Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Aristotelian Liberalism (3): Generic Goods and Natural Desires

In Liberty and Nature and The Norms of Liberty, Rasmussen and Den Uyl look to a list of generic goods for human life that closely resembles my list of 20 natural desires. Following the lead of Ayn Rand, they appeal to "a biocentric basis for values" (LAN, 46), which suggests that they might agree with my grounding of ethics in the natural desires of human biological nature. I can't be sure of this, however, because they are never completely clear about how exactly they understand the generic goods of life.

The first problem is that they are not clear in their listing of these generic goods. In one passage, they list the generic goods as "sociability, knowledge, leisure, aesthetic appreciation, creativity, moral virtue, health, pleasure, self-esteem, and practical wisdom" (NOL, 79). In a footnote, they write: "We do not think this list necessarily exhaustive. Spirituality, for example, may be added by some." What they say elsewhere suggests that they don't think spirituality or religion belongs on their list. Comparing their list to my list of 20 natural desires, one notices that not only do they not include religious understanding, they do not include parental care or courage in war. I will come back to this in another post.

The second problem is that they are not clear as to how exactly they derive their list of generic goods. In Darwinian Natural Right (29-30), I cite various anthropological, sociological, and psychological studies of human universal motivations as supporting my list of 20 natural desires. I also note that when Aristotle reviews the common opinions of human beings about what is desirable in life, in his Nicomachean Ethics and Rhetoric, he includes the 20 desires on my list. Similarly, when Martha Nussbaum identifies the "basic human functions" or "central human capabilities," she includes the desires on my list.

For Rasmussen and Den Uyl, the primary source for their list of generic goods seems to be Aristotle's Rhetoric. For rhetorical persuasion, the starting point is the common opinions (endoxa) of the audience. Similarly, Rasmussen and Den Uyl explain: "We must start somewhere, and the starting point of an inquiry into the character of human flourishing is with the established opinions, or endoxa, or our society and culture" (NOL, 116). But elsewhere in their writing, they seem to embrace a philosophical rationalism that scorns any rhetorical appeal to common opinions or moral sentiments as the ground for moral experience, particularly in their criticism of Adam Smith's "moral sociology."

And yet, they reject ethical rationalism in recognizing that the human good is inconceivable without reference to human desire. We are not rational beings. We are rational animals. The human function, then, is determined not only by rationality, but also by animality. Human flourishing is not just the flourishing of a mind. "Correctly valuing something is not distinct from desire; rather it is right desire. Thus, only an excessively rationalist conception of human beings would attempt to conceive of flourishing without desire" (NOL,165). They quote Aristotle's remark that "choice is either desiderative reason or ratiocinative desire," and conclude that human flourishing is an object of "both reason and desire" (NOL, 166).

This resembles my argument for an Aristotelian and Darwinian ethics arising from reason and desire--ethics as rooted in natural human desires, as requiring habits of right desire, and as guided by prudential reasoning in judging the contingencies of action.

No comments: