Matthias Haase - December 2016 Meeting Topic

Practically Self-Conscious Life

Ethical Naturalism, as Philippa Foot conceives it, suggests a two-step program for the treatment of our fundamental normative concepts of ethics such as ‘good’, ‘ought’ and ‘cannot.’ The first step introduces the general notion of natural goodness through reflection on the relation between a life-form and its exemplars. The second step characterizes ethical goodness as a subdetermination of such vital normativity. The general notion of natural goodness is elucidated by appeal to the special kind of generality exhibited by the descriptions of the cycle of selfmaintenance and reproduction characteristic of a given species: Natural Historical Judgments, as Michael Thompson calls them. Shifting such judgments into the self-conscious register of practical thought is supposed to illuminate the idea of a kind 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.

A familiar worry is the suspicion that Ethical Naturalism fails to account for the unconditional validity of the norms of practical reason. Due to thought’s unlimited power of reflection there always seems to be room to step back from any given natural historical fact and ask: ‘Why should I do what is done?’ The misgivings I consider concern another question that threatens to be systematically left open – namely, the question of realization: ‘Given my circumstances, can I do what befits a human being?’ It is an essential feature of the proposed logical form of Natural Historical Judgments that the description of the respective life-cycle includes the specification of a determinate environment. The vital powers ascribed to an organism in this way are consequently defined as capacities essentially adapted to certain material conditions. Where these conditions are not met, the life-form remains silent about the question what is to be done. The life-form of the common vine louse says nothing about what its exemplars ‘should’ do in a world without vine. If ethical goodness is a species of natural goodness in this sense, then the same holds for the fundamental norms to which we are subject in action: it is not ruled out that one might find oneself in conditions where they don’t apply. In such conditions the subject cannot understand herself as an agent in the light of the norm. The perspective in which she thinks it is not practical. But if it is to be intelligible as a self-conscious power, practical reason cannot leave it a mere accident whether its law is realized. The worry is thus that Ethical Naturalism fails to do justice to the unconditional practicality of the necessity expressed by the basic ‘oughts’ and ‘cannots’ that figure in our discourse about good action.

I consider two responses to this difficulty: realism about reasons and idealism about life. The former is endorsed by Rosalind Hursthouse and John McDowell. Varieties of the latter are proposed by Christine Korsgaard and Sebastian Rödl. Both approaches are attempts to reject the life-form relativity entailed by the assumed environment dependence of the power of practical reason while holding on to the Neo-Aristotelian conception of rationality as a power of life. They differ with respect to the way in which the intended universality is introduced into the characterization of that vital power sui generis. In the first case it enters through its objects: the reasons cognized. In the second case it enters as the idea that the human life-cycle is itself universal in that it is the product of practical cognition. I argue that neither remedy works. The former fails to account for the productive character of practical truth. The latter doesn’t do justice to the finitude of human life.