Natural Goodness within Virtue Ethical Theories
The term 'virtue
ethics' encompasses a number of different theories, in the same sort of way in
which consequentialism encompasses, for example, act, rule and preference
utilitarianism. Philippa Foot’s ethical theory is one kind of Virtue Theory.
Virtue Ethics, however, are part of a philosophical moral movement opposed to
consequentialism and deontology that takes their inspiration from Aristotle’s eudaimonic
theory. But some newer versions of this type of ethics incorporate elements
from Plato, Aquinas, Hume and Nietzsche in their understanding of virtue.
As we have said in
prevous classes, the Aristotelian word eudaimonia is loosely and probably
inadequately, translated into English as happiness or well-being.
We have seen that from
Aristotle’s teleology, actions are not pointless because they have an
aim, a general goal. He says that every action aims at some good, e.g.
the doctor’s vaccination of the baby aims at the baby’s health.
Aristotle also says
that some things are done for their own sake (ends in themselves) and some
things are done for the sake of other things (means to other ends).
So, we have that some
things are means to other ends and some things are ends in themselves, but
Aristotle claims that all the things which are ends in themselves also
contribute to a wider end, an end which is the greatest good of all and
that good is eudaimonia.
happiness, but it also means contentment, fulfillment, well-being, blessedness,
etc. Eudaimonia is the name of the best kind of life, which is an end in
itself and a means to live the good life.
We also read that for
Aristotle if a thing has a function, then the good of the thing is seen when it
performs its function well. For example, the knife has a function, to cut, and
it performs its function well when it cuts well.
When similar argument
is applied to man, we can see that man has a function and the good man is the
man who performs his function well. Man's function is what is peculiar to him
and sets him aside from other beings, and that activity is reason. Therefore,
the function of man is reason and the life that is distinctive of humans is the
life in accordance with reason.
So, if the function of
man is reason, then the good man is the man who functions well, i.e. reasons
well. This is precisely the life of excellence, the life of eudaimonia.
This means that eudaimonia is the life of virtue, as virtue is
activity in accordance with reason, man’s highest function.
From this perspective,
we can say that virtues are constitutive elements of eudaimonia,
necessary elements for human flourishing and well-being. Virtues make their
possessor a good human being, which in turn is understood in naturalistic terms,
i.e. in terms of human nature. All living things can be evaluated qua
specimens of their natural kind.
So, according to the
Aristotelian tradition, human beings act rationally by their very nature. This
is a characteristic trait that allows us to make decisions and effect change in
our character. This trait also allows others to hold us responsible for those
decisions. Acting virtuously, i.e. acting in accordance with reason, is acting
in the way that is characteristic of our human nature and this is the path to
the eudaimonic life. The good life for humans is then the life of
virtue and for this reason it is in our best interest (or benefit) to be
This is precisely what
Philippa Foot says in Natural Goodness: the virtues are beneficial to
their possessor or to the community (please note that this is similar to
MacIntyre’s argument that the virtues enable us to achieve goods within human practices).
The virtues are valuable because they contribute to the good life.
main aim in this book is to oppose both the popular neo-Humean and neo-Kantian
positions in contemporary moral philosophy and to defend a sort of "neo-Aristotelianism.
Foot is radically opposed
to the subjectivist, non-naturalism tradition deriving from Hume and to be found
in G. E. Moore and modern theories of ethics influenced by Moore, such as
emotivism and prescriptivism.
[Emotivism is a meta-ethical theory in which moral judgments invariably express and encourage human feelings of characteristic sorts. According to this view, the meaning of moral language is exhausted by its expression, evocation, or endorsement of powerful human feelings. Thus, for example, saying "Stealing is wrong," is just an especially strong way of reporting that I disapprove of stealing, evoking a similar disapproval from others, and thereby attempting to influence future conduct-both mine and theirs. Although its origins lie in the non-cognitivist morality of Hume, emotivism reached its height early in the twentieth century, with the work of logical positivists like A.J. Ayer Alfred Jules Ayer (1910-1989) and Charles L. Stevenson (1908-1979).
instead, is the view that says that although moral judgments do not have
truth-values, they are more than mere expressions of attitudes; moral judgments
are universal prescriptions. This is another a meta-ethical theory according
to which moral issues are not subject to rational determination. Dealing with
values, not facts, moral assertions are neither true nor false, but merely
express attitudes, feelings, desires, or demands. Prescriptivism is normally
associated with the English moral philosopher Richard Mervyn Hare
(1919-2002). Hare’s claims that the use of moral
language conveys an implicit commitment to act accordingly. For example, by
saying that "Murder is wrong" one not only entails acceptance of a
universalizable obligation not to kill, but this also leads one to avoid the act
of killing. In other words, according this theory, the function of ethics is to
tell us what we should do, and not just describe what we actually do].
Foot’s and Aristotle’s conception of the good is is not subjective. Something is good because it is somehow perfective or completing of a being, and what is perfective or completing of a being depends on that being's nature.
One example that comes from Aristotle says that what is good for an Oak tree is what is completing or perfective of the Oak tree, and this depends on the kind of thing that an Oak tree is by nature. Another example can be this one: what is good for a dog is what is completing or perfective of the dog, and this depends on the kind of thing that a dog is by nature; Regarding human beings, what is good for a human being depends on what is completing or perfective of a human being, and this depends on the kind of thing a human being is by nature.
In previous lectures we saw that for philosopher George Edward Moore argued that goodness is a simple, indefinable, non-natural property or quality or entity, on a par with 'yellow', and that the not very helpful last word on what good is, is simply that good is good. The example given by Moore was that we could never describe to a blind person what the colour yellow is like. We can only show a sighted person a piece of yellow paper and say "That is yellow." In the same manner, the only definition we can give of "good" is an ostensive one; that is, we can only point to an action or a thing and say "That is good."
Moore contends that man has a "moral intuition" that helps him locate what exactly is "good." This is exactly what emotivism also says, that moral judgments do not have truth values but are expressions of ou attitudes; these judgments express our feelings and help us persuade others to act as we desire. The moral judgement that ‘murder is wrong’ can be reduced to the emotional expression: “Murder –Boo!”
In the introduction of NG Foot
reacts against More comparisson of good with the colour yellow. She says,
paraphrasing Geach, that good and ‘yellow’ (or red) are logically different. Foot’s
purpose in this book is to describe a particular type of evaluation, and she
argues that moral evaluation of human action is of a logical type.
But, what is good according to Foot,
According to Foot, "good" refers to fulfilling "the life form of the species" to which one belongs. For example, a plant or tree has good roots if, in the circumstances in which it grows, those roots allow for it to be a good specimen of the sort of tree that it is. There is no change in meaning of ’good’ between the word as it appears in ’good roots’ and as it appears in ‘good dispositions of the human will.
talks about natural goodness. Natural good, she says, depends on facts about
ones species and the circumstances in which one finds oneself.
To be a good person, then, is to fulfill the life form of our species under the circumstances in which we find ourselves --allowing that there may be many specific ways of doing this very general thing.
maintains that for humans, a certain sort of "practical reason" is
characteristic of our species, since certain forms of life define us and reason
must serve those defining characteristics; not to reason is then seen as to be
defective (in a way similar to a shallow, poorly dispersed root system in a
tall, heavy plant or tree growing in sandy soil).
Foot claims that practical
reason must conform with virtue. Since virtue is normative, to defy virtue is to
be irrational. That is, practical reason must fulfill the demands of virtue to
will see, Foots outlines a sound theory for the good life, rational choice and
begins with the simple point that it is not only part of well-constituted human
life to have the capacity to see and hear, but also to “reason practically
about how to live.”
reasoning is not an accidental feature of some human lives, as hat-wearing is.
But just as it is part of a soundly constituted human life to discriminate
colours and sounds “within certain specific ranges,” so it is part of a
soundly constituted human life to “reason practically in certain specific
ways,” that is, to operate with certain forms of practical reason.
the first instance, it is an open question what these forms of reasoning are.
But whatever they are, things might be quite different with, say Martians: they
see only "in black and white", as we say; they have no hearing, lets
suppose; and they do not reason about their own future good or in accordance
with ideas of justice, at least when they are well functioning.
human beings, Foot argues, prudence and justice are genuine
virtues: it belongs to this kind of organism to pursue its own future good, for
example, and to take account of other human beings in some way. Of course, a lot
of them don’t, but a lot of them don’t have the right number of teeth
reformulate: just as different things may count as "good sight,"
"good hearing" and "the right number of teeth" in different
species of animal, so different things might count as "good reasoning about
how to live" in different forms of "intelligent" life.
distinction of fundamental "virtues" and "vices" might
rightly be drawn differently in radically different forms of intelligent life.
But as a matter of fact for “us humans” prudence and justice are genuine
virtues and genuine forms of practical rationality.
question much discussed by philosophers -- what gives certain forms of practical
reasoning "authority" or "normativity" -- is thus solved by
Foot without the slight of hand we find in Kantian writers and without the
immoralist conclusions reached by consistent Humeans and Nietzscheans [in fact,
Foots concludes her book with a short exposition and critique of Nietzsche’s
immoralism, and we saw that for MacIntyre, Nietzsche's idea that morality is
simply the exertion of one will in an attempt to subjugate another will is a
clear expression of emotivism]
So, Foot sets out a
naturalistic theory of ethics, which she calls 'natural normativity.' Natural
normativity involves a special form of evaluation that predicates goodness and
defect to living things qua living things, and Foot argues that this is
the form of evaluation in moral judgements. In her view, moral evaluations
share a conceptual structure with evaluations of the characteristics and
operations of living things, and can only be understood in these terms.
The main thesis of
the book is that vice is a natural defect, and virtue is goodness of will
(see p. 5); therefore propositions to do with goodness or badness in human
character and action are not to be understood in psychological terms.
Foot’s naturalistic theory of ethics is
–in the Aristotelian way—and it does not involve a non-natural source or
realm of moral value, as Moore’s anti-naturalism the subjectivists theories do
(she is thinking of Ayer, Stevenson or Hare’s theories which she groups them
under the label of non-cognitivists theories whose founder was Hume).
In the Aristotelian
tradition, judgments of what are goods for a human being are based upon
considerations about human capacities, propensities, and the conditions for
successful human activity of various kinds.
Central to naturalism
in ethics are the notions that there are goods proper to human nature and
that the virtues are excellent states of character enabling an agent to act well
and realize those goods. A person with virtues is able to acknowledge and
appreciate the ethical significance of factual considerations, and act upon them
Add this too
Moore and others
Among academic philosophers in the English speaking world, the most
influential ethical theorist of the early 20th century was the Cambridge
philosopher G. E. Moore (1873-1958). Moore published Principia Ethica in
1903 and Ethics in 1912.
He believed that the term 'good' could not be defined by analyzing it
into parts. Instead, it should be regarded as a simple or primitive notion. In
addition, 'good' could not be defined as happiness or pleasure or in
terms of the "natural" properties of things.
This always involved a mistake, because we could always meaningfully ask
whether something with any given natural property was good. Good could not be
equated with "having a tendency to produce pleasure," for example,
because we could meaningfully ask whether something that had a tendency to
produce pleasure was good. This would not be possible if 'good' meant the
same as 'having a tendency to produce pleasure.'
Moore believed that such definitions involved what he called the
"naturalistic fallacy." He concluded that 'good' referred to a
"non-natural" property of things. Personal affection and aesthetic
enjoyment were examples of goods.
Our actions are good and right to the extent that they produce the
greatest possible amount of good. Thus, Moore was a consequentialist like the
19th-century utilitarians; but he did not accept pleasure or happiness as either
the definition or the test of goodness.
Moore's criticism of the naturalistic fallacy was accepted by many
philosophers, but his concept of goodness as a non-natural property was not.
Despite his intentions, his ideas tended to make the defence of ethical knowledge
According to the Oxford philosopher J. O. Urmson, Moore left many English
and American philosophers with a dilemma. They could not accept naturalism
but neither could they accept Moore's idea of a non-natural property. Partly as
a solution to this dilemma, some philosophers developed what is called the emotive
theory of ethics. The best known statements of this view can be found in A.
J. Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic (1936) and C. L. Stevenson's Ethics
and Language (1944).
The core of the emotivist theory was the claim that ethical judgments
such as "Murder is morally wrong" were neither true nor false in the
same sense that we apply to descriptive statements like "John is
Instead, ethical judgements expressed the attitudes or emotions of the
speaker or evoked attitudes in the hearer.
Emotivism was popular for a time with professional philosophers;
but, more importantly, passed beyond professional circles to become popular with
a segment of the larger public. In doing so, it helped to make plausible another
theory developed at about the same time by anthropologists -- the theory of
(Most philosophers distinguish emotivism from the theory sometimes called
subjectivism. According to subjectivism, ethical judgments describe the
attitudes or emotions of the speaker. Statements of this sort could be true or
false, since they might correctly or incorrectly describe those attitudes or
emotions. The emotivists rejected subjectivism. One argument against
subjectivism is that it fails to account for the fact that there are serious
ethical disputes. If subjectivism is correct, everyone's ethical judgments
describe their own emotions and do not actually contradict each other.)
Although emotivism had many critics, some of its major ideas were
accepted by many moral philosophers. These included the claim that ethical
statements were neither true nor false in the same sense that factual statements
were true or false.
In addition, the claim that there is no ethical knowledge in the same
sense in which there is scientific knowledge was widely accepted. Ethical
theories that include these claims are sometimes referred to as 'non-cognitive'
Emotivism is one such theory. Another non-cognitive theory that became
popular after the heyday of emotivism was the work of R. M. Hare.
Hare published The Language of Morals in 1952 and Freedom and
Reason in 1963. Hare emphasized that ethical judgments are prescriptive
judgments. He also argued that ethical judgments are "universalizable"
in certain ways. We could not, for example, say that two actions are the same in
all relevant respects and also claim that one action was good while the other
was bad. His theory is called prescriptivism.
The theories of Moore, Stevenson, Hare, and most other academic moral
philosophers in England and America in the first half of the 20th century tended
to stress meta-ethical questions. The last half of the century has seen at least
two shifts: (1) a shift toward substantive ethical and social issues; and (2) a
shift away from non-cognitivism.