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The Foundation of Ethics

Our moral ideas and sentiments have three sources. The first is the set of desires inherent in our nature, which impel us to eat, drink, congregate, procreate: in general, to continue our physical existence and exercise our inborn faculties. The second is the state of society, which makes necessary certain rules governing our behavior and interactions, in order to maintain society and the goods attainable only in society. The third, and last to develop, is our conscious, explicit attempts to figure out what our proper goals and rules of conduct are.

Why do we need morality? Because we have free will. We do not merely exist, but act, and in acting, are faced with infinite alternative courses of action (or inaction). In order to act, we must choose a course of action; and in order to choose, we need some reason to prefer one course of action to another. Morality is our guide to choosing among these alternatives.

Morality involves two standards: that is to say, it subsumes all of our infinite alternatives into two pairs of alternatives. The first standard, the good (with its converse, the bad), applies to our choices of what goals to pursue (or avoid). The second standard, the right (with its converse, the wrong), applies to our choices of what we should do (or refrain from doing).

Obviously, the two standards are inseparable, and the second is derived from the first: because the goals we pursue determine how we should act (in order to obtain and enjoy our goals). All action is aimed at some object; even inaction is usually purposeful (i.e. rest, which prepares us for future action).

The concept "good" applies to all living beings, and only to living beings, because life is the only form of existence that has potential. Dead matter simply is what it is; it cannot act, it can only be acted on; a lifeless entity can be changed or destroyed, but cannot grow or reproduce itself. A living entity contains in itself a pattern, however simple, which it seeks, by whatever means in its power, to realize and replicate. The fulfillment of this pattern is the good of that living thing; anything that impedes such fulfillment is bad for it.

The concept "right" applies only to human beings, since only human beings have to consider and choose between alternative courses of action. A plant raises its leaves to the sun, probes the earth with its roots, produces its seeds, all automatically; an animal hunts or forages, avoids predators, mates and bears its young, all in accordance with instinct. Only we have to discover what is good for us, and how to obtain it. Thus, ethics concerns the good of human beings only.

Our good, like the good of every other living thing, is determined by what we are, i.e. our nature, and what it requires for its fulfillment. Human nature is an innate potential, not an innately fixed character. It does not determine what we will do, but what we can do. It sets for us all a goal -- the full and harmonious realization of our potential -- which determines what we should do. We have certain innate drives, but we need to discover the proper objects of these drives, and the proper way to satisfy them.

So what is "human nature"? What does it mean to be "human"? A complete exploration of these questions lies beyond the scope of one essay, or indeed of many volumes, or the contents of whole libraries. But we do not need to consider every discoverable fact about humanity, even if we could; we only need to identify the essential facts of humanity, which are readily discernable from the common experience of each and all.

A human being is analyzable into three parts: mind, soul, and body. (These parts are only analyzably distinct, and cannot actually exist apart from one another: but to prove this is beyond the scope of the present essay, and does not affect its argument.) Only human beings have minds and souls, although the higher animals seem to have some rudimentary form of consciousness. Each of these parts has its own nature and requirements, therefore its own characteristic good and virtues; but the complete good must be the good for man as a whole.

Food, sleep, sex, etc. are both necessary and good, because they are requirements of man's body. But because man has a soul and mind as well as a body, the pleasures that gratify them as well as his body are more pleasurable than mere bodily pleasures. Romantic love, for example, is more pleasurable than the mere gratification of lust, and a meal enhanced by companionship and conversation is more pleasurable than the mere satiation of hunger.

The mind, or rational faculty, is exercised by thinking and learning. Its good is knowledge, which is experienced as curiosity, the desire for knowledge. Its chief virtues are the commitment to internal consistency in one's thought, and to consistency between thought and experience.

The soul is the emotive-affective-esthetic faculty, which functions as a feedback mechanism between the mind and the body. The soul's fulfillment lies in the variety and intensity of emotive-affective-esthetic experience. Love (in its various forms), art and beauty are the chief goods of the soul. Loyalty, or steadfastness in one's attachments, is the chief virtue of the soul.

The essential goods of the body are health and pleasure. Food and sleep (for example) are requirements for the first, while good-tasting food and sexual gratification are requirements for the second. The main virtues governing our bodily desires are temperance, which prevents overindulgence in real or apparent goods, and fortitude, which bears us through privation of real or apparent goods.

A human being does not naturally exist in isolation. Each of us has two aspects: inward-looking, individual personality, and outward-looking, social participation. These two aspects involve all three parts of a human being. The requirements of the body are served by sexual union and by cooperation in the production of material goods; the requirements of the soul are served by interpersonal attachments of affection and loyalty; and the requirements of the mind are served by education and the cooperative acquisition of new knowledge.

Likewise, no one is just a "human being": except for rare freaks, a person is either male or female. Each sex has its own nature, with its characteristic virtues (and vices). The essential virtues of each are manliness and womanliness: i.e., the full and harmonious realization of one's nature as a man or a woman. The respective natures of the opposite sexes are complementary and mutually dependent. The fulfillment of one's sexuality, and therefore one's nature as a whole, is impossible outside of union with a member of the opposite sex.

One objection to naturalistic ethics is that psychopaths and homosexuals (for instance) are only acting in accordance with their respective "natures." This objection erroneously understands "nature" in terms of what something is, as opposed to what its potential is. As we have seen, the nature of living beings, and especially human nature, must be understood in terms of their potential. Psychopaths and homosexuals are what they are, but they are also, potentially, normal and decent human beings, who have turned from their true, potential nature.

Another objection to naturalistic ethics, recognizing the importance of potential in the understanding of human nature, is that man has the potential to do evil as well as to do good: so that naturalism by itself cannot distinguish between them. This argument, like the previous one, rests on the assumption that good and evil are both "natural" in the same sense; it is answered by the stipulation that the good is the full and harmonious realization of a living being's potential.

The most obvious and indisputable example of this stipulation is that sickness and malformation, while in a certain sense "natural," are bad for the sick or malformed organism. Once again, we must reiterate the all-important distinction between nature as "that which is" and nature as "the potential of life." Simple existence is indeed "beyond good and evil": purpose and value only apply to living nature, and are relative to the specific nature of the living being. So, too, may the good of one organism be bad for another: as between a predator and its prey, or a parasite and its host. It follows that "nature" is not a coherent, harmonious, quasi-divine whole.

Natural "evils" (such as sickness and malformation) are a problem only for theodicy. Within the naturalistic view of things, they are morally indifferent because they are not willed: they are "evil" only in that they are bad for us. The problem for human beings is to overcome natural "evils" through knowledge and control of nature. Not nature, but our use of it, is a matter of good or evil.

What is the source of evil? The very fact that we ask this question, and not what the source of good is, shows that we implicitly recognize that evil is abnormal, a deviation from nature. Evil does not exist in and of itself; it has no separate, metaphysical being or status. What we call "evil" is always something good by nature, which has been turned from its true nature; it is some flaw or defect in the realization of potential.

The source of evil is the disharmony or malformation of natural desires. There are two kinds of evil: idolization -- the error of taking a single, partial good and treating it as the complete good, so that it is swollen out of proportion, and stunts or warps the capacity to enjoy other goods; and perversion -- the error of turning a natural desire toward improper objects.

Food is good: that doesn't mean you should stuff yourself until you weigh 300 pounds. Sex is good: that doesn't mean you should have sexual intercourse with anyone who comes along. Money is good: that doesn't mean you should become Ebenezer Scrooge.

The primary and most obvious sense of "perversion" is, of course, sexual. In this context, the proper goal is union with a mature member of the opposite sex. A sexual fixation on inanimate objects (e.g. women's shoes or underwear, rather than actual women), prepubescent members of the opposite sex, or members of one's own sex, is unnatural and immoral.

All evil comes from human will. We are not born with the knowledge of what is good and bad, right and wrong; and even when we have the knowledge, we still must have the will to seek the good and avoid the bad, do the right and refrain from the wrong.

"Vice" is the habitual tendency towards excess or perversion of a natural desire, and "virtue" is the habitual tendency to fulfill a natural desire to the appropriate extent and with the appropriate object(s). It is important to realize that moral choices are rarely if ever made consciously and deliberately: even if they are, such conscious and deliberate choices are entirely inadequate for the day-to-day conduct of one's life. Moral principles have value only insofar as they are realized in behavior, i.e. made as nearly automatic as possible.

Thus, the struggle to live a good life is primarily a struggle to inculcate the proper habits, and education (in the broadest sense: the molding of a growing child's personality) is the best means to this end. The good life is not entirely within one's own power -- not merely because some necessary good might not be attainable, but because moral behavior itself depends, to a significant extent, on the upbringing one receives before reaching the age of reason. At best, a bad moral education leaves one with a lot of catching up to do (which, given the brevity of human life, is a tragic fate). At worst, one may grow up totally uncivilized and antisocial -- a human predator.

"Happiness" is the enjoyment, in due measure, of all possible goods. It is both a psychological and an ethical concept: it is the state of mind of a virtuous and fortunate person, a person who is flourishing as a human being.

Happiness is not reducible to pleasure, because pleasure can be gotten from things that seem good but are really bad. Intemperate pleasures always bring a literal or metaphorical hangover, and perverted pleasures leave man's real nature unfulfilled. The more intelligent hedonists have always admitted that prudence is necessary to maximize pleasure -- recognizing that the "pleasant" is not merely subjective, but inherent in nature: that is, we take pleasure in certain things because it is our nature to do so. Then, after the concept of "pleasure" is expanded beyond the merely carnal to the spiritual and mental, hedonism is transformed into eudaimonism, i.e. the ethics of happiness as opposed to mere pleasure.

Happiness is relative to the range of goods available, and to the extent that they are available. Given the world as it is, nearly everyone will suffer some privation in some goods; but as long as the satisfactions outweigh the privations, life as a whole is good. And even if the privations outweigh the satisfactions, there is hope as long as life lasts. Life is a constant struggle for realization. Few are those who have no satisfactions whatsoever, or overwhelmingly great privations; and no one is ever so fortunate that he doesn't have to struggle any more -- if only against intemperance.

1999 by Karl Jahn