Sunday, December 11, 2016

Moral Evil Is Due To A Natural Defect

Natural Goodness
Philippa Foot

Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness is a slim volume of 125-pages, but it carries the remarkable agenda of reorienting our understanding of practical rationality and making a case for a naturalistic theory of ethics. In the first chapter, “A Fresh Start?”,  Foot sheds light on what she is aiming for in the book:

“I have in this book the overt aim of setting out a view of moral judgement very different from that of most moral philosophers writing today. For I believe that evaluations of human will and action share a conceptual structure with evaluations of characteristics and operations of other living things, and can only be understood in these terms. I want to show moral evil as ‘a kind of natural defect’.”

If subjectivism in values is allowed then moral judgement must become linked to individual feelings—instead of the facts of the natural world being the criteria, morality will become dependent on the speaker’s emotions, attitudes, intentions, or state of mind.

Foot asserts that life is at the center and “moral evaluation does not stand over against a matter of fact, but rather has to do with facts of a particular subject matter." Further, she states, "On barren Mars there is no natural goodness, and even secondary goodness can be attributed to things on the planet only by relating them to our own lives, or to living things existing elsewhere.” When facts get separated from values, there is dissociation between morality and rationality.

A few other academic thinkers have come up with a similar interpretation of Aristotle’s ideas on life and values. For instance, John Herman Randall in Aristotle has talked about the Aristotelian idea of the relationship between life and values. In Rational Man, Henry B. Veatch has advocated the practical life of reason where the aim is "living intelligently" as opposed to a life in which contemplation is supreme. In The Perfectionist Turn Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen point out that there is a relationship between an individual’s well-being or flourishing and his or her capacities or nature.

Foot traces the problem of flawed moral judgements to David Hume’s view that morality is necessarily practical, serving to produce and prevent action. She says that the intellectuals have been trying to meet Hume’s “practicality requirement” in a wrong way, and she suggests a simple solution: “acting morally is part of practical rationality.”

Human beings can act on moral, as well as non-moral considerations, so how can a virtuous individual who wants his action to be a good action know what is the right moral judgement?

In answering the question, Foot invokes the Aristotelian idea that a creature must act in accordance with its nature. And the same thing holds for human beings: The action that we take must depend on our human nature. Therefore a right moral judgement can only be derived by taking cognizance of the nature of the human beings.

In the chapter, “A Fresh Start?”, Foot posits:

“Nobody would, I think, take it as other than a plain matter of fact that there is something wrong with the hearing of a gull that cannot distinguish the cry of its own chick, as with the sight of an owl that cannot see in the dark. Similarly, it is obvious that there are objective, factual evaluations of such things as human sight, hearing, memory, and concentration, based on the life form of our own species. Why, then, does it seem so monstrous a suggestion that the evaluation of the human will should be determined by facts about the nature of human beings and the life of our own species?”

Foot thinks that by aligning moral judgments with man’s nature society can prevent a monstrous evil like Hitler’s Nazi regime from arising once again in the future.

It is noteworthy that Foot became interested in moral philosophy when the news of the atrocities that the Nazis had committed became known after the World War II. She thought that the evil politics of Nazism was the result of the flawed subjective value system that had seized the intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, and continues to grip them today.

In the final chapter, “Immoralism,” Foot has analyzed Nietzsche’s attack on morality and its premises. The explanation that she offers is quite convincing. She points out that human beings are limited to the life form of their own species—for being a superman we would require to evolve into a different species.

“Nietzsche believed that under his influence a higher type of man could develop on earth, and wrote as if he could imagine this new being: as if he saw the possibility of a new species or life form that could develop from our own. My point is that it is only for a different species that Nietzsche's most radical revaluation of values could be valid. It is not valid for us as we are, or are ever likely to be.” 

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