Saturday, August 14, 2010

Good academic books on ethics

To my "A-list" of books I would like to add two academic books of note: Natural Goodness by Philippa Foot, and The Sources of Normativity by Christine Korsgaard.

(Hmmm . . . some of the best contemporary moral theorizing has come from Ayn Rand, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Christine Korsgaard . . . noticing a pattern here?)

Foot is known in the academy as a leading proponent of the virtue-ethics approach to moral theory, but only recently (2001) penned Natural Goodness, the conclusions of which converge on Rand's own functional account of value discovered in the 1950s. (Yes, this implies that Rand should be taken at least as seriously within the academy as Foot is, which begs the obvious question: why hasn't she been? The answer cannot be that Rand is a weak philosopher - not if she discovered the essential substance of the same thing that leading academic philosophers are now propounding. Something else is going on that explains Rand's "outsider" status....)

Korsgaard is a leading advocate of a "neo-Kantian" approach to moral theory, which in her case is an updated (and much improved upon Kant!) account of normativity as residing in our capacity as autonomous agents and the need for an integrity to our practical identity as autonomous agents. The significant thing here is her overture to an Aristotelian idea of value or flourishing, with autonomy being the specific form in which human flourishing occurs. This is how she accounts for the sorts of value (and human responsiveness to value) in non-human animals. The work Korsgaard does here is first-rate, though unfortunately the Aristotelian implications are not fully pursued or spelled out to my satisfaction. She does explicitly recognize (as, again, Rand had already done in the '50s) that values arise from the phenomenon of life, and she points out the centrality of autonomy or self-reflective authority in human life, but the Aristotelian perfectionism and self-actualization is left unexplored. Autonomy might be an essential ingredient in what it is to function as a human, but it doesn't tell us anything about how to self-actualize and achieve happiness, which is the purpose of ethics (as Rand pointed out). We are left, at best, with a model of practical reasoning in which we "construct" our model of the good life, but without essential reference to our distinctive innate potentialities (an essential theme in Rand and Norton, in which self-actualization takes center stage and has logical priority over such things as - to use Korsgaardian/Kantian terminology - creating a public Kingdom of Ends).

(I find it also of interest that Foot and Korsgaard both discuss Nietzsche near the end of their works. In modern moral theory, Nietzsche is lurking there in the background. Nietzsche was a significant early influence on Rand, before she became a full-fledged Aristotelian. Norton delivers a commentary on Nietzsche under the heading of "critique of recent eudaemonisms." Nietzsche a eudaemonist? Well, in a sense, emphatically yes. Whether or not he considered the Ubermensch or self-actualization or self-perfection to be a moral imperative, these ideas are crucial to an understanding of eudaemonism rightly conceived. At the beginning of Rasmussen and Den Uyl's Norms of Liberty, there is a reference to Alasdair MacIntyre making the claim that the alternative modernity faces is that between Aristotle and Nietzsche. Perhaps the alternative is not so dichotomous. Lester Hunt has made some important connections here.)

In any event, these are two worthwhile recent products of the academy, the outcomes of conscientious and systematic efforts to trace our normative concepts to natural facts about us in our relation to the world. The award for greatest degree of systematization and fundamentality goes, however, to Ayn Rand - and it is only a matter of time before this fact is recognized within the academy itself.

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