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!