“Happiness then, is found to be something perfect and self sufficient, being the end to which our actions are directed.”
MORALITY & HUMANS
While there may be some inherent sense of fairness and reciprocity among higher animals, it appears that there is no intricate, full sense of moral concern. Without humans, there really isn’t a moral sphere in any meaningful sense. Morality is a human byproduct, a concern of complex, self-governing, conscious beings.
The notion of moral truth, as with the category of truth itself, is rooted in the adequate correspondence of human propositions with reality. Remove the human and you have no propositions. In this sense, justice isn’t some Platonic ideal existing the heavens. Justice is a real quality of human relationships.
Most attempts at moral analysis and moral reasoning argue from considerations of human well-being, flourishing, happiness, or some sense of fulfillment. That which is deemed good is that which leads to human well-being and flourishing. That which is deemed bad is that which leads to human harm and damage. Some of these methods of analysis adopt a consequentialist approach, others emphasize virtue, while some blend the two.
Most of us approach morality from a universal perspective, meaning we understand that generally, good and bad are more or less the same for everyone. Underlying such analysis is a sense of a universal human nature, something that all humans share and that is basically the same from human to human. Human nature is therefore the full sense of the defining innate characteristics, abilities, and potentials that make us what we are.
The word nature is derived from the Latin word natura, which philosophically translates as “essential qualities, innate disposition”, and in ancient times, literally meant “birth”. Natura is a Latin translation of the Greek word physis which originally related to the intrinsic characteristics of things.
Some thinkers object to the notion of human nature. They point out that human beings are the result of evolution, and that evolution is ongoing. If human beings are actively evolving (which we are), then how can we speak of human nature as any sort of enduring, fixed, or objective reality in any meaningful sense?
These objections are met, in fact, by many evolutionary theorists – who contrary to the widespread opinion among some contemporary philosophers – argue that human nature is a meaningful concept that can be defended, even in light of evolutionary and naturalist thought. (Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, p.7)
That defense begins with the intelligibility of humans as such – the fact that we recognize something of what it means to be human – and that the fact that this intelligibility has remained fairly stable over the relative manner in which humans experience time.
We need not argue in complex abstractions. Human nature is best conceived of as a cluster of inherent capabilities, powers, drives, and properties – traits that may be changing, yet are sufficiently stable over evolutionary time to be statistically and practically, clearly recognizable.
These capabilities, traits, and properties are either unique to the human species, or so qualitatively distinct from anything similar found in other animals that our version is unquestionably and solely human. To be born a human, means to be born a particular type of animal with specific traits and abilities.
Maintaining some sense of a universally shared “nature” or pattern of enduring traits is vital for maintaining the logic of any human ethics. If there is no shared human nature – no core reality to being human – then any attempt at a universal or logical human ethics is impossible.
Our most vital and valued social projects – inclusion, equality, universal justice – rely on the ability to describe important human characteristics that people of different races, ethnicities, sexes, and nationalities share in roughly the same measure. It is critical, therefore, to argue for a relatively stable human nature that all humans share.
THE SOMEWHAT ARBITRARINESS OF MORAL ENDS
Returning to our earlier assertion that morality primarily relates to human flourishing, we begin to encounter another set of questions. Who’s vision or opinion or judgment of flourishing? Who’s standard of thriving and well-being?
Cultures, religions, communities, and individuals have varied over history, and do so even now, in terms of their thinking concerning what constitutes flourishing and how to achieve it. Ideas and convictions have shifted and developed throughout history. There seems to be a degree arbitrariness to the claims concerning moral truth and human well-being. (Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? p.1)
Consider the role honor played in ancient and even middle age civilizations. Maintaining one’s honor was valued as one of the highest moral goods – even if meant seeking violent retribution on those who tarnished one’s honor. Or consider the centuries-long Christian reaction to heresy where theological “error” often resulted in being burned at the stake or tortured to death. The moral thinking on slavery in the West was slow to change.
Western culture’s views on marriage, sexuality, economics, democracy, and other significant issues has developed and changed and will continue to do so. Is this change in moral understanding radical? Rarely so. More often, it occurs along the margins and involves a gradual, organic shift in understanding.
Recognizing that there is an element of arbitrariness and fluidity in moral ends and methods is not to argue that there isn’t something of a moral consensus. Few people argue in favor of the moral legitimacy of the intentional taking of innocent human life, stealing, lying, and so on. And this consensus is not merely semantic, either.
Much of the West’s moral consensus is the result of the accumulated influences of Classical culture and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Much of it is also the result of reasoned reflection on human nature and human flourishing. Religious naturalism adopts this reasoned approach to ethics. (Don Cuppit, The Meaning of the West, pp. 9-10)
MORALITY & REASON
The overall manner of moral reasoning, discussed above, derives from a tradition of Western ethics called natural law reasoning. Historically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature in order to derive norms for behavior in relation to human flourishing, in Greek, Eudaemonia.
Since its revival in the twentieth century, much of virtue ethics has been developed in relation to eudaimonism. Eudaimonism bases virtues in human flourishing, where flourishing is equated with performing one’s distinctive function well. In the case of humans, Aristotle argued that our distinctive function is reasoning, and so the life “worth living” is one which we reason well. (Obviously, human nature emits of more than reason as a distinctive function.)
Most forms of natural law theories at their most basic level are concerned with analyzing right and wrong behavior in relation to human well-being. In this sense, there has typically been an emphasis on analyzing human actions. Many forms of natural law reasoning therefore gravitate toward rule-based thinking. What sorts of actions are wrong and right in an of themselves?
Virtue ethics, however, changes the kind of question we ask about ethics. Where deontology and utilitarian forms of consequentialism (most forms of natural law ethics fit in these categories) concern themselves with the right action, virtue ethics is concerned with the good life and what kinds of persons we should be. “What is the right action?” is a significantly different question to ask from “What kind of person should I be?” Where the first type of question deals with specific dilemmas, the second is a question about an entire life. Instead of asking what is the right action here and now, virtue ethics asks what kind of person should one be in order to do the good, most, if not all of the time.
Natural law ethics engages in praxeological analysis of human action in relation to goods/values and their role in human flourishing. Virtue ethics focuses more on character formation and cultivating enduring moral modes of human being and subjectivity.
Yet, in the fullest sense, natural law reasoning and virtue ethics both imply a given philosophical anthropology, or view of the human person, as well as an implied metaphysics of value and the good. In this sense, the two traditions differ primarily in emphasis, yet remain for the most part, complimentary. (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 133.)
In this sense, my own use of the term natural ethics and my explanation of such blends aspects of virtue ethics with notions of natural law methods. Natural law theories tend to be rule based in connection with a set of recognized objective goods. From a strict natural law basis, the general rule is to always pursue the good, which are naturally desirable in relation to human nature.
It is possible, with some limitations, to speak of the objective goods posited by some natural thinkers with virtues. And rather than adopt a rules based approach to these goods or virtues, allow for the authentic subjectivity and uniqueness of human circumstances to personalize ethics without relativizing it. In the fullest sense, authentic human morality requires such. (See the work of Max Scheler.)
We may recognize generosity as a virtue or objective good for humans, but each individual must craft their manner of practicing the virtue – we will not all be generous in the same manner. Whereas natural law theory tends to say humans should seek to be generous because generosity is an objective human good, virtue ethics tends to posit persons within communities and cultures that mold people who desire to be generous because generosity is deemed worthwhile. So, rather than saying all persons must be generous, we can approach the same from the perspective of wanting to be a generous person and asking how can that be achieved.
Essentially, the natural law and virtue traditions of reasoning approaches morality not as something imposed on humanity or revealed by a deity or religious authority. Rather it is an integral part of our natural identity. Our moral responsibilities and rights arise from our nature (a reasoned reflection on such) and our relationship to others. This structure offers a formal framework within which to conduct moral reasoning. Our motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.
The word natural corresponds to human nature (as discussed above), a sense that there are relatively enduring, constitutive characteristics common to all human persons as humans – in other words, we share a common humanity.
The word law corresponds to a developing body of wisdom concerning those goods and behaviors that aid in human flourishing. (Note, law in this sense implies guidelines and principles, not a rigid code of do’s and don’ts.) Therefore, natural law moral reasoning understands human morality as human action oriented toward a set of goods, goals and end states we deem worth obtaining for our own thriving. (Henry B. Veatch, Rational Man, p. 73)
Aspects of both the natural law and virtue-based frameworks emerged with Aristotle, carried through the middle ages and scholasticism, was refined by Aquinas and others, remained relevant through the work of Henry Veatch (and others) and then received renewed attention through the work of philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, and then later, Notre Dame scholar, Alasdair MacIntyre, among others.
In both traditions, efforts are made to define flourishing as holistically as possible, not limiting the notion to fleeting emotional states of happiness or brief periods of sensual delight or satisfaction. The notion of flourishing implies a lasting and essential improvement of the human person as person and thus relates to constitutive aspects of human nature.
It must be noted that natural law and virtue ethics provides a framework for conducting moral reasoning – these are methods of thinking about right and wrong. Neither approach results in a definitive, positive code of right and wrong. In this sense, questions such as, “what does the natural law say? or “does such behavior violate the natural law?” are somewhat misplaced, as are attempts at definitive lists of virtues.
One does not consult the natural law as one would a text. One does not simply select a virtue from a list and attempt to embody it. Rather, both approaches are methods of analyzing human nature and gaining insights into human flourishing and the practice of virtues that encourage and promote that flourishing.
The word insight is significant. Moral truth, strictly speaking, isn’t demonstrated or understood through deductive means. Moral reasoning relies more on inductive method, but also the mental function of insight, the human capacity to intuit or comprehend the nature of things, their essence, their core meaning. (Dietrich von Hildebrand, What is Philosophy?, p. 180)
Insights require elucidation if they are to be communicated to others. In reasoned conversation, one needs to show or convey the content of their insights to others, getting others to see what we see. This manner of reasoning requires skill and conversations based on such can require time. Insights are not shared by all people and not always immediately grasped.
Therefore, intelligent people can engage in proper natural law reasoning and virtue analysis and reach different conclusions. In such cases, appeals can be made using philosophical reasoning, empirical evidence, psychological evaluation, and sociological and cultural studies conducted over time, to help evaluate claims of flourishing and betterment.
Both ethical frameworks are centrally based on an empirical understanding of human nature and in a sense, forms of consequentialism. Moral choices have consequences. Those consequences are not solely subjective or merely matters of character, they can include the body, one’s mental capacities, as well affect the quality of relationships. A full sense of morality therefore takes into account the findings of the human sciences. The assumption here being that flourishing in the fullest sense would include empirically observable traits and states of being that can be studied, tracked, and reported on.
While not all forms of immorality yield clear empirically demonstrable effects, in general, it is expected that long term immoral conduct will have some perceptible results on the human person – be they affects of character, circumstance, health, or mental health.
Virtue and natural law ethical philosophy is about reasoning the best way to live one’s life in light of human well being. Many theorists tend to assume that people have a vast field of options which morality pares down. In contrast, these approaches argue that people need to identify meaningful goals before they can act. As such, natural law and virtue-based moral theory is a way to facilitate action, rather than to limit it.
Ethics is not so much an application of principles to facts as a study of human action and its consequences. Moral action, free human action, involves decisions to do things in pursuit of goals, and it involves the understanding of the implications of one’s actions for the whole variety of goals that human agents seek.(Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 104)
The call of authentic value for an adequate response addresses itself to us in a sovereign, but non-intrusive, sober manner. It appeals to our spiritual center. In a certain sense, this call is intimate and personal, one in which I experience the uniqueness of myself.
– Dietrich von Hildebrand
Given that we do not possess the fullness of ourselves at any one time, being extended through time, our lives and formation of character are a dynamic process. Our moral choices influence not only our future character, but our future moral choices as well. Therefore, our moral action is capable of building a positive feedback loop, with each choice for the good reinforcing our ability make such choices in the future. The same holds for immoral choices.
MORALITY & COMMUNITY
In light of the above, we begin to see that morality is a practical matter, that it is reasonable to assert that to act morally is more a matter of knowing how to act –morality is not strictly a knowing that but also a knowing how. If human action is a knowing how, then ethics must also consider how one learns how. (Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, p. 349)
Like other forms of practical knowing, individuals learn how to act morally within a community whose goals, language, examples, and shared standards shape our judgment.
There is no meaningful moral identity for the abstract individual. The individual has to find its moral identity in and through its membership in communities – families, neighborhoods, school communities, professional associations, social groups, and religious and cultural traditions.
Each of these communities has a past, a set of developing traditions, and internal cultures which are relevant. There is no isolated, pure, individual floating on a cultural-historical blank slate. One’s moral reasoning is shaped and upheld by a shared rationality – a conveyed worldview and wisdom of what a good life is about. And this shared rationality comes from community and culture.
Rationality as a human capacity is not exercised in isolation. It is the collection of theories, beliefs, principles, and facts that the human subject uses to judge the world, and a person’s rationality is, to a large extent, the product of that person’s education and moral formation that takes place in various communities.
Communal rationality comprises all the intellectual resources, both formal and substantive, that we use to judge truth and falsity in propositions, and to determine choice-worthiness in courses of action. Rationality in this sense is not universal; it differs (usually slightly) from community to community and from person to person, and may vary over the course of a person’s life or a community’s history. Communities and cultures are in turn supported by and informed by traditions.
Individual rationality (and action) is not only tradition-constituted, it is also tradition constitutive, as individuals make their own contributions to their own rationality, and to the rationalities of their communities. Rationality is not fixed, within either the history of a community or the life of a person. The possibility that experience may falsify a particular view or a specific rationality means that traditions are not fixed, but subject to revision and innovation. Traditions that cannot innovate tend to die and fade into history.
RELIGIOUS NATURALISM AND ETHICS
Where does religious naturalism stand in relation to the above? What values, goods, and ends do we hold out as our own? What moral vision do we defend? And how do we build a tradition around it?
The West has, in general, embraced the moral vision of Judeo-Christianity. Our current, post-Christian culture is animated by the moral residue of this tradition. We value empathy and love, justice applied with mercy, we desire freedom for the oppressed, view war as something to be avoided, show concern for the marginalized, and are convinced of the value of caring for poor, ill, and needy. These are all primarily the results of the Judeo-Christian influence on the West.
However, much of our culture no longer appeals to Jesus or the Bible or religious authority to justify these moral claims. In reality, our culture is mostly unreflective about many of its moral convictions and values. When justifications or rationale are sought or expressed, they tend to be rooted in arguments from humanism, appeals to reason, and practical considerations for the general stability of society.
How then should those committed to various forms of spiritual naturalism talk about moral issues and decision making? Much the same way — relying on the insights of reason, science, social science, humanism, and practical concerns of social stability to ground our arguments.
In particular, there are a few core insights from which we should proceed in terms of presenting a moral vision:
Human Dignity and the Value of Human Life
Whatever the motivating source of this insight – be it humanism, personalism, or even various forms of theism – the assertion of human dignity not merited, conferred, or granted, but intrinsic to all human beings, need be a key starting point of our arguments.
Interconnectedness and Empathy
Interconnectedness provides underlying reasoning behind many ideas concerning morality. It tells us to show compassion and loving-kindness toward everyone, because they are no different from ourselves, and our sense of separation is an illusion. We are all connected by virtue of being sentient beings, beings that suffer, and beings that seek happiness, meaning, and fulfilling relationships.
Empathy is a logical, existential and practical extension of the truth of interconnectedness. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.
Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own. Empathy facilitates prosocial and cooperative behaviors among individuals and groups and allow for various forms of compassionate action.
Notions of the common good, social stability, and communal welfare all require a commitment to solidarity and social cooperation for their achievement. Our concern for one another, animals, and the planet are grounded in both intellectual and practical concerns.
While there may be an inherent rightness to caring for the poor and needy, there is also a practical benefit to the society as a whole. Radical wealth inequality, crushing poverty, educational deficits, and neglect of disadvantaged communities breeds social instability, civil unrest, class resentment, and ultimately also threatens the well being of those who are better off.
Morality truth is discovered through reasoned reflection on human flourishing and well being. And while religion and spirituality have a natural connection to morality, sound moral arguments rely on science, social science, human experience, and human reason, and not the Bible, sacred texts, or religious authorities, which may defend the same views, but which are not their source.
Those committed to a particular moral vision and moral order have the shared responsibility to promote and defend it. This requires individuals to engage in the intellectual work required to understand, and then argue for, their own moral convictions. Those engaged in a spirituality of nature must learn to rationally explain and defend their moral views.
After Virtue – Alasdair MacIntyre
Whose Justice? Which Rationality? – Alasdair MacIntyre
The Moral Animal – Robert Wright
Rational Man – Henry B. Veatch
21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari