Thinking about life: Good and bad

By JENNY TEICHMAN   |   July 29, 2002 at 11:47 AM
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CAMBRIDGE, England, July 29 (UPI) -- There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

For about the last 80 years, many, perhaps most, English-language philosophy teachers have agreed that goodness and badness are not objective realities. Let us call these thinkers subjectivists, for short.

Their favorite reason, their main evidence, comes from anthropology: it has to do with the fact that different human groups have different codes of conduct.

Bertrand Russell once said the discovery that different societies have different codes of conduct tends to dissolve the idea that morality is objective but cannot prove that the idea is wrong. This "dissolving" is not the same thing as refuting; it is merely psychological whereas refutation is logical.

When astronomers disagree about astronomy, they, and their different theories, nevertheless all refer to the same physical universe. Otherwise there could be no disagreement. Which is plainly not the case.

Moral codes are theories about practical matters, they are theories about how to behave well and how to live well. Do different codes all refer to the same ethical realities, just as different scientific theories refer to the same physical realities? Surely that is possible. And as far as I know no one has ever tried to show that it is not possible.

Analytic philosophers hold that philosophical problems can often be solved by drawing distinctions between different uses of words. It was natural, therefore, that during the 20th century some of them tried to explain morality by imagining a distinction between two kinds of language: "descriptive" and "evaluative." They defined evaluative language as one which has a special relation to speakers. Some said the propositions of moral language express the speaker's emotions, others argued that they announce subjectively chosen principles of conduct, others again claimed that moral propositions are like commands directed by the speaker at himself.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was categorical about the non-reality of good and bad. In "Tractatus Logico-philosophicus" he wrote, "There can be no ethical propositions." Science describes the real world, ethics describes nothing at all.

A.J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic said that the words "good," "bad," "right" and "wrong" are like grunts and shouts, they do nothing more than express emotions. For this reason his idea was given the nickname "The Boo-Hurrah Theory."

J.L. Mackie in "Inventing Right and Wrong," said the supposition that rightness and wrongness, goodness and badness, are features of the real world is an error. Good and bad are not discovered, he said, but invented.

In his book "Being Good," Simon Blackburn asserts: "No god wrote the laws of good and bad behavior into the cosmos. Nature has no concern for good or bad, right or wrong."

There has recently been a backlash against subjectivism in favor of objectivism. Representatives of this tendency include Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre and Warren Quinn, three philosophers who agree with Darwin and Aristotle that human beings are a species of animal, and agree, too, again with Aristotle, that human beings are capable of rationality.

Their arguments rely in part on an implied distinction between good for and good about. The distinction would work as follows:

What is good (or bad) for an individual animal and its species relates to the things and circumstances the animal and the species need (or lack) in order to stay alive and healthy.

What is good about an animal and its species is whatever makes the individual creatures good specimens of their kind. Conversely, what is bad about it is whatever constitutes a defect, illness, weakness or disability in that kind of animal.

Both "good for" and "good about" apply to physical structure, to behavior, and to tendencies.

In "Dependent Rational Animals," MacIntyre says that certain states of affairs are obviously and objectively good or bad for certain creatures. (He is particularly interested in wolves, dolphins and human beings.)

Hunting and eating fresh meat and living in a pack are good for individual wolves and good for the species. Clean seas and fish to eat and family life are good for a dolphin and for its species.

It is clear that some things that are good for dolphins would be bad for wolves, and vice versa. A wolf cannot live in the sea for example.

In her book "Natural Goodness," Philippa Foot argues that the capacity for self-defense is obviously good, indeed absolutely necessary, for any creature. Empirical science tells us which creatures have what ways of defending themselves: the deer has flight, the tortoise has a shell, the elephant has great size and a loud voice, lionesses are successful hunters. To lack speed is a defect in a deer, to be a failure as a hunter is a defect in a lioness.

Foot also says that description and evaluation are not essentially different linguistic activities. What is good for a creature -- presumably a matter of description -- can also be good about that creature -- supposedly a matter of evaluation. Strong legs in a deer is an example. Weak legs are a defect in (about) a deer as well as bad for the creature.

Foot and MacIntyre agree that in gregarious species an inability to co-operate is a weakness, that is to say, it is a danger to the individual, to the herd and to the species as a whole.

The origins of ethical subjectivism include the thinking of the Logical Positivists. The positivists, who regarded Wittgenstein as one of themselves, and who greatly influenced the genesis of A.J. Ayer's first book, lauded science and deplored metaphysical and ethical speculation.

But in spite of positivism and Wittgenstein, the life sciences have plenty to say about good and bad.

In spite of Ayer the statement that clean seas are good for dolphins is not equivalent to "clean-seas-for-dolphins-HURRAH!"

In spite of Mackie what is good for a living creature and what is good for a species are matters which are not invented but discovered. Ethology is a science, not a type of fiction. No one invented the fact that it is good for a deer to be able to run fast. Mackie relied on what he hastily took to be the lessons of anthropology but ignored the other life sciences altogether.

In spite of Blackburn, it is certain that Nature does "have a concern" for the kinds of good and bad discussed above. It would be madness to say that what is good for a wolf or a dolphin is "all in the mind" (whose mind?).

Why does Blackburn overlook such an obvious fact? He overlooks it because he has narrow views. He thinks of Nature as inanimate. Well, everyone will agree that nothing is either good or bad for dead matter, be it gold or mud.

Any human being has things which are good for it and good things about it. But unlike the other animals, human beings also have the capacity to reason about these matters. They are able to ponder on what to do and how to live.

When a normal human being thinks about what to do, he or she naturally starts reasoning about pros and cons. Here, as Foot remarks, morality and self-preservation are on a par with each other.

Each must take a place among the premises leading to reasonable conclusions about how to act and how to live. Then again, and as

MacIntyre insists, human beings know they are dependent on others and that others are dependent on them. In other words the human species is gregarious.

As examples of the many forms of interpersonal dependence MacIntyre mentions the dependence of infants on parents and other adults, the dependence of the sick on the healthy, the old on the younger, and the disabled on the more fit. He did not mention, but could have mentioned, those people upon whom strong healthy folk rely for their intellectual and other mental sustenance. Such people include the physically weak: a disabled astronomer, the crippled poet W.E. Henley, sickly short-lived Schubert.

Defenders of the theories of Wittgenstein, A.J. Ayer, J.L. Mackie and Blackburn are likely to complain that Foot and MacIntyre and Quinn only deal with "special," i.e., "non-moral," senses of good and bad.

But this kind of response ignores the objectivists' arguments. It does not answer Foot's point, that that evaluation and description are not necessarily separate kinds of discourse. It simply ignores MacIntyre's view, which he supports with a lot of evidence, that it is observation, not emotion or invention, which tells us about what is good and bad for and about ourselves and the other animals.

Subjectivists presuppose that the evaluation of human action is quite different from all other evaluation. They imagine it is different from the evaluation of the characteristics and behavior of all the other animals; different from the evaluation of the physical attributes of human beings; and different from the evaluation of human behavior, except when that takes the form of choice and action.

Subjectivism draws a line, in advance, around a certain kind of evaluation, a kind defined by its subject matter. It is rather as if someone decided to treat yards, feet and inches as a good way of measuring every kind of cloth, except silk, or kilograms as a good measure for apples and pears but not for onions.

Subjectivists put the evaluation of human action into a special little prison. They force the evaluation of human action -- though perhaps not the actions of the other animals -- into a separate category of its own. We need to ask whether there is independent justification for treating the evaluation of human action as completely different from the evaluations of all other aspects of human and animal life.

Finally, it seems to me that some very peculiar ideas about science appear in works devoted to expounding and defending subjectivist moral philosophy.

The Logical Positivists seemed to think that only physics is truly scientific even though their own insistent empiricism clearly covers the life sciences and indeed gives a better account of those than it does of physics.

Ayer and Mackie had no religion, as far as I know, and Blackburn is either an agnostic or an atheist (probably the latter). Yet all three treat the human race not only as separate from the physical world of inanimate things but as essentially different from all the other animals. They are very old-fashioned in that they do not think like Darwinians -- on the contrary, their presuppositions are consistent with the idea that God made the human race on the Sixth Day.

Perhaps they are crypto-Creationists.

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