On the transitivity of strict preference

The notion of comparing alternatives often comes up in philosophy, particularly when discussing practical reason. There are various names for this (we can talk about the reasons for choosing A over B, or how A is better than B, or how A is more desirable to B, or how A is preferred to B) but they all amount to the same thing.

The other day I was reading the SEP article on preference and was struck by this counterexample to transitivity of strict preference (I recall my friends mentioning it to me in the past, but I only thought about it critically this time around). In this quote, X≻Y represents that X is strictly preferred to Y, and X∼Y represents indifference between X and Y:

In an important type of counterexample to transitivity of strict preference, different properties of the alternatives dominate in different pairwise comparisons. Consider an agent choosing between three boxes of Christmas ornaments… Each box contains three balls, coloured red, blue and green, respectively; they are represented by the vectors ⟨R1,G1,B1⟩, ⟨R2,G2,B2⟩, and ⟨R3,G3,B3⟩. The agent strictly prefers box 1 to box 2, since they contain (to her) equally attractive blue and green balls, but the red ball of box 1 is more attractive than that of box 2. She prefers box 2 to box 3, since they are equal but for the green ball of box 2, which is more attractive than that of box 3. And finally, she prefers box 3 to box 1, since they are equal but for the blue ball of box 3, which is more attractive than that of box 1. Thus,

a. R1≻R2∼R3∼R1,
b. G1∼G2≻G3∼G1,
c. B1∼B2∼B3≻B1; and
d. ⟨R1,G1,B1⟩≻⟨R2,G2,B2⟩≻⟨R3,G3,B3⟩≻⟨R1,G1,B1⟩.

The described situation yields a preference cycle, which contradicts transitivity of strict preference.

(Note that I’ve added the labels to the listed conditions for the sake of this discussion.)

Now, I haven’t read much of the modern discussion on transitivity of preference (indeed, I didn’t even finish reading the article), so perhaps what I’m about to say is really obvious.

It seems clear to me that the above counterexample motivates the otherwise very natural distinction between (1) being better in some respect and (2) being better simply. Ultimately it has to do with why we prefer something over another. For instance, assume I prefer red balls over blue balls. Then I prefer this red ball over that blue ball simply, and I prefer this box of green and red balls over that box of green and blue balls in some respect.

I say this distinction is “very natural” because it seems necessary if we are to make sense of trade-offs, which are manifold in everyday experience. As a trivial example (which I find myself in often), imagine you need to pick one of two routes to your destination. Route A is longer but has prettier scenery and conversely route B is shorter but has uglier scenery. You have to pick one, but whatever choice you make will involve a trade-off. On account of what is this a trade-off? Well, surely it’s because shorter routes are preferable to longer ones and prettier routes are preferable to uglier ones. That is, A is better in some respect (prettiness) and B is better in some other respect (length).

This distinction resolves the above counterexample by showing us that (a)-(d) equivocate on “≻”. In (a)-(c) X≻Y means X is strictly preferred to Y simply, but in (d) it means X is strictly preferred to Y in some respect.

The SEP article immediately goes on to say the following:

These and similar examples can be used to show that actual human beings may have cyclic preferences. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the same applies to the idealizedrational agents of preference logic. Perhaps such patterns are due to irrationality or to factors, such as lack of knowledge or discrimination, that prevent actual humans from being rational.

Perhaps, but I’m inclined to think life’s more complicated than that. It seems pretty intuitive that there are various types of goods that are incommensurable. One way we might make this intuition precise is as follows: in general there seem to be two ways in which A is better than B:

  1. A and B are both means to C and A is a better means.
  2. B is a means to A.

(1) is where this whole business of comparing of alternatives comes in. Given our above discussion we realise that A can be a better means either in some respect or simply. Aristotle mentions something like (2) at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics. The guiding intuition here is that ends are preferred to means because “it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued” (I.1 1094a15-16).

Now, combining this with our previous discussion on basic human goods, the fact that there are multiple basic goods suggests that at least sometimes two goods will be incommensurable.

Goods, basic goods, and faculties

We’ve mentioned before that the goodness of some thing is relative to that thing’s nature. It is good for a human to have two legs because our biology is structured in such a way that having two legs is conducive to our flourishing. By the same token, it is not good for a cat to have two legs.

Now, these various goods can be grouped together and structured hierarchically: colour sensitivity, amoung other things, is a good which is subsumed under the good of seeing. Good seeing is itself subsumed under the goods of sensing, which in turn is subsumed under the goods of animal life.

A breakdown of the goods that are subsumed under the good of animal life.
A breakdown of the goods that are subsumed under the good of animal life.

At this point three things can be said. First, the goodness of the lower goods is dependent on the higher goods. Put another way, the lower goods are for the sake of the higher goods. Colour sensitivity, for instance, is for the sake of seeing and is good to the extent that it enables us to see well.

In the opening passage of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle, while discussing human acts, makes the same point:

Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity — as bridle-making and other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others — in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. (I.1 1094a7-16)

We might visualise his scenario as follows:

A breakdown of the acts that are subsumed under the act of strategy.
A breakdown of the acts that are subsumed under the act of strategy.

The second thing to note is that this hierarchy has a limit. That is, the tree does not go up indefinitely. Aristotle says that “we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain)” (I.2 1094a21-23). If you are familiar with the distinction between per se and per accidens causes, what Aristotle is getting at here is that the relationship between the lower goods and the higher goods forms a per se final causal chain, and as such has an endpoint. If you are unfamiliar with this distinction, unfortunately space doesn’t not allow me to argue for this here, so you’ll just have to trust me.

Aristotle called these highest goods chief goods, and Aristotelians these days typically call them basic goods. Basic goods are desired for their own sake and not for the sake of another. Now, in simple things there might be only one basic good, but for many things there is more than one, and they can often be quite broad. David Oderberg, for instance, thinks the basic human goods are life, knowledge, friendship, work and play, appreciation of beauty, and religious belief and practice (The Structure and Content of the Good).

In some sense the basic goods
In some sense the basic goods “make up” the nature of a thing.

So how do we figure out what the basic goods of a thing are? This relates to the third thing to be said: the basic goods correspond to the various distinctive faculties something has according to its nature. After all, broadly speaking, being a human is an activity and the basic goods represent the broadest aspects of this activity by which we measure it good or bad. Given that the way a thing acts correspond to the faculties it has, it seems that the basic goods and faculties of a thing would correspond to each other.

Now, at this broad level it’s not always clear how we are to carve up reality, but we can make some comments that will help us on our way. First, it isn’t particularly informative to say that “given that humans are rational animals, the basic human goods must be rationality and animality”. What we’re looking for are the various aspects of what being a good rational animal involves. Second, the basic goods might overlap, but their faculties should not be wholly reducible to one another. This would be a clear sign that we’re not thinking at a broad enough level. Third, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics can be seen as his attempt at studying the basic goods by means of studying the various human virtues.

One clear example of a basic good, given our recent discussion about substantial activities, would be what Aristotle and Oderberg call “friendship”, which corresponds to our faculty for working together toward a common end. More on this another time.

Joy and hope

In a previous post, I took joy to be happiness with respect to our ultimate good. We also spoke about two ways in which happiness is achieved: through the acquisition of a good or the continued possession of a good.

The Aristotelian inside me was unsatisfied with this, for we usually take happiness to be identical with the ultimate good. Clearly in the earlier post I was using the term in a less precise sense. After thinking about it a bit more I realised that what I actually meant by happiness was “pleasure” or “delight”. But then what is delight? Aquinas takes delight to be the appetite’s rest in good. Appetite, here, is the faculty with which we desire the good, and rest presumably involves the achievement of good (either by acquisition or continued possession).

So delight is to good as joy is to ultimate good. This leaves us free to use happiness in the Aristotelian sense, which pleases me greatly. Indeed, we can say that delight is to good as joy is to happiness.

Let’s take the account further. Hope can be taken as expectation with assent. That is, we expect an outcome to occur that we see as good. To compare this with alternatives: expectation with dissent is dread, doubting with assent is wishing, and unknowing (neither expecting nor doubting) with dissent is fear.

Consider hope with respect to our ultimate good.[1] It seems that this hope supports joy, and is to some extent necessary for it. That we’re looking forward to our ultimate good is clearly related to joy, which just is delight in our ultimate good. However, the expectation part is also important. After all, if in our life we contribute to something that we’re not expecting to achieve at the end of the day, then our efforts will seem to be in vain.[2] That the good is ultimate means that joy and hope involve good that is stable, that is, for continued (indeed, indefinite) possession. We don’t always desire goods in a way that we necessarily desire their continued possession. For example, we desire money for the sake of spending it. Because an ultimate good is not desired for the sake of something else, however, we necessarily desire its continued possession. Our joy, then, needs to be proportioned to (1) the goodness and (2) certainty of achieving our ultimate good as well as (3) the stability of that good.

Perhaps this is at the heart of the problem faced in Ecclesiastes. The Teacher is looking everywhere for an appropriate place for his hope, but finds nothing that is good, certain, and lasting.


  1. This is what the New Testament usually means by hope.
  2. Or ultimately meaningless. It is no mistake that the word in Ecclesiastes is translated as “meaningless” by some translations and “vanity” by others.

The good of others

Previously we discussed the general notion of natural goodness, and saw that the natures of things determine what is good or bad for them. In particular, our nature as humans determines what is good or bad for us. We also saw that with humans our actions take on a moral significance to the extent that the ends or means willed in them are good or bad for us. For us; but what about others?

The answer, simply put, is that it is natural for us as humans to enter into various unions (or “communities”) wherein our well-being involves the well-being of others. We already saw a limited example of this in our previous post, where we said that “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.” Aristotle gives a more general statement of this near the end of part 2 of his Politics:

The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.[1]

Once we unpack this, all will become clear.

Parts of a whole

Before we get there, we need to talk about parts and wholes (or unions) and how they relate. Well, that’s too broad: we don’t need a complete account of part-whole relations, since that can get scarily complicated.[2] We just need some basic insights. For instance, a part is good to the extent that it acts for the good of the whole. Or, to phrase this language of “ends,” some of the ends of a part are the ends of the whole.

Some examples might be of helpful at this point. First, consider parts of living things: an organ is bad when it consumes more blood than normal, thereby starving the other organs of needed resources. The same goes for parts of living things we don’t typically call “organs,” like the roots or leaves of a tree. Second, consider co-operative actions: two people are trying to lift up a car, where neither is capable of doing so by themselves. If either refuses to lift their share of the load, they are failing to be a good part of the whole. We might say that they are failing to “play their part.”[3]

In each case we see that the goodness of the part depends on its contribution to the good of the whole. In fact, we can say more about this. After all, part of the good for the whole is the good of all its parts (a good body has good organs, a good tree has good roots, a good co-operative action has good individual contributions). Since a good part is directed towards the good of the whole, it follows that it is also directed towards the good of the other parts.

A second insight about parts, which can also be seen from the above examples, is that parts, by themselves, are incomplete. Or, to put it another way, parts lack self-sufficiency the way their unions do not. Each of the organs in your body depends to some extent on the others and therefore cannot function (at least not for long) without some kind of mutual co-operation with them (that is, union with them). Similarly, neither of the people are by themselves able to lift the car, and therefore depend on each other’s co-operation to achieve their end (again, union). Because co-operating enables these otherwise incomplete members to achieve their ends, it is good for them to enter into these unions. Thus incompleteness of this kind is a mark of “partness,” and can help us identify things as parts without first having to know their wholes.

Our natural dependencies on others

So, in general, when something is directed towards an end which it, by itself, does not have sufficient power to achieve, then it is good for that thing to enter into the relevant union to achieve that end. More specifically, when something is, by nature, not self-sufficient, then it is natural (and therefore good) for that thing to become part of a whole. The point Aristotle is making above is that this is true, in particular, of humans.

We can begin to see this by starting at the smallest and most intimate type of union (or “community”) and moving to broader kinds of unions from there. Before we get there, though, we need a little set up: like any other living thing, part of what is good for us as humans is that we continue to exist.[4] But, of course, humans aren’t immortal and so we must continue our existence in a more general sense of continuing the existence of humanity as a whole, which we achieve through procreation.

Now, humans have the capacity for procreation but are not capable of procreating by themselves.[5] A man and a woman need to work together in a sexual union to begin the process of procreation. I say “begin” because the point of procreation is to produce humans, and not merely human bodies. Thus, procreation also involves bringing up and caring for our children, teaching them the skills they need (both intellectual and non-intellectual) to be good humans. The union in which the full process of procreation can take place, then, is the marital union between a husband and a wife.[6]

With the advent of children comes a broader community: the family.[7] Clearly, children depend on their parents in all kinds of ways relevant to their proper development. And given that it is good for parents to care for their children, they depend on their children’s co-operation which will usually be obedience of some form or another. The family, or household, is a community in which these needs are met, as well as various other everyday activities in which members of the family either help or co-operate in, such as “eating, [or] warming oneself at the fire, and others like these.”[8]

At a broader level, “when several families are united, and the [community] aims at something more than the supply of daily needs, the first society to be formed is the village.”[1] These broader needs might include things like buying food for eating, or buying wood for our fireplace, or some form of security, and so on. Note that when we use the term “village,” we’re using it in quite a general sense. We aren’t using it to refer specifically to one of those quaint towns in a rural area. Any collection of families united into a community directed towards more than daily needs will do. Used in this general sense, your extended family counts as a village![9]

At the broadest level we have the state (or “city”). This is “[w]hen several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing.”[1] Again, we mustn’t get caught up in the words being used. The important bit here is that the state is what we get when combine enough villages together to get a community that is pretty much a self-sufficient whole. And because it is self-sufficient, it’s natural to consider the state as the stopping point.

So, at each level we have various dependencies that are being met which cause the various members to come together as a community. There are also general dependencies, however, that apply at all levels of community: we depend negatively on other members of the communities not interfering with our achieving the goods set for us by nature, and positively on their co-operation in achieving these goods. Examples of the first kind would be our dependence on others not killing or harming us, not stealing property which we own, not coercing us into doing evil, and so on. Examples of the second would be any particular kind of assistance we need of them (which might differ based on the community we have in mind), help developing a virtuous character as opposed to a vicious one, and so on.

The good of others

Now, all the communities considered above were natural in the sense we’ve using the term. That is, it is part of our nature that we depend on others for procreation, that we depend on our children and parents, on other families, and on other villages. Even if we don’t ourselves procreate, we can’t help but form part of families, villages, and states. And even if we can’t so clearly distinguish between the various levels of communities (because of cultural or historical reasons, say), this doesn’t stop them existing and being natural for us as humans.

Since being part of these communities is natural for us, it is therefore (given our previous discussions) good for us. Recall also, from earlier, that it is good for parts to act for the good of the whole and the other parts. Applying both of these conclusions, it follows that it is good for us to act for the good of others in the various communities we form part of, as well as any common good peculiar to these communities.


  1. Aristotle, The Politics.
  2. Ross Inman, Substantial Priority: An Essay in Fundamental Mereology.
  3. You might not have noticed it, but these two examples actually illustrate two different senses in which parts can relate to their wholes. We’ll have more to say about this in a later post, but for now this difference isn’t relevant, since both examples also illustrate our first insight about parts and their ends.
  4. This actually follows from the general definition of life which is “the natural capacity of an object for self-perfective immanent activity. Living things act for themselves in order to perfect themselves, where by perfection I mean that the entity acts so as to produce, conserve and repair its proper functioning as the kind of thing it is – not to reach a state of absolute perfection, which is of course impossible for any finite being.” (Teleology: Inorganic and Organic, David Oderberg) In fact, continued existence is a good of every substance, but like before I restrict myself to living things. For the more general statement, see Oderberg’s paper titled Being and Goodness.
  5. “He who thus considers things in their first growth and origin, whether a state of anything else, will obtain the clearest view of them. In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue…”[1]
  6. I pretty much just lost your interest if you have an insatiable hate for conservative ethics. Well, keep reading anyway. If you’d like some further reading on these topics, I can recommend Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition (particularly chapter 4), Alexander Pruss’ One Body, and the paper in [3].
  7. “Out of these two relationships between a man and a woman, master and slave, the first thing to arise is the family.”[1] We skipped the master-slave bit, because of modern people’s propensity to misunderstand the sense it which it should be taken. I’m already saying enough “controversial” things in this post and I didn’t see any sense in adding more when it could be skipped.
  8. Aristotle says, “The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants.”[1] Aquinas, commenting on this, says, “among human acts some are performed every day, such as eating, warming oneself at the fire, and others like these, whereas other things are not performed every day, such as buying, fighting, and others like these. Now it is natural for men to communicate among themselves by helping one another in each of these two kinds of work. Thus he says that a household is nothing other than a certain society set up according to nature for everyday life, that is, for the acts that have to be performed daily.”
  9. “And the most natural form of the village appears to be that of a colony from the family, composed of children and grandchildren, who are said to be suckled ‘with the same milk.'”[1]

Links on living well

I’ve come across two different links today that speak to the broad question of doing this whole “living” thing well:

  1. A blog post by Lydia McGrew in which she reminds us that “An irresistible urge to follow every ephemeral fad is not the mark of a life well-lived.”
  2. A TED talk by Barry Schwartz in which he reminds us that rules and incentives are not sufficient for living properly. What we really need is the virtue of wisdom. He closes with the words, “In giving us the will and the skill to do the right thing — to do right by others — practical wisdom also gives us the will and the skill to do right by ourselves.” (be sure to also check out this talk and this talk, both of which are also by Barry).

Go check them out. Won’t take too long.

Happiness and joy

I was thinking about the difference between happiness and joy, considered psychologically. The tricky thing with accounting for the difference is that any account of these two has to explain why happiness and joy seem related, but nonetheless why one can rejoice (ie. express joy) in the face of suffering (that is, experiencing sorrow, which is contrary to happiness).

It seems to me that happiness is experienced in actively achieving a perceived good (experienced as pleasure), or in passively not lacking a perceived good (experienced as contentment), or in an action insofar as it is directed towards one of these goods. We’d say, then, that the object of happiness is the perceived good.

The object of joy, on the other hand, is that which is perceived as an ultimate good (ie. the good which all other goods are directed towards and which itself is not directed towards any good beyond itself). People typically organize their entire lives around what they perceive as their ultimate good.

So happiness and joy definitely have something in common: joy is just happiness with respect to our ultimate good. But it is possible that, in suffering, we nonetheless contribute to our ultimate good, and therefore we can feel joy in the face of suffering.

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.


  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.

An historical overview of natural law theory from Budziszewski

In the preface to the second edition of J. Budziszewski’s What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide he gives a brief account of the history of natural law theory (a meta- and normative ethical theory very much at home in, but not limited to, Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy). I liked it, so I’m quoting it at length:

Speaking in the broadest possible terms, the natural law tradition has passed through three historical phases and is now entering the fourth.

Phase one belonged to the philosophers. Ancient thinkers like Aristotle discovered that beings have natures, and tried to develop intellectual tools for thinking about them. Other thinkers, especially the Stoics — although this idea is present in embryo in Aristotle too — suggested that the principles of these natures could be expressed in terms of laws, real laws, which were somehow the work of the divine mind.

Phase two belonged to the theologians. Jewish thinkers worked out the implications of the ancient tradition that before God gave the Torah to the “sons” or descendants of Abraham, He had already given commandments to the sons of Noah, which means to the whole human race. Islamic thinkers of the now much less influential Mutazilite school maintained that good and evil are embedded “in things”, in the structure of creation. Christian thinkers explicitly appropriated the whole philosophical tradition. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger suggested before his accession tot he papacy, in the early days of Christianity, “in an environment teeming with gods”, when believers were asked to which god their God corresponded, “the answer ran: to none of them. To none of the gods to whom you pray but solely and alone to him to whom you do not pray, to that highest being of whom your philosophers speak.” He rightly remarks, “The choice thus made meant opting for the logos as against any kind of myth”, he pointedly adds, “By deciding exclusively in favor of the God of the philosophers and logically declaring this God to be the God who speaks to man and to whom one can pray, the Christian faith gave a completely new significance to this God of the philosophers… [T]his God who has been understood as pure Being or pure thought, circling round forever closed in upon itself reaching over to man and his little world… now appeared to the eye of faith as the God of men, who is not only thoughts of all thoughts, the eternal mathematics of the universe, but also agape, the power of creative love.” In the natural law, the power, love, and wisdom of this God were united, and in the grace of Christ the capacity to follow it was restored. Here I must repeat another point from the first edition: although the thinkers of these faith communities were mindful of their traditions, they were not hermetically sealed from each other. It was no accident that the period during which the thinkers of my faith achieved their greatest insights into natural law coincided with the period during which they were intensely and simultaneously engaged with the pagan thought of Aristotle, the Jewish thought of Maimonides, and the Mulsim thought of Averroës.

Phase three was dominated by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. For various reasons — in some cases religious skepticism, in others fear of religious wars — they tried to sever the connections between religion and philosophy, between faith and reason. Their aim was to make natural law theory theologically neutral — a body of axioms and theorems that any intelligent, informed mind would consider obvious once they were properly presented, in fact equally obvious no matter what religion of wisdom tradition the mind followed, or whether it followed any at all. It wasn’t that the Enlightenment thinkers didn’t believe in God. Although some were atheists, others were Christian, of a sort. The problem was somewhat different, and it was twofold.

In the first place, they thought that one could know all the important things about man even while knowing very few of the important things about God. It was enough to work out His existence as a theorem; there was no further need to know His name, the history of His self-disclosure, His mighty deeds in history. In one way this was a regression to the Unknown God of the Athenians, to the “pure Being or pure thought, circling round for ever closed in upon itself without reaching over to man and his little world”. Yet like all apparent regressions, in another way it was not that at all; whenever we try to return to an earlier stage and reject what we have learned since then, we lose what we had then too. The problem with the Athenians was simple ignorance; they had never heard about agape. The problem with the thinkers of the Enlightenment was rejection; they had header about agape but decided that it wasn’t important. This was a kind of intellectual blindness, and it was progressive. Having lost their grip on agape, they came to lose their grasp of the logos too. Consequently, they felt a greater and greater need to make natural law theory to be not only theologically neutral but even ontologically neutral, independent of anything else that might be important. And this was impossible. In the second place, they thought that the ability of the mind to grasp the truth about man was independent of moral virtue. To put it another way, ethics was like mathematics. A scoundrel ought to grasp the virtue of purity just as easily as he grasped the Pythagorean theorem — and if he couldn’t, then perhaps that showed it simply wasn’t a virtue. Needless to say, this had a certain flattening effect on moral philosophy.

The reason we are entering a fourth phase is that the Enlightenment project collapsed. Modern man lost confidence in the possibility of an ethics that was both universal and yet somehow neutral. Some, relativists, retained the idea of ethics but abandoned the idea of universality; they thought each group has its own right and wrong. This reduces statecraft to sheer power, because someone’s right and wrong has to win and there is no way to arbitrate among them. Other, liberals, retained the idea of neutrality but abandoned the idea of ethics. They came to insist that the laws of the state must be justified in a way that is independent not only of theology and ontology, but of “one’s conception of the good”. Because this is impossible, what happens in practice is that their own views of the good prevail without challenge, just by pretending that they aren’t really views of the good.

In this nascent fourth phase, natural law thinkers are beginning to follow a different path. While retaining the idea of a universal ethics, they have abandoned the Enlightenment fallacy of neutrality. Is there a common ground? Yes, because there is a single human nature. But is the common ground a neutral ground? No, because not all views of God, not all views of the structure of reality, not all views of human nature itself are equally adequate, and some make it harder to see the common ground. The new breed of natural law thinkers also reject the fallacy that natural law is like mathematics. To see it well, one must have pure eyes, and this requires moral virtue. Here we enter, not a vicious circle, but what may be called a virtuous circle. The more adequately one has been shaped and formed by traditions and disciplines that conform to the natural law, the more clearly one can discern the underlying moral realities on which these disciplines are based.

Now let me draw some of the consequences. Future natural law philosophers will be free of the delusion that once can reason about natural law independently of how well one has been brought up, in what one places faith, or to what intellectual tradition one is loyal. Natural law theory is itself the product of a tradition, and it thrives better in the soil of some faiths than others. It may seem that this implies that the whole aspiration of natural law is a failure: that there is no universal ethics, that just because our roots suck up nourishment from different traditions, we have nothing to say to each other. On the contrary, what it really implies is that there must be a new way of speaking together. The Enlightenment thought we could speak with each other only by setting aside our traditions and regarding them as irrelevant — it was an antitraditional tradition, which could never look at itself in the mirror for fear of discovering the incoherency at its foundation. The truth is that we must speak with each other from within our traditions, because only these give us something to say to each other. As the first edition suggested, even the appeal to the generic presupposes the particular; for insight into what we hold common, we must fall back on what we do not hold in common. Consequently, rather than being divorced from theology, natural law theory must be reintegrated with it — not despite the desire to find common ground, but even because of it.

Clearly there are many thoughts to be fleshed out in the remainder of the book. I look forward to it.

Argument from love for objective moral value

Consider the following argument:

  1. Love involves appreciation.
  2. Appreciation of something is irrational if it has no value.
  3. It is rational to love other persons.

Now, I suppose value comes in different forms, and what we really need is objective intrinsic value. Well, people usually don’t love other people because of what they can do for them (extrinsic value). After all, to appreciate another person as simply a means isn’t really loving them, is it? So, we have the following:

4. Love for other persons involves appreciation of their intrinsic value.

From which it follows that,

5. Therefore, other persons have intrinsic value.

UPDATE (03-09-2013): after a brief discussion, it seems that this argument doesn’t work. For one, assuming that in (2), (3), and (4) we are speaking about objective value (which is needed for the conclusion I was looking for), (2) is false: it is perfectly rational to appreciate something that has merely subjective value to the person doing the appreciation.

Epistemological issues in the moral argument

I am a proponent of a moral argument, taken from William Lane Craig, given in the following form:

  1. If God doesn’t exist, then objective moral values and duties don’t exist
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist
  3. Therefore, God exists

I’ve had a number of previous posts here dealing with specific details of this argument’s defence. Here I wish to discuss a defence of the second premise that goes like this:

  1. In the absence of any defeaters, we are rationally compelled to trust the deliverances of our various faculties
  2. In our moral experience we perceive objective moral duties and values
  3. We have no defeater for these deliverances of our moral faculty
  4. Therefore, we are rationally compelled to believe in objective moral duties and values

Clearly, this argument falls in the realm of epistemology. Perhaps it will be helpful to clarify a few terms for those who aren’t familiar with them.


First, some examples of the various faculties we have are our five senses, inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, abductive reasoning[1], memory, and our moral sense. I suppose I should probably explain those three reasoning faculties a little more. Deductive reasoning uses principles of logic that seem to be objectively binding, like the principle of excluded middle (for any proposition A, A is either true or false), the principle of non-contradiction (for any proposition A, it is not possible for both A and not-A to be true at the same time), the validity of certain reasoning schemes (like, if A entails B, and A is true, then B is true), and so on. Our deductive reasoning faculty is that part of us that perceives that certain principles are true and others false, how to apply these general principles to specific examples, and so on. For example, I hope that everyone reading this will see that the examples I gave of logical principles are self-evidently true[2].

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