Thanks to The Veritas Forum and The Lumen Christi Institute (among others), I participated in a dialogue with Professor Jonathan Masur about the nature of happiness. Professor Masur is a subjectivist about happiness and (unsurprisingly) I strongly disagree!
This text is a very short version of a paper that I had the pleasure and honor to present at a conference celebrating the 60th Anniversary of G.E.M. Anscombe’s Paper “Modern Moral Philosophy” at the University of Notre Dame, January 21-23 2018.
I. Hegel’s harsh verdict on modern virtue
In his Phenomenology of Spirit (§390), Hegel makes a striking comment on virtue ethics: modern theories of virtue produce only “emptiness” and “boredom”. He claims that they contain nothing real, only pompous rhetoric, and that they try to instill a pretentious sense of moral excellence in their readers with meaningless words. While Hegel criticizes contemporary attempts to virtue ethics quite harshly, he praises their ancient predecessors: Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato provided a robust and substantial account of the practical good and the virtues. Hegel obviously thinks that ancient theories of virtue succeeded where modern theories fail. Hegel explains that the main difference between these two different kinds of accounts is a logical one. He argues that modern theorists falsely depict virtue in the category of generality (Allgemeines) while ancient philosophers appropriately use the category of particularity (Besonderes). Unfortunately, Hegel’s terminology notoriously tends to obscure his arguments. In this text I try to sketch out a systematic reading that might not only help us to decode Hegel’s text but also might show us something about the logic of virtue – independently from Hegel’s other philosophical convictions and the historical context of the Phenomenology of Spirit. First, I will propose my interpretation of Hegel’s distinction between general and particular accounts of virtue (part II). Secondly, I will reconstruct Hegel’s argument why a proper concept of the virtues should be in the category of particularity (part III). Finally, I will mention an important consequence from this claim for the supposed unity of virtues.
II. General and particular virtues
I would like to suggest the following reading of Hegel’s remarks: By distinguishing the generality of modern virtue and the particularity of ancient virtue, Hegel alludes to a difference in scope of virtue norms. Modern theories usually take virtue norms to be “general” in the sense that they apply to all mankind. Virtues are defined as qualities that make a human being good qua human being. They are part of the essential description of the human life-form. The virtuous life realizes a perfect or ideal version of the human life. A vicious person, on the other hand, does not only violate some moral laws, she represents a deviation from this ideal of the human life. The vicious person fails to fully realize her life-form. The vicious person is still a human being, of course, but only in a defective way. This way of thinking about virtue norms as general norms for the whole life-form is reflected, for example, in the expression that a certain virtuous behavior is “humane” or when a virtuous person is called a “true human”. An important logical feature of this modern view is the assumption that particular ethical demands (e.g. of a certain social role) are derived from the general norm. The general formulation of a virtue (“humans act justly”) is supposed to have logical priority over the particular formulation (“judges act justly”). The particular virtues of a judge, for example, are only applications of the general norm to the particular situation of a judge. Ancient virtue ethics, however, are more modest in their claims, according to Hegel. The scope of their virtue norms is limited to the ethical demands and obligations of particular social roles and relationships. They do not purport to describe the good life and good actions of a human being per se, but the actions and life of a good parent, a good politician, a good friend, and so on. The particular norms of social roles have logical priority over statements like “humans act justly”. The latter are only abstractions from the substantial particular norms. To understand what justice is, therefore, we have to start from an understanding of the particular justice of a parent, a judge, a teacher, and so on. The general and abstract formulations are mainly shorthand for the more elaborate particular versions. Hegel’s characterization of ancient virtue ethics might surprise some readers. It is often assumed that Aristotle himself introduced the concept of virtue by the notion of being good qua human being. In the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics he equates the virtuous life with the good human life. Also, his descriptions of the virtues in the following books seem not to be limited to certain social roles. He seems to talk about justice, courage, prudence, temperance, and so on in an unqualified sense and not about the courage of a father and the temperance of a poet. Such passages apparently point to a general conception of the virtues like the one that Hegel attributes to the modern authors. After all, many modern virtue ethicists explicitly posit themselves in the tradition of Aristotle. I cannot defend Hegel’s reading of Aristotle here. Hegel would, however, caution us not to take the mentioned passages too literally. Aristotle often seems to speak about human virtues and human life in a very general sense. Nevertheless, he has a very particular audience in mind. The virtues described in the Nicomachean Ethics are the virtues of experienced and rich Athenian noblemen, i.e., citizens that occupy a particular set of social roles. This particularity becomes quite apparent in the virtue of magnificence (megaloprepeia, NE IV.4-6): The magnificent man is able to donate temple buildings to the city-state, equip warships and host theater festivals – it is obviously a virtue only for the happy few. This kind of dependency of the virtues on social status is even more conspicuous in Plato’s Politeia: In the discussion of his Utopian city, he explicitly differentiates between the virtues of the philosopher-king, the guardians and the workers.
III. Co-operation and Sociality
According to Hegel, ancient virtue ethics have a better conception of virtues than their modern epigones because of a profounder understanding of human nature. Aristotle calls us humans the “social animal”. Human sociality, however, is characterized by co-operation and division of labor to a much higher degree than any other animal. Human societies tend to develop a multitude of social roles with highly specialized functions and activities. The particularity of ancient virtues acknowledges this fact about human sociality. Their virtues mirror the partitioned structure of co-operation. If human life is essentially characterized by co-operation and division of labor, then this also applies to the human good. The daily lives of a scientist and a soldier, for example, differ widely and so do the ethical demands that we place on them. Different social roles have different functions in society. Therefore, to act well means something different in each of these roles. Sometimes these differences might be obscured by the general terms that we use. The sentences “A criminal judge should treat the accused justly” and “Parents should treat their children justly” apply the same adverb “justly”. Nevertheless, they refer to two distinct kinds of norms. Parents who behave like criminal judges toward their children certainly do not act justly. A similar mistake is made by the judge who treats the accused motherly or fatherly. Hegel would not deny that there are still some similarities between the two kinds of justice – after all, it is no coincidence that we apply the same term to both. These similarities, however, are only vague. They do not carry enough content to guide our actions. If we want to know what we should do, Hegel urges us to focus on the particular demands of social roles and personal relationships. The reference to a broad and general concept of a good human being, for example in the form of the advice “Be a good human being!” is less than helpful. There is nothing substantial to be learned about good action and virtuous character by rhetorically pointing to the idea of mankind. For that reason, Hegel criticizes contemporary virtue ethics as “empty” and “boring”.
IV. The Problem of Unity
There is one important consequence of the logical difference between modern and ancient concepts of virtue that I want to mention here at the end of my text: Hegel states that the particularity of the ancient concept allows us to see that the unity of the virtues and the human life-form is a non-trivial problem. Modern accounts tend to overlook this philosophical challenge since they already presuppose the unity of the virtues and of the life-form in a certain sense. If all particular virtues of social roles were only applications of a general virtue to certain circumstances, as modern accounts seem to assume, there can be no true conflict between the virtues. All agents act on the same principles, namely the virtues of the human life-form. Disagreement may occur only about questions of application and contingent circumstances, not about the principles itself. The picture of the ancient account of virtues, however, differs hugely: In human society, many different virtues, which are based on different social roles, interact with one another. There might be incompatible demands and claims due to the different underlying principles. Although the different social roles share common goals, and their functions are mutually interdependent, these common goals and functions are not simply given, as for example, the basic biological purposes of survival and reproduction. From an abstract perspective it seems quite obvious that, e.g., a scientist, a soldier, a judge and a poet co-operate in a society and share common goals. If we look closely, however, it is far from clear how this co-operation is structured and whose ethical demands should have priority over others. To complicate matters: human societies are not static, their goals evolve and with them the specifics of our co-operation changes. Conflicts between ethical demands cannot be resolved by reference to some general notion of human life, they have to be worked out by reflection and creative compromise. The unity of human virtues and the unity of a human life-form are not a starting point of our historical and philosophical enterprise, they are an end – an end that has to be re-evaluated and re-shaped constantly. The human life-form is in an act of constant self-reaction. Hegel believes that the ancient virtue ethics provide us with the proper account to face this challenge.
Martin Palauneck was a visiting student at the University of Chicago in 2013. He is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Leipzig. His thesis pertains G.W.F. Hegel’s take on Aristotle and ancient virtue theory.
“A thing must be loved before it is loveable,” G. K. Chesterton once said. Many of us want to know how we can become better people. We want to know how we can help our children and our students to become better people. Indeed, philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have been interested in how it is that people become virtuous, perhaps because, as Julia Annas puts it, “We cannot understand what virtue is without coming to understand how we acquire it.” And although philosophers have largely ignored Chesterton’s insight, he appears to have been exactly right, even prophetic.
Recent psychology suggests that an enormous factor in moral development—perhaps the great factor—is attachment. ‘Attachment’ is a fancy word for enduring love, the sort we see between parents and children, and in marriages and close friendships. None of us would want to live without such love. Few of us have ever lacked it completely, and the times we’re made to go without enough of it are oppressively painful, like going without sunlight or fresh air.
All of this is taken onboard by attachment theory, a research program in developmental psychology that aims at explaining the nature and significance of human attachments. One of the major claims of attachment theory is that, through their early experiences with a caregiver, infants form an internal “map” of what they can expect from others. If, for instance, the caregiver is warm and attentive, the infant will write this down on his map. He will then use his map to go about future socializing. He will expect others to be warm and attentive. He will trust that, if he shows his needs to them, they will care. He will be, as the experts say, “securely attached”.
If, on the other hand, the caregiver is a lousy bum, the infant will expect others to be lousy bums. Perhaps he will decide that he had better rely on himself to get his needs met. He will be “insecurely attached”.
Of course, both the writing of the map and the using of it are unconscious processes, only entering consciousness as a whiff of anxiety here or a sigh of relief there. And this may sound like so much Freudian mysticism. But the “map” here is really just a stored mental representation, and it is by now commonplace that the brain unconsciously creates mental representations of how things are, that it uses these to make predictions, and that it begins to do so no later than when we come screaming into the world.
Children who are securely attached have more of the stuff that virtues are made of. It is alarming, in fact. In a study from Jude Cassidy’s lab, for example, researchers interviewed children using puppets (they say it’s for the kids). They ask the children questions that elicit self-reflection. They code their answers in one of three ways:
Perfect: No negative comments about the self at all.
Negative: Globally negative remarks about the self.
Flexible: Globally positive remarks about the self, mixed with specific negative remarks.
What they found? Securely attached children were more likely to talk about themselves in the flexible way. What this seems to suggest is that being securely attached means you are better able to love and respect yourself while admitting to specific ways you could improve.
It’s worth underlining this. Consider how important this ability is to personal growth. Indeed, one of the great challenges of human life is finding a way to admit one’s gruesome imperfections without being crushed by the shame of it. One meets many people who deal with this by only embracing one side of the dilemma. One tells the truth, and is crushed. Or one avoids the crushing but only through self-deceit. The trick is to tell the truth, the whole damn thing, without sentencing yourself to life without parole. (An analogous challenge arises when it comes to our love for others: How do we love them when we discover their vileness?)
The Cassidy study only scratches the surface. Here is a list of eleven other virtue-related areas where the securely attached are better off:
In light of this stunning list, it appears Chesterton was right: A thing must be loved before it is loveable. We must be loved before we are loveable. As Steinbeck writes, “underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love.”
One of the most sublime scenes in Peter Pan has Wendy telling the lost boys how she and her brothers came to the Neverland. The boys are concerned, though. Won’t their parents miss them? This is her response:
“If you knew how great is a mother’s love,” Wendy told them triumphantly, “you would have no fear. … You see,” Wendy said complacently, “our heroine knew that the mother would always leave the window open for her children to fly back by; so they stayed away for years and had a lovely time.”
Wendy, too, is prophetic. The world can be for us a Neverland, a place of enchantment and wonder, where good things run wild, only if we know there is someone who has left the window open for us.
There is a thorn in all this, given the many people who endure a fraught childhood followed by a lonely adulthood. Aristotle thought that it was through practicing the virtues that we acquire them. “We become just by doing just actions,” he says. Recently, Julia Annas has taken this up, drawing an analogy with learning the piano:
I need first to work out consciously what is the right thing to do and then get used to doing it over and over again. This goes on from learning notes to learning scales and arpeggios and then learning how to play sonatas. As I become a skilled piano player … I can play sonatas and other pieces in a way that, as with driving, proceeds without conscious thinking.
Annas thinks acquiring virtues is like this, a view we might call the skill model. There is something right about the skill model, but something it leaves out as well. If you want to become virtuous, the research we’ve seen here suggests, not the practicing of the virtues, but the healing of the attachments. This is something done in therapy and by working towards healthy intimate relationships. Learning the virtues is like learning the piano, but many of us are playing with hands that have been broken and mangled. We do not need practice. We need rehab.
Annas, J., (2011), Intelligent Virtue, Oxford University Press.
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Cassidy, J., (1988), “Child-Mother Attachment and the Self in Six-Year-Olds”, Child
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and Theory of Mind in the Preschool Period”, Social Development 9(1): 3-23.
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Behaviors of Mothers and Children”, Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 48(4): 337-359.
Dykas, M., and J. Cassidy, (2011), “Attachment and the Processing of Social
Information across the Life Span: Theory and Evidence”, Psychological Bulletin
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Brian Ballard recently earned his doctorate from the philosophy department at the University of Pittsburgh. His work address the nature of emotion and its role in the good life, and he was a participant in the 2016 summer seminar “Virtue & Happiness” for the Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life project.
This is part 4 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.
Part #4: Assessing the difference between meaning and purpose.
In the three previous posts, we saw that the question of the meaning of life is a late 19th Century invention, which effectively displaced what had previously been the dominant question about human life, namely its purpose or goal. Now we may take stock of the significance of this shift.
To suppose that the question of “the meaning of life” is a timeless, universal question, would be to insist that it captures what is formulated in terms of the question about man’s ultimate end or good or purpose. This would be very hard to sustain. The question of the purpose of life, if taken seriously, is intrinsically teleological and essentialist. It presumes that there is such a thing as true human fulfillment, rooted in human nature, which reflects a definite purpose or intention of its maker. In Aristotelian terms, the question implicates three of the four causes: in asking about the end (final cause) of man, it presumes that there is an essential human nature (formal cause), which has been communicated to man from an agent (efficient cause).
Put another way, to ask after the purpose or end of human life is at once to create a field for practical moral questions – How should we live? For what end should I act? – and to frame that field in the context of fundamentally metaphysical questions – what is the true origin, nature, and destiny of human beings? This is exactly what we see reflected in the the design of the whole of Aquinas’s SummaTheologiae – which places the moral reflection of the Secunda Pars (previously mentioned) in relation to God, as creator of human nature (explored in the Prima Pars), and Who alone can lead us to the fulfillment of our end (explored in the Tertia Pars).
By contrast, the question of the meaning of life almost seems formulated precisely to avoid both the moral field and metaphysical frame. Meaning is subjective, placing an emphasis on the interior life, feelings, emotions, awareness, consciousness. What makes me feel purposive doesn’t necessarily speak to the question of an intrinsic, essential purpose. “Meaning” does indeed suggest directionality – something is meaningful or significant if it makes reference to something else. But this is not the directionality of action toward an end, rather it is the directionality of symbol to what is symbolized. To ask about the meaning of life is almost to ask an aesthetic question: what will my life evoke, what will it represent?
As a consequence, notice what questions further arise after we open up the question of “the meaning of life”: is it the same for everyone, or a matter of individual perspective? Do we make meaning, or discover it? Do we entertain the possibility that there is no meaning? If my life feels meaningful to me, is it really meaningful? These are existentialist questions – questions of real moral seriousness, to be sure, but raised from a position disconnected from a moral or metaphysical framework. By contrast, notice what further questions arise from the question of the purpose or end of life: where does it come from? How can I achieve it? Is this or that action compatible with it? These are questions of theology and ethics – questions of moral seriousness strongly rooted in a metaphysical framework. The question of life’s meaning places an emphasis on subjective fulfillment; the question of life’s purpose can include that, but relates the notion of personal fulfillment to a question that draws one outside of oneself: what is my life for, how can I bring my life into its intended order. It is the difference between asking what might happen to make me feel fulfilled given my circumstances, and asking what should fulfill me in light of the true structure of reality.
So consider the kind of answers one could give to the old, more permanent question about the goal or end of life: virtue, happiness, union with God, life everlasting. “Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” No wonder the authors of the Baltimore Catechism, like Thomas Aquinas, could use the question of human purpose to structure an instruction in Christian wisdom. Do answers like this even make sense as answers to the question of the meaning of life? One would have to say, in Kierkegaardian fashion, only if one chose to make the leap of faith, to believe those answers, to make them meaningful for you.
Alasdair MacIntyre has defended a teleological approach to ethics by connecting it to the possibility of making life intelligible as a narrative. This might sound like it is a version of making life “meaningful,” although MacIntyre strongly denies an easy equation between an Aristotelian purpose and existential meaning. Simply finding meaning cannot be the telos of life. True, if one is not aware of a purpose in one’s life, one will feel that one’s life is meaningless, but that doesn’t mean that “living a meaningful life” makes sense as the goal of life. MacIntyre is even willing to allow that Kierkegaard, for instance, did have a teleological view of life. Kierkegaard departed from Aristotle in his understanding of the mode of perceiving one’s actions as oriented toward a telos. MacIntyrean narrative is a kind of rationality, but Kierkegaard (as Tolstoy) was eager to place “meaning” outside of rationality. For Kierkegaard, man’s fundamental motives are more a matter of non-rational psychological mechanisms – hence Kierkegaard’s “ethical” reasoning is closer to “aesthetic” feeling than to more familiar forms of rational intelligibility.
So it is not a surprise that, even when taken seriously as the ultimate question of human life, it is widely recognized that the question of the meaning of life is highly personal. Unlike the question of the end of man, which is a general question about the essential good of human nature as such, the question of the meaning of life is individualistic and particular. The strength, and the weakness, of the question is that it seems to put the weight of responsibility on the one asking it to supply an answer from his or her own private, inarticulate resources.
As a consequence, those who take the question of the meaning of life most seriously seem to turn the question around, and make it less a question of abstract moral theorizing than a question of personal commitment. As earnestly characterized by Viktor Frankl, the question of the meaning of life seems to transform from a common question about human life, to a personal question about finding one’s unique vocation. Describing the challenge of life in the concentration camp, he says:
We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.
So even for Frankl, concerned as he is with helping to find meaning in the face of what could so easily seem meaningless, the question of the meaning of life admits of no general answer, and is not even the right question to ask.
Next: POST #5, EPILOGUE: THE MEANING OF LIFE AND THE CRISIS OF REASON
Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.
Call both one’s efforts at being a good person and the ways of thinking, feeling, and responding to circumstances that develop while one works to be a good person ‘virtue.’ Let a ‘meaningful’ life be a life imbued with a sense of purpose or significance—a life that is full, engaging, and engaged, where the fullness comes of something more than mere subjective interest and enthusiasm. It can seem as though virtue and meaning have very little to do with each other. Whatever sort of struggle might be involved in working to be a good human being can seem like something personal—an individual quest to have a beautiful character or a shining soul. Having a meaningful life, on the other hand, looks like the sort of thing that will require that I go beyond the business of working toward having a lovely soul and into a larger world where I try to find things that are genuinely worth pursuing, and devote myself to their pursuit. In this talk, I will work to bring the two together, partly by urging a different account of virtue, partly by developing a slightly more articulate account of meaning in human life, and always by drawing on work by Thomas Aquinas.
Learning to be Good
It may be that talk about virtue has never been common in ordinary life. It may be that the only common talk about virtue in North America happened a long time ago and was primarily concerned with women and their sexual habits, where ‘virtue’ was a matter of chastity. But in the latter part of the 20th century, Anglophone philosophers started talking about virtue again, and we now confront a wide variety of different kinds of talk about virtue in both moral philosophy and areas of empirical social science directed to exploration of moral psychology and moral education. By most of these lights, a specific virtue is a character trait that tends to make its bearer a better person than she would be without it, and the sorts of virtues that are topics of inquiry are acquired virtues—virtues that develop through training and practice. There are accounts of virtue that find their philosophical ancestor in the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. There are accounts of virtue that draw extensively from the work of Roman thinkers like Cicero. There are accounts of virtue rooted in work by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. The theorist of virtue I have found most useful is a scholastic neo-Aristotelian—Thomas Aquinas.
For Aquinas, there are four cardinal virtues—practical wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage. We need all four. Michael Pakaluk puts the point this way:
A virtue is a trait that…makes someone such that his activity—what he does, what he is responsible for—is reasonable. But there are four basic types of such activity: his thinking itself, as practical and directed at action; his actions ordinarily so-called…; and how he is affected. This last category splits into two, Aquinas thinks, on the grounds that acting reasonably in the realm of the passions involves regulating both the passions by which we are drawn to something and the passions by which we are repulsed from something. These two sorts of passions imply two sorts of tasks or achievements…which the ordinary distinction between the virtues of temperance and courage confirms (ST I-2.61.2 resp.).
I am happy to go into detail about the work of the virtues with you in discussion, if you like. For now, the point is just that the virtues foster coordination and cooperation among our various powers in such a way that we can pursue human good, and avoid what is bad for us, smoothly and well. And for Aquinas, even a fully virtuous person is likely to make mistakes in trying to act well.
Secondary virtues—generosity, for instance, or humility, or gratitude or kindness—work to strengthen and support the operation of cardinal virtues. Cultivating virtues is part of sound moral development. And sound moral development is crucial to human life, on this view. Unlike nonhuman animals, humans need more than just a combination of good fortune, instinct and training to lead good lives. We need developed characters.
Some contemporary neo-Aristotelians (and some more venerable theorists) think that acquired virtue is all that we need to lead a good human life. They think that living virtuously is enough to make us happy, and that, since virtue is its own reward, living virtuously ought to be enough to make our lives full and meaningful as well. For those who think that virtue is all that we need, what virtue does, for the most part, is make each of us a stronger and better person. This will give the virtuous person a measure of resilience when things do not go her way. It will help guide her when exercising virtue looks to put her at a tremendous disadvantage—as it will, for instance, if she called upon to deliver truthful testimony in court condemning a mob boss, or if she is called upon to care for an infirm parent who is demanding, ungrateful, and generally unkind, or if being mindful of the needs of her children and spouse requires turning down a very shiny job offer in a distant place. Virtuous activity can put the virtuous person at risk of death, misery, or serious personal disappointment. And, in general, one would have to be appallingly lacking in imagination to be incapable of thinking of anything more exciting to do than pay debts, help those in need, or work hard not to lie, cheat, abandon others, or steal when bad acts offer big rewards.
Aquinas knows that virtuous action can put the virtuous person at a disadvantage, as far as worldly success is concerned. He does not think that having developed a good character will, all on its own, make everything go well for the virtuous person. But his understanding of virtue has two features that are uncommon in other accounts of virtue, both of which give virtue a proper place in a meaningful life.
First, any specific virtue is directed to the common good, for Aquinas. Although he shares the general Aristotelian conviction that my virtues, if I have any, are good for me, the benefit that I get from my own good character is not the most interesting thing about my virtues for Aquinas. What my virtues do is direct me to good larger than just my own welfare and the welfare of those in my inner circle. Although what Aquinas means by saying that virtue is directed to common good, in the first instance, is not exactly what a contemporary Anglophone philosopher would generally mean by invoking common good, Aquinas’s understanding is not opposed to what we would mean either. It is just that the common good of interest to Aquinas operates on a cosmic scale. One could, for example, develop an interesting form of environmental ethics by meditating on Aquinas’s thought about common good. The commonality at issue reaches out toward the whole of creation. The human community is, of course, part of creation.
Second, and relatedly, Aquinas does not think that happiness and a sense of meaning in this life are the highest objects of aspiration for us. The highest object of aspiration is eternal happiness in a resurrected life. We cannot get that for ourselves without God’s help, but, in a strong sense, it is what we are made for, and virtue in this life supports us in our efforts to be right with ourselves, right with our fellow creatures, and right with God.
So much for a very quick introduction to virtue. What place do our efforts at moral self-improvement have in meaningful lives?
Meaning in Human Life
Questions about what makes life meaningful are relatively new questions in European philosophy. It looks as though the topic started to rise up explicitly for European thinkers in the wake of what was called “The Great War,” and again, with different urgency, in the wake of their Second World War, partly in response to the utter destructiveness of these ventures and pointedly in response to the way that neighbors turned on neighbors during efforts to annihilate Jewish people, gypsies, people with leftist political views, homosexual people, disabled people, and, in a different way, Slavic peoples, and to enslave many other peoples by the axis powers. In mainstream English-language philosophy, the topic did not get much currency until late in the twentieth century, and is only beginning to have spark more interest now. Part of the reason that mainstream Anglophone philosophers are reluctant to wade into questions about meaning in life is that there is no single, clear, precise characterization of what counts as meaning in this area.
There are desiderata—conditions that any adequate account of meaning in human life ought to meet if the view is to be a view about the sort of thing that despairing people find elusive and people leading significant or meaningful lives have. Anglophone philosophers being the kinds of intellectuals that they are, every one of the points I am about to list as reasonable starting points for thought about what makes life meaningful has been contested by at least one of the people taking up the question in the last thirty years. I will, for all that, move forward boldly rather than allowing us to be caught in the details of the disputations. Again, I am happy to trace the disputations for any of them if you like. Here are what I take to be reasonable starting points for thought about what makes life meaningful:
Meaning in human life is not merely a matter of subjective satisfaction with how things are going—people with tremendous hardship and burden can be leading tremendously meaningful lives even when they do not expect that their efforts in any of their areas of activity will succeed.
Meaning in human life has an important objective dimension—I can take it that my life has not been worth living and be wrong (one can think of this as one aspect of an ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ principle); by the same token, I can take it that my life is filled with meaning and be wrong.
Related to (1) and (2), to whatever extent assessments of happiness in life are importantly subjective, happiness is distinct from meaningfulness.
Whatever kinds of activities, relationships, ways of living, or experiences contribute to meaning in human life, meaningful lives are better than meaningless lives—that is, ‘meaning’ is not a purely descriptive term in this setting.
Related to (4), there is an important distinction between meaning in life and moral status (however moral status is assessed)—full lives, empty lives, and lives that are neither especially full nor especially empty have moral status.
There are various ways to carve the territory of recent Anglophone philosophical work on the meaning of life. One clear line of distinction demarcates naturalist views from supernaturalist views.
Supernaturalist views hold that our relations to, and participation in a spiritual order is crucial to having a meaningful life. Such views, notice, might be true even if there is no such thing as the variety of spiritual order postulated by the relevant supernaturalist theorist of meaning. If there is no such order, then our lives are not lives that can be meaningful, by these lights. Some supernaturalist views are distinctively theistic—ordinarily, these are monotheistic views focused on our relation to God. Other supernaturalist views find a spiritual order in the natural world, sometimes linked to pantheistic or polytheistic understandings of that order. These latter varieties of supernaturalism have not been explored extensively in the Anglophone philosophical literature. The philosophers have stuck with monotheism, for the most part. There tend to be three important dimensions to monotheistic supernaturalist views about the meaning of life:
Metaphysical dimension: God’s existence is necessary to ground meaningful lives because an infinite, essentially good, almighty creator and legislator God anchors objective value generally, and the objective value of human life as part of this.
Relational dimension: A meaningful life is informed by sound (if necessarily incomplete) understanding of God and involved in practical engagements that bring individual human beings into right relations with God.
Ethical dimension: It is not possible to be in right relations with God unless one is also in right relations with others.
Naturalist views, on the other hand, hold that there is no supernatural, distinctively spiritual order, but that this is no hindrance to thinking about what makes life meaningful. On such views, I could find meaning in life through pursuit of truth or justice, or by understanding my life as made possible by the struggles of people who came before me, hoping to carry good forward to those who will come after me.
This is the territory in which contemporary Anglophone philosophical exploration about questions of the meaning of life hangs out. Within each of the categories, there are many divergent views, and, by most philosophers’ lights, no one strand of thought on the topic is entirely fully developed at this point. There is, however, a common thread that runs through all the work, as near as I can tell, a thread that takes some of its coloring from the usual ways of distinguishing questions about meaning from questions about happiness. It goes like this—in virtually all contemporary work (except work committed to thoroughly subjectivist naturalism), meaningful lives are meaningful in part because those leading meaningful lives operate with an understanding of their lives as participating in a good larger than their own welfare or advantage and the welfare or advantage of those they regard as members of their intimate circle. What sort of “larger” is involved in this larger good? Thaddeus Metz offers the following proposal:
[T]he concept of meaning is the idea of connecting with intrinsic value beyond one’s animal self. The animal self is constituted by those capacities that we share with (lower) animals, i.e., those not exercising reason. These include the fact of being alive, the instantiation of a healthy body, and the experience of pleasures. These internal conditions may well be intrinsically valuable, but they do not seem to be the sorts of intrinsic value with which one must connect to acquire significance. To say that the concept of meaning is the idea of relating positively to intrinsic value beyond one’s animal self is to say that while merely staying alive or feeling pleasure logically cannot make one’s life meaningful, connecting with internal goods involving the use of reason, and with all sorts of external goods, can do so [“The Concept of a Meaningful Life,” in Joshua W. Seachris, editor, Exploring the Meaning of Life, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), p. 88].
Perhaps more than any other Anglophone analytic philosopher working on questions about the meaning of life, Metz is immersed in the whole of the relevant contemporary literature. He covers the waterfront better than anyone else. And he is acutely aware of the points at which his treatment of the concept departs from some recent analytic work on the topic. For all that, one can complain about various features of Metz’s account of the concept of meaning from a Thomist point of view. Here are a few of them.
First, Metz’s way of distinguishing what we share with non-human animals from our distinctively human capacities diverges from Aquinas’s metaphysics of human nature. For Aquinas, we are the animals with intellect. Intellect is not the same was what contemporary philosophers mean by ‘reason.’ In an early work, Aquinas remarks on aspects of nonhuman animal apprehension and appetite that have something of reason in them:
It should be noted…that not only in the apprehensive powers but also in the appetitive there is something which belongs to the sensitive soul in accordance with its own nature and something else according as it has some slight participation in reason, coming into contact at its highest level of activity with reason at its lowest…. Thus the imaginative power belongs to the sensitive soul in accordance with its own nature, because forms received from sense are stored up in it, but the estimative power, by which an animal apprehends intentions not received by the senses, such as friendship or hostility, is in the sensitive soul according as it shares somewhat in reason…. The same principle is verified also in regard to the appetitive power. The fact that an animal seeks what is pleasurable to its senses (the business of the concupiscible power) is in accordance with the sensitive soul’s own nature; but that it should leave what is pleasurable and seek something for the sake of a victory which it wins with pain (the business of the irascible), this belongs to it according as it in some measure reaches up to the higher appetite [Disputed Questions on Truth, q. 25, a.2].
It is hard to separate the most complex operations of nonhuman animal apprehension and appetite from their simplest human counterparts. For all that, intellect sets humans apart from other animals on this view, and, among intellectual creatures, humans are further distinguished by having discursive reason—we are, as Aristotle might put it—the chatty animals. This is, for Aquinas, part of the way in which we are animals.
Second, not just any intrinsically valuable, discursively assessable goods will count as goods to which we can connect in a way that confers meaning on our lives. Active participation in a thriving human community, for example, will only count as lending significance and meaning to one’s life if that community is, itself, ordered to justice and guided by due concern for the common good. If we had to find a slot for Aquinas in the contemporary philosophical taxonomy, he will count as a supernaturalist for whom the metaphysical, relational, and ethical dimensions are all intertwined.
Finally, concern about virtue is kept at a distance in Metz’s treatment of meaning. If we wanted to ask Aquinas to speak to questions about meaning in human life, virtue would have a secure, central place in our discussion.
Putting Virtue in its Place—A Thomist Picture
How will a friend of Aquinas handle a question about the place of virtue in a meaningful life?
First off, a friend of Aquinas, if I understand those of us who are friends of Aquinas, will urge that a properly virtuous life will, insofar as it is virtuous, be a meaningful life. It may not be a happy life, on any ordinary understanding of happiness. I can be as wise, just, brave, and temperate as you please but face ethical circumstances so challenging and hostile that my good character makes me a target for abuse rather than an esteemed person. In this sense, a Thomist account will square with the first and third of the starting points for an account of meaning.
Second, the fact that even a person with a full complement of acquired virtues—a strong character—can make mistakes and will occasionally have good reason to regret her decisions and her actions squares with the objectivity constraint on claims to meaning in human life. I might throw myself into a cause, for example, after careful consideration and in good conscience only to find that the thing I fought for was not worth fighting for.
Third, because acquired virtue on Aquinas’s understanding is perfective of my nature as a human being, virtuous lives are better than vicious lives in a sense isomorphic with the sense in which meaningful lives are better than meaningless lives.
Perhaps most importantly, because acquired virtues are directed to common good in the first instance for Aquinas, a genuinely virtuous life will, by necessity, involve the right kinds of relations with intrinsically valuable internal and external goods to meet the kind of criterion for meaning sketched by Metz (echoing dominant trends in contemporary Anglophone philosophical work on the topic).
In this sense, pulling Aquinas into conversation with contemporary Anglophone philosophers on questions about meaningful lives gives through about virtue a central role in thought about meaning.
Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Vogler gave this talk at Valparaiso University as part of their programming on the theme of the pan-humanities seminar taken by every freshman, and the theme this fall is “human meaning and purpose.” She was hosted by the Department of Philosophy at Valparaiso University.
A basic Aristotelian insight taken up and developed by Thomas Aquinas is that animals tend to move toward what is good for animals of their kind, and to avoid things that are bad for their sort of animal. Aquinas recognized that, among animals, things are uniquely hard for human beings—the intellectual animals. We get in the way of ourselves, even when we are fully grown and of relatively sound mind and body. We get in our own way even when we are, as one says, highly functional. Aquinas understands that even the best of us will have good reason to regret some of what we do or fail to do, say or fail to say, think or fail to think. This is part of the burden and glory that comes of being the kind of animal that is accountable for a lot of what it does voluntarily, and that needs to figure out what to pursue and why. It is difficult to manage self-direction in circumstances where even the most basic things about our lives seem increasingly to be matters of choice and it takes us a few years to so much as reliably to distinguish what is edible from what is inedible. And humans are not just in danger of inefficiency or disappointment in their efforts to move toward what draws them, and avoid what they find repugnant. They are at moral risk. As medieval English poets used to notice, when the wolf is drawn to a thing, that thing will tend to be a good sort of thing for a wolf to seek. When a man is drawn toward something, it could be morally disastrous.
Under these circumstances, young people I have known routinely move around difficult moral questions using the language of etiquette. They are worried about imposing on others. They don’t know how even to begin a discussion about topics that involve vital aspects of people’s lives—often aspects that seem at once crucial, emotionally charged, and intimate. Sometimes they genuinely do not know how to begin thinking their way into a question.
I should note at the outset that rational enquiry into different understandings of good and bad in human life does not constitute an imposition, even if what it reveals is profound disagreement on some points. It does not constitute failing to respect others. If anything, thoughtful disagreement shows serious regard for one’s opponents. And, when it comes to coping with a moral dispute, relying on the traditional point about good and bad can help.
It could be that people who occupy different positions across a vast divide are disagreeing about human good at every level. I suspect that this is very rare these days. That we need food, clothing, clean water, clean air, security in our persons, some form of community, something that counts as family, some reliable economic institutions, some measures of freedom of worship, assembly, and expression—that these kinds of things are good for intellectual social animals is usually a shared understanding among contemporary humans. It is hard to imagine serious, reasoned disagreement on such matters. But significant background agreement on these points will not be enough to settle all questions. It is not even enough to settle all questions in personal life, much less in matters of public policy, and human life, lived in the varying contexts of human institutions, is often muddled, homely, and disappointing.
For all that, I suspect that when we find ourselves at odds with others over some moral question we will find substantial agreement about human good in general across the many divides that look to make consensus impossible. In my limited experience, it helps to begin by acknowledging that more than one sort of good is at stake in moral disagreement, and to take seriously the genuine good or goods at issue in a dispute. Where those goods are concerned, all of us will tend to be moral realists.
What are we Being Realists About?
How much realism do we get from the kinds of points that people are taking for granted in thinking that things have been bad in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria made landfall? That having access to food, water, fuel, electricity, and stable shelter would improve life for the people there? We are tacitly committed to there being such a thing as human nature, to a recognition that humans are vulnerable creatures, to an indeterminate number of claims about the badness of the situation for human beings on an island in the wake of a catastrophic hurricane.
We know these things.
This is not a matter of ungrounded opinion. Our inferences about the situation in Puerto Rico are not beholden to some sort of standard of rational justification that is relative to the cultural markings that we carry in virtue of belonging to this or that community. Most people in Puerto Rico are struggling to deal with flooding and the like, but we are on solid ground as far as our sense that things have gone badly for them is concerned.
As I say, this kind of baseline is rarely enough to make much headway with difficult moral questions, but it is the sort of thing that does provide common ground across many deep divides. Objective common ground. Moral truth.
What of the Difficult Questions? What About Relativism?
But, given that most of the moral matters that tear at us involve questions much more difficult than a question about whether victims of natural or manmade disasters have gone through something bad, how much comfort can we take in having unspoken, shared commitments of the sort that surface whenever anything terrible happens? What of moral relativism, that specter that threatens to materialize in ordinary undergraduate classrooms at the drop of a hat in introductory ethics courses?
The most extreme form of moral relativism is moral subjectivism—the topic of the cartoons on this page. This view—that claims to moral truth are merely subjective—lapses into incoherence as quickly as the cartoons suggest. There are two other forms of moral relativism that have more bite.
Descriptive moral relativism centers on the claim that different cultural groups adhere to different moral codes, frequently embodied in different practices, different standards of justification, different kinship systems, different modes of work and leisure, and different customs, and normally systematically linked to members’ consciences. This form of relativism has the advantage of being very likely true. There are significant divergences in moral codes across diverse human communities. If the first thing to notice about descriptive moral relativism is that it may well be true, the second thing to note is that its truth will not have any effect on moral disagreement. For example, it says nothing about the relative soundness of the moral codes that diverge. It could be that some of those codes are better than others. It may be that some are true and others are false. To notice differences is not to say what we should make of those differences.
Normative moral relativism claims that not only will we find the kinds of divergence that the descriptive relativists highlight, but we ought to see divergence in moral codes in different societies. Does normative moral relativism have any bearing on the possibility of coping with serious moral disagreement? It will depend upon how the normative relativist fleshes out the suggestion that moral codes ought to diverge. For example, one persistent site of significant moral divergence enters in through historical distance. Even those of us who have come to love the Iliad or the Odyssey—to name two canonical European great books—will likely notice that the moral codes that seem to inform the Homeric epics diverge significantly from the codes we came to inhabit in our childhoods. If the normative relativist explains this by talking about the dramatically different situations we find ourselves in now, and the social, material, and political worlds that form a kind of backdrop and context for ancient Greek warrior poetry, then the divergence may, to the extent that we can comprehend the differences, begin to feel like the sort of thing that is to be expected of human beings facing these different worldly circumstances. The pressures on that (likely partly imaginary) civilization, the resources available, the modes of human connection and antagonism that were taken for granted in the poetry were so far removed from ours that the differences make sense. This sort of observation is one form that normative moral relativism can take. Again, it says nothing about our prospects for handling deep contemporary moral disagreement, except to suggest that we might do well to develop an imagination for the pressures that those who disagree with us face, and the resources that they have at their disposal for finding ways of pursuing collective goods, and avoiding bad, in their communities before declaring them utterly benighted.
The View from one Philosopher’s Seat
Alasdair MacIntyre—a contemporary Anglophone philosopher broadly concerned with ethics—has circled around the topics of relativism and cultural difference for many years. He has written thoughtfully and well about communities, about the cultural contexts communities provide for moral development, about character, and about the peculiarly shrill tone of contemporary moral disagreement. In an essay called “Moral Relativism, Truth and Justification”—there are long quotations from it on your handout—he takes up the topic of seemingly intractable moral dispute, linking disagreement to cultural difference. He begins with an example taken from a 17th century Japanese Neo-Confucian called Kaibara Ekken. Ekken argues that a man has sufficient grounds to divorce his wife if she is disobedient to her in-laws, if she gossips or slanders others, if she is barren or jealous, if she has a serious illness, and so on. Ekken defends the view by pointing to role a wife was meant to play in society, to the structure of family life, to the place of that structure in the larger moral and political order, and to the cosmic order in which these institutional arrangements had their proper places.
MacIntyre turns next to the natural law tradition in European thought, grounded in Stoicism and Roman law and given significant development in medieval philosophy—most notably in the work of Aquinas. MacIntyre points out that Aquinas does not see a wife’s fondness for gossip or friction with her in-laws as grounds for divorce, nor would Aquinas find a sound argument for divorce if she became ill or was barren.
Neither view, MacIntyre points out, seems to have the kinds of resources that would be needed to make its case in terms that the other view would accept. Each position can be defended in its own terms. But it looks like the gulf between the two views cannot be bridged by an argument that relies upon the modes of justification internal to either protagonist’s cultural milieu. The prospects for Aquinas and Ekken settling their imagined dispute look dim, MacIntyre thinks.
Nevertheless, both sorts of view present themselves as true. Neither of these two thinkers is a relativist. How, then, are we to square the universalist claim at the root of each position with the difficulty in even imagining how Ekken and Aquinas might have a meeting of minds on the question of divorce?
MacIntyre goes at the question through a serious discussion of the nature of substantive views of truth—the only sorts of views of truth that he takes to be compatible with the tenor and tone of serious moral divergence. It is a good discussion, and forms the basis of an almost uncharacteristically optimistic account of how we might handle ourselves in the face of seemingly intractable moral disputes. At least, that is one way to read the essay. One could also read it as a reduction.
Having insisted—and he is surely right about this—that the protagonists to a serious moral dispute must be seen as claiming truth for their positions, MacIntyre outlines three things that follow from the understanding that they are claiming to be teaching us moral truths:
First, they are committed to holding that the account of morality which they give does not itself, at least in its central contentions, suffer from the limitations, partialities, and one-sidedness of a merely local point of view, while any rival and incompatible account must suffer to some significant extent from such limitations, partiality, and one-sidedness. Only if this is the case are they entitled to assert that their account is one of how things are, rather than merely how they appear to be from some particular standpoint or in one particular perspective….
Secondly, such protagonists are thereby also committed to holding that, if the scheme and mode of justification of some rival moral standpoint supports a conclusion incompatible with any central thesis of their account, then that scheme must be defective in some important way and capable of being replaced by some rationally superior scheme and mode of justification, which would not support any such conclusion.
Thirdly and correspondingly, they are committed to holding that if the scheme and mode of justification to which they at present appeal to support the conclusions which constitute their own account of the moral life were to turn out to be, as a result of further enquiry, incapable of providing the resources for exhibiting its argumentative superiority to such a rival, then it must be capable of being replaced by some scheme and mode of justification which does possess the resources both for providing adequate rational support for their account and for exhibiting its rational superiority to any scheme and mode of justification which supports conclusions incompatible with central theses of that account.
To make good on our convictions, he argues, we need to be committed to serious rational inquiry. It will require both philosophical skill and a strong imagination to transcend those aspects of our own views that are one-sided, provincial, and otherwise stained with the local color that characterizes our position. It is not impossible to do this, he suggests. It is just very difficult, and it can only be done with the understanding that we may need to alter our own views in light of what rational enquiry reveals to us about our position.
Two Cautionary Notes from the Sideline
I am a great admirer of MacIntyre’s work, but want to suggest that this discussion of relativism and its possible remedy suffers from two sorts of exaggeration. First, even though MacIntyre stresses the importance of open-mindedness and imagination in his account of how rational enquiry might help us to remedy our situation, I think that he overestimates the power of rational enquiry. It may be an occupational hazard for philosophers. I sometimes think that some of the best of us got into this business because we were hunting for the good argument that could stop manmade bad things from happening—the line of thinking that could settle disputes in our families, or put political strife to rest, or bring about peace and harmony in social life if only people would listen. I don’t know MacIntyre well enough to have any view about his motivations on this score, but a lot of us who lived by our wits in youth hoped to make the world better by our wits as adults. It could be that we need more than solitary acts of brilliant thought and imagination to sort out a real ethical tangle. We might need more than collective acts of brilliance, even. Some of the ground underlying central moral convictions may exceed the limits of even the splendid, repeated, enduring collaborative exercise of our intellectual powers and strengths. Aquinas seems to have thought so. The very first article of the very first question of first part of the Summa Theologiae, for example, urges that we need revealed knowledge to help us answer central questions about how we ought to live, that philosophy alone—by which he likely meant Aristotelian metaphysics—was not enough. He was, himself, an enormously good philosopher with extraordinary powers of methodical rational enquiry and a vast and fertile imagination. If he couldn’t do it, it is hard to see why we would expect to succeed. I tend to think that accepting his counsel on this point is a good idea.
The standards MacIntyre provides for guiding our enquiry are clear analytic philosophical standards. They are good standards. But they may demand more of us than moral thought and practice can provide. Why would one think that the kinds of intellectual standards that are the air we breathe in analytic philosophy are the ones that will help us when faced with deep moral disagreement?
This question brings me to the second place where I think that MacIntyre is inclined to exaggerate. He has taught us all a lot about the kinds of unity we can find embodied in the people and practices that mark out distinctive moral communities. And it is likely that some of his acuity in these matters owes a lot to his youthful adherence to some form of Marxism—again, I do not know him well enough to know which Marxism (or Marxisms) shaped his youthful social and political activism. I don’t know if he read work by Antonio Gramsci or Louis Althusser, by Lenin or Rosa Luxemburg or Mao. All of these activist thinkers found themselves coping with the fact that, contrary to what they might have expected, European wage laborers did not rise up to throw off their chains. Worse, in the parts of the world where there were uprisings in the name of Marx, the people who rose up were not wage laborers, suggesting that the whole mode of thinking about class and class conflict that was not quite theorized by Marx—but was strongly suggested by his work—was somehow not quite right. All of these thinkers, in different ways and with different emphases, urged that neither culture nor class interest was as singular or coherent as Marx seemed to have thought that it could be. The social fabric, they claimed, was not a tightly woven bolt of cloth with a single seam that could be ripped out if only the masses could collectively recognize their interests. Instead, the social fabric was a loosely woven, shifting, unevenly fraying thing that did not provide a single, coherent social script for anyone.
I have found some of this work very useful. When MacIntyre writes about the wonderful community spirit in a remote small fishing village, or the way that ancient Greek thought about virtue had its natural home in the life of the polis, or even of the systematic coherence and wholeness of Ekken’s Neo-Confucian thought about marriage and divorce, to my jaded eye, at least, he has a tendency to see the weave of the relevant social fabric as tighter than social fabric tends to be. Now if cultures provided something more like scripts and less like patchy, fraying collective contexts in which people seek ways of pursuing common good and addressing human needs and inclinations, then the analytic philosophical demands on standards of reason and argument would look more appropriate. In dealing with disagreement, we would be trying to cope with a clash between divergent systems that came wrapped up in whole modes of rational justification that may or may not be of a kind that we can match. Our task might look like the moral equivalent of trying to express Newton’s laws in the terms characteristic of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It is very hard to do, but with sufficient mathematical skill and imagination, it can be done without too great a loss of content. If, however, like much of human life, moral thought and moral disagreement is a messy business carried out at the edges of ways of thinking that are in some ways underdeveloped and in many respects provisional, then it will look as though MacIntyre is not fully heeding Aristotle’s advice. He is looking for something more determinate than what we have a right to expect in ethics.
The ways in which the views in the background of moral disagreement will tend to be less than fully developed and other than entirely logically systematic, however, provides us with real possibilities for moral engagement from that mundane kind of ground we have in our recognition that our opponents are fellow human beings who are working to pursue good and avoid bad. We are, all of us, doing that. All of us will fail sometimes. All of us can use disagreement as a way of developing a better sense for both diverse human efforts to move toward good and the ways in which we can learn from each other’s successes and mistakes. MacIntyre is dead right, I think, to urge that we approach moral disagreement with humility, honesty, and a willingness to engage in self-criticism at least as strong as our willingness to find fault with others.
Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Vogler gave this talk at Vanderbilt University October 5, hosted by the Thomistic Institute chapter in Nashville.
Alberto Arruda was a participant in our 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence” and is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Lisbon.
During the various sessions of our seminar, the notion of dependence was often mentioned in one way or another. I have decided to write a brief note on this notion in the hope that it might spark a discussion amongst philosophers, theologians and psychologists alike. This note assumes the form of a reflection on a text; and author, that is, I think, a very unlikely candidate in the context of our sessions: Descartes. Perhaps for this reason, and given our prevalent Aristotelianism, I thought this exercise would be interesting, since it challenges some of our dearest assumptions.
A brief note on dependence
“I am not an animal!” protested Spartacus, the very same thought that famously puzzled Descartes in his Meditations. And even though both men were protesting in a similar way, they were not protesting about the same thing at all. While Descartes was complaining about the fact that he couldn’t possibly be reduced to the animal begotten by his parents, the slave was complaining about the fact that he could not be reduced to an animal just because someone had decided to treat him like one. But where the slave might have pointed to the fact that, much like his owner, he also had parents, and perhaps even siblings, who worried about him, Descartes would have maintained that the dependence exhibited by his animal nature did nothing more than conceal his real dependence on God. Now, this is a genuine difference. Although both complain about being reduced to something they know they are not, the nature of Descartes’ complaint is about concealment, while the slave’s is about what is, for him, painfully manifest.
If Descartes had lived to encounter, say, Beethoven’s death mask, perhaps he would have maintained, much like Aristotle, that the mask was not the likeness of Beethoven at all. But, where for Aristotle the now dead Beethoven was no longer Beethoven, I mean, that particular depiction was merely the depiction of a Beethoven now missing a part, Descartes would have maintained that the mask of the dead Beethoven was certainly not the likeness of the real Beethoven, but then again, no mask could ever have been – dead or alive.
So, an alive and well Beethoven, that is, an intact Beethoven as Aristotle would say, really never was ab initio Beethoven. And now, I can’t quiet imagine what privation meant for Descartes, nor what a status quo ante could have meant for Descartes in relation to both the deterioration and the many privations our bodies do suffer. But I do understand one, I suppose, fundamental aspect of his argument – namely, that the real Beethoven may very well still be somewhere (that is, if he, or it, is still somehow able to think). And this is not exactly the same as saying that the real Beethoven has only now genuinely come to be, I mean, now after the death of his animal part. For if we were really thinking about Beethoven’s soul, we would have to be thinking about the Beethoven who sinned, the one who sinned through that body, the body now depicted in that death mask. So this Beethoven, the dead Beethoven, was, even for Aristotle, who certainly did not puzzle about the salvation of his soul, not necessarily the Beethoven who used to sin and repent, but certainly the one who did all of those actions and composed all that music, the music that somehow many of us grow up with. But still, what about the question: who was the real Beethoven for Descartes? He was not the body depicted in his death mask – and we do have this intuition, especially when we miss someone who has died – so who was he?
And now we know that the reply is challenging and difficult, for he never was that body, nor his thoughts, and certainly not his actions. And so he was not part of the history we inherited. He was always, genuinely, his thinking, but not the falsity he sometimes thought about. Beethoven was, like I am, and so are you, his thinking when it was true. So the evil genius could have robbed him of a world, he could have robbed him of his acting, and I suppose of his sins and redemption, but he could not have robbed him of the faculty that God created, the faculty of proper thinking. And so, Descartes argued he was his thinking; he argued that he was his dependence on God, and now I say dependence, because he could not have created truth, for he was far from perfect, and also, because he could not exist without truth. So Descartes, and Beethoven, and you, and I are our dependence on God; we are, if you want, the faculty we exercise but have not begotten, and so we are all equal before God. Therefore, when any of us takes drugs, we are, for Descartes, so it seems to me, giving the biggest offence we can. We are polluting the very gift we received from God, destroying our election, and really, genuinely, destroying ourselves.
Another thought: Descartes somehow had the intuition that he was somewhere in his body, but not like a pilot is in a vessel. This takes away any hope we might have of putting matters in a way that is as clean and simple as talk about separable glassy essences, ghosts in machines and otherwise. And I think there is a lot in this that can be used to somehow detach his theory from an official doctrine of Cartesianism, although I do not dare to dispute that there is a great deal of merit in what has been achieved under this rubric.
But still, what about the thought concerning pilots and vessels? The Descartes of the Meditations never thought about something like occupying more than one body. I suppose such a thought experiment did not seem necessary to him, as it does to a lot of us nowadays. The uniqueness of occupying only one body seemed, perhaps, trivial to him. He did not argue much for it, and so he did not argue much against it. Given his hyperbole, he could have never conclusively known that he had occupied only one body; and I think that there would not be much advantage to doing so, since truly knowing what one is would not be improved by a putative change of body. So Descartes’ argument mentioned uniqueness of body, but not, as we would be tempted to think, in the service of some kind of uniqueness of experience. And now, I have to admit, that at least I do believe in such uniqueness of experience. And as I hinted at before, I do not find this uniqueness entirely void of theological significance either.
However, if we think about it, his metaphor is near perfect for his purpose. Any pilot is far more dependent on his or her vessel than Descartes thought he was on his body (at least this is what he wished to establish with his argument). No pilot is yet a pilot if he or she has never had a vessel, or at least the chance to pilot one. And the pilot who now lacks a vessel is certainly not half a pilot, although he or she is in danger of, perhaps, never again doing what a pilot does. And now we see that for Descartes what I truly am, my thinking, would still be possible even if I did not have a body, as long as God, who I truly depend on for my conservation, would grant me some true thoughts. And so, it seems, I am less dependent on my body for being me than a pilot is on a vessel for being a pilot, even though we are both equally dependent on God for existing at all.