How do we know what is good?

Continuing the discussion with Matthew:

I think there’s much to be said about this “unknowable” good because when I’ve thought about how the natural law theorist might address the is/ought problem one manoeuvre might be to emphasize that “the good” is a metaphysical notion, and that whether we can fully understand or know “the good” and thus provide a rational justification for it, is an epistemological issue. In other words it may be a metaphysical fact that “the good” contains the moral/normative imperative within it (i.e. “is” implies “ought”) but the fact that we cannot “see” this, which is to say provide a rational justification for it (to satisfy the moral rationalists and the rest of the “orthodoxy”), is merely due to our own limitations. Perhaps you might have some thoughts about this idea or about the “appetite for unknowable good” as you put it.

I’m out of practice thinking about ethics, but I still want to see if I can clarify what appears to me to be a category error somewhere in our discussion.

The question “how do we know what is good?” can be viewed as an epistemological question, in the sense that “X is good” is a belief that asserts something about the way the world is.

The is-ought problem is an epistemological stance that says notions of “good” or “right” or “ought” etc., are not in fact about the way the world is. “X is good” is – from this point of view – a statement of value, not a statement of fact (hence the alternative term for the is-ought problem: the fact/value distinction).

Matthew has suggested that Natural Law might be treating “the good” as a metaphysical entity, that is, something that exists in its own right. Essentially, this would mean there is a particular kind of thing in the world called “good” and this good uniquely compels obligation. In other words, good is a fact that somehow carries value in it.

But I don’t think this is how Natural Law operates. I don’t think it depends on a metaphysical notion of good.

Instead, I would suggest that when Natural Law makes the claim that “X is good”, it is in fact making an anthropological claim. In fact when Natural Law asks “how do we know that X is good?”, it is still regarding this as an anthropological question, rather than an epistemological question.

If you look through Aquinas’ work (not a straightforward task) you’ll see that he does indeed regard these questions as the kinds of questions that can be answered in the context of human nature, by examining how human beings actually function.

I’m using the term anthropology a bit loosely, but that’s in part because “Ethics” has changed in meaning as well. I could call it Psychology (the logic of the soul) but that has many contemporary connotations as well.

Perhaps we could say that at the heart of the is-ought problem is whether we are looking at ethics as an anthropological phenomenon or ethics as an epistemological problem. The is-ought problem is itself an epistemological problem, and the relevance of it to ethics as an anthropological phenomenon is limited.In philosophy it is considered a cheap shot to point out that most moral skeptics live as though they were moral realists. That’s a fair objection in epistemological terms. Moral skeptics might happily admit they’re doomed to behave irrationally, perhaps out of cultural forces or mere pragmatism. But approaching ethics from an anthropological perspective resolves some of the tension: epistemology is not how people ‘do’ ethics after all. Here we can bring in Dtcwee’s observation:

thinkers from Aquinas to Hume studied how DOES reason decide what’s good rather than how SHOULD reason decide what’s good, and it’s only until later that ethics shifted towards the prescriptive and coercive.

I’m not sure of the exact time-frame, but that distinction between “how does” and “how should” is indeed what I’m trying to describe as the anthropology of ethics versus the epistemology of ethics. Though I think human beings have a real talent for prescription and coercion regardless of the ethical or philosophical paradigm!

6 thoughts on “How do we know what is good?

  1. that which maximizes virtues and minimizes faults
    –edgar cayce material

    and how to

  2. I guess this brings the discussion back to why moral epistemology is considered important by the “orthodoxy” in moral philosophy (moral rationalists). I’m guessing that they would only regard prescriptive or coercive ethics (i.e. applied ethics) as justified if it is based on reason. But not just any old “reason” will do. They’ll probably insist on “sound” reasons. So for them, the “how does” vs “how should” distinction that Dtcwee made collapses if they can offer a sound theory of “practical reason” (as they call it) which incidentally happens to also be their way of addressing the is/ought problem.

    Generally speaking, their goal is to address the question of whether we know, and if so, how we know, whether certain moral claims/prescriptions are true or false. This is important given the variety of competing moral theories that exist. How else can we try to learn or know which is the correct moral theory? And how else can we teach or convince others? Therefore it seems to compel for many the question of whether “anthropology” (or “logic of the soul” as you put it) does/should decide what is the good?

    One could argue that they are trespassing into skepticism territory or are assuming the is/ought distinction (i.e. begging the question) if they raise such a question about “anthropology”. The moral rationalist will simply insist that it’s fair and reasonable to require that natural law theorist provide more reason/justification.

    I guess one could expect that the natural law theorist might be able to say a little more about why their theory is better than the other candidate theories (even if only for the purposes of distinguishing itself or avoiding accusations of its selection being somewhat ad hoc). However, I take it that you might wish to argue that a thorough and comprehensive understanding of “anthropology” offers the rational justification for itself against all other competing theories.

    But as I alluded to in my previous post I think that even if the natural law theorist cannot provide a sufficient justification, but nevertheless wishes to insist that natural law does/should decide what is the good, then he can concede that he has reached the limits of his capacity for rational justification of natural law theory. Which as I stated in a previous response can, for the natural law theorist, be reconciled as a problem of moral epistemology (what he can know) the consequences of which may be independent of moral metaphysics (i.e. “the unknowable moral facts”). In other words, one might not be able to fully explain (rational justification) a particular set of values or moral prescriptions but this doesn’t make them false or mistaken.

    • Yes, question-begging would be the most likely response. That’s where the broader distinction between philosophy post-Descartes and the ‘realist’ philosophy of Aquinas and his ilk becomes pertinent.

      Proving something from a starting-point of doubt is ultimately a choice about how to approach philosophy (and ethics). Aquinas (I gather) saw philosophy more as a conscious reflection on the-way-things-are. I think the differences are irreconcilable in that light. You could say the two approaches are trying to do different things under the guise of the same pursuit.

      • In fairness to moral rationalism I would argue that it’s not so much that they start from doubt (and certainly not in the same way that Descartes applied his “method of doubt” to epistemology) but rather they start from a belief in the necessity of providing “sound reasons” as justifications for one’s actions or moral judgments. This obviously is not immune to skepticism and also begs the question, but they would argue that if you don’t start with reason then you are left with unreason (which gives you moral anti-realism, in the form of either error theory or expressivism/emotivism/sentimentalism).

        On some views, moral rationalism succumbs to the is/ought problem, but others (since Kant) have focused on finding ways to overcome it. A few years ago I read an interesting account of moral rationalism that argues for how one can get an “ought” from an “is”.

        Anyway, it would seem to me that the irreconcilable difference between moral rationalism and natural law theory (at least the version you’ve discussed) is not so much based on methodology (i.e. doubting vs reflecting on the-way-things-are) but rather it’s based on a disagreement about about the very matter of “the-way-things-are”. Hence this turns some of the discussion towards matters of epistemology whereby the issue is one of “how” we know whether our beliefs about “the-way-things-are” accurately reflect “the-way-things-are”. This obviously raises a whole range of questions about knowledge, reason and faith. I’m not sure what your thoughts are on this but I take it that this is why some versions of natural law include an element of “divine revelation”.

        • “not so much based on methodology (i.e. doubting vs reflecting on the-way-things-are) but rather it’s based on a disagreement about about the very matter of “the-way-things-are”. ”

          I could be totally misunderstanding, but it seems like even commenting on the nature of the irreconcilable difference will be subject to the irreconcilable difference ; )
          We may be doomed to disagree about the way in which these theories disagree.

          Natural law is not supposed to include divine revelation, so if people are including divine revelation they’re going beyond the boundaries of Natural Law. You’re supposed to be able to work out all the Natural Law stuff from observation and reason, so even if it touches on religious practice and belief, it’ll be in the form of an anthropologist observing that religious practice and belief is important to people in various ways.

          • Well I’m open to the likelihood of the misunderstanding being on my part since natural law theory is not a topic I know very much about. I’ve only read bits and pieces from here and there but as I recall there were some discussions of whether natural law had to be grounded in theology and the relationship between natural law and “divine providence” (for example see Goyette et al – “St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives”).

            You’re probably right about this stuff perhaps being beyond the boundaries of natural law because some of this discussion takes place in the context of debates between the so called “New Natural Law” theory versus “neoscholastic” natural law where there are accusations made of some theories not being true to Aquinas or natural law.

            I guess whether something counts are “genuine” natural law theory is another topic altogether and as I learn more about the various formulations of natural law theory I’ll better understand why there seems to be an “irreconcilable difference” between moral rationalism and natural law theory.

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