This article was published in the Spring 1997 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
 
Don't Start with Archetypes
 
A response to Roderick Long,
"The Nature of Law, Part IV: The Basis of Natural Law"
(Formulations, Vol. IV, No. 2)
 
by Roy E. Halliday
 
(to table of contents of FNF archives)    (to Roderick Long's reply)

Natural Law philosophers, especially those influenced by Plato and Aristotle, have a tendency to confuse the "best" in the sense of the blue-ribbon-winning "best" representative of a type of thing (an archetype) with "best" in the sense of the morally "best."1 Conversely, they think, for example, that a plant whose leaves are withered is a bad plant, because it does not measure up to the model of its type, and a bird that has a broken wing is a bad bird, because it cannot fly like a bird should.2 They confuse health with virtue. But a sick plant or bird is not morally bad, it is merely unhealthy. It is inappropriate to blame a plant or a bird for its poor health. Not every creature that falls sick or dies deserves to. Physical deficiencies and moral deficiencies are different things. A lame man is an imperfect physical specimen who cannot reach the full potential of his species, but this has no bearing at all on whether he is a morally good or bad person.

These Natural Law philosophers are too concerned with things that have nothing to do with morality. The archetypes that they use in their evaluations have no obvious relationship to ethics. Why should a creature be judged by its conformity to its biological species? Why is species conformity good rather than bad? Are the first mutants who start new species necessarily bad? Was the first man-like creature evil for not conforming to the species of his parents? Why shouldn't we judge creatures by their genus rather than their species? Is the species archetype better because it is more specific? If so, then why not judge creatures by their race, which is even more specific? (As a matter of fact, Plato did judge people by their race and he did advocate race discrimination.) Why should any biological category be the standard of ethics? Why is species conformity a better moral standard than chemical purity? If we classify things by their chemical properties, we can include more things in our ethics. Good water would be pure, with no minerals or bacteria. Commendable gold would be twenty-four karats.

Chemistry, biology, and ethics are separate fields. They deal with different aspects of nature. They use different methods and yield different kinds of knowledge. Chemistry and biology cannot give us principles to direct our lives. They cannot tell us what is good, bad, better, or worse. The physical sciences tell us what exists and what will result when certain conditions occur. Ethics differs from the physical sciences in that it is concerned with what ought to be. Ethics does not take its direction from the value-free sciences. Ethics gives direction to scientists and everyone else.

To some Natural Law philosophers the "best" tree, for example, is the one whose size, shape, and foliage most exemplify the idea of "treeness." Similarly, the "best" man is the one who most personifies the concept of "manness." These philosophers, being men, are not as interested in judging trees as they are in judging other men. Consequently, they concentrate on defining "manness."

The human attribute that these philosophers most often select as the defining characteristic of "manness" is rationality. Aristotle and other Natural Law philosophers define man as essentially rational, and deduce that rationality must be the highest virtue and that the ideal life for man must be the life of reason. Then, they apply this view to political philosophy and come up with various plans for imposing rational order on society to replace spontaneous, voluntary associations, which they believe are irrational, because they are unplanned. This view of ethics provides a moral justification for centrally planned economies governed by aristocrats.

Instead of defining the archetypal man as a rational being, the Natural Law philosophers could, with as much plausibility, define man as a religious being. No other creatures that we know about practice religions at all, but many creatures appear to act rationally. So man might be better distinguished from other animals by his religious nature. If we adopt a religious definition of "manness" and if we deliberately confuse moral goodness with conformity to archetypes, we could conclude that mysticism and blind faith in the gods are the highest virtues for man. Indeed, this point of view has many devout followers.

Again, with just as much validity, we could define the archetypal man in physiological terms. Then our moral goal in life could be to win a Mr. or Miss Universe contest or a blue ribbon for "Best of Breed." This is how some of the Natural Law philosophers judge plants and animals. Since they condemn birds that can't fly as birds should, it would be logical for them to condemn lame men who can't walk the way men should walk. Why don't they focus their moral outrage on crippled men? It must have been because they do not regard walking upright as the essential quality of "manness."

We can agree that walking upright is not uniquely human, but what about man's opposing thumbs, which are almost unique in the animal kingdom? Why couldn't we use man's thumbs as the essential characteristic of the ideal man? Roman emperors displayed their thumbs up or down to signify life and death judgments. Did this make them virtuous? Are hitchhikers saints? For some reason, man defined as a creature with opposing thumbs has not spawned any great moral philosophies. What could the reason be? And why has no moral philosophy (except possibly Hegel's) been consciously based on the observation that "To err is human"?

Why do so many moral philosophers regard rationality as more essential to "manness" than our thumbs? Many species of animals act rationally. Most of them act more rationally than man, or at least they don't act irrationally as often as man does. Very few species of animals have opposing thumbs. So why isn't it better to define "manness" in terms of thumbs than in terms of man's dubious rationality?

Rationality is no more virtuous than is having thumbs. Reason is not a virtue. It is not an end or an object of action. It is a tool like thumbs. A criminal can be very rational, but that doesn't make him a better (more moral) man, it makes him a better (more successful) criminal. Neither rationality nor thumbs can completely define man. But, unlike thumbs, rationality is one of the essential characteristics of a moral agent. Although reason is not itself a virtue, it is a prerequisite for virtue. Accidental, purposeless, or instinctive behavior has no moral qualities. Only purposeful actions can be honorable or shameful, because we can only take moral principles into account when we act deliberately.

To be a perfect man, in the sense of fully representing "manness," one must exemplify the typical human vices as well as the human virtues. The archetypal man is the perfectly representative man. He is somewhat rational and somewhat irrational. He is moderately idealistic and moderately sensual. He strikes a golden mean between honesty and mendacity, virtue and vice. The archetypal man is not the morally perfect man. He is the perfect example of his species. Angels are a different species altogether.

We often judge things with respect to our personal goals. The perfect tree for lumber may be far from perfect for providing shade, or maple syrup, or apples. Whether a tree is good or bad depends on the purpose we have in mind when we judge it. In any case, the judgment that a tree is good or bad is not usually meant as a moral judgment. Only philosophers and primitive animists are silly enough to confuse these things. Civilized people do not blame a tree for being useless or praise it for being useful, because they do not believe trees can respond to verbal criticism. Animals can be trained to be useful to us, and it makes sense to praise or blame them, reward or punish them, because these things can cause them to modify their behavior. However, man differs from other animals that we know about in that he can be motivated by abstract principles in addition to praise, blame, rewards, and punishments. Among the abstract principles that can motivate a man are the moral principles.

It is a characteristic of moral principles that they can only be appreciated by moral agents. It would be ridiculous to speak of an honest tree or a righteous horse, because trees and horses are not moral agents. We need to understand why we regard men, angels, and gods, but not trees, horses, and rocks as moral agents. The place to begin moral philosophy is not with a definition of "manness," but with a definition of a moral agent.

Not all men are morally responsible. Insane, senile, and severely retarded people do not have enough reasoning ability to be moral agents. They are not capable of understanding moral principles, and they cannot be influenced by moral arguments. They are people, but they are not moral agents. So it is not the essential nature of man that has to be defined at the outset, but that part of his nature that makes him a moral agent, responsible and accountable for his actions. Instead of trying to define "man" and from that deducing what is right and what is wrong, we must discard the archetype approach to moral philosophy and start over by analyzing the nature of moral agents. D

 

References

1 Joseph Cropsey, "A Reply to Rothman," American Political Science Review (June, 1962) page 355:

"The classical [natural law] doctrine is that each thing is excellent in the degree to which it can do the things for which its species is naturally equipped."
2 Some modern philosophers are continuing this tradition. Henry Veatch, a disciple of Aristotle, has written in For an Ontology of Morals, pp. 7-8: "A plant, for example, may be seen to be underdeveloped or stunted in its growth. A bird with an injured wing is quite obviously not able to fly as well as others of the same species .... And so it is that a thing's nature may be thought of as being not merely that in virtue of which the thing acts or behaves in the way it does, but also as a sort of standard in terms of which we judge whether the thing's action or behavior is all that it might have been or could have been."
 
(to beginning of Halliday's comments)
 
In Defense of Archetypes: A Response
 
by Roderick T. Long

Outline
The Concept of Moral Health
Teleology and Value
Uniqueness vs. Essence
Species as Essence
Archetype vs. Average
Reason and the Good Life
Conclusion
 

The Concept of Moral Health

In "Don't Start with Archetypes," Roy Halliday argues that Aristotelean-style natural-law arguments like the one I defended last issue in "The Nature of Law, Part IV: The Basis of Natural Law" make the mistake of confusing "the 'best' in the sense of the blue-ribbon-winning 'best' representative of a type of thing (an archetype) with 'best' in the sense of the morally 'best.'" In short, such theories "confuse health with virtue," and are committed to focusing "moral outrage on crippled men." But this, Roy insists, is a mistake:

"... a sick plant or bird is not morally bad, it is merely unhealthy. It is inappropriate to blame a plant or a bird for its poor health. ... A lame man is an imperfect physical specimen who cannot reach the full potential of his species, but this has no bearing at all on whether he is a morally good or bad person." I agree that it is a mistake to confuse physical health with moral praiseworthiness; but I do not think Natural Law theory is guilty of such a mistake.

Roy's criticism fails to make two important distinctions. The first is a distinction between physical health and moral health. The reason it is inappropriate to apply terms of moral evaluation to sick plants and lame men is that moral evaluations are psychological rather than physiological in nature. To identify a person as virtuous or vicious is to say something about the healthy or unhealthy condition of that person's attitudes and choice-dispositions, not about their legs. To say that if morality is a kind of health, then we should call crippled people immoral, is like saying that if blindness is a kind of sickness, we should call deaf people blind.

The second needed distinction is between moral health and moral praiseworthiness. Moral praiseworthiness is a subclass of moral health, just as moral health is a subclass of health in general. Moral praiseworthiness (and likewise moral blameworthiness) concerns those aspects of a person's moral health for which the person is responsible. Ordinarily (I would argue) we have some control over our own process of character-formation; but if a person has been so psychologically warped that he genuinely cannot help being cowardly, or unjust, or ungenerous, the fact remains that he has these vices (and so can be evaluated as an immoral person) even if he is not responsible for having them (and so cannot be blamed). (Blameworthiness is usually a matter of degree anyway.)

It is a mistake to think that moral evaluation is exhausted by the categories of praise and blame. Now the Kantian theory in effect thinks this, because for Kant the supreme standard of value is the good will. In Aristotelean ethics, however, the supreme standard is the good life; one's attitudes and choices are evaluated in terms of their conduciveness (whether instrumentally or constitutively) to this good life; and praise and blame come into the picture still later, and concern the extent to which one's attitudes and choices are under one's control.

Roy argues that because not all human beings are responsible, human nature as such is not an appropriate moral standard:

"Not all men are morally responsible. Insane, senile, and severely retarded people do not have enough reasoning ability to be moral agents. ... They are people, but they are not moral agents. So it is not the essential nature of man that has to be defined at the outset, but that part of his nature that makes him a moral agent, responsible and accountable for his actions." But as the Aristotelean tradition sees it, the good is something to be aimed at. The fact that we are incapable, for some reason or other, of achieving the good, or perhaps even of aiming at it, does not make it any less our good. To take the fact that some humans lack the capacity for moral agency as a reason for rejecting human nature as a moral standard, is to demand that the standard adapt itself to our abilities. If something does not live up to a standard, that is a defect in the thing, not in the standard.

  (to top of Long's reply)

Teleology and Value

Roy argues that the proper standard of value on which to base morality is the ability to respond to moral principles:

"... man differs from other animals that we know about in that he can be motivated by abstract principles .... Among the abstract principles that can motivate a man are the moral principles. ... It is a characteristic of moral principles that they can only be appreciated by moral agents. ... The place to begin moral philosophy is not with a definition of 'manness,' but with a definition of a moral agent." But from an Aristotelean perspective, this turns the question on its head. Yes, we have the ability to respond to moral principles; but what is the source of these moral principles themselves? It would be circular to base moral principles on the ability to respond to moral principles; there must be something to respond to, something independent of our responses themselves.

For the Aristotelean tradition, the solution lies in the fact that human beings are teleological systems. We are end-directed in our very nature. Moral principles are principles that a) identify our natural ends, and b) help us make those ends more specific.

Roy asks:

"Why should any biological category be the standard of ethics? Why is species conformity a better moral standard than chemical purity? If we classify things by their chemical properties, we can include more things in our ethics. Good water would be pure, with no minerals or bacteria. Commendable gold would be twenty-four karats." The answer lies in the fact that value applies only to teleological systems. Water and gold do not have chemical purity as their goal; they do not aim at such purity. By contrast, living organisms do aim at maintaining themselves as a certain kind of organism. Hence we can evaluate living organisms, but not gold or water.

Of course we can evaluate gold and water externally, in relation to our ends; but in the case of living organisms we can also evaluate them internally, in relation to their ends, which is impossible in the case of gold and water, which do not have ends. This makes biology relevant to ethics in a way that chemistry is typically not. (If molecules turn out to be self-sustaining, teleological systems of a sort, then I'm perfectly happy to extend internal evaluation to them.)

But not all internal evaluation is moral evaluation. Roy is right to stress the importance of abstract principles, but he brings them in at the wrong point; moral evaluation is that subclass of internal evaluation that assesses the extent to which an organism grasps, internalizes, and acts on those principles that promote its good. Organisms that lack psychological capacities entirely (e.g., plants) are not subject to moral evaluation; neither are organisms whose psychological capacities are too unsophisticated to deal with abstract principles. (Moral evaluation still doesn't necessarily involve praise and blame, however; praise and blame are a further subclass of moral evaluation, dealing with the extent to which an organism is responsible for grasping, internalizing, and acting on the relevant principles.)

 
  (to top of Long's reply)

Uniqueness vs. Essence

Roy argues that it is inappropriate to identify rationality as the most essential human feature, on the grounds that rationality is not unique to humans:

"Many species of animals act rationally. Most of them act more rationally than man, or at least they don't act irrationally as often as man does. ... No other creatures that we know about practice religions at all, but many creatures appear to act rationally. So man might be better distinguished from other animals by his religious nature." This argument, as I see it, involves two misunderstandings of the theory I defend. First, it interprets rationality as the capacity for efficient selection of means to one's ends. (I assume this is what is meant in saying that animals act more rationally than humans.) This is the economist's notion of reason, but not the Aristotelean notion. (Nor the Kantian notion, I might add.) For the Aristotelean natural-law tradition, it is the ability to employ abstract concepts, to grasp the relations among them, and to communicate this understanding to others, that is the essence of reason; and this capacity Roy admits is unique to humans.

More importantly, though, uniqueness as such is not the fundamental criterion of an essential property. A property's being unique to human beings is neither necessary nor sufficient for its being essential to human nature. For Aristoteleans, what makes a property essential is its explanatory centrality; rationality is our most essential feature, not because only humans are rational, but because rationality explains more about us than any other feature. (Likewise, Aristotle denies that it is part of the essence of a triangle to have internal angles equal to 180½, because this feature of a triangle is explanatorily downstream, as it were, from the feature of having three sides.) Aristoteleans would maintain that rationality is more explanatorily basic to humans than their physiological characteristics, which is why Mr. Universe will not beat out Sokrates on the evaluation scale. This also answers Roy's question as to why the possession of a thumb shouldn't be treated as the defining human feature: thumbs explain less about us than rationality does.

  (to top of Long's reply)

Species as Essence?

Roy raises another objection:

"Why should a creature be judged by its conformity to its biological species? Why is species conformity good rather than bad? Are the first mutants who start new species necessarily bad? Was the first man-like creature evil for not conforming to the species of his parents?" On the Aristotelean view, however, what species one belongs to is not a matter of what other creatures one is genetically related to. Species-membership turns on what sort of an entity one is, considered in one's own right; one's species is one's nature. If a mutation occurs in one's most basic explanatory features, then one is a new kind of creature and should conform to the standards inherent in those features; if, by contrast, a mutation occurs in some subsidiary feature, that mutation will be evaluated as positive or negative in terms of its relation to more fundamental features.

In a related point, Roy asks:

"Why shouldn't we judge creatures by their genus rather than their species? Is the species archetype better because it is more specific? If so, then why not judge creatures by their race, which is even more specific?" Again, the answer is that the species is more explanatory than either more specific properties like one's race or more generic properties like one's genus. The fact that I am a human being explains a great deal more about me than the fact that I am a mammal; it also explains a great deal more about me than the fact that I am a white male of Celtic-Slavic ancestry. (I recognize that these claims might be disputed. If they are false, then Aristotelean natural-law theory is false. A great deal will turn on exactly how one understands the nature of explanation. This is the point where the battle needs to be fought.)

 
  (to top of Long's reply)

Archetype vs. Average

In my essay on "The Basis of Natural Law," I described the Aristotelean position as holding that if my summum bonum is a human life, and life A is more human than life B, then life A is the one I am committed to choosing. Thus, Aristotelean natural-law theory tells us to aim at living a maximally human life.

Roy worries that this means living an average life:

"To be a perfect man, in the sense of fully representing 'manness,' one must exemplify the typical human vices as well as the human virtues. The archetypal man is the perfectly representative man. He is somewhat rational and somewhat irrational. He is moderately idealistic and moderately sensual. He strikes a golden mean between honesty and mendacity, virtue and vice." In reply to this objection, suppose we have three items of different weights: let's say one is a mouse, one is a horse, and one is an elephant. Now I ask you to pick the creature that has the most weight.

You could reason as follows: "The most weighty creature is the one with the most typical weight. So I'll compute the average weight of the three creatures, and pick the creature whose weight comes closest to the average." Thus you end up picking the horse as the animal with the greatest weight.

This is the kind of mistake we would be making if we thought the most human life were the one most representative or typical of human beings. But rather, just as the animal with the most weight (the elephant) is not of "average" weight, so the most human life is the one that expresses essentially human features in the highest degree.

So, for example, if one life exemplifies rationality more fully than another does, then that life will be a more human life, even if the other life is more typical of humans generally. Just as essence has nothing to do with uniqueness, so it also has nothing to do with statistics.

 
  (to top of Long's reply)

Reason and the Good Life

Roy also argues that value placed on rationality by the Aristotelean natural-law tradition is morally inappropriate:

"Reason is not a virtue. It is not an end or an object of action. It is a tool like thumbs. A criminal can be very rational, but that doesn't make him a better (more moral) man, it makes him a better (more successful) criminal." But this objection involves attributing to the natural-law position a procedural conception of rationality, according to which rationality is simply a matter of choosing efficient means to one's ends, whatever those ends may happen to be. On the contrary, however, the natural-law tradition has historically championed a substantive conception of rationality, according to which it is possible to assess not only the rationality of one's choice of means to one's ends, but also the rationality of one's choice of ends themselves. The difference between the honest person and the criminal is that the honest person embodies the ideal of reason not only in his means but in his ends, in that he deals with other people through reason rather than through coercion. As Aristotle pointed out, rational animals don't just govern their private affairs by reason, they govern their common affairs by reason as well. No matter how clever the criminal may be at selecting the most effective means to his criminal ends, so long as he chooses to deal with others through violence or manipulation rather than through discourse and persuasion so long as he treats other rational beings as prey rather than as conversation partners his life is missing a crucial dimension of rationality that the honest person's life has.

This point about criminal lifestyles also helps to answer Roy's argument that natural-law theory leads to statism:

"Natural Law philosophers define man as essentially rational, and deduce that rationality must be the highest virtue and that the ideal life for man must be the life of reason. Then, they apply this view to political philosophy and come up with various plans for imposing rational order on society to replace spontaneous, voluntary associations, which they believe are irrational, because they are unplanned. This view of ethics provides a moral justification for centrally planned economies governed by aristocrats." That many natural-law theorists have done this, I readily concede. But I deny that this is a correct inference from the principle that the good life is a life of reason. As we have just seen, the life of reason as Aristotelean natural-law theorists conceive of it requires interacting with other people by means of rational persuasion rather than force. Most natural-law theorists have recognized this but they have failed to realize that this constraint on interpersonal interaction applies not only within civil society but also at the level of the state. If it is wrong for Kallias to aggress against Nikias, giving Kallias a badge or a gavel or a seat in Congress cannot suddenly make it right. The notion that a rational society must be a centrally directed society depends on the implausible premise that individual ineractions cannot be rational. Natural-law theorists do not in fact accept this premise; therefore, their commitment to statism is an inconsistency within their own theory.
 

Conclusion

In this essay I have not argued for the truth of the Aristotelean natural-law conception of morality. But I have tried to show that it is not vulnerable to the objections Roy brings against it. I hope this debate will continue. D

 (to Halliday's comments)    (to top of Long's reply)

 (to table of contents of FNF archives)