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VIRTUE AND NATURE

  • Christopher W. Gowans (a1)
Abstract

The Neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism of Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse purports to establish a naturalistic criterion for the virtues. Specifically, by developing a parallel between the natural ends of nonhuman animals and the natural ends of human beings, they argue that character traits are justified as virtues by the extent to which they promote and do not inhibit natural ends such as self-preservation, reproduction, and the well-being of one’s social group. I argue that the approach of Foot and Hursthouse cannot provide a basis for moral universalism, the widely-accepted idea that each human being has moral worth and thus deserves significant moral consideration. Foot and Hursthouse both depict a virtuous agent as implicitly acting in accord with moral universalism. However, with respect to charity, a virtue they both emphasize, their naturalistic criterion (especially in the more elaborate form developed by Hursthouse) at best provides a warrant for a restricted form of charity that extends only to a limited number of persons. There is nothing in the natural ends of human beings, as Foot and Hursthouse understand these, that gives us a reason for having any concern for the well-being of human beings as such.

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1 The main sources are Foot Philippa, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), and Hursthouse Rosalind, On Virtue Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), esp. part III. Foot and Hursthouse both appeal to a crucial idea in Thompson Michael, “The Representation of Life,” in Hursthouse Rosalind, Lawrence Gavin, and Quinn Warren, eds., Virtues and Reasons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 247–96. For a similar position, see MacIntyre Alasdair, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 1999), esp. 78.

2 Foot, Natural Goodness, 24.

3 Ibid., 5.

4 See ibid., 29.

5 Foot and Hursthouse both put forward their accounts in a rather tentative spirit, and Hursthouse says that justice is a gap in her theory. Nonetheless, I believe NAEN does not have the resources to deal with the issues I raise.

6 Hursthouse's understanding of Foot is based, not on Natural Goodness (which had not yet been published), but primarily on two earlier essays, “Rationality and Virtue” (1994), and “Does Moral Subjectivism Rest on a Mistake?” (1995), both reprinted in Foot Philippa, Moral Dilemmas and Other Topics in Moral Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), 159–74, 189–208. Hursthouse's own position is also expressed in a more recent paper, “On the Grounding of the Virtues in Human Nature,” in Jan Szaif, ed., Was ist das für den Menschen Gute? Menschliche Natur und Güterlehre (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2004), 263–75.

7 She takes this point from Geach P. T., “Good and Evil,” Analysis 17 (1956): 3342.

8 Foot, Natural Goodness, 31.

9 Ibid., 36–37.

10 Ibid., 38.

11 Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 202. I have added the title.

12 Ibid., 200.

13 See ibid., 201–2.

14 Foot, Natural Goodness, 32 n. 10. See also ibid., 40 n. 1.

15 Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 257.

16 For example, see Kitcher Philip, “Biology and Ethics,” in Copp David, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 164–65.

17 See Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 202, 229.

18 See Foot, Natural Goodness, 92.

19 For examples of these debates, see Allen Colin, Bekoff Marc, and Lauder George, eds., Nature's Purposes: Analyses of Function and Design in Biology (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998). Hursthouse enters these discussions a bit more than Foot; she expresses doubts about whether Darwinian standards could replace Aristotelian ones (see Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 258).

20 See Foot, Natural Goodness, 50.

21 Ibid., 5.

22 Ibid., 51.

23 Ibid., 43.

24 Ibid., 35. Cf. ibid., 44.

25 Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 209.

26 Foot, Natural Goodness, 51.

27 Ibid., 14.

28 Ibid., 51. I take this to mean that, for Foot, the fact that breaking a promise brings about no harm does not by itself annul the obligation to keep the promise.

29 Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 222. Cf. ibid., 228.

30 Ibid., 224. The four ends are individual survival, continuation of the species, characteristic freedom from pain and characteristic enjoyment, and the good functioning of the social group.

31 Ibid., 226.

32 Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 165. She cites John McDowell, “Two Sorts of Naturalism,” in Hursthouse et al., eds., Virtues and Reasons, 149–79. McDowell's view is part of a broader philosophical project expressed in several places in his work. It is unclear to what extent Hursthouse endorses this project, and I interpret her here on the basis of what she (rather than McDowell) says.

33 Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 165. In light of this, David Copp and David Sobel appear mistaken in supposing that Hursthouse is relying on a “morally neutral investigation of animal nature.” See their essay “Morality and Virtue: An Assessment of Some Recent Work in Virtue Ethics,” Ethics 114 (2004): 537. However, as I note below, they do raise a legitimate question.

34 Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 193. It has been argued that this aspect of Hursthouse's position disqualifies it from being a significant form of ethical naturalism. See William Rehg and Darin Davis, “Conceptual Gerrymandering? The Alignment of Hursthouse's Naturalistic Virtue Ethics with Neo-Kantian Non-Naturalism,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 41 (2003): 583–600.

35 Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 193. She adds that the procedure “is not intended to produce motivating reasons” (194).

36 Ibid., 165.

37 This is the question stressed by Copp and Sobel, “Morality and Virtue,” 534–37.

38 Much of the discussion of Foot, and especially Hursthouse, is devoted to arguing that a virtuous agent would tend to live a life of genuine happiness (eudaimonia). I am not concerned with this aspect of their position.

39 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in United Nations Department of Public Information, ed., The United Nations and Human Rights, 1945–1995 (New York: United Nations Reproduction Section, 1995), 153, first paragraph.

40 Kant Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Gregor Mary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 428, 435 (standard Prussian Academy pagination).

41 Mill John Stuart, Utilitarianism, ed. Piest Oskar (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1957), 76 (chap. 5, par. 36).

42 Galatians 3:28. The story of the Samaritan is in Luke 10:25–37.

43 Gyatso Tenzin, Lama The Fourteenth Dalai, “Hope for the Future,” in Eppsteiner Fred, ed., The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1988), 3.

44 See Long A. A. and Sedley D. N., eds., The Hellenistic Philosophers: Translations of the Principal Sources with Philosophical Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 349.

45 John Cottingham agrees that Moral Universalism does not naturally arise out of the perspective of Aristotelian virtue ethics. See his “Partiality and the Virtues,” in Roger Crisp, ed., How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 68–70, 75–76.

46 In a discussion of applied ethics, Hursthouse says we should not think about the “moral status” of a fetus in reflecting on the morality of abortion, or of animals in deliberating about the morality of eating animals. See Hursthouse Rosalind, “Applying Virtue Ethics to Our Treatment of the Other Animals,” in Welchman Jennifer, ed., The Practice of Virtue: Classic and Contemporary Readings in Virtue Ethics (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006), 136–55. I am not claiming that Hursthouse or Foot would explicitly endorse Moral Universalism, but the remarks I cite in this paragraph are sufficient to show that their virtuous agent acts in accordance with this position. My argument is that the virtues, as understood in these remarks, cannot be warranted by the Teleological Criterion. In this respect, my argument could be made without bringing Moral Universalism into the picture, though I think it is important to keep it in.

47 Foot, Natural Goodness, 103. Cf. ibid., 114.

48 See Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 6, 36.

49 Ibid., 118.

50 I focus on charity primarily because it is a virtue that is accepted by Foot and Hursthouse and is relevant to Moral Universalism. The main issue, however, is the moral standing of human beings as such. Hence, my critique could be made even with respect to a minimal form of Moral Universalism that states that a virtuous agent would recognize a prima facie requirement not to harm any human being. I am indebted to several other contributors to this volume for pointing this out.

51 Ibid., 209.

52 See ibid., 224–26.

53 Ibid., 224.

54 Stohr Karen and Wellman Christopher Heath, “Recent Work on Virtue Ethics,” American Philosophical Quarterly 39 (2002): 69.

55 According to Hursthouse, “that ‘man’ is by nature an entirely self-centred egoist must surely be a view that could only come about through its proponents overlooking the fact that if their mothers had not cared for them for many years in their infancy they would not have survived” (On Virtue Ethics, 252–53). Cf. Foot, Natural Goodness, 16.

56 See Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 225–26.

57 Hursthouse does not think our use of language itself has ethical significance. See ibid., 219.

58 It might be said that Moral Universalism is a constitutive part of “the moral point of view,” and that a virtuous agent, but not necessarily others, apprehends this conceptual truth. However, even if this claim could be defended, it would be a point independent of NAEN; and there is no reason to attribute it to Hursthouse or Foot.

59 Watson Gary, “On the Primacy of Character,” in Statman Daniel, ed., Virtue Ethics: A Critical Reader (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1997), 67.

60 See Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 241–42.

61 See ibid., 223.

62 Ibid., 235.

63 See ibid., 214–15. Hursthouse's discussion of homosexuality was criticized by Hooker Brad in “The Collapse of Virtue Ethics,” Utilitas 14 (2002): 3637. She responded to this critique in “Virtue Ethics vs. Rule-Consequentialism: A Reply to Brad Hooker,” Utilitas 14 (2002): 43–46. Foot mentions homosexuality in passing in Natural Goodness, 109, and in “Rationality and Goodness,” in Anthony O'Hear, ed., Modern Moral Philosophy: Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 54 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 11.

64 Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 215.

65 Aristotle , Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Irwin Terence, 2d ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999), 1119a14.

66 See Foot, Natural Goodness, 49; and Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 58.

67 See Foot, Natural Goodness, 42; and Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 215.

68 See Foot, Natural Goodness, 16; and Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 196. Hursthouse says that a virtuous contemplative need not live a life that is social (see ibid., 228), but that is different from having the good functioning of one's social group as an end, as a charitable person presumably does.

69 See Foot, Natural Goodness, 29–30; and Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 200.

70 See Hursthouse, “Applying Virtue Ethics,” 141–43.

71 Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics vs. Rule-Consequentialism,” 48. Cf. Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 227.

72 For example, Kant refers to “our need to be loved (helped in case of need) by others” in an argument for the conclusion that “the happiness of others is … an end that is also a duty.” See Kant Immanuel, The Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Gregor Mary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 393 (standard Prussian Academy pagination).

73 In some respects, though not all, minimal naturalism is closer to what Julia Annas calls, somewhat oddly, “a stronger form of naturalism” in Annas, “Virtue Ethics: What Kind of Naturalism?” in Stephen M. Gardiner, ed., Virtue Ethics, Old and New (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), 22–29.

74 See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.7. The function argument purports to establish that the human good is a life of virtue on the basis of the fact that the distinctive function (ergon) of the human species is to live in accordance with reason.

75 See Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 211; and Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics vs. Rule-Consequentialism,” 52. In the article, a response to criticism of the book, Hursthouse appears to downplay and modify the importance of the Teleological Criterion. She continues to be impressed by the purported similarities between ethical evaluations and evaluations of social animals. But she says that, in view of her Neurathian outlook, the Teleological Criterion “is ‘justificatory’ only in a pretty thin sense” (“Virtue Ethics vs. Rule-Consequentialism,” 50), and that “it would be better to think of it as an explanatory, in contrast to a justificatory,” principle (ibid., 52). In the book, the criterion is clearly offered as the central element in a justification project (see On Virtue Ethics, 164, 166, 193–94).

76 See Foot, “Morality and Art” (1970), and “Moral Relativism” (1979), reprinted in her Moral Dilemmas, 5–19, 20–36. In the introduction to this volume, Foot said she was reprinting these essays “only hesitantly” in view of her current acceptance of NAEN (ibid., 2). Cf. Foot, Natural Goodness, 23–24. In this connection, see Wong David B., Natural Moralities: A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), esp. chap. 2.

I would like to thank my colleague John Davenport as well as the other contributors to this volume, and its editors, for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. I would also like to express my appreciation to Fred D. Miller, Jr., and the Social Philosophy and Policy Center for inviting me to contribute to this volume.

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