Morals and the Free Society: 9. Aristotelianism, Part 1—Natural Human Functions Can Be Investigated Scientifically

Here is the ninth chunk of the argument. To return to the eighth chunk, click here. To advance to the tenth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


The basic tenets of a broadly Aristotelian approach to ethics are, I think, familiar. Therefore, I shall just provide a basic sketch of the sort of view I have in mind without dwelling overmuch on the details. The aim is to show how an Aristotelian ethics might resolve the difficulties that have been identified for any moral view that hopes to provide a moral vision for a free society. Those difficulties, to repeat, are: first, to provide a reason why agents operating within a free market should care about observing (a) the rules that create the free market (basically, individual rights to one’s own person and property) and ideally also (b) additional principles that reduce transactions costs, such as candor, loyalty, reliability, zeal for just punishment, and fair-mindedness; and second, to reconcile this reason to care about maintaining the free market with the sort of motives and behavior that are appropriate within the free market.

I take the fundamental claim of an Aristotelian ethics to be that the highest value for any organism is to be a good organism of its kind. All organisms have highly complex structures of interdependent functional components. The components must function both individually and together, and they can do so well or poorly, in varying degrees. The better they function, the better the organism is of its kind. In terms of individual bodily functioning, this notion is familiar under the label health. It is significant that the physiological functions that health depends on are reasonably objectively identifiable, so that what constitutes health for a given organism, as well as which organisms of a given kind are healthy (or how healthy they are), is itself a reasonably objective, empirical matter. I take Aristotelian ethics to be an attempt to apply this strategy not only to health but to the whole life of the organism, including all its facets. An organism that functions well overall is a good organism. Of course, for organisms other than man, the question of ethics does not arise, since they do not explicitly formulate principles for living well. If they did, however, their functional structure would provide the basis from which to justify such principles. And in the human case, of course, where we are searching for principles for living well, our own functional structure does provide that basis.

Thus, the aim of life is to live well, i.e., to function well, which is to be excellent of one’s kind. For Aristotle, this is particularly to actively exercise certain excellences, sometimes translated virtues. Aristotle’s own list of excellences included wisdom, practical wisdom, courage, moderation, liberality, good temper, friendliness, and wit, among other items.  These are each looked upon as consisting in the excellent performance of a particular function. But Aristotle also makes clear that living well does not consist simply in the good execution of particular functions in a vacuum, without regard to the context of one’s life overall. Rather, the particular excellences are to be enacted in the pursuit of a whole life structured around long term goals—of career, family, business, honor, knowledge, accomplishment, etc.

There is, of course, nothing sacrosanct about Aristotle’s particular list of excellences. Not that I mean to suggest there is anything terribly wrong with it, as far as it goes. However, it has been frequently observed that Aristotle’s list exhibits an aristocratic skew. From the present perspective, it is lacking in the “mercantile,” or as McCloskey would say, bourgeois virtues, such as industry, frugality or thrift, resolution, enterprise, trustworthiness, responsibility, and prudence, that we find in the lists of virtues made by such writers as Hume (Enquiry), Benjamin Franklin (Autobiography), and McCloskey herself (1994; see also McCloskey 2006, 348). And there are no doubt still other gaps (as McCloskey 2006 argues).

The specifics of the human excellences—their number and names and characteristics—are less important than the standard by which they are to be decided; namely, as stated, the human functions and their interdependent organization. To the degree possible, I envision the investigation of the excellences as an empirical matter capable of being put on a formal, scientific footing, as opposed to being a matter of intuition and armchair theorizing. In my view, it is a serious problem with all tables of excellences, from Aristotle’s to the present, that they are derived by the latter method.

I realize that my view in this regard is unorthodox (and, to many, anathema). Much more common is the view, described with evident approval by Irwin (2007, 1–3), that the proper method of ethics (of ethics in general, and of the Aristotelian ethics in particular) is to take the prevailing ethical beliefs as the basis of investigation—as the data—and then seek to systematize and reconcile as many of these as possible. The method is dialectical: by raising puzzles and challenges concerning prevailing beliefs (known in the Aristotelian tradition as endoxa), we identify inconsistencies but also underlying uniformities that enable us to preserve the bulk of prevailing beliefs in a relatively well-organized system while discarding as few as possible. Specifics of this method vary from one philosopher to another, of course, but this is the general procedure. What it does not include is any substantial attempt to correct or test prevailing ethical beliefs against objective facts external to those beliefs. And that is the trouble. What is the source of the prevailing ethical beliefs? Accumulated cultural wisdom? Or merely cultural traditions and innate prejudices that bear no systematic positive relation to human life functions? One would very much hope the prevailing ethical beliefs reflect accumulated wisdom. But in that case, their “wisdom” must consist in tapping practical sources of genuine good functioning. That means the prevailing ethical beliefs must relate to facts external to them, facts about what kinds of behavior tend to produce human good functioning—which ought to be objectively discoverable. But if the prevailing ethical beliefs do not tap practical sources of genuine good functioning, they should not be made the basis of ethics. Either way, prevailing ethical beliefs should not be taken as basic.

However, I have no objection to taking prevailing ethical beliefs as a starting point. Indeed, I think they can take us a fair distance. That is because the idea that they, or at least some of them, represent accumulated cultural wisdom strikes me as quite plausible. Surely many prevailing ethical beliefs are the time-tested fruit of experience. Many others, of course, probably represent unproductive or even counterproductive cultural traditions and innate prejudices. But until we have some objective principles for sorting out which is which, all prevailing ethical beliefs should be treated with respect. This is my basis, for instance, for thinking that tables of virtues such as those of Aristotle and Hume and McCloskey are worth taking seriously.

My point is that it should not be left at that, with every new thinker producing his own list of excellences and no effective way to decide between them. Nor does it seem consistent with the functional approach itself to take prevailing beliefs as basic. The whole idea of the functional approach is to show how standards of excellence can be grounded in relatively objective facts about human functions. The problem is to find them and show that they exist in some convincing, empirical manner.

I don’t see why psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, and political science shouldn’t help us to do this. Indeed, in various ways it seems to me that they are already doing so. Perhaps the most noteworthy explicit attempt recently by psychologists to provide such help—impressive for the sheer size of the team assembled for the effort and the amount of labor they expended—is the “character strengths” project spearheaded by Martin Seligman (Peterson and Seligman 2004). Unfortunately, despite the empirical character of the work, it still basically employs the prevailing-ethical-beliefs strategy. The authors scoured seemingly every possible literature and culture and tradition and religion, including come quite off-beat sources—Hallmark greeting cards, Pokémon character profiles, and statements attributed to the Klingon Empire (2004, 15)—and distilled a catalogue of 24 “character strengths” grouped into six “virtues.” Thus, for example, the virtue of courage comprises the character strengths of bravery, persistence, integrity, and vitality. Then for each strength they looked for research studies of its correlates and consequences, its developmental trajectory across the lifespan, factors that encourage or thwart its development and display, and so forth. They also created and validated an assessment tool, the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths, to measure individual differences on the 24 character strengths. (You can self-administer it here.) All this is valuable, in my view, but the authors make no attempt to derive their system of character strengths from human life functions, and they make no serious attempt to relate their character strengths, once derived, back to human functions. They are less interested in the validity of their categories than in assessing how people differ along them. In this, as they acknowledge (2004, 7–9), they are inspired by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They want to create a complementary “manual of the sanities” (2004, 4). This is laudable, but surely such a manual will be more truly useful the more fully it relates its “sanities” to the facts of human functioning. (In this regard, the work of Shalom Schwartz on human “basic values” is quite a bit more satisfactory. Cf. Schwartz 2012. I describe and comment on Schwartz’s work here.)

Works Cited

  • Irwin, Terence. 2007. The Development of Ethics: A Historical and Critical Study. Volume I: From Socrates to the Reformation. Oxford University Press.
  • McCloskey, Deirdre N. 1994. “Bourgeois Virtue.” The American Scholar, 63 (2): 177–191.
  • ———. 2006. The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. University of Chicago Press.
  • Peterson, Christopher and Martin E. P. Seligman. 2004. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Oxford University Press.
  • Schwartz, Shalom H. 2012. “An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values.Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1116

2 thoughts on “Morals and the Free Society: 9. Aristotelianism, Part 1—Natural Human Functions Can Be Investigated Scientifically

  1. Pingback: Morals and the Free Society: 8. Ayn Rand | Policy of Truth

  2. Pingback: Morals and the Free Society: 10. Aristotelianism—Economic Analysis Can Reveal Natural, Social Human Functions | Policy of Truth

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