Reflecting in the house of moral mirrors

September 14, 2001

Are we naturally moral? Mary Midgley reconsiders 'human nature'

Natural Goodness is a joyful book and one that is really needed. It resists a deadening error that has long deformed academic moral philosophy in the English-speaking countries. To be exact, this error hit the headlines in 1903, when G. E. Moore published his Principia Ethica . That ambitiously named volume separated moral judgement sharply from the rest of thought, launching a campaign against naturalism - that is, against the idea that values could depend in any way on facts, especially on natural facts. Morality, said the philosophers, stood alone logically, quite apart from any factual grounds.

Philippa Foot has long resisted this orthodoxy. Though she writes from within that academic tradition, she has published a string of powerful articles against its central doctrine. Now she confronts it directly in an impressive and concentrated little book. She points out that certain natural facts - namely, facts about the natural constitution of human beings - are crucial for any morality. Our views about them cannot fail to be relevant to our values. Here are a few examples: "The grounding of a moral judgement is ultimately in facts about human lifeI Vice is a form of natural defectI Anyone who thinks about it can see that for human beings the teaching and following of morality is something necessaryI In that we are social animals we depend on each other as do wolves that hunt in packsI Like the animals, we do things that will benefit others rather than ourselvesI I am therefore, quite seriously, likening the basis of moral evaluation to that of the evaluation of behaviour in animalsI It will surely not be denied that there is something wrong with a free-riding wolf that feeds but does not take part in the huntI (And, quoting Peter Geach) 'Humans need virtues as bees need stings'."

She makes clear at once that this insistence on our continuity with the rest of nature does not involve the kind of crude reductiveness that has often been associated with naturalism. Since the evidence clearly shows that we are not in fact Hobbesian animals, there is no reason to believe in a brash Hobbesian "state of nature". Actually, all social animals are too complex to be Hobbesian. And we are especially so because we have culture. Our intelligence further complicates the matter by loading us with the extra duty of trying to understand the reasons for what we do.

But culture and intelligence themselves are emphatically not alien imports from outside nature. They are natural facts in the world like any others. They are facts about the peculiarity of our species. If we were centaurian mega-lizards, our duties would probably be different from what they are now. But this does nothing to undermine those present duties. "We have to live as human beings."

It is, of course, essential to understand here what gave rise to the anti-naturalist campaign, producing its various forms - intuitionism, emotivism, prescriptivism and expressivism. They all sprang from a justified revulsion against crude, reductive doctrines such as those of Hobbes and Bentham, which have often had great influence. Slapdash views about human nature have been used to prop up misguided moralities. But it cannot possibly follow from this that all beliefs on that subject should be dismissed as irrelevant to moral thinking. This is much like proposing to give up food because some meals have proved poisonous. The trouble with these doctrines is not that they deal in facts. It is that they deal in the wrong facts. They are determined to flatten out the rich and confusing landscape of human nature so as to make it easy to map. Their failure cannot be a ground for giving up the mapping project altogether.

Natural Goodness carefully exposes the emptiness of that drastic solution. In this Foot is, of course, following what may be called the A-tradition - Aristotle, Aquinas, Elizabeth Anscombe, and also B for Bishop Butler - which has long opposed it. But she avoids the faults that have often distorted that tradition. She rejects moral absolutism, the unbalanced commitment to particular moral judgements. What we need, she says, is to choose the right facts about our nature and to keep them in perspective, noting the conflicts that constantly arise and doing our best to resolve them.

We can never do this in any final form. It is an ongoing project in which we may always be mistaken. But at least, in attempting it, we are looking for relevant considerations that can help our choice, instead of dismissing the whole question of relevance as meaningless. We struggle with substantial issues rather than just discussing general formal points about the nature of choice: questions, for instance, about whether moral judgements should be viewed as "the expression of pro-attitudes or feelings, or againI the performance of 'speech-acts' such as commendation or commitment".

As Foot points out, this kind of carefully abstract discussion is just as simplistic as the psychological theories that it denounces. The attempt to reduce morality to a single ruling form, when obviously it uses so many, merely perpetuates Moore's mistaken ambition to "do a Newton" - to bring this most complex of topics tidily under a simple set of laws. In practice, the result is usually so thin that its proponents have to back it by quietly taking for granted some substantial moral theory or other, and the one normally chosen for this work is, at present, utilitarianism. Since this is the kind of naturalism that was Moore's principal target, that is a rather quaint outcome.

Natural Goodness is clearly and forcefully written. Its only obscurities are ones due to the obscurity of the views that it attacks. Readers who have so far not heard of those views may well wonder at times why anybody should say such things. The book is perhaps mainly addressed to those who are familiar with the essentially negative "anti-naturalist", "non-cognitivist" gospel. But it does not just negate that negation. Its positive message is clear and very important.

Being Good is, by contrast, an introduction aimed at the general reader. But it is one of a special and perceptive kind. It grew, says Simon Blackburn, out of a conviction "that most introductions to ethics failed to confront what really bothers people about the subject. What bothers them, I believe, are the many causes that we have to fear that ethical claims are a kind of a sham. The fear is called by names such as relativism, scepticism and nihilism. I have tried to weave the book around an exploration of them."

Anyone who tries to teach moral philosophy today will surely agree that this is where every general discussion of ethics needs to start. Blackburn sees that the first need is to make the reader aware of these ways of thinking - to draw attention to what he calls "the ethical environmentI the surrounding climate of ideas about how to live". Today, these various negative ideologies are strong in this climate. But they are commonly so ill understood that they are scarcely noticed, and are often taken to support each other when they actually conflict.

Blackburn takes great care to spell out their various recent forms, to distinguish between them, to do justice to their central messages and to point out their implications. By making clear the difference between the various kinds of relativism, subjectivism, determinism and nihilism, he allows his readers to break up the looming mass of suspicion into pieces that are much easier to handle. He then discusses particular ethical issues that are arising today in relation to a number of traditional problems ("Death", "Desire and the meaning of life", "The greatest happiness of the greatest number", "Rights and natural rights") and finally comes back to a brief discussion about foundations, finding a place both for feeling and reason. His eventual conclusion is soberly cheerful: "The foundations of moral motivations are not the procedural rules of a kind of discourse but the feelings to which we can rise. As Confucius saw long ago, benevolence or concern for humanity is the indispensable root of it allI TriumphalismI is not logically forced upon us. We can turn our standards on themselves, and the answer does not have to be a ringing endorsement. We can fear that, here and there, our very own ethical atmosphere is not only imperfect, but worse than it once wasI The moral mirror in which we gaze at ourselves may not show us saints. But it need not show us monsters either."

On the whole, this little book is an admirable introduction to its alarming subject: sane, thoughtful, sensitive and lively. It keeps coming back to earth, as it should, by raising difficult contemporary problems and discussing them seriously. The unusual bonus of well-chosen black-and-white pictures, ranging from cartoons to works by Klee and Goya, greatly enriches this discussion. If one were being pernickety, one might say that the book necessarily raises more questions than it answers, and that some readers may occasionally find its briskness complacent. (I am often criticised for the same thing myself; it is the penalty of a cheerful disposition.) But in so short an introduction, these are not serious grievances.

What I find peculiarly welcome about the book is that it should come now out of this stable. Blackburn, occupying the chair of philosophy at Cambridge University, is a fully paid-up member of that philosophical establishment that has spent so much of the past 100 years in arguing against naturalism. The argument did not much interest outsiders, and its practitioners did not usually get their hands dirty writing about problems that did interest those outsiders. Though they occasionally handed down ready-made non-cognitivist solutions to simplified versions of these problems, they were not prepared to deal with them in the crude, confusing terms in which the problems presented themselves to the general public. Blackburn does this, and I think we should be grateful to him.

Mary Midgley was formerly senior lecturer in philosophy, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

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