Sunday, August 21, 2016

How can we know what we ought to do?

Dear readers, I would like you to consider a particular approach to the question of how we can know what we ought to do. I have used James’ reasoning about whether or not he is a good person in order to illustrate this approach. In case you are wondering, James is a figment of my imagination.

When you ask James whether he is a good person, he says he would like to think of himself as a good person, but he is not as good as he would like to be. He will tell you that he doesn’t claim to be righteous, but neither does he pursue his own pleasure without regard to other people and the norms of the society in which he lives. He says he is happy most of the time, satisfied with his life as a whole, and his conscience does not trouble him much.

James has been fairly successful in his life so far. He was moderately successful in sporting and academic pursuits. He is a friendly person and his relationships with other people are generally cordial. He loves his family. His marriage might not be blissful, but it has survived longer than the marriages of most of his friends. He has been a dependable and caring father to his children, but regrets not spending more time with them while they were young. James has pursued a successful career, which has been a source of great satisfaction to him.

James has a healthy lifestyle. He says that this is about cultivating good habits rather than following a strict diet and exercise regime. He claims that having a healthy lifestyle is just a matter of being the person he has potential to be.

This idea of being the person he has potential to be seems to motivate James’ behaviour in many other aspects of his life including management of finances and work habits. James says that most of the time he can manage himself best by reminding himself of his aspirations and exercising a gentle discipline, rather than by setting detailed rules and attempting to use willpower to comply religiously. He likes the idea of being spontaneous. Nevertheless, he says that there are some lines that he will never cross in his personal behaviour. He regards himself as personally responsible for his conduct, but is inclined to listen politely when people disapprove – at least until he decides whether or not they should be told to mind their own business.

James has always perceived himself to have potential to express many of the traditional virtues. It has been integral to that perception for him to develop and make good use of his reasoning powers and self-knowledge, and to develop his own character in ways that he values. As well as temperance, he has shown a great deal of integrity and courage in many aspects of his life. He takes pride in being honest and trustworthy.

James is also kind. He has not sought a reputation for kindness. He objects to being told that he has an obligation to help those less fortunate than himself. He explains his altruism – he would not object to my use of that term – as being in his nature. His acts of kindness come from the heart, without him expecting anything in return, except for the people he helps to be willing to help themselves to the extent that they are able. He is not a “soft touch”.

James says that becoming a good person is like playing cards well. He says that rather than bemoaning the fact that you have not been dealt a better hand, it is better to maintain good humour and focus on how best to play the cards you have been dealt. You never think of cheating and you avoid playing with people who cheat. You like to win, but you participate mainly to enjoy the social interaction. Playing the game is also a learning experience. You learn how to perceive opportunities, develop strategies, cooperate with others, and to win and lose graciously. As you learn to play well you become a better person.

You might be surprised that the line of reasoning James employs in evaluating whether he is a good person is somewhat controversial among philosophers. I have constructed his line of reasoning so that it is broadly consistent with the ethics of responsibility as espoused by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in their new book, The Perfectionist Turn.

The “perfectionist turn” referred to in the title is a turn away from the ethics of respect, which views personal ethics in terms of norms of social interaction, toward the Neo-Aristotelian, eudaimonic, naturalistic ethics of responsibility. This is called “perfectionist” because it is grounded in a developmental (teleological) process which serves to orient a person towards her or his flourishing. The perfectionism referred to has nothing to do with the psychological usage of the word in terms of striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards.

The reason why many philosophers would suggest that James is confused in his explanation of the motives for his good behaviour is because it is teleological.  James seems to be committing the error of attempting to derive an “ought” from an “is” because he has not provided a reason why he ought to be the person that he has potential to be.

From my reading of The Perfectionist Turn, I think the authors would defend James' reasoning on the grounds that he is describing his natural inclination to engage in activities that constitute the actualization of his potential or his fulfillment. Awareness of his potential for flourishing provides James with reason and motivation, and is the basis on which he determines what he ought to do.

Some critics will probably suggest that if we view individual human flourishing as our measure of goodness we have no way to judge that a person like the great Mongol warrior and emperor, Genghis Khan, was not a good person. I am not sure whether Genghis Khan believed his military conquests were helping him to achieve his potential as a human, but it seems reasonable to argue that he was deluded if that was what he thought. The authors acknowledge that through lack of awareness or misapprehension of what their good consists of humans often make the wrong decisions. They have an Afterword in the book devoted to “big morality” and the potential for some individuals to do great harm, or great good. The thrust of their argument there is that it is to the particular individual soul that one must appeal in the final analysis because “it is the nature and quality of that particular soul which will produce the actions that are to become the objects of moral concern”.

However, the authors also note that the perfectionist turn “is not a turning away from metanorms”, which were the subject of their earlier book, Norms of Liberty (2005). As I see it, there will always be some deluded egocentric leaders who will need to be prevented from impeding the flourishing of other humans. Even the activities of rational self-directed humans seeking to flourish in their own way will sometimes clash with the activities of other rational self-directed humans. As Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen still acknowledge, we need a political/legal order that answers the questions that they asked in Norms of Liberty:

how is it possible to have an ethical basis for an overall or general social/political context -a context that is open-ended or cosmopolitan - that will not require as a matter of principle, that one form of human flourishing be preferred to another? How, in other words, can the possibility that various forms of human flourishing will not be in structural conflict be achieved?” 

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