Philosophy against Misosophy


Nature, Contemplation, and the One


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In June of this year, James O'Meara, a former student of the late John N. Deck, gave me a copy of following unpublished paper in typescript.  I postponed making it available here, however, until Father Lawrence Dewan, O.P., a friend of the author, had a chance to confer with the Deck family.  This was among the unpublished papers to which he gave the nod to post.

Anthony Flood

October 20, 2006



Good and Evil Revisited

John N. Deck

Since its publication ten years ago, Richard Taylor’s Good and Evil [New York, Macmillan, 1970] has become for many what it was proclaimed to be then, a “new direction” in ethics.  It seemed able to lead ethicians and students of ethics out of the morass of the recent past (which for others to be sure is still the present).  Its point-of-departure was not the most recent round of journal articles, but the ethical classics (at least, some of them) of the Western tradition.  It was ethics rather than metaethics or the linguistics of ethics.  It began with “Ethics and Human Nature” and ended, fittingly, with “The Meaning of Life.”  The time was ripe, and it is not strange that the book should have been taken seriously ever since, or that it should be used so extensively as a textbook or a semi-textbook.

It is then remarkable that Taylor’s book represents so slight an advance over the type of thinking from which it proposes to emancipate us. It fights free of typical twentieth-century Anglo-American concerns only to fall back to their primitive bases: Kant, and a Hume-inspired ethical atomism.  It struggles in a way to free itself of these too, but it does not succeed.

In what follows, I shall not offer a complete critique of Good and Evil, but only to display it in its un-thought-through engagement with KRV vs. KPV and with “one good is as good as another good.” To begin with, Taylor handles the overridingly important “nature of the good” question in such a way that he remains caught up in the old Kantian (and ever-since-Kantian) fact-value dichotomy (even though in other connections he can be sharply critical of Kant).

Very early on (p. 9) Taylor distinguishes between “moral rationalism” and “moral voluntarism”. “Moral rationalism” as he takes it seems to be an attempt to talk about the good without recognizing that the good is the object of desire. Although Taylor tries to connect this position with Plato, I would say that if it is anyone’s it is Kant’s—but I do not wish to pause at this stage to “defend” any “historical” Plato. In opposition to this “moral rationalism”, Taylor announces himself a “moral voluntarist.” He understands—and here he would remind one of Aristotle or Aquinas—that the good is that which is desired. No desire, no good. He also understands that men, and for that matter brute animals as well, are conative beings. They strive for ends. He takes this, quite rightly, to be a fact about men. He even almost realizes that at this point he has gotten beyond the fact-value distinction.

He almost realizes it, because he seems not to appreciate what he himself has said—he does not know that he knows what he knows. Someone who says that it is a fact that men strive for goals is announcing that he is aware that men strive for goals. One would expect from this person a description, however shallow, of “goal-directed activity”. And Taylor indeed provides this later, as we shall see. This sort of thing could be deepened into a philosophical anthropology, or, if you like, an ethics. And Taylor sort of does this, too.

But he does not know what he is about. After establishing the fact of value, he can say,

Reason, by itself, can make no distinction whatever between what is good and what is not. Reason can only, and within limits, see what is so, and can never declare whether it ought to be so. (p. 14)

He has forgotten, or more properly, he never grasped that he himself has put “what is good” among the “what is so’s” that reason can see. His own statement on the same page, “the original goodness of something consists simply in its being desired, and the evil of any state of affairs consists simply In its frustration of desire” is a distinction which reason is making between what is good and what is not. To say that reason cannot make this distinction “by itself” can mean only that it cannot make this distinction without knowing the good (the desired) and the evil (the undesired). And so it can’t, any more than it can make the distinction between dog and cat without knowing dogs and cats.

But Taylor is just not at home with his own insight, the fact of value. Further on in his book, he wrestles with the theme again, with little more success. He asks us to imagine a world in which there are no striving beings (and by this time he has seen the connection between striving and life). There would be no good-and-evil in such a world. Yes. Good-and-evil emerge only with striving beings. Surely. But notice what Taylor concludes from this:

Good and evil, as such, form no part of the framework of nature, as do darkness and light, for vie have seen that they would find no place whatever in a world devoid of any living thing. At the same time, however, they do result, in a perfectly natural way, from certain facts of human nature that are evident to anyone . . . (p. 146, italics mine)

By exactly parallel “reasoning”, living things form no part of the framework of nature, for we have seen that they would find no place whatever in a world devoid of any living thing! Butchers form no part of the framework of society, for we have seen that they find no peace whatever in a society devoid of butchers? Something is badly wrong here. That the framework of nature would not include what it does include if it didn’t include it, is no excuse for not recognizing the presence of human nature (as well as plant and brute animal nature) within the framework of nature, and that which results from human nature, good and evil, as also within the framework of nature. And, of course, if within the framework of nature, in principle knowable and judgeable by intelligence, or “reason”, as Taylor likes to call it.

As Taylor does not see that he has included the what-is-good in the what-is-so, so also he does not appreciate that he has discovered an actual hierarchy of goods. When he takes a look at desires, when he embarks, that is, on his rational description of the desire-world, he is prevented from seeing fully what he sees by the pernicious operation of rational egalitarianism. Desires are desires. Goods are goods. He can talk as though he had no notion of an order of goods and desires. Thus, on p. 134:

Goodness, itself, it has been suggested, is simply the satisfaction of needs and desires, or what can generally be described as the fulfillment of purposes. The greatest good for any individual can be nothing but the total satisfaction of his needs, whatever these may be. William James expressed the same idea by saying that the greatest good for an individual would be the satisfaction of every claim that he makes, the moment he makes it.

And again on p. 136:

The mere fact that a desire exists, that something is wanted, or that something is regarded as a goal, entails that the desire should be fulfilled or the goal achieved; that is to say, that such satisfaction would be a good for him who wants it. It matters not in the least what the desire is. It might be, as James expressed it, a desire for ‘anything under the sun’.

What a picture! The atomic desires and the atomic goods, each just a desire and just a good, all on a par—the only way to bring them together an additive totalization.

But this is not exactly Taylor’s picture. In a way, he knows better. Sandwiched in between the two quotations just given, he can say, “Beyond a few basic desires that are commonly shared, such as the almost universal desires for life, love, approbation and so on, together with the elementary desires for nourishment, physical comfort, and the like, men have all sorts of different aims and purposes, both great and trivial.” (p. 135, italics mine)

The “basic”, the “elementary”, the “great”—what is basic, elementary, or great about them unless as they are superordinate (the “basic” and the “great”) or subordinate (the “elementary”) to other desires? And if this is the case, cannot reason notice that some goods are better than others and that the desires which are for the better are the better desires? Or better, has not reason, in speaking through Taylor, already noticed this, but not realized that it has done so?

It is fascinating to watch Taylor go on, half-knowing by this time the superordinate goal:

There is, moreover, one general purpose that every man normally has, and that is the preservation of himself and the enhancement of his well-being in numberless ways. There is, perhaps, no metaphysical reason why any beings should be of this nature, but it is a fact that men are. Their activity is directed toward this persisting goal, and, together with it, to numberless subordinate goals that are exceedingly diverse from one man to another. (p. 147)

The general purpose, the persisting goal. Could I suggest, the purpose that most fulfills the nature of purpose, the goal which most satisfies the requirements of goal? Or, in language which Taylor would never use, the purposier purpose, the goalier goal, in short, the “goodest good”, the best. Known by intelligence, known even by Taylor. The other goals are subordinate to it (his very word). That is, less goaly, less good, worse.

But all this, standing ready to be seen in the very words used, is not seen. So I, to speak only for myself, get a rude jolt when I read on from the above:

And it is just in the light of this fact that men drew the distinction between good and evil in the first place.

What fact? I would have thought, the fact that every man normally has this general purpose, this persisting goal, so that what conduces to this could be seen as good, what detracts from it as evil, etc., etc. But this is not the fact that interests Taylor here. All that he sees with full consciousness in the above quote is the dead-level fact that there are desires. And so he can go on, in a stale repetition of what he has said already, with no dialectical advance:

A man regards those things as good which satisfy his conative nature, and bad, those which frustrate it . . . the distinction between good and evil could never have occurred to a race of beings incapable of pursuing any ends, etc. etc.

Although the observation may seem to transcend the simple criticism of Taylor, it is highly important for the well-being of moral philosophy to mention here that “self-preservation” is worth pursuing philosophically. Taylor has happened upon something that he might have made much of. The self as what (e.g., as a vegetable, as a TV viewer, as a man of honor, as a knower?) Preservation—Dead-level preservation? Even for Taylor, presumably not, for he mentions well-being in the next breath. So what is well-being for a man? Etc. etc. If those questions were pursued, it is quite possible that one would begin to reproduce something quite like Plato and Aristotle (or Aquinas and Hegel, or many others). Human “self-preservation” (which would demand self-enhancement) as a thinker and knower might turn out to be the “goaliest goal”—the object of desire having most the nature of object of desire. This is to say that the good is surely that which is desired, but perhaps what is really desired is knowledge. This position might seem to Taylor “moral rationalism” rather than “moral voluntarism.”  But it takes full account, and indeed bases itself on what is at the root of his “voluntarism”: “the good is that which all things desire”; “the good is being as desirable.”

This present criticism of Taylor, is, at any rate, not the suitable place for pursuing this line further. I wish only to indicate that a thinking-through of the implications of “self-preservation” and “enhance-ment of well-being” might take directions that Taylor little guesses. And he, at any rate, can have no systematic objection to a philosophy which would eventually tell us what is man’s “goaliest goal,” or what man is really pursuing, whether he knows it or not.  Taylor himself has his own candidate for this position, as we will see soon enough.

So it would seem for Taylor, for much of his book, desires are just desires. They can be for “anything under the sun” (as he says in several places, quoting with approval William James). Reason just barely notes the desires, if that. (As we have seen, it notes their natural ordering, too, but does not realize that it notes this.) There seems no room in his philosophy for the more-desirey desire, for the more real desire, for that which is desired even when we think we desire something else. But no! Taylor’s impotent reason, which he calls, following Hume, “the slave of the passions,” proves able to tell us what we truly desire, though, as usual, not seeing that it is telling us this.

Taylor’s summum bonum is Love: “to be a warmhearted and loving human being.” Now this is, according to him, what men need even though they do not know that they need it.  Do I misinterpret him when I say that he displays it as the rationally discovered object of desire?

“To be a warm-hearted and loving human being” (p. 255)  “Love”, in a word. This is what we really need. “All ya need is luv, luv is all ya need.” Taylor could not be more explicit:

The goodness of the ideal I have portrayed consists simply in this and cannot be anything else. It entirely fulfills the need that men, as men and not as animals, naturally have, and this remains true even for those who may not know it.

But this is a truth that can only be said. To be shown, there must be eyes that can see it  (p. 251).

So the good is seen, is known after all. Not only the good, but the really good, the truly good, which is not always (to put it mildly) seen at first glance, but into which reason has after all penetrated. Taylor is not really a “voluntarist”—if anyone is. He is just someone who does not know that he knows what he knows.

But when Taylor has finally discovered, malgre lui, that goods are not equal, and has proposed a candidate for the time-honored role of summum bonum, egalitarianism shows up again to pervert his conclusion. Love, for him, is a “rejoicing in existence.” Things, and other persons, are loved “for the same reason one loves oneself, namely, because they are there.”  A rejoicing in existence, but any old existence:

It extends to things both trivial and great and need not even make much distinction between these, because the existence of things is not something that admits of degrees. Thus one can love, in the sense that I am suggesting, not only another person, but a sunset, a flock of migrating geese, and even the pebbles and insects at one’s feet (p. 250).

So the summum bonum is just to love anything (and, one would suppose, many things) while never knowing (or forgetting?) that some are better, and so more loveable, than others. Not much of a summum bonum, you will say, but with it Taylor returns to the misconceptions which have plagued him all along: that the good is not known, but only desired, and that desires are equal and goods are equal. And yet he had given so many indications of almost-knowing better!

University of Windsor,

Windsor, Ontario, Canada

Posted October 20, 2006


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