Nature, Ends, Normativity

From an Aristotelian point of view, the works of nature result from an ordering of ends. In modern terms, nature for Aristotle is not “value free”, and I take this to be a good thing. But from a strict Kantian point of view, we are the bearers of value, and the attribution of ends to nature independent of us is only a kind of beneficial heuristic projection. But if we radicalize the Kantian primacy of practical reason in the way that Brandom sees Hegel as doing, then all our theoretical accounts of nature, including those commonly regarded as value-free — and everything else we think, feel, and do — ultimately have a dependency on our inquiries into value and normativity.

From a Kantian point of view, our only access to objective nature is through our rational, discursive understanding. The very objectivity we attribute to nature depends on the objectivity of our understanding of it. Objectivity itself is a normative attitude. I think Kant and Aristotle ultimately agree in recognizing that we don’t have direct access to how things are in themselves, and that how things are in themselves is always a matter of discursive inference, in which the last word is never said.

Hegel emphasizes that the objectivity of understanding we achieve in this way is not a private possession, but something larger than us in which we participate. (See also Hegels’ Preface; Indistinct Cows, Pistol Shot; Adverbial Otherness; Time and Eternity in Hegel; Sense Certainty?; Taking “Things” as True.)

Thoughts on Teleology

Teleology is another subject on which my perspective has changed drastically over the years.

After a youthful fascination with Plotinus, my main interest turned toward the diverse group of writers loosely associated with French “structuralism”, several of whom were very interested in Spinoza. For some years, Spinoza became the great philosopher I identified with most. I had not explicitly thought much about teleology before, but Spinoza’s very sharp critique in the appendix to book 1 of the Ethics impressed me greatly. At the time, I did not trouble myself over whether it was fair to the historic Aristotle. I defended without reservation the strong determinism of Spinoza and the Stoics, emphasizing an understanding of the causes of things as the main path to enlightenment. At this time also, some contemporary writers on mathematical “chaos theory” were proposing what they called a superdeterminism, which would allow for deterministic explanation of all sorts of nonlinear phenomena, by an innovative separation of the notion of determinism from its traditional connotations of predictability. I had not yet begun to question what I have been referring to here as the “modern notion” of causality. My great preoccupation was with defending the possibility of ethics within a deterministic context.

My deeper engagement with Aristotle began initially with problems of things “said in many ways”. In my professional work as a data modeler, I was very concerned with the ambiguities of common-sense apprehensions of things, which I wanted to overcome in Platonic fashion. The univocity that Aristotle treats in a balanced way I initially saw more one-sidedly as an ideal to aim for in the quest for knowledge, though without underestimating the difficulty of attempting to treat everything in a univocal manner, or as comprehended by a single grand, consistent theory. Meanwhile, my personal interests were focused on questions of the interpretation of the history of human cultural development.

Gradually, I became more and more impressed with the importance of what I came to call “objective ambiguity” in history — the idea that this was not just a defect of our understanding or interpretation, but that the most objective reality of the concrete world may often reflect mixed or “in between” states of things. Eventually, I came to recognize that Aristotle, perhaps more than any other of the great philosophers, deeply thought about this and took it into account. I became aware of the arguments of Leibniz that all necessity is hypothetical, then realized Aristotle had already said that all necessity in generated things is hypothetical.

As Spinoza said, strict causal necessity rules out the “play” in things that leaves room for teleological explanation. But I have become convinced that that “play” in things is not something to be explained away as a mere appearance. Hypothetical necessity respects both the element of (conditional) necessity in things and this inherent “play”. It now appears to me as a priceless Aristotelian mean, and a kind of Hegelian synthesis of determination and play or flexibility.

The way Aristotle applies hypothetical necessity to determination by ends removes the mystery from final causes. Aristotle emphasizes the alternative that Spinoza ignored — that teleology need not be the product of conscious aims of a supernatural being or beings “intervening” in the natural order. In Aristotle’s non-reductionist view of the intelligibility of nature, natural things are shaped by inherent “tendencies” to seek certain states that are nonetheless not strictly determining. (See also Aristotle on Explanation; Ends; Equivocal Determination; Free Will and Determinism.)

Everyday Belief

In ordinary life we are guided by well-founded beliefs about many things of which, strictly speaking, we do not have knowledge. Our beliefs are still well-founded in the sense that if asked, we can give reasons for them, and plausibly respond to questions about those reasons. We ought to continue to hold those beliefs, unless and until we are confronted with better reasons for a different conclusion.

Brandom would remind us that we have an implicit ethical obligation to keep our beliefs in good repair. We have a responsibility for the consequences of applying our beliefs. We have a responsibility not to hypocritically pretend to hold incompatible beliefs. In general, we have a responsibility to take our explicit and implicit commitments seriously. This entails a willingness to participate in dialogue, to explain our reasons and answer questions about them.

Saying as Ethical Doing

Saying is a distinctive kind of doing. This goes way beyond the physical uttering of words, and beyond the immediate social aspects of speech acts. It involves the much broader process of the ongoing constitution of shared meaning in which we talking animals participate.

Before we are empirical beings, we are ethical beings. Meaning is deeply, essentially involved with valuations. The constitution of values is also an ongoing, shared process that in principle involves all rational beings past, present, and future. Our sayings — both extraordinary and everyday — contribute to the ongoing constitution of the space of reasons of which all rational beings are co-stewards. We are constantly implicitly adjudicating what is a good reason for what.

If immediate speech acts have ethical significance, this is all the more true of our implicit contributions to these ongoing, interrelated processes of constitution of meanings, valuations, and reasons. Everything we say becomes a good or bad precedent for the future.

Aristotle consistently treated “said of” relations in a normative rather than a merely empirical, factual, representational or referential way. Brandom has developed a “normative pragmatics” to systematically address related concerns. Numerous analytic philosophers have recognized the key point that to say anything at all is implicitly to commit oneself to it. As Brandom has emphasized, this typically entails other commitments as well. I would add that every commitment has meaning not only in terms of the pragmatic “force” of what is said, but also as a commitment in the ethical sense.

It is through our practices of commitment and follow-through that our ethical character is also constituted. As Robert Pippin has pointed out that Hegel emphasized in a very Aristotelian way, what we really wanted is best understood starting from what we actually did. In contrasting all this with the much narrower concept of speech acts, I want to return to an emphasis on what is said, but at the same time to take the “said” in as expansive a sense as possible. This is deeply interwoven with all our practical doings, and to be considered from the point of view of its actualization into a kind of objectivity as shared meaning that is no longer just “my” intention.

History of Ethics: Plato

Traditional communities, even the most “primitive” known to modern anthropology, have well-defined, generally accepted ways of distinguishing good and bad actions. Hegel called this “ethical substance”.

What I call “ethics” involves a second level, in which the criteria for good and bad are subject to discussion. Here we are not simply laying down the law, but inquiring into the principles that ought to govern distinctions between good and bad. The oldest documented example of this kind of inquiry in our planetary family of cultures is the writings of Plato. How much of the literary character of Socrates in Plato is attributable to the historic Socrates is debated by scholars, but need not concern us here. It is in Plato that we find an actual record of Socratic inquiry. Other so-called “minor Socratic” schools also claimed to be inspired by Socrates, but left no record of critical give and take comparable to what we find in the dialogues of Plato.

Plato clearly recognized the weakness of argument from authority, and put the reasoned examination of principles before the mere fact of anyone’s say-so. He further pointed out that assertions about God’s will and its applicability to real-world cases need to be evaluated as human assertions, on the same footing as others. In discussions about truth, there are no specially privileged assertions or asserters. He set a strong ideal of sincerely seeking knowledge rather than assuming we have it, and by example promoted the modest attitude that humans should avoid making strong claims that human knowledge cannot validate. Many of his most important ideas are only presented as what I call “suggestions”.

Provocatively, Plato suggested that all beings desire the good, and that the Good is the most ultimate formative principle of all things. This reduces evil to ignorance of the true Good. The tendentious claim here is that evil is a kind of lack or defect, and that no one who aims at what is really evil properly understands what they are doing. This gives fundamental ethical significance to knowledge and the quest for better understanding. Treating evil as due to some lack of understanding also suggests a way of forgiving the evil-doer.

For Plato, wisdom and goodness are correlative. Wisdom especially includes the recognition of what we do not know. It is superior to any law. The most wise are the best qualified to govern, but do not want the job and must be coaxed into doing it.

Plato was unconcerned with questions like who decides who is wise, preferring to focus instead on how such judgments should be made. For the latter, he suggested the same kind of free and open dialogue and examination of reasons as for any other questions about truth.

“Moral”, “Judgment”

Hegel regarded a forgiving stance as transcending what he called the Moral World-View. Other writers have made distinctions between “ethics” and “morality”. I used to distinguish “morality”, as reducing ethics to simple compliance with externally given norms, from “ethics”, as concerned with inquiry into what really is right. But as a result of engagement with the literature on Kant, I have adopted a more Kantian usage that makes “morality” too a subject of inquiry in the best Socratic sense. I now use the word “moral” in the broad sense of what used to be called “moral philosophy”.

However sophisticated the underlying judgment may be, any unforgivingly judgmental attitude is prone to find fault with the world and with others. The Moral World-View in Hegel is several steps removed from the traditional attitude that norms are simply given. Its presentation is implicitly a critique of Kantian and Fichtean ethics. Here the judgment is rational. We are seriously thinking for ourselves about what is right. We are sincerely seeking to develop a point of view that is globally consistent and fair, and that takes everything relevant into account. But however nuanced a point of view we develop, it is still ultimately only a single point of view.

Hegel’s approach to ethics is singularly attuned to avoiding self-righteousness in all its forms. Hegelian forgiveness involves the recognition that no single point of view — no matter what subtleties it encompasses — is ever by itself finally adequate in the determination of what is right. For Hegel the ultimate arbiter of what is right is the universal community consisting of all rational beings everywhere, past, present, and future. Because it includes the future, the last word is never said.

This is far removed from the banality that all points of view are equally valid. Rather, everyone gets or should get an equal chance to participate in the dialogue, to be heard and to have their voice considered. But for each of us, the validity of our point of view is subject to evaluation by others, as Brandom has emphasized. We don’t get to individually self-certify. Nor is the validity of a point of view decidable by majority vote. Validation is not a matter of tallying up the conclusions of individuals, or of achieving consensus in a present community. It involves assessment of how the conclusions were reached. Previously accepted conclusions are always implicitly subject to re-examination.

On an individual level too, I like to stress the open-endedness of Aristotelian (and Kantian) practical judgment. The need to act requires that deliberation be cut short at some point. We aim to act with relatively robust confidence that we are doing the right thing, but the best practical confidence is not knowledge. Aristotle takes care to remind us that ethics is not a science. There are many things in life that we do not know, but in which we have justified practical confidence. Ethical judgment is like that.

Properly Human, More Than Human?

The conclusion of Aubry’s essay has a very different character from what preceded it. It rejoins her development elsewhere of a purely Aristotelian theology, and provides an interesting complement or contrast to the medieval debates about the spiritual significance of Aristotelian “intellect” that I have reviewed recently. As usual, in reading this it is best to forget what we think we know about what “intellect” is. It also seems to me there are a few resonances here with Harris’ reading of Hegel’s views on religion.

“Aristotelian ethics poses the possibility, for every human, of acceding to the divine in oneself. Far from being the prerogative of luck and of the blessings of the gods, this possibility is inscribed in the essence of every rational being: it demands to be developed and modified by virtuous work, the exercise of reason and of freedom. Thus, the access to this immanent transcendence, instead of being a natural gift or the effect of a divine inspiration, requires the mediation of the specifically human faculties: it is in being fully human that one can, for Aristotle, accede to the divine in oneself” (Aubry in Dherbey and Aubry, eds., L’excellence de la vie, p. 91, my translation).

I very much like the formulation “it is in being fully human”. This is an ethical criterion. Being human for Aristotle has little to do with biological species — any rational animal would be human. I have noted that being a rational animal is only having a certain potential. To be fully human is to actualize that potential.

Aubry notes that Aristotle “rejects the ethics of privilege and election as well as that of the natural good and of talent: he does not believe in conversion, in a first choice to which one can only, throughout one’s life, remain faithful” (ibid).

Aristotelian potentiality in its ethical dimension, Aubry says, is a conceptual translation of the figure of the Platonic daimon. This suggestion is new to me. She particularly refers to the myth of Er in Plato’s Republic, in which the human is said to choose her daimon rather than being chosen by it. In the same way, she says that for Aristotle the human chooses her potentiality instead of being determined by it.

She credits her colleague Dherbey at the end, and I think Dherbey’s remark that for Aristotle choice is more a matter of character than of punctual decision is highly relevant here. Putting the two together suggests a kind of reciprocal determination between character and this sort of nonpunctual choice. Paul Ricoeur has richly developed this kind of reciprocal relation, with explicit reference to Aristotle’s notion of character.

Next she moves to Aristotle’s brief explicit discussion of a kind of immortality, which does not seem to me to be an immortality of the soul. Aristotle linked immortality to what he calls intellect (nous) but left many details open, which later led to extensive debates between Thomists, Averroists, and Alexandrists like Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525).

“One could even say that Aristotle radicalizes the Platonic project: for the Platonic injunction to ‘immortalize oneself insofar as it is possible’ becomes, in Aristotle, an invitation to ‘immortalize oneself according to potentiality’. The divine is not in the human as a simple possibility, but indeed as a real potential. The human contains by nature her beyond-nature: she bears within herself an immanent principle of [self-] exceeding” (p. 92, emphasis in original).

This would seem to be a reference to the potential intellect, much discussed by Alexander of Aphrodisias, Averroes, Aquinas, and others. Despite their differences, these writers all basically agreed that potential intellect is fundamental to what distinguishes rational animals. For all of them, to be a fully realized rational animal is to have a certain relation to “intellect”, which transcends the biological organism.

Aubry continues, “One has seen in effect that the definitional dunamis [potentiality] that the ethical effort aims to realize is reason…. To the definitional dunamis of the human corresponds a double ergon [work] — for, if the first is properly human, the other is a bit more than human” (ibid). She had introduced the idea of “definitional potentiality” earlier in the essay. I think this just means the potentiality inherent to any rational animal. As noted above, the commentary tradition links this specifically to potential intellect.

Next she quotes from Nicomachean Ethics book 10 chapter 7. I will substitute a slightly longer version of the quote from Joe Sachs’ translation:

“But such a life would be greater than what accords with a human being, for it is not insofar as one is a human being that he will live in this way, but insofar as something divine is present in him, and to the extent that this surpasses the compound being, to that extent also the being-at-work of it surpasses that which results from the rest of virtue. So if the intellect is something divine as compared with a human being, the life that is in accord with the intellect is divine as compared with a human life. But one should not follow those who advise us to think human thoughts, since we are human, and mortal thoughts, since we are mortal, but as far as possible one ought to be immortal and to do all things with a view toward living in accord with the most powerful [Aubry has “noble”, and I don’t have my Greek text handy] thing in oneself, for even if it is small in bulk, it rises much more above everything else in power and worth. And each person would seem to be this part, if it is the governing and better part; it would be strange, then, if anyone were to choose not his own life but that of something else. What was said before will be fitting now too: what is appropriate by nature to each being is best and most pleasant for each, and so, for a human being, this is the life in accord with the intellect, if that most of all is a human being. Therefore this life is also the happiest” (Sachs trans., p. 193).

Aristotle compresses a tremendous amount into a few lines here. Many have found him too minimalist on these topics. I take his minimalism as reflecting an admirable intellectual modesty, carefully avoiding claims that are beyond human knowledge.

Traditional scholastic readings expanding on this aspect of Aristotle narrowly emphasize elaborating his very schematic, sketch-like remarks about intellect. I think the work of Paul Ricoeur (and of Hegel, particularly as read by Brandom, Pippin, and Harris) provides rich, multidimensional alternative expansions of Aristotle’s minimalist formulations on the ultimate ends of human life that are genuinely Aristotelian in spirit.

Aubry continues, “To be human in act, therefore, can signify being human among humans, or being a bit divine. One is certainly far, here, from the tragic wisdom, from an ethic of resignation and of limit. The Aristotelian ethic includes rather an irreducible dimension of [what from the tragic point of view would be] hubris [pride]. Divine knowledge is not posed as a simple ‘ideal’, nor divinization as a ‘regulative, not constitutive, principle’: on the contrary, and we underline it, the divine element that nous [intellect] is in the human, this immanent transcendent, is indeed a constitutive potentiality, a faculty to be actualized, and not a simple possibility. This actualization is nonetheless mediated: it is by the intermediary of humanity that the human rejoins the divine in herself, in exercising her reason, her virtue, her freedom. If the Aristotelian ethic is an ethic of surpassing, it passes nonetheless through full humanity: the daimon of Aristotelian eudaimonism [pursuit of happiness] is not enthusiasm, delirium, possession, or an irrational guide, arbitrary and infallible…. [I]t is possible, at the end of becoming virtuous, to be perfect and happy, even though this accomplishment, hindered by matter, broken by fatigue, is only ephemeral.”

“To the God of pure act of the Metaphysics, that God without power who has no other force than the desire he arouses, thus corresponds, in the Ethics, the divine posed in human potentiality” (p. 93).

Later religious traditions have often regarded talk about divinization of the human as objectionable. The great Persian Sufi Mansur al-Hallaj (858-922 CE) was stoned to death for saying “I am the Real”. Teachings of the great Christian theologian-philosopher-mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) were condemned in the West.

Aristotle, however, has a very positive concept of a kind of pride that he calls “greatness of soul” (see Magnanimity), which he actually makes into a key virtue. He sees it as as promoting other virtues, and as prompting people to help others and be forgiving. Alain de Libera and Kurt Flasch have emphasized that the affirmative view of human life in Aristotelian ethics found a significant audience even in the middle ages.

All this provides an interesting contrast to both sides of the debate about humanism in 1960s France.

Virtue Not a Potential

I picked up L’excellence de la vie especially for the early essay of Gwenaëlle Aubry, “Actuality and Potentiality in Aristotelian Ethics” (my translation). Here she makes a number of important distinctions. Contrary to some modern interpretations, Aristotle’s natural teleology and values-first approach to ultimate philosophical questions do not lead to what 20th century philosophers called ethical naturalism, or to any kind of nature-based elitism. I’ve been assuming this all along, but it is good to spell out the argument.

Virtue can sound like the optimal realization of a healthy nature, but for Aristotle it is actually a kind of habit, so it cannot be straightforwardly natural. In Nicomachean Ethics book 2 chapter 1, Aristotle points out that we can throw a stone up in the air a thousand times, but this doesn’t change its natural tendency to fall back to the ground. One may be born with a penchant for courage, justice, or temperance, but for these qualities to become true virtues requires the engagement of reason and what Aubry calls the “transcendental” intellectual virtue of practical judgment (phronesis). Virtue is not an unevenly distributed innate talent, but a result of extensive practice that is available to all. It requires effort and “seriousness”.

If biological nature itself is shaped by implicit ends, what distinguishes human ethical development? “[T]he position of Aristotle is clear: virtue is not natural, but neither is it contrary to nature” (Aubry, p. 78, emphasis in original). Here we are in the territory of what the commentary tradition called “second nature”. Virtue for Aristotle is an acquired disposition. This rules out the notion that it is just the unfolding of something innate. Aubry says that ethical practice is a mediation between nature and something beyond nature. Before the fact, Aristotle evicts both naturalism and supernaturalism, in the way that these are commonly understood.

According to Aubry, in the ethical domain Aristotle’s standard notion of potentiality is subject to a triple modification. First, the goal of virtue is not to “be all you can be”. It is selective. Only the “definitional” potentiality of the human — to be what makes us properly human — is involved in virtue. Second, one only becomes fully human under the condition of actively choosing what one is essentially. “If everyone tends naturally toward the good, no one is naturally virtuous” (p. 79). Third, virtue can only be actualized in the context of a free exercise of reason.

“Virtue, albeit a necessary condition for the actualization of the definitional potentiality of the human, is not itself a potentiality” (p. 81). She quotes Aristotle in book 2 chapter 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, “It is neither by nature nor against nature that the virtues are born in us, but nature has given us the capacity to receive them, and this capacity is brought to maturity by habit [hexis]” (p. 82). And again from the same, “All that we have naturally, we receive first in a state of potentiality, and it is later that we manifest it in act, as is clear in the case of the sensory faculties…. For the virtues on the contrary, their possession presupposes a previous exercise, as is the case for the other arts” (p. 83).

Aubry notes that this might seem like a vicious circle: it is necessary to act well to become capable of acting well. And in avoiding naturalism, have we replaced it with the opposite excess of a pure imposition? But this is artificial, and resembles the false paradoxes of learning. To be a good musician, one must play an instrument well, and one learns this through repeated practice. To become virtuous, one “practices” doing the right thing in the right way.

Ethical Practice

In Kant, practical means ethical. This initially seemed counter-intuitive to me. Like many, I used to think of the “practical” in technical and utilitarian terms, as how we realize desired results. I also used to think considerations of value needed to be guided by considerations of truth, and that pursuing the truth far enough and sincerely enough would spontaneously provide sufficient answers to ethical questions. I would no longer put it that way. I now think that the pursuit of truth, taken far enough, shows things to be “normative all the way down”, in Brandom’s phrase. Even the most narrowly technical considerations ultimately involve questions of value. Conversely, inquiry into values is the one kind of inquiry that need not presuppose any other.

Ethics are not a spontaneous byproduct of inquiry into the truth. In order to sincerely inquire into the truth, we need to deliberately focus on all the questions of value that come up along the way and affect our judgments. As a result, I now think of ethical practice as subsuming every other kind of practice.

Ethical inquiry is concerned with what we should do, which includes the details of how we do it. Every kind of doing is subject to this kind of consideration.

Engineering, to take one non-obvious example, is not just about coming up with designs that “work”, but about coming up with good designs. Various kinds of arguments that are relatively “value free” can be made about criteria for good design in specific contexts, but ultimately what matters most is that the design be “good” or better than the alternatives, however that is to be understood in the particular case.

An ethics-first view of philosophy puts ethics or “axiology” (inquiry into values) before epistemology, ontology, or formal logic in the order of explanation.

All doing has ethical implications of one sort or another, and all inquiry (also a kind of doing) ultimately involves questions of value.

Responsibility as Two-Sided

It is all too easy to judge others — to hold them unilaterally responsible for what we deem to be wrong. The saying “Judge not lest ye be judged” recognizes that there is something wrong with this.

I wanted to say a bit more about Brandom’s account of responsibility as inherently two-sided. This is related to the very simple — if uncommon — idea that there should be a correlation between the degree of one’s responsibility for something and one’s authority over it. This means that in ethical terms, no one has a monopoly on authority over anything, and no one is responsible for something without having some authority over it. Two-sided responsibility comes hand in hand with the sharing of authority.

In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel develops an allegory of the softening of the heart of a hard-hearted judge. For Brandom in A Spirit of Trust, this allegory serves as a kind of climax of Hegel’s monumental work.

Traditional views commonly define morality in terms of obedience or conformity to authority. What we should do is simply given to us from an external source. Brandom calls this the authority-obedience model.

At least from the time of Socrates, those concerned with ethics have recognized that mere obedience or conformity is at best only a very rudimentary level of ethical development, and therefore the same must apply to naked authority.

In diametric opposition to the authority-obedience model, Kant famously emphasized autonomy as a necessary basis of morality. For Kant, we are only truly moral insofar as we genuinely think our judgments through for ourselves, rather than relying on external authority.

While fully endorsing Kant’s rejection of the authority-obedience model, Hegel criticized the Kantian alternative of autonomy as one-sidedly individualistic. It would be a bit arrogant to claim that we really did think everything through all by ourselves. Moreover, there is a kind of symmetry in the all-or-nothing attitudes of the authority-obedience model and the autonomy model. It would be more reasonable to acknowledge that most things in life depend partly on us and partly on something or someone(s) outside of us.

As Brandom reconstructs Hegel’s argument, Hegel wants to say that genuine moral responsibility is always two-sided. The hard-hearted judge in the allegory, moved by a lawbreaker’s sincere confession, confesses in turn that she too is not without fault. I think this applies even more clearly to conflicts and people’s judgments of one another outside a judicial setting.

The point is not at all to obliterate distinctions or impose an artificial equivalence between the actions of the participants. It is rather just to recognize that nothing of this sort is ever completely unilateral, and then to systematically take heed of this in real life.