Meditations on the flourishing and the fallen

What Is Good and Why - Out of Eden
May 11, 2007

Guy Kahane assesses a novel philosophical exploration of the elements of the good life and a theological examination of the genesis of inhumanity

Epicurus claimed that a philosophy that cannot lead us to happiness is useless, a view that was shared by other ancient philosophers, who offered not just competing philosophies but competing philosophies of life paths to the good life. However abstruse their reflections, what ancient philosophers claimed to offer were answers to questions that any intelligent person might have asked himself. Modern moral philosophy is often very distant from such concerns.

For stretches of the 20th century, many moral philosophers thought their sole business was to analyse "the moral concepts"; their only contribution to the question "How should I live?" was a description of the everyday use of the word "should". Things have changed since then, and philosophers have been showing increasing boldness in suggesting answers to substantive questions about the nature of the good life.

Richard Kraut's What Is Good and Why belongs to this trend. He is a distinguished expert in ancient philosophy who proposes a new ethics of wellbeing. His topic is what is good for a person, and he wants to place this concept at the centre of ethics. Utilitarians also put wellbeing in the centre, but Kraut is no utilitarian. He rejects the quantitative, maximising and impersonal aspects of utilitarianism, and he rejects the hedonist and desire-satisfaction accounts of wellbeing that often go along with it - the views that wellbeing can be explained in terms of pain and pleasure or the satisfaction of desire. Kraut's ethics of wellbeing is not any kind of felicific calculus.

All this is very much in line with much of recent ethics: Kraut's view has affinities with recent defences of virtue ethics, Aristotelian naturalism and perfectionism. He does not much refer to this growing literature or to the classical ethics that inspires it. But the view he develops, while having affinities with other recent work, is nevertheless substantially original and worked out in impressive detail.

Kraut calls his view "developmentalism". It starts with the notion of flourishing. What is good for humans is their flourishing, and they flourish when they develop and exercise their various natural capacities - physical, sensory, cognitive, affective and social. Human nature determines what would count as flourishing for a human, just as the nature of an animal or plant determines what it would be for it to flourish. But this appeal to nature, Kraut insists, is a consequence of trying to unify our beliefs about what is good for us, rather than a metaphysical starting point. It thus, he thinks, evades the common charge that ancient appeals to human nature as a normative guide make no sense in light of modern evolutionary theory.

Kraut thinks his view has the further advantage of being not only an account of what is good, but of why it is good - the advantage of giving unifying explanation of the elements that together make a good life. His account of wellbeing is rich in detail, but it is hard to pin down, which makes it hard to assess the plausibility of developmentalism.

Is it the view that all contributions to wellbeing can be understood in terms of the development of "natural capacities"? Kraut repeats a familiar complaint about hedonistic and desire-satisfaction views of wellbeing: they give no weight to the causes or objects of pleasure or desire. Whatever it is that makes me feel good, or happens to be the object of one of my desires, is on these views a legitimate part of my wellbeing. It is not clear that developmentalism does any better on this count - our flourishing, after all, is said to consist of developing whatever capacities nature gave us. This seems implausible. And some uncontroversial aspects of wellbeing do not seem to fit the developmentalist schema. Kraut, for example, suggests that we think of physical pain as a form of "sensory unflourishing", but this seems both artificial and unconvincing.

It would help if we were given clear criteria for deciding what counts as a natural capacity and for what counts as appropriately developing such a capacity. Kraut may reply that to ask for that is to misunderstand his view. The answer to such queries is given in his wide-ranging and detailed discussions of specific aspects of human flourishing. But it seems that what does the work in these discussions is not the doctrine of developmentalism but substantive arguments and examples. The book's lasting contribution to ethics may lie here and not in its overarching account of flourishing.

The turn towards reflection on the good life has come from within moral philosophy. There is no parallel internal force driving philosophers to reflect on evil. If there has been increased philosophical attention to this concept, it has its source in familiar recent events. It is thus not surprising that in recent years a number of books on evil have appeared, only some of which are by moral philosophers.

Paul W. Kahn is a professor of law and humanities, and his book on evil is not a contribution to academic moral philosophy. It is perhaps best described as a theological essay. But if this is theology, it is theology without religion; as such, it is likely to puzzle both religious and secular readers. Kahn sees evil as a mystery that the dominant "liberal" outlook (equated with the Enlightenment and "the politics of wellbeing") cannot even begin to explain. This outlook can recognise only criminal acts or psychological pathology, but evil is neither. Evil cannot be given a causal explanation. It can be understood only using existential or, more precisely, theological concepts. The theology is that of Judaism and Christianity, even if at no point Kahn embraces a religious view.

Kahn starts with a series of reflections on what he describes as the myth of the Fall. These reflections on the story of Adam and Eve play a large part in the narrative, but so does Cain, interestingly contrasted with Sophocles's Oedipus. Kahn reads the myth of the Fall as a story about self-knowledge, will and shame, about an infinite mind locked in a finite body, facing death. This foreknowledge of death is the source of both love and evil, two states Kahn takes to be intimately related: love aims to transcend death, evil to vanquish it. Refusing to acknowledge his finitude, the subject who succumbs to evil "murders those who are in a position to recognise his death". This is, at root, Kahn's understanding of evil.

Out of Eden is beautifully written and contains genuine insights, but it left me perplexed. The book is about evil, but only towards its end does Kahn turn from the interpretation of myth to a condensed and abstract discussion of slavery and genocide. A few remarks on the Holocaust begin the conclusion, and there are brief references to suicide bombers. Although Kahn charges "liberalism" with accounts of evil that are inadequate to its reality, this abstraction gives his own account an otherworldly feel.

Why should we hope to find insight into Hitler not in a close study of history, culture or psychology but in the details of the two creation myths that begin the ancient text of Genesis? Kahn never really explains. He certainly does not want to appeal to revelation or religious truth.

Genesis, he repeats, is a myth. Yet it is this myth that will help us explain evil, something psychology and sociology fail to do. But why, and why this myth? It is not enough to point out that our secular world-view has been shaped by a Judeo-Christian heritage that includes the myth of the Fall. This can suggest at most that the myth might still shape our thinking about evil - a good reason to leave it behind, not reason to dig in for further insight.

Although Kahn disavows any attempt to give a causal explanation of evil, his own account is clearly a form of causal explanation, indeed a psychological one, even if one that appeals to metaphysical anxiety. But why should we believe that such an existential drama, encoded in an ancient text, can explain the murderous acts of Hitler or Stalin? Kahn makes no effort to show that Genesis is a guide to the psyche of such figures. One also wonders how his account is meant to help us understand evil acts committed outside the West.

Those who insist on the inexplicability of evil are often motivated by the desire to find, in the evil agent, something that would correspond to the enormity of the atrocity done. Kahn's reflections on myth do not aim to work up moral outrage - victims and their suffering are barely described, perpetrators sketched only in the abstract. I suspect that what he wants to find in evil (and in love) is something beyond morality and causal explanation - a remnant of the sacred. Those not thus inclined will doubt whether he has really succeeded in retrieving evil "as a category for contemporary thought".

Guy Kahane is deputy director and research fellow, Oxford Uehiro Centre of Practical Ethics.

What Is Good and Why: The Ethics of Well-Being

Author - Richard Kraut
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 304
Price - £22.95
ISBN - 9780674024410

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