Ethics and Politics

Why Be a Good Human Being?

The central claim of Aristotelian naturalism is that moral goodness is a kind of species-specific natural goodness. Aristotelian naturalism has recently enjoyed a resurgence in the work of philosophers such as Philippa Foot, Rosalind Hursthouse, and Michael Thompson. However, any view that takes moral goodness to be a type of natural goodness faces a challenge: Granting that moral goodness is natural goodness for human beings, why should we care about being good human beings? Given that we are rational creatures who can ‘step back’ from our nature, why should we see human nature as authoritative for us? This is the authority-of-nature challenge. In this essay, I state this challenge clearly, identify its deep motivation, and distinguish it from other criticisms of Aristotelian naturalism. I also articulate what I consider the best response, which I term the practical reason response. This response, however, exposes Aristotelian naturalism to a new criticism – that it has abandoned the naturalist claim that moral goodness is species-specific natural goodness. Thus, I argue, Aristotelian naturalists appear to face a dilemma: Either they cannot answer the authority-of-nature challenge, or in meeting the challenge they must abandon naturalism. Aristotelian naturalists might overcome this dilemma, but doing so is harder than some Aristotelians have supposed. In the final sections of the paper, I examine the difficulties in overcoming the dilemma, and I suggest ways that Aristotelians might answer the authority- of-nature challenge while preserving naturalism. This essay appeared in Philosophia.

Situationism, Skill, and the Rarity of Virtue

According to one plausible interpretation, recent evidence from psychological research  shows that possession of the Aristotelian virtues is very rare. Does the rarity of the virtues pose any theoretical problems for Aristotelian virtue ethics, or can virtue ethicists accept rarity while leaving their moral theory intact? Critics such as John Doris and Stephen Stich argue that a virtue ethics that embraces rarity must lose its main “competitive advantage” over other moral theories, and that rarity also leaves little role for virtue in a program of moral education. And in his recent book Character as Moral Fiction, Mark Alfano describes the Rarity Thesis as an unsatisfying “dodge” made by virtue ethicists, which requires sacrificing several components of the hard core of virtue ethics. In this paper, I consider these criticisms and I show why they are misguided. In order to do this, I first consider a series of parallels between our evaluations of virtue and our evaluations of skill, or craft. These parallels provide useful conceptual materials for assessing the significance of rarity for virtue ethics, and for demonstrating that rarity, as such, poses no theoretical problems for virtue ethics. This paper is thus both a contribution to the growing discussion of virtue’s relation to skill, and an attempt to show how that discussion can fruitfully inform the continuing debate about character, situations, and empirical psychology. This essay appeared in the Journal of Value Inquiry.

Does Human Nature Conflict With Itself? Human Form and the Harmony of the Virtues

Does possessing some human virtues make it impossible for a person to possess other human virtues? Isaiah Berlin and Bernard Williams both answered “yes” to this question, and they argued that to hold otherwise – to accept the harmony of the virtues – required a blinkered and unrealistic view of “what it is to be human.” In this essay, I have two goals: 1) to show how the harmony of the virtues is best interpreted, and what is at stake in affirming or denying it, and 2) to provide a partial defense of the harmony of the virtues. More specifically, I show how the harmony of the virtues can be interpreted and defended within the kind of Aristotelian naturalism developed by philosophers such as Philippa Foot, Rosalind Hursthouse, and Michael Thompson. I argue that far from being an embarrassing liability for Aristotelianism – based in an “archaic metaphysical biology” – the harmony thesis is an interesting and plausible claim about human excellences, supported by a sophisticated account of the representation of life, and fully compatible with a realistic view of our human situation. This essay appeared in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly.

Have Elephant Seals Refuted Aristotle?

This paper deals with some influential objections to Aristotelian natural goodness, based on evolutionary science. I show how these objections either misunderstand the Aristotelian position, or beg the question against it in their criticisms. This paper appeared in the Journal of Moral Philosophy.

Moral Virtue as Knowledge of Human Form

If we accept that living things may be naturally good in the Aristotelian sense, the further question remains:  What is naturally good for a human being, and how do we know what belongs to human form? In this essay, I argue that the virtuous person has a grasp of human form, and her virtuous actions spring from this grasp. Moreover, moral virtue provides one with knowledge of human form that has an essentially different character than the knowledge provided by the empirical sciences: knowledge of one’s own form that comes from knowing what one ought to do. This essay appeared in Social Theory and Practice.

Ignorance, Shame, and Love of Truth in Plato’s Sophist

What’s wrong with the sophist? This essay looks at Plato’s answer to that question in the Sophist, drawing connections between the dialogue’s various definitions of the sophist. I also relate Plato’s portrayal of the sophist in this dialogue to some figures in his other works, including the Republic and Apology. The paper  is forthcoming in Phoenix, a journal of the Canadian Classical Association.

Restraint on Reasons and Reasons for Restraint
An essay on John Rawls and public reason that appeared in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.

Abstract: It appears that one of the aims of John Rawls’ ideal of public reason is to provide people with good reason for exercising restraint on their nonpublic reasons when they are acting in the public political arena. I will argue, however, that in certain cases Rawls’ ideal of public reason is unable to provide a person with good reason for exercising such restraint, even if the person is already committed to Rawls’ ideal of public reason. Because it is plausible to believe that such cases are widespread, the issue I am raising represents a serious problem for Rawls’ account of public reason. After posing this problem, I consider potential responses on behalf of Rawls’ view, and I reply to those responses. The moral of this story, as I see it, is that the kind of duty an ideal of public reason aims to place on citizens must be more modest than Rawls supposes.

Reasonably Traditional: Self-Reference and Self-Contradiction in MacIntyre’s Account of Tradition
As essay on Alasdair MacIntyre, and his notion of tradition-based rationality, that appeared in the Journal of Religious Ethics. It is an attempt to defend MacIntyre’s account of rationality and tradition, against criticisms from people such Jeffrey Stout, Jennifer Herdt, and John Haldane.

Film and Music

I wrote a piece on The Hurt Locker for The Point magazine. It’s not so much a review as a reflection on some moral and political issues that the film raises. It’s called “Wildman at Work: Natural Virtue and Civic Life in The Hurt Locker.” It can be found online here.

A few years ago, a good friend edited this volume on Radiohead and Philosophy. I contributed a chapter that considered the band’s music in light of Aristotle’s account of tragedy and catharsis in the Poetics.

Other Essays

I wrote two essays on Catholic Social Thought, aimed at a non-academic audience. The first of these essays deals with concepts of private property and divine creation. It is called “All Things Come from Thee: Persons, Property, and the Gifts of Creation” and is available here.

Another essay discusses The Dignity and Priority of Labor. It also appeared in Comment magazine.

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