My overall aim in this brief response to Paul Gould’s lead essay is to draw the reader’s attention to an area of contemporary moral philosophy—Neo-Aristotelian metaethics—that is ripe for rediscovery in the wake of the ongoing resurgence of Neo-Aristotelianism in metaphysics and philosophy of science.
Sketching A Metaphysical Picture
Let me begin with a thumbnail sketch of a Neo-Aristotelian metaphysical picture that is currently on the rise in contemporary metaphysics and philosophy of science.For a few helpful overviews of the general contours of this neo-Aristotelian metaphysical framework see Brian Ellis, The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism (Ithaca, NY: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), Robert C. Koons, William M. R. Simpson, and Nicholas J. Teh, (eds.), Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science (New York, NY: Routledge, 2018), and Edward Feser, Aristotle’s Revenge (Germany: Editiones Scholasticae, 2019). For the contemporary Neo-Aristotelian, the natural world is a complex array of identifiable and empirically specifiable objects that stand in dynamic causal relations to one another. Natural objects are intrinsically dynamic and active; some undergo radioactive decay, some biological assimilation, some spin, some dissolve in water, and others engage in the philosophical enterprise. Individual natural objects like electrons, gold, and living organisms are all clearly different kinds or categories of natural things, each with their own range of properties, natural tendencies, and activities distinctive of their kind.
On this Neo-Aristotelian metaphysical picture, the category to which an object belongs determines what that object is and how it tends to act in concert with other natural objects in the world. A few examples from physics, chemistry, and biology may help here. As an elementary particle with unit negative charge, an electron is a different kind of particle than a photon (which lacks charge), and thus tends to respond differently to electromagnetic fields than a photon.Nature’s metaphysical joints are not only deep in this sense, they are knowable in that we commonly take our best classificatory judgments about such joints to be more or less true to the way the natural world is. As a chemical element with atomic number 79, gold is a different kind of metallic object than copper, and thus tends not to corrode when exposed to oxygen for prolonged periods of time (as does copper). As a member of the kind Panthera Tigris, a tiger is clearly a different kind of natural object than other living organisms, say a tulip, and thus tends to engage in reproductive acts that are sexual and not asexual (in contrast to a tulip).
Natural objects are intrinsically powerful and come spring-loaded with causal powers directed at certain outcomes and not others. Simply stated, the natural tendencies of an object are the various states or outcomes to which the object is directed given its nature.See ch. 3 of George Molnar, Powers: A Study in Metaphysics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) and Edward Feser, “Teleology: A Shoppers Guide” in Philosophia Christi (2010) Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 147–65. The natural tendencies of an acorn, given its nature, are to develop a healthy root system, draw nourishment from the soil, and to grow into a mature oak (if unhindered); the natural tendency of a sodium chloride molecule, given its nature, is to dissolve in water; the natural tendency of an electron, given its nature, is to repel (and not attract) particles with similar charge. Examples could, of course, be multiplied.
According to the Neo-Aristotelian metaphysical framework, then, the natures or essences of natural objects like electrons, gold, and tigers mark out deep categorical structure in the natural world, structure that defines what these objects are, how they can act, as well as the various states they tend towards given their natures. Crucially, for the Neo-Aristotelian, this categorical structure in nature (including the intrinsic natures and natural tendencies of things) is both deep and knowable. The natures and natural tendencies of objects are “deep” in the sense that they are part of the furniture of reality as it is, independent of the various attitudes that individuals or collective groups of individuals might have about such structure; electrons have the natures (an elementary particle with unit negative charge) and the natural tendencies (they tend to repel and not attract other negatively charged particles) they do irrespective of human attitudes and beliefs about them. Nature’s metaphysical joints are not only deep in this sense, they are knowable in that we commonly take our best classificatory judgments about such joints to be more or less true to the way the natural world is. For those with Neo-Aristotelian sympathies, knowledge of the natures and natural tendencies of natural objects, whether electrons, tigers, or tulips is both commonplace and fundamental to the scientific enterprise.
What About Ethics?
I’ve tried to provide a very brief thumbnail sketch of a Neo-Aristotelian philosophy of nature, replete with intrinsic natures and natural tendencies, that is on the steady rise in contemporary metaphysics and philosophy of science (the kind of metaphysical machinery that would make most early modern philosophers roll over in their graves!). While the above Neo-Aristotelian picture is on the steady rise in these core areas of contemporary philosophy, an Aristotelian metaethicalWhat might a robust Aristotelian account of moral normativity look like, one that is predicated on the above account of deep, categorical structure in the natural world? and normative theory predicated on the above metaphysical package is still very much in the vast minority and remains positively disdained by many contemporary moral philosophers.For contemporary defenders of a robust Neo-Aristotelian metaethics (one predicated on the neo-Aristotelian metaphysical picture) see Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), Michael Thompson’s “The Representation of Life” in Hursthouse, Laurence, and Quinn (eds.), Virtues and Reasons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), and David Oderberg, The Metaphysics of Good and Evil (New York, NY: Routledge, 2020). Here I’ll briefly unpack a robust Aristotelian metaethical theory and then close with some hopeful remarks about its potential resurgence in the wake of the current resurgence in Neo-Aristotelian metaphysics.
What might a robust Aristotelian account of moral normativity look like, one that is predicated on the above account of deep, categorical structure in the natural world? According to the Aristotelian tradition, normative evaluations in general—evaluations concerning the normative status of a thing—closely track what the thing is and how it is supposed to be given its nature. On this picture, something is “good” in the broadest sense of the term in so far as it realizes the natural tendencies it has according to its nature; goodness in this broad sense is acting or behaving in accordance with a thing’s nature. Even a tulip can be more or less good in this broad sense, depending on the degree to which it realizes the natural tendencies rooted in its nature. A tulip that develops a healthy root system, properly takes in nutrients from the soil, and undergoes seed dispersal (and so on), is in this broad sense a better tulip than one that does not. In order for it to flourish as the kind of thing it is, a tulip must realize these natural tendencies; otherwise, the tulip is a defective instance of its kind. These sorts of evaluative judgements track deep and knowable facts about the natures and natural tendencies of objects, what they are and how they are supposed to be given their natures. In this sense, the natural world is intrinsically and irreducibly normative through-and-through; the basis for evaluative judgments about natural objects is latent in (and thus not conferred upon) the objects themselves.
Moral goodness, what is good for human beings in particular, is a species of goodness in this broad sense. For the Neo-Aristotelian, human beings are living organisms of a particular kind, rational animal. As such, they are natural objects to some extent or other. As with any natural object, human beings exhibit categorical structure that is deep and knowable, i.e., humans have an objective nature with natural tendencies; human nature defines what human beings are as well as how they tend to act according to their nature. As distinctively rational animals, human beings have capacities that are naturallyThe human life that is properly ordered around truth, knowledge, appreciation of beauty, health, and friendship (and so on) is morally good and thus a flourishing human life. inclined to the acquisition of truth, knowledge, understanding, aesthetic experience, work, play, friendship, and religion; neither tulips nor electrons are naturally inclined towards these particular outcomes or ends. Consequently, human beings are morally good to the degree to which they realize these natural tendencies or inclinations. The human life that is properly ordered around truth, knowledge, appreciation of beauty, health, and friendship (and so on) is morally good and thus a flourishing human life.
What’s more, moral norms (including fundamental human rights) about how human beings ought and ought not to be treated are grounded in these deep, categorical facts about human beings. Roughly, that which promotes the realization of the natural tendencies rooted in human nature (in due measure and proportion) is morally right and obligatory, and that which detracts from the realization of these natural tendencies is morally wrong and prohibited. As human beings are natural objects with deep and knowable natures and natural tendencies, the morally good (value) and the morally right (obligation) for human beings is both deep and knowable. What constitutes a good, flourishing human life as well as how one ought to treat other human beings is objective in that it is what it is independent of human preference or opinion; the content of what is morally good and right for humans is in no way predicated on individual sentiment or social agreement. On the Aristotelian metaethical picture, then, human knowledge of the good and the right (moral knowledge) is ultimately rooted in the objective nature and natural tendencies of human beings (philosophy of nature/metaphysics).
The Doctrine of Creation
Christian theists who endorse the above Neo-Aristotelian metaphysical and moral framework will see it as a corollary to a robust doctrine of creation that construes the natural and the normative domains as inextricably linked by God’s design. By intentionally creating human beings with a particular nature and set of natural tendencies, God thereby communicates his intended moral pattern for humanChristian theists who endorse the above metaphysical and moral framework will see it as a corollary to a robust doctrine of creation that construes the natural and the normative domains as inextricably linked by God’s design. flourishing as well as his divinely intended moral norms regarding how humans ought and ought not to be treated. Humans flourish individually and collectively in society when they live with and not against the normative grain of human nature. Since these divinely intended purposes for human moral flourishing and obligation are inseparably rooted in the deep, categorical structure of human nature, humans can have genuine moral knowledge in so far as knowledge of the deep, categorical structure that God has carved out in creation is available to them.
With the widespread dismissal of the above Aristotelian metaphysical picture beginning in the early modern period, the subsequent demise of the Aristotelian metaethical picture was quick to follow. The story of the demise of this Aristotelian metaphysical-normative framework is historically complex and has been well-documented by the likes of Alasdair MacIntyre and others.See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), as well as more popular-level treatments of this demise in Edward Feser, The Last Superstition (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), and John Lawrence Hill, After the Natural Law (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2016). While the Aristotelian metaphysical picture once provided a shared conceptual framework in the West for thinking about the meaning and objective grounds for moral judgments, this no longer remains the case. Even contemporary philosophers who are sympathetic to a broadly Aristotelian metaethical framework have abandoned the hope of underpinning such a framework with a classical, Aristotelian understanding of human nature and natural tendencies.Here I am thinking of the “new natural law” theorists like John Finnis, Robert P. George, and others. See John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1980), section 2 and Robert P. George In Defense of Natural Law (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), sect. 1. What is important to note is that the Aristotelian metaethical framework was (and continues to be) cast aside largely because robust Aristotelian metaphysical commitments were (and continue to be) cast aside. With the ongoing resurgence of a Neo-Aristotelianism in metaphysics and philosophy of science, together with the steady rise of versions of moral realism in contemporary metaethics (the view that the truth of moral judgements is stance-independent and grounded in mind-independent reality), the current metaethical landscape is ripe for rediscovering more metaphysically substantive forms of moral realism that are underpinned by a robust Neo-Aristotelian philosophy of nature.For recent defenses of moral realism, see David Enoch, Taking Morality Seriously: A Defense of Robust Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), Russ Schaffer-Landau, Moral Realism: A Defence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), Michael Huemer, Ethical Intuitionism (New York: Palgrave, 2005).