Matthias Haase - June 2017 Working Group Meeting Topic

Practically Self-Conscious Life

Ethical Naturalism, as Philippa Foot conceives it, is the thesis that ethical goodness is a species of natural goodness. On this view, the central concept of meta-ethics is the concept of life. Natural goodness and defect is an aspect of the relation between a life-form and its exemplars. This relation is also exhibited by the sub-rational life of plants and animals. Ethical goodness concerns a certain dimension of the relation between a specifically rational life-form and its exemplars. Ethical Naturalism so conceived may thus be described as a two-step program for the treatment of our fundamental normative concepts of ethics. The first step introduces a general notion of normativity through the reflection of the concept of a life-form and its bearers. The second step is supposed to establish that the necessity expressed by ‘ought’ and ‘cannot,’ as they figure in our discourse about good action, is a sub-determination of the general notion of vital normativity.

Both steps have come under attack in the literature. It has been doubted that the concept of life introduces any genuine notion of normativity. And it has denied that ethical necessity belongs to such vital normativity. In both cases, the doubts may be presented as qualms about the logical forms to which the Ethical Naturalist appeals in the respective step of the proposed program. The notion of natural goodness is supposed to be elucidated by appeal to the special kind of generality exhibited by our descriptions of the life-cycle of a species: Natural Historical Judgments, as Michael Thompson calls them. Shifting such judgments into the self-conscious register of practical thought is supposed to provide the notion of a life-from that is essentially represented by its exemplars and thereby illuminate the idea of life in which the question ‘How should I live?’ has a place. In the paper I am concerned with this second step: the transition from life to practically self-conscious life.

My question is what form a developed Ethical Naturalism has to take for this transition to be articulated within its framework. I discuss a tension within Foot’s own account. And then turn to different ways in which the tension gets resolved in the theories of Rosalind Hursthouse and Michael Thompson. Each is confronted with further difficulties.