Natural and moral goodness

“Cats have four legs.”

What an innocent statement. Who would’ve thought that unpacking it would lead us to a system of ethics?

Natural goodness

We start by noting that statements like this one don’t tell us some quantifiable fact about cats. Rather they tell us what features a cat has by virtue of which it is called healthy or flourishing. That is, healthy cats have four legs, they eat specific kinds of food, they have tails which are certain proportions to their bodies, they have ears structured in a certain way, they procreate, etc. Similarly, it is by virtue of lacking these features that we judge them unhealthy or sickly.

These types of statements have been called Aristotelian categoricals, and they apply to more than just cats. Indeed, each species of living organism has a collection of categoricals describing behaviours, capacities, and other features which specify what it is to be a healthy instance of that species, and the lacking of which contribute to it being an unhealthy instance of that species. Depending on our mood, we might use the words “essence” or “nature” or “kind” instead of “species”, but we would mean the same thing.

Go back to my claim that these statements aren’t quantifiable facts about the natures they describe. Why did I say that? Well, take the statement “cats have four legs.” Surely this isn’t a universal statement, since some cats have only three legs. Nor is it just an existential statement that some cats happen to have four legs. Nor is it (semantically or logically) equivalent to some statistical statement about cats, like “most cats have four legs.” For one thing, it seems plausible that most cats could be unhealthy. What if, say, all but seven cats suddenly ceased to exist, six of which were three legged? Surely those six cats that were previously unhealthy do not all of a sudden become healthy, just by virtue of what happened to the other cats in existence. For another thing, most cats could share features that don’t qualify as Aristotelian categoricals. For example, it could be that most cats are some shade of grey. But whether a cat is grey or ginger doesn’t affect it’s health. Nor would the colour of its eyes, or the size of its ears (within reason), or any number of other features that most cats could share.

So if these categoricals don’t convey quantifiable facts, then what kind of facts do they convey? It seems that they specify ends towards which an organism is directed by its nature, and as such they convey normative facts. That is, in growing and maturing there “are certain ends that any organism must realize in order to flourish as the kind of organism it is, ends concerning activities like development, self-maintenance, reproduction, the rearing of young, and so forth; and these ends entail a standard of goodness. Hence… an oak that develops long and deep roots is to that extent a good oak, and one that develops weak roots is to that extent bad and defective; a lioness that nurtures her young is to that extent a good lioness, and one that fails to do so is to that extent bad or defective; and so on.”[1] To use our cat example, a cat that grows to have four legs, to have an appetite for the right kinds of food, and to be such that it properly takes care of its young (to take three possible examples) would to those extents be a good or healthy cat. And if the cat failed to have one of those features (like only having three legs), it wouldn’t thereby cease being a cat, but rather it would to that extent be a defective or bad or unhealthy cat.

The goodness conveyed by these facts has been called “natural goodness,” since it is by realizing (or failing to realize) the ends set for an organism by its nature that it is called good (or bad or defective) as the kind of organism that it is.[2]

Moral goodness

This natural goodness is a much broader notion than what we might typically refer to as “moral goodness.” To see how this goodness takes on a moral significance with humans, we need to focus our discussion from the natures of living things in general to specifically human nature.

What is it to be a human? Well, for starters, humans are animals. And like other animals, humans have the capacity to sense particular objects in various ways. What follows upon this capacity for sensation is a capacity to be directed towards or away from the deliverances of our senses, which we call appetite.

But there’s more to human nature than mere animality. As Aristotle noted, humans are rational animals. That is, humans have the capacity to (i) abstract concepts from particular instances (like abstracting the concept of “humanness” from the particular human Socrates), (ii) make judgements about these concepts (like “All humans are mortal”), and (iii) connect these judgements to draw conclusions (as in “Socrates is a human, humans are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal”). We might call this capacity the intellect. It is by virtue of having intellects that we can form complex languages, engage in abstract thinking used in our various intellectual endeavours, or apprehend the good we were speaking about in the previous section.

We might draw a parallel between our various senses on the one hand, and our intellect on the other: analogous to how we see the table in front of us, we “see” the conclusion that follows from the premises or we “see” that having four legs is good for a cat. And just like our appetite follows upon our senses, so our will follows upon our intellect. That is, via our will we choose to pursue or avoid the things we “see” or grasp with our intellect. In particular, we can choose to pursue or avoid the good and evil set for us by nature. It is because of our ability to grasp this concept of goodness (and the corresponding concept of evil) and to choose to pursue it or avoid particular instances of it, that in humans this goodness takes on the moral significance that it has.

That is, like all other living organisms we humans have certain ends set for us by our nature. Furthermore, like other living organisms we are good to the extent that we realise these ends, and defective (or bad, or evil) to the extent that we fail to realise these ends. Unlike other living organisms, because of our rational capacities, these realisations or lack thereof take on moral significance to the extent that they are the products of our wills.

That our will is involved is crucial, for we cannot be held responsible for evils that are beyond our control. If Bob (a human) grew up with a leg deformation because of a genetic defect, then while this is an evil (since our natural end is to develop healthy legs), it would have no moral significance, since it was not a consequence of Bob’s willing this way or that. On the other hand, had Bob freely chosen to deform his leg for reasons completely independent of his flourishing as a human, this action would have moral significance. And this is because, in choosing voluntarily, Bob has willed an end or a means that is contrary to the ends set for him by his nature. That is, he has pursued evil instead of good.

So an action is morally good or evil to the extent that the end or means willed in that action are good or evil. We’ll explore this and related topics in upcoming posts.

Notes

  1. Edward Feser in Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation.
  2. This notion of natural goodness can be applied to more than merely living things, but we don’t need such a general notion for the purposes of this post. This business of exhibiting “ends” towards which things are “directed” is what Aristotle and Aristotelians call final causality.

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