The Inadequacy of a Naturalistic Virtue Ethic (Part 1 of 2)

Photo by  Niko Soikkeli  on  Unsplash

Photo by Niko Soikkeli on Unsplash

In this essay, my aim is to show that naturalism does not provide an adequate ground for a virtue ethic. In order to that, I will first say what a virtue ethic is, then how a naturalist might construe a virtue ethic, and finally give some reasons to think such efforts likely fail.

The Features of a Virtue Ethic

Linda Zagzebski provides a concise definition of virtue ethics: “Traditional Aristotelian virtue ethics makes the concept of virtue dependent upon the more basic concept of eudaimonia – happiness or flourishing. Eudaimonia is in turn dependent upon the idea of human nature, understood as teleological.”[1] This definition can be broken down into three essential parts: teleology, eudaimonia, and the virtues.[2] If these parts are essential to a virtue ethic, then any theory claiming to be a virtue ethic must account for all three of these.

In order to account for the telos of human nature, a theory must say how it is that humans have genuine purpose.

When Aristotle uses eudaimonia he has in mind the ideal or best kind of life possible for a thing. Aristotle thought of eudaimonia as the chief end of man, the good under which all other goods are subsumed. Theories of virtue connect eudaimonia with the human telos so that living up to one’s telos counts as the highest good possible for a human.  Thus, an adequate virtue ethic must say how achieving the human telos, if there is one, counts as good for humans.

A virtue is a means of achieving one’s end, but it is simultaneously bound up in the end itself. By practicing a virtue, a person both helps to bring about eudaimonia and participates in it. If the ideal for humans includes compassion, then by being compassionate we ought to bring ourselves closer to the human ideal. If compassion does not have this means/ends relation to eudaimonia, it does not count as a virtuous activity.

Here is the upshot:  if virtue ethics is correct, then there are at least three facts in need of explanation: (1) that humans have a telos, (2) that achieving the telos is the highest moral good for a human, and (3) that the way to bring about that telos is through the practice of the virtues.

Naturalistic Virtue Ethics (NVE)

The next move is to consider what the naturalist has to say about these facts.

The first issue is whether naturalism allows for teleology in a human. For a thing to have a telos, it must be designed or intended for something. Typically, we think that if something is designed or intended, it was made by a person. That is because in commonsense language these terms imply someone with a mind who does the designing and intending.  This is why Richard Dawkins emphasizes that life has merely the appearance of design.[3] This fact alone might seem to prevent naturalists from assigning a telos to humans since no person designed humans. However, as Colin Allen points out, some naturalists think that Darwinian evolution provides a way for naturalists to talk about genuine “design” without reference to a personal designer.[4] The thought is that nature through the process of evolution really does design life. (Angus Ritchie refers to naturalistic evolution as “quasi-teleological.”)

Through the slow grind of evolution, nature settles (at least for a time) on certain designs or life-forms. Naturalist virtue ethicists invoke the concept of a “species” at this point.[5] A chimpanzee is a species that has a certain suite of natural abilities and characteristics endowed by eons of adaptations. These abilities, like the ability to see, are the result of a series of biological processes. When the processes operate as they should, a healthy chimp will be able to exercise all these abilities without defect. Foot puts it this way: “We start from the fact that it is the particular life form of a species of plant or animal that determines how an individual plant or animal should be.”[6] The should is defined by reference to kind or species which counts as the norm.  A hammer is a kind of thing that normally drives nails. Defective hammers break when driving a nail, or otherwise fail to perform its normative function. Defective chimps cannot see. This account takes the designation “chimpanzee” to refer to a real, in some sense normative, category; species carry with them normative constraints and implications. The result, as Thompson puts it, is that living things can be judged as “defective or sound, good or bad, well-working or ill-working, by reference to its bearer’s life-form or kind or species.”[7]

However, granting that Foot and the other proponents of a NVE are correct about teleology only gets them so far. Thompson admits that teleology by itself has no moral qualities.[8] A wrench is for turning bolts, but that does not mean when wrenches turn bolts there is any moral goodness around. So we must have a reason for thinking that the teleology in a human person actually is able to ground the good.

Foot’s first step is to point out that humans have a unique faculty that other animals do not: the will.  The will is a function of being human in the same way sight or hearing is. With a will, humans are able to act from intentions; this makes humans uniquely moral animals. This allows Foot to make evaluative judgments about the will of an individual: “Similarly, it is obvious that there are objective, factual evaluations of such things as human sight, hearing, memory, and concentration, based on the life form of our own species. Why, then, does it seem so monstrous a suggestion that the evaluation of the human will should be determined by facts about the nature of human beings and the life of our own species?”[9]A human’s choice to murder is a bad choice because it does not conform to the norm for humans. Conversely, good choices are those that correspond to the norm.

But this does not yet get us to explanation of the moral good for humans. In order to get at that explanation, Foot makes a distinction between different kinds of evaluations. There are different kinds of evaluations we can make about living things. “This kangaroo is defective because it has too few legs” is one kind of evaluation. But we can also evaluate the choices of human beings. “Harry’s choice to steal from his mom was bad” is another kind of evaluation. The reason Harry’s choice was bad was because it did not conform to the norm for a human.  Foot thinks that bad here also has a moral sense because it is an evaluation of Harry’s voluntary choice.[10] In other words, what makes the evaluation a moral one is just that it is an evaluation of Harry’s willful action.

However, we still want to know the substance of the good for humans. Foot’s first step in making the connection between bare teleology and the moral good for humans is to show that the norm for human beings includes a complex psychology and robust social interactions. Foot thinks that “human beings need the mental capacity for learning language; they also need powers of imagination that allow them to understand stories, to join in songs and dances—and to laugh at jokes. Without such things human beings may survive and reproduce themselves, but they are deprived.”[11] Foot adds that it “matters in a human community that people can trust each other, and matters even more that at some basic level humans should have mutual respect.”[12] The reason these things matter is because they contribute to the success of a human being as a human being. So the human good consists of a certain desired state of mind and community.

With the substance of the human good fleshed out, Foot can now give an account of the virtues. For Foot, an act is virtuous when it is rationally and successfully performed in light of one’s humanness. To be virtuous is to be an ideal human. So virtues like “justice” and “compassion” are morally good because they are constitutive of the natural norm for human beings. They generate the right state of mind and community.

In light of this, we can see how Foot accounts for the facts of virtue ethics. Humans have a telos because they are members of a species that has certain norms. Foot’s ethic is eudaimonist because living successfully as a human counts as the highest possible good for humans. And the virtues play the right structural role. But is this a successful account?

Tomorrow I will offer objections to a naturalistic account of virtue.


[1] Linda Zagzebski, “The Incarnation of Jesus and Virtue Ethics,” in The Incarnation, ed. Davis, Kendall, and Collins (New York: Oxford, 2002), 326.

[2] Katva uses a similar taxonomy: “Virtue ethics has then a tripartite structure: (1) human-nature-as-it-exists; (2) human-nature-as-it-could-be; and (3) those habits, capacities, interests, inclinations, precepts, injunctions, and prohibitions that will move us from point one to point two.”  Kindle location 576.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker : Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: Norton, 1996). 21.

[4] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009), s.v. "Teleological Notions in Biology."

[5]See Michael Thompson, "The Representation of Life," in Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory : Essays in Honour of Philippa Foot, ed. Rosalind Hursthouse, Gavin Lawrence, and Warren Quinn(1998). 27. See also Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). 219. And Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). 24.

[6] Foot. 33.

[7] Thompson. 29

[8] Michael Thompson, "Three Degrees of Natural Goodness (Discussion Note) " Iride, (2003). 2.

[9] Foot. 24.

[10] See ibid. 71.

[11] Ibid. 43.

[12] ibid. 48.


Photo: "Many Species. One Planet. One Future." By N. Jois. CC License.