I’m writing to you about the old is-ought thing.  Years ago, in the Q&A period after a lecture I heard you give at a university I was then attending, you replied to someone who said that we can’t get an “ought” from an “is” – you argued that on the contrary, descriptive premises do have evaluative conclusions:  A “good” eye sees, and a “bad” eye doesn’t.  Since good is to be done, one should fix the bad eye.

But it seems to me that the goodness of a good eye is not moral goodness like the goodness of a good man.  We mean only that it does what we want it to do.

I don’t actually deny a connection between what “is” and what “ought” to be done.   I just don’t think you can connect them without bringing in premises about God’s will.



It’s true that the adjective “good” means something different for eyes than for people.  But are you so sure these two senses of “good” have no relation?

In a seminal article in 1952, the philosopher Peter T. Geach pointed out that there is a difference between predicative and attributive adjectives.  The adjective “red” is predicative; it means the same thing no matter what kind of thing we are talking about.  By contrast, the adjective “fast” is attributive; what it means depends on what kind of thing we are talking about.

The evaluative adjective “good,” like the adjective “fast,” is attributive, because its meaning depends on the kind of thing we are talking about – just as we mean something different when we call a rocket “fast” than when we call a little boy who is running “fast,” so we mean something different when we call a sandwich “good” than when we call a medicine “good.”  However, the applicability of the word “good” doesn’t depend merely on what we want something to do – it depends on the function or proper work of the thing.  Since even if I don’t care about seeing, the proper work of an eye is to see, a good eye is one that sees well.  Since even if I don’t like sports, the proper work of a soccer ball is to be suitable for playing soccer, a good soccer ball is one that has the qualities requisite for the game.

To apply this teleological analysis to the goodness of a human being, we must know what a human being’s proper work may be.  Can we get anywhere with this question?  I think so.  As Aristotle rightly tells us, the proper work of a human being is living well and doing well; it means the appropriate exercise of his powers.  This means pre-eminently his highest, rational powers, which in turn regulate his lower ones.  In the practical realm, the argument leads us to the conclusion that a human being must live in accordance with the virtues.  But as Thomas Aquinas points out, in the still higher, contemplative realm, it leads to the conclusion that a human being must come to see God, not just through words and images, but as He is in Himself.

Now we aren’t naturally endowed with the power to see God as He is in Himself.  On the other hand, we are naturally endowed with the potentiality to receive from Him the grace which makes this possible.  Therein is the overflowing joy of the blessed.

As you see, I agree that God belongs in the picture – but perhaps we mean different things by this.

For I don’t think I need to say “God commands P” or “God forbids Q” just to talk with someone about whether something is good or whether we are living well.  But of course, if the conversation about living well lasts long enough, eventually it will be difficult not to talk about Him, since He is the author of what it is to live well, and none of the finite goods of this world are enough.

Subsequent give and take:

“Is the intellectual vision of God in His essence the same as glorifying God and enjoying Him forever?”

I would say it is a good description of what we are doing when we are glorifying Him and enjoying Him forever.

“As a telos, though, isn’t the vision of God pretty vague?”

In this life, certainly our mental images of God are vague, since we don’t perceive Him directly with our minds.  But God in His own being is not vague.  St. Paul says that now we see in a mirror darkly, but then, we will see face to face, knowing as we are known.  That doesn’t sound vague to me.  And even now, when we do not yet see God Himself, we can say a lot about Him without a bit of vagueness.  For example, He exists; He is the origin of all good; there is only one of Him; He is not composed of other things; and He is the Creator of all that is.

“Isn’t there a difference between judging character, judging conduct, and judging a whole life?”

Of course.

“But isn’t it the case that Aristotle provides materials only for judging a life as a whole?”

To me that doesn’t seem to be at all what he says.  True, he says we can’t tell whether a man has been happy until his life has been completed.  But we can certainly say that this or that act conduce or detract from his flourishing.

“So would you call yourself a virtue ethicist?”

If the question is whether I think any reasonable account of the moral life has to deal with the virtues, then yes.  But if by “virtue ethics” you mean an approach that tries to get along without ever mentioning any rules -- this really is how some people use the term – then I think it is absurd.

“But doesn’t MacIntyre teach that virtues are always relative to practices?”

In his later work, Alasdair MacIntyre explicitly contradicts this view.  For example, he does think the virtue of honesty is “internal” to the practice of speech – but he also regards speech, undertaken with a view toward reaching agreement in the truth, as a universal human practice, universally necessary for human flourishing.  It isn’t something we can take or leave, like the practice of baking corn muffins.

“But aren’t the virtues always relative to roles?  For example, couldn’t ruthlessness be a virtue for a soldier?”

Someone who willingly does what is intrinsically evil so that good will result may be a “good” assassin, but he is neither a good man nor a good soldier.  Of course he will seem a good soldier if you view good soldiering as mere efficiency at killing, but not if you view war the way Augustine viewed it.  The purpose of a just war, he observed, is to bring about rightly ordered peace.  Thus the principles of just war are not criteria for when you may commit atrocities, but criteria for avoiding them – and a good soldier will observe them.

“When we get right down to it, isn’t the nature of the virtues vague?”

I don’t think so.  For example, it’s pretty clear that fortitude is a virtue, that it requires choosing the right action in perilous situations, that that the disposition to do it is acquired by repeatedly doing it, that it is opposed by cowardice on one hand and rashness on the other, and that we need wisdom to discern the difference.

True, fortitude doesn’t always require the same choice.  Sometimes the right thing is to advance toward the danger; sometimes to retreat from it.  But that doesn’t make fortitude “vague” any more than trying to stay alive while crossing the street is “vague” just because it’s not always safe to cross.

“If you think they are precise, then do you deny the need for judgment?”

You are confusing questions like whether we can say precisely what a virtue is, and whether there is a right answer to the question “May I do this?”, with the question of whether I can reach that right answer without exercising judgment.  Of course I need judgment, because I can’t program a computer to tell me who has courage, or whether in a given situation courage requires holding my position or advancing.  Even so, those who do have courage usually agree pretty closely about which deeds are cowardly and which ones are rash.

“But don’t you agree that at least the way people talk about the virtues is vague these days, for example in the public school system?”

Oh, yes, and sometimes worse than vague.  People say a lot of vague things about quantum mechanics too.  So what?  It isn’t vague in itself, and the math seems to be pretty well understood by those whose business is to understand it.  Quantum physicists speak in terms of probabilities, but “P will happen with probability Q” is very different from saying “Who knows whether P will happen?”  Similarly, “The courageous choice avoids both rashness and cowardice” is very different from saying “Who knows what courage is?”

“But surely you don’t think that we can make a list of virtues that everyone should have, do you?”

Sure I do.  What’s wrong with the classical list, justice, fortitude, temperance, wisdom, faith, hope, and charity?  To make the list complete, of course, we should include not only each of the four cardinal and three spiritual virtues, but also the “parts” or subordinate virtues of each one.  The virtue of patience, for instance, is a subordinate virtue of fortitude; the virtue of honoring parents, of the virtue of justice; and the virtue of modesty, or the virtue of temperance.

“But even if you think we can list them, you don’t imagine that we can describe them without crippling ambiguity, do you?”

I’m afraid I do.  Thomas Aquinas did a superior job of this.  For starters, look here.  I’ve written about his analysis here.

“But how could you suggest that goodness lies in superficially good rules and virtues instead of in fellowship with others and walking with God?”

What a false alternative!  I don’t think goodness lies in rules and virtues instead of in human fellowship and walking with God; I think the rules and virtues are norms for human fellowship and walking with God.  I would also deny that virtues like charity and justice, and rules like being faithful to our spouses, are only “superficially” good.  True, some marital counselors tell people that a little adultery might be good for their marriages.  I would tell such a counselor that he didn’t have a clue about marital love.

Perhaps in calling rules like being faithful to our spouses merely “superficially” good you mean something different -- that someone might follow them for bad motives.  If I am faithful to my wife not because I love her with the love of charity, but only so that I won’t get caught cheating, then yes, my motive is stained and I cannot please God.  But for this-worldly purposes, we should sometimes be grateful even for bad motives.  Maybe the only reason Dad sticks with Mom instead of having an affair with his secretary is that he doesn’t want a bad reputation.  Then he is not an admirable man, but the children will still be better off.

“But the pagans thought they were virtuous too.  Doesn’t that cast doubt on what you say?”

From the fact that a lot of people and a lot of nations think themselves more virtuous than they are,  how does it follow that there isn’t any truth about virtue to be found?  What really follows is that the vice of self-righteousness is widespread.  A lot of people and a lot of nations have also thought the earth is flat.  Does it follow that there is no truth to be found about the shape of the earth?

I find enormous insight in St. Augustine’s wonderful analysis of how the glittering glory of the pagans was not true virtue, as they thought it was, but only a vice masquerading as virtue.  But I also take seriously his teaching that there really is such a thing as virtue, that it is necessary for the right ordering of our loves, and that we ought to practice it.  Don’t let your judgment be paralyzed by the fact that some people judge badly.

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We seem to be pretty far apart, but this will have to close our exchange for now.  Thank you for writing.  I assure you that I haven’t neglected these things.