It's not out of the question for a moral theory to command universal assent, but the task seems extraordinarily difficult. Perhaps "meaning of life" questions are equally difficult to resolve, especially where one worldview has God at the center of the picture and another does not. (The meaning of life presumably is quite different if God is in the picture than if God is not in the picture - or is it?) One question at the heart of ethics is, What is ethics for? As one oft-mentioned-on-this-blog person put it, "What are values - and why does man [sic] need them?" and "Ethics or morality is a code of values to guide man's [sic] choices and actions," the choices and actions which determine the course of one's life. The latter statement sounds like one of perhaps numerous reasonable ways to formulate a basic idea of what ethics is. We still have the issue of what ethics is for - why we need a code of values. What is the code of values there to accomplish?
Four possibilities are mentioned in the title of this blog entry. They are often thought to be synonymous or near-synonyms, but as in many philosophical endeavors we must tread carefully.
We should, first off, know how or whether to distinguish these four concepts. Second, we should examine whether any of these are very plausibly the purpose of ethical endeavor. As we might discover, these two questions are very likely closely intertwined.
For one thing, we already have the problem of whether any of these four concepts serve as a basis for ethical conduct. In a theistic worldview, are they? In a theistic worldview, the primary source of ethical obligation is behaving in accordance with the divine will. The divine will may very well be for us to achieve these four things or some combination of them, but the primacy here lies not with what we seek but with what the divinity wills. That would concern the foundation of ethics (more or less the subject of "meta-ethics" as I understand the term, and which includes the study of the meaning of moral terminology itself), as distinct from the content of ethics (or "normative ethics," i.e., the study of what we should actually do). In any case, bringing a theistic worldview into the arena of discussion already brings some complications. The complications probably multiply in enough ways to occupy moral philosophers for a very large amount of time. Then again, perhaps, the complications arise from barking up the wrong tree and matters could be simplified in some way. (A debate about this could be yet another complicating factor, etc.)
Another problem is raised by ethical theories in the general vicinity of Kantianism or stoicism, or perhaps a number of non-Western ethical theories. (My own understanding of non-Western philosophical traditions needs plenty of beefing up. I be ignorant of some things.) Such views challenge the notion that it's happiness that is the proper object of moral conduct. Sure, happiness is a desirable condition of being, but what's the tie to ethics? Is it what talk of ethical conduct reduces to? How do we establish that? Isn't ethics about doing the right thing? ("What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski?" "Dude." "Huh?" "Uh, I don't know, sir." "Isn't it being prepared to do what is right, whatever the cost. Isn't that what makes a man?" "Sure, that and a pair of testicles." "You're joking, but perhaps you're right." "Mind if I smoke a jay?") If we make ethics something other than about doing the right thing, are we engaged in some fallacy of reasoning? To perhaps caricature stoicism, should we take virtue to be its own reward? If being virtuous is satisfying in its own right, does that make virtue or the satisfaction the primary justification for ethics?
Ethics is about doing the right thing, though that's a logical truism, a tautology. Does it actually tell us anything? Can we appeal to something other than (what in the end amounts to) an empty truism? Can the language of pursuit-of-happiness map exactly onto the language of ethics?
I list the four concepts in the title heading in alphabetical order because I don't know whether any of them should be assigned any obvious priority over the others. We should be very much prepared to define and distinguish (if need be) these concepts so that we can see what their relation to right conduct (if any) is. Is ethical conduct aimed at these things? Are these things not sought directly but rather emerge as a consequence or side-effect of right conduct? Is one (or more) of these things properly understood upon analysis to be, by its very nature, that in which right conduct consists?
Does virtue lead, necessarily or otherwise, to happiness? Is it necessary much less sufficient for happiness?
Is all this verbiage simply old wine in a new bottle?
So, what are these four widely-desired and perhaps-synonymous end states?
I'll start the answer-process by noting that Norton does not identify eudaimonia with happiness as is traditionally done, but rather with a condition and feeling attendant upon self-actualization. It is a distinct condition or feeling in its own right, and intrinsically rewarding in itself, without being reduced to talk of other things save (I think) for self-actualization. I'm not sure whether Norton precisely identifies eudaimonia with self-actualization but his linking the two concepts so closely raises important issues. Self-actualization is what it is to actualize one's potentialities; Norton also speaks of the daimon within as being a potentiality to be actualized and in so doing links up ancient ideals of perfection (or telos or completion or wholeness) with modern humanistic psychology which speaks of self-actualization in terms of a hierarchy of needs with the most advanced human-specific needs (aesthetic, spiritual, cognitive - if we are in the mood to echo Hegel's "art, religion, and philosophy" triad) at the apex. Now, presumably, to actualize one's human (and individually-distinct) potentialities is what it is to satisfy one's needs on the Maslow hierarchy. But what is the connection if not synonymy here? Can we imagine someone actualizing his or her potentialities but not fulfilling all human needs in full, or not being happy, or not achieving a condition of well-being?
And what is well-being? How do we define that, and without hopeless circularity arising somewhere? In much widespread usage, happiness is defined roughly as an enduring life-satisfaction, which is a qualitative psychological state which "quality of life" measures attempt to capture quantitatively with some measure of success. But is quality of life what we mean by happiness, or is it more than just psychological satisfaction? Is quality of life what we mean by well-being? Is one's quality of life maximized when self-actualization occurs? Is that what we ultimately mean by eudaimonia? Is eudaimonia something that can be measured; can we take a quantitative approach with such a concept? Is it about maximization or about something that either is or isn't, with its achievement being non-quantitatively and intrinsically rewarding?
The master dialectician, Aristotle, was cautious about stating the relation between virtue and happiness. He said that the aim of ethics is happiness (well, eudaimonia, which translators have consistently translated as "happiness," and where happiness involves a full array of goods) and that this is connected in some way with the idea of fulfilling our function (actualizing a potentiality, perhaps, though the meaning of these phrases may be distinct). He then recognized that virtue is not sufficient for happiness but that happiness requires good fortune, those things which are not within our full control the way our characters are but which affect our happiness nonetheless. He then also describes how virtue is something sought for its own sake, not merely as a means to happiness, but rather more like something that constitutes happiness at least in the respects we have direct control over. It would appear, then, that being virtuous in character in Aristotle's sense is that aspect of attaining happiness which is under our control and therefore that which we ought to pursue whatever our fortunes or misfortunes may be. Is this the right way of lining happiness-talk up with virtue-talk? Is it the best we can do, as empirically messy as it might sound? Did Aristotle have something else in mind assuming a more rigorous interpretation?
The empirical messiness about the relation of virtue and happiness (or eudaimonia, or self-actualization, or well-being?) creates intellectual discomfort in many. It doesn't have the sound of definitive firmness we get from "Ethics is about doing the right thing," as empty as that sounds but as much as it informs "commonsense intuition" about right conduct. (Here ethical intuitionists jump in with their meta-ethical interpretation. More on that in due course....)
I think there may be something more to Norton's idea of "the goal of conduct" than to the standard interpretation of Aristotle's. Norton doesn't concern himself as much with the empirically-contingent or messy (maybe it's not really that messy?) relation between virtue and happiness. Virtue has to count as sufficient for something in its own right, if we are to non-messily line up virtue-talk with the deliverances of "commonsense intuition." Under some definition of self-actualization (or eudaimonia, or quality of life, or even of happiness?), is virtue sufficient for it? Is what we as humans "are meant to do" to actualize ourselves in terms of what we ourselves directly control - our character - such that progressive or ongoing actualization of that potentiality is what constitutes (fill in the term for The Good here)? Would that explain how eudaimonia in Norton's sense is intrinsically rewarding? This sounds perhaps like a reconciliation of Aristotle and the stoics on the question of virtue and its reward. How plausible is it, though, and is it plausible enough to command universal assent from humans of all traditions? That would be a pretty tall order. But I think there's something about it that strikes at some deeply important moral truth. It doesn't commit us to the problem stated more or less as: "Happiness is the aim of ethical conduct but ethical conduct doesn't guarantee happiness, so where does that leave us?" Self-actualization also means the actualization of all human potentialities - cognitive, emotional, spiritual, etc. - which arguably under a proper interpretation includes - exhaustively - all the things we have to say about right moral conduct. (We'd have here something like a process of elimination - name something that "commonsense/folk moral wisdom" indicates is right and we end up not finding any counterexamples to what self-actualization entails. Norton has many of these things covered under such headings as "the social entailments of self-actualization" and "love and congeniality of excellences." Gewirth in Self-Fulfillment incorporates a principle of generic consistency (or PGC) which he argues arise from a dialectically-necessary process of reasoning about action) which leads to principles of rights and respect for people's freedom/autonomy/self-direction and of their well-being/self-fulfillment. The moral bases get rather comprehensively covered here.)
What I think is fundamentally Aristotelian in all this, has to do with the primary action involved that constitutes the progressive or ongoing actualization of human potentiality: the utmost exercise of our human capacity for reason and thought, our intellect, in its full implications, as our guiding or regulating principle in living. I sense a converge with Kantian bases of ethical conduct as well.
If we take these two giants of moral philosophy, Aristotle and Kant, and identify the fundamental similarities they converge upon, it is their deep reverence for the human capacity for reason. In its full implication, the utmost exercise of our capacity for reason will entail acknowledging the rightful role of emotion (among other important features of the human condition) in our conscious living. That seems to be of supreme moral importance to right conduct, to human living, to meaning-of-life questions, at least as far as the Western moral tradition goes. Can it be understood in a more universal way, not exclusive to the West - something that everyone everywhere can relate to intimately?
I think it goes something like this: What it is to be human - understood in terms of human potentiality - is what prompts moral conduct in us, i.e., what motivates us morally speaking to actualize that potentiality (those potentialities common to all humans and those that are individuating and distinctive to the person). "What it is to be human" determines the sort of conduct appropriate for such. This raises yet another question: What is it to be human? What are our human potentialities? We possess the capacity for reason, for emotion, for love and for hate, for violence and for peace, for health and for sloth, for kindness and for greed, for creativity and for laziness, and on and on. How do we pick out something like reason, something that is distinctive to humans but also not the only thing about humans? Opposable thumbs are also distinctive to humans, but what does that mean for right conduct? Exercising one's opposable thumbs can be used for activities traditionally regarded as right as well as for wrong. Exercising emotion can lead to much sensitivity but also to thoughtlessness and emotionalism. And how about reason? What does exercising reason lead to? Reason can be used as an instrument to construct a nuclear bomb with the aim of flattening a non-threatening city. But what about reason in its full implication? Can it say, without begging the relevant questions, that doing so would hinder our own self-actualization? The argument is that exercising our capacity for reason and/or emotion will instill us with empathy and a sense of respect for the freedom of others to use their own minds for their own ends. So, how do we show that rather than it being an ad hoc justification for existing beliefs and practices? How do we determine that people using their intellectual capacities to the utmost will behave as Aristotle did and not as Michael Corleone did? (And let's not forget that Don Corleone had a code of behavior such that "rats get what's coming to them.") The intuition is there but the path of justification is not so obvious.
There's a doctrine of "refined" desire going back to the ancients which speaks in terms of right desire and action as those desires and actions a person would have and take if they are well-informed. Say that a philistine takes pleasure in base things (we assume a knowledge here of what is base) and so considers him or herself happy. But are they really happy? Do they only think they are happy? Or, to make it more interesting: If they are happy, wouldn't they like to know if there's a way that they could be even more happy? One would think that, quite naturally, they would like to know that. And so moral philosophy is (or would appear to be) up and running. There could be no argument against people wanting to be as well-informed as they can reasonably be (given time constraints, etc.), which therefore requires a life of disciplined inquiry into the true, the good, the beautiful, etc. A person of refined taste will therefore be in a much better position from which to assess "quality of life," to take pleasure and find happiness in better things, etc. We should therefore like to seek - as a means that also constitutes the end of the good life - a life of learning, of knowledge, of understanding, etc., i.e., a life of wisdom-loving. We have here very much a "classical" idea about virtue and the good life. And if we live "the life of the mind" we are presumably more inclined toward science and less inclined toward violence. It just goes with the territory, doesn't it? But how about the Buddhist or some variety or other of Eastern mystic that insists that our aim is best secured by disengaging from attachments and from the ego, with an accompanying vision of human nature or what it is to be human? How is that reconciled with these considerations about living the life of the mind? (They do have to use the mind in order to convince us that their route to serenity is right, but the end result they seek isn't one defined by "using one's intellect to the utmost," at least as I quite-inadequately understand it.) We would, after all, like to know if there are principles of living that command universal appeal. Perhaps the Buddhists have hit upon some very important truths of the matter but could use some revision, amendment, or fusion with the classical/Aristotelian ideal of intellect-worship.
So where have we gotten with all this? At the least, I think we have at least a slightly better picture of what considerations we need to deal with and of how to proceed. We started out with a listing of some key concepts in moral theory centering around "quality of life" and proceeded to a semi-detailed discussion of "what it is to be human," and certainly these things are connected. (At the very least, how do we know about quality-of-life without knowing what-it-is-to-be-human? Surely the latter has to have some bearing on the former.) Is moral theory "about" how we go about tying these ideas together in a non-messy, logically-necessary way? Logical necessity can be quite the tall order, but it sounds like a challenge worth taking up. For one thing, we could specify that "quality of life" for humans takes on a distinctly moral meaning, i.e., that we can't separate talk of a person's quality of life from talk of the quality of the person's character. That would indicate that "happiness" as it is widely understood doesn't give us a logically-compelling association with "doing what is right." This provides us with at least a couple options: Enrich our conception of happiness to something other than that which is widely understood (to one more along the lines of the ancients, where virtue is central to the picture and where one takes pleasure in "higher" things), or figure out a different basis or aim, besides happiness, for moral behavior. And what about this nebulous-sounding concept, "perfection"?
To be continued....