good of our neighbor. Note that (2) does not by itself yield any egoism in our motivations. We could imagine selfless beings that flourish only insofar as they are intentionally promoting the good of their neighbor as a final end, and who are blighted insofar as they are intentionally promoting their own good or flourishing. We are, of course, not such selfless beings, but we don’t learn the fact that we are not such beings from (2). In fact, (2) is fully logically compatible with us being such beings. Hence, the metaethical theory (2) cannot by itself give rise to the “one thought too many” worry I started the post with. (Of course, some natural lawyers will go beyond (2). They may say that in fact our happiness is the end of all our actions. If so, then I think they are subject to the “one thought too many” worry.)

It is important to add a little bit to the above story. While it is true that “this benefits my friend” is typically reason enough, and that I don’t need to act on the second order fact that “this benefitting my friend is a reason”, we also do have such second order reasons. That there is a reason for an action is itself a reason for action. A parent might tell a child: “You have good reason to do this, but I can’t explain the reason right now.” In that case, the child could well be acting on the second-order reason that there is a first-order reason. (The child could also be acting on a first-order reasons to please the parent).

Here is another kind of case. I start off without any belief about whether R is a reason for action, and R leaves me cold. Maybe I am completely insensitive to considerations of privacy, and the fact that an action promotes someone’s privacy just leaves me completely cold. But I observe my virtuous friends, and see that they are acting on reasons like R, and I notice that their so acting contributes to what I admire about them. I conclude that R is in fact a good reason for action. But that’s purely intellectual. I am still left quite cold and unmotivated by the fact that some proposed action A falls under R. But what I can do at this point is to act on the second-order reason that A falls under a good reason. I can even say what that good reason is. But I cannot act on it itself, because it leaves me cold.

These are, however, non-ideal cases. If I know that R is a good reason, I should strive to form my will to be motivated by R. It will be better to act on R than to act on the knowledge that R is a reason. And thinking about these cases makes the response to the “one thought too many” worry about natural law even more compelling, I think. It does promote my flourishing to promote my flourishing, though I think that it doesn’t promote my flourishing as well as promoting the flourishing of others does. So that kindliness to others promotes my flourishing is a reason for benefiting others, just not as good a reason as that it benefits others. But such “not as good reasons” are important for our moral development: we are not yet in the ideal state, and so that “one thought too many” is still needed.

This helps make me feel a lot better about natural law ethics. Not quite enough to embrace it, though.


Angra Mainyu said...


As I see it, the defense to your worry hinges on some difficult points about truth-making, but I think a bigger problem given the reply you consider is perhaps not that people might be acting in self-interest, but rather, that they might be acting in a completely selfless manner while not promoting their flourishing, or even when doing something that clearly goes against their flourishing.

For example, let's say that after an alien invasion, the aliens rule brutally over humanity, but they seem to be truthful - they tend to keep their promises, or at least that's what humans remember, though they can't be sure their memories haven't been tampered with.
So, let's say that the aliens tell Bob he can push a red button, or refrain from doing so. They tell him that if he pushes the red button, they will grab him, mess with his brain, turn him into a psychopath who does not care about anyone but himself, and in particular, doesn't care about morality de re - as a variant, we can add the aliens will also alter him so that he does not care about morality de dicto, either.
No human will know what he did, and he will be a morally bad person. But on the other hand, they will then leave the Earth, and leave humanity alone forever, so that will save humanity for all intents and purposes.
On the other hand, if he fails to push the red button (let's say they give him 10 minutes to consider it), they will not alter him in any way, but they will put 1 billion humans in torture experience machines when they will experience decades of the most horrendous forms of torture, and then they will be killed - slowly and painfully -, while the rest of humanity (1 billion more, after the aliens killed everyone else) will be altered so that they all become psychopaths who don't care about anyone else (as a variant, we can add the aliens will also alter them so that they do not care about morality de dicto, either), and they will also be infected with a virus so that if they have any children, those will be psychopaths too, or else they will die young of extremely painful illnesses.

Faced with that choice, Bob pushes the red button, with the intention of saving humanity. He succeeds, but ends up being a psychopath as described. It seems to me that Bob's behavior does not lead to his flourishing - at the very least, since he's from that point on a bad person -, but still he had morally good reasons for acting, and his behavior was morally good - even if he became a morally evil person by doing so.

In short, acts of self-sacrifice in a person selflessly sacrifices their own moral goodness in order to save others from the same or worse fate - including also the loss of their moral goodness - would necessarily not be done for morally good reasons. But I don't see why that would be so.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Suppose for the sake of the argument that Bob's action is in fact the morally right one. Then his action constitutes an instance of flourishing, and that's what I meant by "flourish[es] by acting on R". Of course, this instance of flourishing causes and is followed by languishing. No counterexample to (2) here.

Angra Mainyu said...

But in that case, your reply (if I read it correctly) is that by "flourish[es] by acting on R" you mean that the action is an instance of flourishing, but if so, the issue how to go from the assumption that the action is the morally right one (did you mean morally obligatory? Would supererogatory change your assessment?) to the conclusion that it's an instance of flourishing.

I was saying the action in question was morally good, though without taking a stance on whether obligatory or supererogatory.
But that aside, an action that results (or is very likely to result, based on the available information) in a person's losing their moral goodness does not promote a person's flourishing in the usual sense of the words, as far as I can tell. Of course, you can pick your terminology, so no problem. But in that case, I see the following two issues:

1. Does natural law theory hold that what makes R morally good reasons for action is that the action would be an instance of flourishing, or that the action promotes a person's flourishing? (in a usual sense of the words of "promotes").
2. I take it you are appealing to a common usage of "flourish", not defining the term. But then, it's contentious whether that is an instance of flourishing, even if it's morally obligatory or supererogatory. In fact, it seems to me that Bob's brain/mind is not going to change much for the better with this action, if at all - it's a single action, and takes a very brief time. Human brains don't normally change much in that context. So, chances are Bob's character remains pretty much the same as before - he was good, and remains good for a few more seconds -, and then chances a lot for the worse immediately after that (also, based on the info available to Bob, that's the predictable outcome). At least as I understand the word, that does not look like flourishing to me.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The Aristotelian theory is that the flourishing is the exercise of virtue. If the action is an exercise of virtue, it is an instance of flourishing, even if it leads to loss of flourishing in the next moment.
Compare how for a hedonist an instance of pleasure is a instance of flourishing even if it causes a horrible pain the next moment.

Angra Mainyu said...

I don't think hedonism would say that an action that results in a second of a bit of pleasure followed by a very long time of excrutiating pain leads to a person's flourishing, or is an instance of flourishing, if they used the concept of flourishing at all. At any rate, hedonism surely would not recommend that action, and instead would be against it (i.e., a theory of normative hedonism would consider such an action morally wrong, at least if the result is expected).

Anyway, given your clarification, the Aristotelian natural law claim is that R is on balance a [morally good] reason for action if and only if, and if so then because, acting on R is an exercise of [moral] virtue. But then, whether an action promotes one's exercise of moral virtue does not seem to be the issue, or leads to one's exercise of moral virtue do not seem to be central issues. An action like Bob's may be an exercise of moral virtue, but it does not promote/leads to Bob's exercise of moral virtue. Rather, it leads to no further exercise of moral virtue on his part.

This actually tends to defuse the "one thought too many" objection, it seems to me.
Consider, for example, your non-ideal case: you say "It does promote my flourishing to promote my flourishing, though I think that it doesn’t promote my flourishing as well as promoting the flourishing of others does. "
In the context of the Aristotelian theory that the flourishing is the exercise of [moral] virtue, that would be equivalent (even if not necessarily have the same meaning) to 'It does promote my exercise of virtue to promote my exercise of virtue, though I think it does not promote my exercise of virtue as well as promoting the exercise of virtue of others.'

A reply would seem to be:

1. Whether promoting the exercise of moral virtue of others promotes your exercise of moral virtue is not the point. The issue is whether promoting your exercise of moral virtue - or that of others - is itself an exercise of moral virtue. Maybe it is in normal cases, though not necessarily so.
2. It would depend (probably) on the specifics of the case, but it doesn't appear to be generally or always true that it's less virtuous to promote one's own exercise of virtue than it is to promote other people's exercise of virtue. Why would it be generally less virtuous to try to be more virtuous than to try to get others to be more virtuous?

sgirgis said...

This worry aside, what are the objections that keep you from embracing NL theory?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I still don't like the fact that it is eudaimonistic. Even given what I wrote in the post about the "one thought too many", it still seems too close to egoism. Moreover, I think that Christian ethics has to have "Love everyone" as at its very core in a way in which NL does not. All fundamental derivations of moral duties in Christian ethics should go as follows: "Love everyone. Loving everyone requires or forbids A. So you should or shouldn't A." Maybe, though, one could make NL be right about the metaethics, and then "Love everyone" would be at the core of the normative ethics.

Alexander R Pruss said...

And by "Christian ethics", I don't mean ethics for Christians, but ethics for everyone, but where the ethics is fully compatible with the data of Christian revelation.

Adam Myers said...

Is the eudaemonistic/egoistic worry this, that you think it is undesirable that a prescribed or forbidden action should be such ultimately because it does (or doesn't) lead to one's own flourishing?

If so, I don't know how to connect that to worries about natural law. For at least in some natural law accounts, what is fundamental is not a self-reference at all, but a precept or starting-point of this form: "Do good and avoid evil."

Why should I 'do good and avoid evil'? On similar accounts, the answer might be: this isn't a question of should or not; this is a question of just accurately describing action, esp. human action.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I thought that the ground for the precept in Aquinas was that we flourished by fulfilling it. But if not, then you're right: the criticism doesn't get off the ground with respect to Aquinas.