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Dan Sportiello | Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ethics was born in the struggle against the moral relativism of the Greek sophists — in the struggle to discern right from wrong in a time when such concepts had come to be seen as the impositions of arbitrary will; ethics therefore assumed, all along, that there is a fact of the matter to discern — that there is, in other words, an objective normative order, a purposiveness in things — and in men — independent of what use one would make of them. “For we are debating no trivial question,” Plato reminds us, “but the manner in which a man ought to live.” Each thing, he declares, is fulfilled by a particular good — one determined by its nature. And this is true of men no less than of things: regardless of what one happens to desire, there is some right way for one to live, some proper form of life at which one ought to aim.

The story of philosophy — indeed, the story of civilization — is essentially the story of our long and desperate struggle to awake from this nightmare of the normative — to come to see the world not as purposeful but as mechanical, driven not by desire but by force. We, in our blindness, once took all things to seek their fulfillment: both the heavens above and men below moved, it was thought, out of their own desperate need. Now we see that only we do.

Or so it is said. This account of our history — of our steady emergence from the darkness of ancient delusion into the cold light of modernity — seems inspired by the very teleology that it seeks to reject. Worse, it is comically hyperbolic — or would be, at any rate, were we not witness to a host of philosophers who argue just this: after Machiavelli, Hobbes and Darwin — after Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Foucault — the story of our struggle to awaken to the purposelessness of the world seems downright compelling. But it was not always so.

For how, after all, is one to live? “This might perhaps be given,” Aristotle responds, “if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flautist, a sculptor, or an artist — and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity — the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function.” Yet there is a fatal disanalogy, modernity responded, lurking in this: It is true that a good flautist, sculptor or artist is one who plays the flute, sculpts or paints well, but the only standard of what constitutes skill in these is determined by the will of the one who employs them. But there is no external standard by which to judge that will — which is, therefore, arbitrary. “As eye, hand, foot, and — in general — each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these?” Not at all, modernity answers: Eye, hand and foot have functions only insofar as they can be made to serve the one who commands them. To ask after the function of that one is to misunderstand: It is only because they can be made to serve him that they have a function in the first place. The good is merely the useful — for how can it make sense to serve oneself?

How, after all, is one to live? The question, modernity concludes, is meaningless: the normative ordering of the world — the objectivity of right and wrong independent of arbitrary will — is a delusion. What has only recently become clear, however, is that this realization — if correct — is less heroic than tragic: if there is no objective normative ordering of the world — one independent, that is, of arbitrary will — it becomes difficult, If not impossible, to justify any moral rules whatsoever, as all are revealed as arbitrary imposition. Modern ethicists only gradually awakened to this problem: “either the moral rules were taken to be binding independently of the passions and inclinations or,” MacIntyre argues, “they were taken to be binding in virtue of their relationship to the passions and inclinations. If the former alternative was chosen, it was difficult, and perhaps insuperably difficult, to explain how human beings could be motivated to conform to moral rules, and, if the latter type of account was defended, it was difficult, and perhaps insuperably difficult, to explain how the particular passions and inclinations of an individual could motivate her or him to have the kind of impersonal and universal regard for the persons, interests and needs of others that moral rules enjoin.” And this is, if anything, too charitable.

For without a teleological cosmology — without, that is, an objective normative ordering of the world — it becomes impossible to justify any absolute moral rules: so long as one can get away with breaking such a rule — and there will always be situations in which one can — there is no reason to resist the temptation. But if civilization is built upon the shared acceptance of absolute moral rules — and it always is — then civilization itself becomes impossible. This is the fruit of the philosophical honesty for which Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Darwin — for which Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Foucault — strove so hard: if one would have men go on living in society, one must systematically deceive them as to the nature of the world, convincing them that — somehow — there really is an objectivity to the moral rules that one would have them follow.

A way must be found, it seems, to make sense of teleology after all.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his third year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen to his radio show on Thursdays at 2 p.m. on WVFI. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.