Home » Ethics » The Affective Ground of Natural Goodness

The Affective Ground of Natural Goodness

Tyler Olsson
University of California, Santa Cruz


The concept of Natural Goodness is Philippa Foot’s moral appropriation of Michael Thompson’s analysis of the logical representation of life forms. Campagna and Guevara (C&G) have taken over the concept of Natural Goodness and applied it to their project of developing a new language for conservation in hopes that their application of it in this domain can help bring out what the philosophically empty notion of nature’s “intrinsic value” would otherwise communicate. They think that a new language toward this purpose will help shape our ethical thinking about conservation, and specifically they are interested in a language that can answer morally significant questions like “What is lost when a species goes extinct?” This paper reviews C&G’s project, both their motivations and the details and application of their theory thus far. I then point out that a crucial shortcoming of their work to date is that they have yet to address the issue of how we know, or how we are in touch with the value of Natural Goodness. In other words, what justifies us in claiming that the concept of Natural Goodness carries within it a moral value at all? I suggest that an Aristotelian conception of human virtue points toward affective perceptual capacities as the ground for knowledge of the moral value of Natural Goodness. I connect this to some of the insights put forth by Kant in his third Critique, arguing that the appropriate affective state for being in touch with the moral value of Natural Goodness is the feeling of disinterested pleasure. I consider some potential objections to my appropriation of Kant’s philosophy to this specific end, and I close with a Wittgensteinian word on the limits of language in communicating ethical or moral values generally.1

Introduction

Where instrumentalist language in conservation tends to focus on the commodification of natural habitats, valuing conservation insofar as it is thought to ultimately benefit human beings and their pursuits, language about how nature has “intrinsic value” is far too vague and far too banal to actually move us toward a genuine understanding of what that value is. As such, neither of these concepts are able to provide morally efficacious answers to important questions that occupy space in the background of our thinking about conservation. Some of these questions include “What is lost when a species goes extinct?”, “What is wrong with a form of life being annihilated by the life practices of humans?” and “What makes these considerations important in the first place?” In answering these questions, the instrumentalist line of thought says that a useful economic tool has been lost (assuming that whatever we are talking about was in fact useful); and the intrinsic value line of thought says that what is lost is just that—intrinsic value. But this seems to say nothing at all since it simply reiterates what was already said, without giving us insight to what intrinsic value is, let alone how one is acquainted with it.

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The inability of these two fundamental concepts behind conservation to provide satisfactory answers to these moral questions have prompted C&G to start playing the game of developing a new language for conservation, one that seeks to bring out what the notion of “intrinsic value” would otherwise communicate if it weren’t so philosophically empty.2 To this purpose, C&G have looked to Philippa Foot’s concept of Natural Goodness, which is itself a moral appropriation of Michael Thompson’s analysis of the logical representation of life forms.3 Once we combine Foot with Thompson, the picture we end up with is this: a life-form, or a species, is constituted by categorical necessities, something like a list of features that go into not only the phenotypic, genetic, or other biological understandings of a species, but features that go into a wider context of teleological structures peculiar to living things in general. For example, a bat echolocates, or an oak tree grows deep roots, and therefore it is a part of the Natural Goodness of a bat to echolocate; it is a part of the Natural Goodness of an oak tree to grow deeps roots.

According to C&G’s theory, the Natural Goodness of a life form turns out to be what philosophers call a normative standard, some self-sustaining structure of conditions that we find individuals in nature exhibiting, and it is against this normative structure that we judge individuals as either doing good or bad. If the wing is broken, and it’s not supposed to be like that, then the bird is not doing well. This idea can be traced back at least to Aristotle,4 who thought that things are said to be doing well, or exemplify virtue (arete), when they function well. And there is an important resemblance here to Kant’s analysis of the purposive regularities that we find governing our judgments of beauty and teleology in nature,5 and these will be key ideas, I argue, in assessing the concept of Natural Goodness morally. But I will return to this in a moment.

The important thing to point out now for this introduction is that with respect to the moral questions about conservation mentioned above, what the concept of Natural Goodness allows us to say is that when a life-form is annihilated, it is no longer possible for an individual to instantiate the Natural Goodness of that form; when a life form is annihilated or goes extinct, Natural Goodness is lost. But it does not stop there. If we stopped there, we would be no better off than the advocates for intrinsic value. Rather, when we say that Natural Goodness is lost, what we are thinking about is a long list of necessities that went into a certain way of living: a long list of activities, colors, courtships, songs, ecological relationships, patterns, landscapes, flight, birth, eating, etc. According to this new language game around conservation, instead of having a plethora of specie names with the word “endangered” next to it on, say, the IUCN Red List, we would have a detailed narrative of the Natural Goodness that is at risk of being lost. This way of thinking in effect ought to bring home something that the language of “intrinsic value” cannot by itself. And, moreover, once we consider the extent to which our human life practices, and the concerns that drive them, have a hand in the annihilation of some of this Natural Goodness, we can then ask moral questions about whether or not the loss is essential to our flourishing as human beings. Is the (unnecessary) annihilation of a life-form essential to our Natural Goodness? With this we approach an ethics of nature that is rooted in the ancient notion of virtue.

The theory of Natural Goodness proposed by C&G certainly helps us think about what is lost when a species or a life form goes extinct in a way that is conceptually more robust than the lazy and empty talk of intrinsic value, but it does not yet address the epistemological question of how we know, or how we are in touch with the value of Natural Goodness. But the turn to virtue, I think, is one of the more promising aspects of C&G’s theory in that it gives us what we need to address these questions, although it does not yet explicitly do so.

The epistemological question of value here is not one about the justification we have for drawing inferences about whether or not a given individual is satisfying certain stipulated conditions, i.e. the question is not about whether or not we are justified in judging an individual as living up to the normative standard specific to its kind (does this individual display x, y, z – ?). Nor is the question about whether or not we are justified in saying that this or that feature is part of the essential constitution of some life form (are we really sure that x, y, z are essential, i.e. in the nature of this life form?). Although these are important questions, they are not the questions I am concerned with presently when I speak of the epistemological question of value. The question that concerns me here, rather, is how the concept of Natural Goodness has “intuitive” traction (in the Kantian sense of intuition). How can the value of Natural Goodness be “seen?” How do we apprehend this Goodness? Upon what kind of ground do we stand when we judge life to be good? What faculty connects us to that value?

What I will do in this paper is discuss how an Aristotelian conception of human virtue suggests that the way we apprehend Goodness is through affective perceptual capacities, and I will connect this line of thought to some of the insights Kant lays out in his Critique of the Power of Judgment regarding our judgments of the teleological structures and values of nature. In the context of a language for conservation, what the combination of Aristotle’s and Kant’s philosophy does is it allows us to say that the moral value of Natural Goodness is found not in a disembodied intellectual consideration of the concept alone, but in a perceptual state of feeling that registers the value of that concept. Just as we are acquainted with greenness and other color concepts by visualizing them; and just as we are acquainted with melody and other sound concepts by hearing them; what I want to show is that we are acquainted with Natural Goodness, and perhaps other moral concepts, by feeling them. Important to note, however, is that to perceive or intuit Natural Goodness in a feeling, as I envisage it, is not just a contingent, idiosyncratic “raw-feels.” The feeling I have in mind is thought to be rational and “universal”, in that it is inextricably tied to the concept of Natural Goodness itself.

To this specific purpose, I will review Kant’s analysis of judgment in the third Critique, highlighting how it connects to Aristotle’s understanding of virtue and affective excellence as it relates to natural functions, and I will argue that the purposive-normative structure of teleology found at the base of our judgments of Natural Goodness is identical with the purposive-normative structure Kant argues we find at the base of our judgments of beauty—a judgment whose ground is a “subjectively universal” feeling of disinterested pleasure. Therefore, although the judgment as to whether or not an individual is properly satisfying the conditions that constitute its kind is grounded in the objective teleological concept of “Natural Goodness”, the moral value of this concept will be found in a subjective[ly universal] feeling that marks a certain relationship the one judging has to the natural thing being judged. What this means is that the ground for moral judgments about Natural Goodness are not just logical considerations of the concept, but the concept becomes moral precisely insofar as it is anchored in a feeling. There is a right way to feel toward nature’s forms of life if they are to become morally considerable. And in following the Kantian line of thought, I suggest that the feeling which appropriately puts us in touch with the moral value of Natural Goodness is disinterested pleasure.

Finally, it will be important to see how all of this is connected to a point that Wittgenstein once made about the limits of language in communicating ethical concerns.6 This will shed light on why C&G think it is important to focus on the language of conservation, and moreover, why it is important to understand the development of this language as a game.

My intention here is not just to end up with a story that says “look, nature is beautiful!” or “look, you have to feel it!” Instead I hope to show that we have good reasons to think certain classes of judgment require feelings as their proper ground.

Species and Life Forms

The leading question that drives a new moral language for conservation is “What is lost when a species goes extinct?” As a moral question, we must understand this to be asking about not just what a species is, but what it is in the notion of a species that is valuable. It will be helpful to take these questions in turn.

Related image“Species” is a word we often encounter in biology. In the biological sense, it is used to group certain individuals together based on some criteria of differentiation. De Quieroz7 has helpfully tracked down a multitude of definitions for the word “species”, at least since Darwin, and what we learn from his study is that the many ways in which individuals might be similar enough to each other so as to be classified under the same species name include: phenotypical features, like morphology; geographical location; niche; family lineage; genome; sexual reproduction compatibility. Each of the definitions are useful toward different purposes, both theoretically, and practically for the field biologist. The focus here is on determining the point at which speciation occurs so as to know how to classify, often within a hierarchy of other taxonomic classifications, just where some individual goes, i.e. into what species does this individual fit. The definition of species that one is working with will dictate where the individual in need of classification will go.

Despite the fact that biology is supposed to be the science of life, many definitions of “species” omit a detailed account of what life is. Michael Thompson, in his Representation of Life, recognizes that life is the single most unifying concept across all definitions of “species”, and this inclines him to understand a species as a form of life. It is worth our time to look at how Thompson’s conception of a life form differs from the aforementioned biological conception of species that de Querioz reports on.

Although an individual member of some species would exemplify differences in their biological makeup compared to individuals belonging to other species, the crucial point for understanding how Thompson’s concept of a life form differs from the biological conception of a “species” is that, instead of focusing exclusively on relatively fixed taxonomic criteria, like the biological notions of genetics or DNA—i.e. the fine-grained features of individuals’ internal makeup which change slowly over evolutionary time-periods—the concept of a life form recognizes a “wider context” of temporal and teleological structures that we say are peculiar to living organisms, and which make up the particular characters of different life cycles.

On this point, Thompson says:

If a thing is alive, if it is an organism, then some particular vital operations and processes must go on in it from time to time—eating, budding out, breathing, walking, growing, thinking, reproducing, photo-synthesizing; and it must have certain particular organs or “parts”—leaves, legs, cells, kidneys, a heart, a root, a spine…if any of these things is there, or is happening, then this is not something fixed or determined by anything in the organism considered in its particularity or as occupying a certain region of space. That they are there or happening, and thus that we have an organism at all, presupposes the existence of a certain “wider context”; it is this that stamps these several characters onto things.8

Thompson thinks the “wider context” to species-concepts is captured by what he calls “natural historical” judgments, something that resembles what one might hear a narrator on a PBS special say. For instance, as we watch the (hypothetical) PBS special, and see a family of bobcats come up over a hill, we might hear the narrator say (and I take this example from Thompson), “When springtime comes, and the snow begins to melt, the female bobcat gives birth to two to four cubs. The mother nurses them for several weeks…As the heat of summer approaches, the cubs will learn to hunt.”9 The claims we find in this type of narrative are captured in species-concept sentences like “The bobcat has cubs in the spring, lives among the rocks and the water, eats x, y, and z, etc., etc.”, where the article “the” refers not to an individual but to a class of individuals. The narrative speaks to the species, as it were.

 These canonical expressions take a logical form of “The B has C”, and certainly we could think up a whole variety of “natural historical” judgments that take on this shape, for a whole variety of other creatures and plants. To the extent that most of the statements we could come up with incorporate in the “C” portion of the proposition not only facts about what certain animals eat, what color they are, or what chemicals plants absorb, but also speak to time-sensitive life activities, like when the bobcat tends to have their cubs, or toward what a tree grows and how long it will take to get there, we say that the natural historical judgments that are unique to different life forms (species) reveal a certain teleological structure of life cycles that individuals of that class can play through. The activities that we can judge living things as engaging in, which in part make them distinct from other life forms, take place over a life-time, and these temporal and teleological “happenings” constitute—in some sense—the function of the bobcat, the bear, the bat, the oak tree, the human, etc.

All of this is not to say that we have to give up on the phylogenetic criteria which help us to solve the “hard cases” of speciation in the biological sciences, but once we realize that the very species of creatures and plants that we find in Thompson’s natural-historical judgments are living things, we might find ourselves invited to appreciate those forms of life in a way that we failed to before.

Foot’s Moral Appropriation of Thompson’s Representation of Life

Philippa Foot’s conception of Natural Goodness is a moral appropriation of Thompson’s logic of life,10 and it lends itself to an ethics of nature insofar as it invites us to consider the functions we find in natural-historical judgments of life forms to be normative standards against which we can evaluate individuals as either doing good or bad. In other words, a form of life is a form of normativity that pervades certain regions of nature, and it is in this sense that we say whether or not Natural Goodness obtains.

To say that normativity pervades certain regions of nature means that there are certain ways that things in nature ought to be, certain ways that living things ought to function if we are to justifiably say of them that they are doing well. The idea can be traced back all the way to Aristotle’s virtue ethics, and it is implicit in our modern understanding of teleology to be sure. What is important to understand here is that the “ought” locution we are bringing up in the same breath as “teleology” and “function” doesn’t mark a series of choices or speak to an intelligent design behind the patterns of nature, as if every purposive event we found in the natural historical judgment of the bobcat, e.g., was pedaled by deliberation or divine intervention.11 Rather, the “ought” locution speaks to the way that life forms are constituted inherently, intrinsically, naturally—“natural” in the sense that we didn’t invent the perceived differences that go in to each form of life. Differences of the kind we find in natural historical judgments/species-concept sentences are a given, and if they weren’t, the whole of nature would be one big slime ball and we would be solely responsible for shaping those perceived differences without a worldly constraint. (Now we can certainly raise questions as to the ethical and political significance of these differences as they figure in our practical-social concerns, but the point is that whatever turns out to be the definitive features of some form of life, thus making it different from some other, those features will pertain to the unique function of that life-form, they will be part of its ‘nature’.) Therefore, a given individual that occupies a particular life-form is thought to be a member of some kind to the extent that it exemplifies a certain kind of nature. So considered, Natural Goodness in Foot’s Aristotelian sense is just whenever some individual exemplifies well whatever is fundamentally constitutive of its form of life. It is thus “bad” if it doesn’t.

What this means for an ethics of nature, and specifically for a language of conservation, is that wherever we see that an individual, or a set of individuals are not living up to what members of their life-form ought to be living up to, we can recognize it as bad. And when a form of life or a species goes extinct, or is annihilated by human life practices, what is lost is the possibility for any individual to instantiate the Natural Goodness of that life form ever again.

The Lurking Question of Acquaintance

With respect to our driving moral questions, a language of conservation developed around the theory of Natural Goodness allows us to say that what is lost when a life form goes extinct or is pushed to annihilation is not just life, but the possibility for any individual to ever again instantiate the Natural Goodness that was unique to that form of life. What we have in mind here are those life-cycle narratives captured in what Thompson calls natural historical judgments, something like a long list of necessities that went into a certain way of living: a long list of survival activities, colors, courtships, songs, ecological relationships, patterns, landscapes, flight, birth, eating, breathing, photosynthesizing, symbiosis, etc. According to this new language game around conservation, instead of having a plethora of specie names with the word “endangered” next to it on, say, the IUCN Red List, we would have a detailed narrative of the Natural Goodness that is at risk of being lost. This way of thinking in effect ought to bring home something that the language of “intrinsic value” cannot by itself.

But what is to be brought home? Another way to put this is to ask what justifies our saying that Natural Goodness is in fact good? Where in our considerations of the concept of Natural Goodness do we find this value? How are we acquainted with the goodness, and how do we register it? C&G’s application of Foot and Thompson to a language of conservation certainly sketches a standard against which we can judge whether or not an individual is doing well, and it gives us a more colloquial (dare I say “natural”?) language of what is lost when a species goes extinct. But their project has yet to answer the epistemological question of how we know the moral value of the Natural Goodness concept.

The epistemological question of value here, as I mean it, is not one that asks about when we are justified in drawing inferences concerning whether or not a given individual is satisfying certain stipulated conditions, i.e. whether or not we are justified in judging an individual as living up to the normative standard specific to its form of life. In other words, I am not asking how we really know that (this) individual displays features x, y, z of the species-concept (I imagine such a question would require some theory of the reliability of perception for classification, for example). Nor is the question about whether or not we are justified in saying that this or that feature is in fact part of the “essential constitution”, or “intrinsic nature” of the form of life. That is, it is not the case that I am interested in asking: are we really sure that x, y, z is essential, i.e., in the nature of [this] life form? Although these are important questions, they are not the questions I am concerned with presently when I speak of the epistemological question of value.

The question that concerns me here, rather, is how the concept of Natural Goodness has “intuitive” traction (in the Kantian sense of intuition). How can the value of Natural Goodness be “seen?” How do we apprehend this Goodness? What is the proper ground for the claim that forms of life are morally considerable in themselves?

A clue is found in the Aristotelian virtue ethics that Foot’s conception of Natural Goodness is based on. I will now turn to this discussion.

Aristotle and Affective Excellence

Aristotle’s ethical theory centers on a conception of virtue or excellence (arete). Instead of focusing on the production of moral principles against which actions are appraised as either right or wrong, virtue theory looks to character traits as that which opens up a discussion about what is morally good or bad.

The driving idea to Aristotle’s virtue ethics is that, just as we see in Foot’s conception of Natural Goodness, everything that is said to be good, or said to be doing well, is so spoken of insofar as it functions as it should: “for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function.”12 Aristotle reasoned that part of the function or Natural Goodness of a human being is to exhibit a sort of rationality, and therefore the virtuous/excellent/good human being who is said to be doing well has practical knowledge. Knowledge is virtue. But if virtue has to do with character traits, how is it said to also be a form of knowledge? The sort of knowledge at stake here is found in character-concept sentences like “the kind person knows when a situation requires an act of kindness”. We might think of every situation as in some sense imposing upon an agent a certain question or set of questions about how to behave, how to live, and the virtuous agent has correct answers to these question—they “act” appropriately. The virtuous agent “acts appropriately” because she has “knowledge”. The kind person, for example, acts kindly when it counts because she knows when kindness would be required.

So the kind person’s virtue consists in her being able to recognize when kindness is required, and she recognizes this requirement as her sole reason for acting kindly. In other words, for it to be a genuine instance of virtue, the perception of the requirement for kindness must be an exhaustive reason—there must be no extraneous reason that motivates the “kind” behavior (e.g. one must not be acting for the sake of a good reputation). The kind person is genuinely kind, and this is their virtue. It’s not just that one knows what acting kind looks like, and then, because they know when a situation requires that type of motion, goes through the motions. Rather, one’s actually being a kind person disposes them to certain perceptions that in some sense necessitate the appropriate behavior. Therefore, the agent’s knowledge is said to not only be a condition for possession of virtue, but is identical with virtue itself insofar as the agent’s perceptual deliverances never fail to elicit the appropriate response. Getting things right in the way the virtuous agent does means that one’s character disposes them to respond in morally appropriate ways.

Image result for aristotle

But it is not just that one recognizes what is good in a couple of situations and is therefore said to be virtuous or to exhibit good character. Just as virtue is knowledge, virtue is also a unity. To say this means that “being virtuous” does not consist in possessing a particular single virtue, but rather being genuinely kind means, for example, that when the moment calls for it, one will also be sensitive to requirements of fairness. Again, it’s not just about going through the motions of what looks to be an act of kindness, but being sensitive to what really is kind, with all that it entails. For this reason, John McDowell has said that particular virtues must be thought of as concepts used to mark “similarities and dissimilarities among the manifestations of a single sensitivity which is what virtue, in general, is” and “it is a single complex sensitivity of this sort which we are aiming to instill when we aim to inculcate a moral outlook.”13 A virtuous person is a good person and this is identical with their being sensitive to what is good in general: “the virtue of man”, says Aristotle, “will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.”14

Aristotle says the “state of character which makes a man good” is found in the pathe, or affective/emotional states. For instance, with respect to courage, Aristotle says virtue is found in taking up the right relationship with fear; with respect to friendship, virtue is found in the right relationship with love; and with respect to pleasure, temperance. But we must be careful here. Affects are typically thought of as passive states of an agent, and in that case, it is hard to see how one could be responsible for their virtue, and it would thus be hard to see how virtue could have anything to do with morality, since morality is about praise and blame, which require responsibility. Also, there is a tendency in our modern paradigm to think of affects or emotions as distinct from knowledge, since knowledge is “rational”, and emotions are thought to be “irrational”. But this way of thinking about things is foreign to Aristotle. Since knowledge is rational in the sense that it requires responsiveness to reasons, and since virtue is thought by Aristotle to be a form of practical knowledge, it follows that, insofar as the origin of virtue is an attuned affective capacity, our affects/emotions are thus thought to be ways in which we are, or can be, responsive to reasons, and thus capable of inclining us toward knowing what to do. Virtue, on Aristotle’s line of thought, is a kind of emotional intelligence.

A famous example of this way of reading Aristotle on the pathe is Heidegger.15 Kate Withy renders Heidegger’s reading of pathe as forms of knowledge when she talks about the pathe as “disclosive postures”. To say that affective states are disclosive postures is to say they are “particular arrangements of the world and us, in relation to one another.”16 In other words, it is through an affective state that a particular arrangement of myself and the world can be seen. To understand this more fully, we need to look to Heidegger’s own articulation of moods in his treatise Being and Time.

In Being and Time, Heidegger understands affects/moods/emotions as the various ways in which we find ourselves in a situation.17 But it is not just that I, for example, find only myself, but rather I find myself and the situation I am in. I encounter the world in some way, situations show up as mattering in some particular manner, and the way in which what I encounter matters is found or “disclosed” in my way of “feeling.” So the function of my moods/feelings/pathe/emotions is to reveal in what way a situation matters, and as Heidegger means it, one is never without a mood—it is not that one either does or does not have a mood, but rather moods just are a constitutive of the human form of life. Our way of being in the world is such that we always care about things in a certain way.

Bringing this back to the context of virtue ethics, what this means is that it is a part of a human being’s Natural Goodness; it is a part of a human being’s function to care for things in the right way, and this simply means that one can see what is good. Now if the virtuous agent’s perception of a situation constitutes the reason which necessitates her good actions, and if the reasons upon which she acts are disclosed through her affective state of character, then her affect/mood/feeling turns out to be the particular way in which she knows what is good because her actions and her character are contemporaneous with each other. And in that case, the virtue of human beings is to perceive, through the lens of an emotional or affective state, the moral features of the world.

As is commonly known, for Aristotle the appropriate affective state for virtue is found in moderation. The right way to feel toward something is through a mean mood, i.e. a mood that falls between two vicious moods.18 Otherwise, if one does not “live in moderation”, one’s perception of what is good will be “clouded” in a way that makes it impossible for them to appreciate goodness as the virtuous person does. For example, if generally you are a slave to your sex-drive—if you don’t have the right (moderate) relationship to sex—then perhaps your local desire to woo your date, which targets late-night sex, will incline you to fail to appreciate that your friend who just called you is in need of a helping hand. In this way, you are not disposed to be properly moved by your situation because your excessive desire got in the way. The virtuous person holds a position in which affects that would otherwise come over non-virtuous people are silenced.

As disclosive postures, then, affects become morally significant. If one does not have the right affective relationship toward life, then they are not doing good, because they are unable to see what is good generally. Therefore, if the single complex structure of virtue in general is what’s at stake in knowing what is good, then per the epistemological question I posed earlier, the way that we know the moral value of Natural Goodness is through taking up the appropriate affective state toward forms of life.

 Kant on Judgments of Nature

What we saw in Thompson’s logic of life is that the standard for a given conception of Natural Goodness is captured in natural-historical judgments about organisms like “the bobcat gives birth in the spring”, or “the oak tree grows deep roots”, or “the bat echolocates”, etc. These types of narratives we said speak to a kind of teleological structure that is peculiar to living things in general, and as such they take into consideration a “wider context” of activities that figure into life cycles outside the strictly biological notions of genetics and DNA, for example.

I pointed out that the concept of Natural Goodness understood in this way gives us a normative standard against which we can judge individuals as either doing good or bad; and moreover the concept of Natural Goodness allows us to say that what is lost when a species goes extinct or is pushed to complete annihilation is the possibility for any individual ever again to instantiate the Natural Goodness of that life form. But the way in which C&G have appropriated this concept toward an ethical language of conservation has not yet addressed the epistemological question of how we know the moral value of this concept, or what justifies the claim that Natural Goodness is in fact “good”. In the preceding section I suggested that a promising place to look was Aristotle’s account of human virtue. In that discussion, I extracted the idea that the moral value of a human beings is found in a certain moderate affective state of character that one takes up toward something. But since we cannot separate the moral evaluation of a human being from the way she relates to things in general, the moral value of anything else will also be found in one’s affective relationship toward whatever is under consideration. This would therefore include other forms of life.

Now in this section I would like to connect this line of thought to some of the insights Kant lays out in his Critique of the Power of Judgment regarding our judgments of the teleological structures and values of nature. This will be toward the purpose of suggesting what the appropriate affective state to have toward forms of life is. In the context of a language for conservation, what the combination of Aristotle’s and Kant’s philosophy does is allow us to say that the moral value of Natural Goodness is found, not in a disembodied intellectual consideration of the concept of Natural Goodness alone, but in a perceptual state of feeling disinterested pleasure toward the purposive-normative-teleological structures peculiar to living things in general.

Let us first consider teleological judgments. In the First Introduction of the third Critique, Kant says that

a teleological judgment compares the concept of a product of nature as it is with one of what it ought to be. Here the judging of its possibility is grounded in a concept (of the end) that precedes it a priori. There is no difficulty in representing the possibility of products of art in such a way. But to think of a product of nature that there is something that it ought to be and then to judge whether it really is so already presupposes a principle that could not be drawn from experience (which teaches only what things are).19

Kant’s point here is not that we presuppose a specific concept like bird, for example, and then make a normative judgment about birds on the grounds of some Platonic Form of “bird”—for the concept of a bird is acquired through experience, and what is essential to its particular birdness will also be gathered through empirical inductive inferences. There is not much a priori about that. Kant’s point in this passage, rather, is that in making a normative judgment about how some biological system ought to function on the basis of a purely descriptive claim about how that system in fact behaves, I am justified  in making this leap from the descriptive to the normative claim when it comes to teleological judgments because they are only possible by presupposing, a priori, a more general principle that regulates those types of judgments—that principle he calls the principle of purposiveness.

The concept of purposiveness represents “the unique way in which we must proceed in reflection on the objects of nature with the aim of a thoroughly interconnected experience.”20 In other words, we cannot help but apprehend the empirical world, the world of nature, as structured in an orderly fashion. “Thus”, Kant says,

the principle of the power of judgment in regard to the form of things in nature under empirical laws in general is the purposiveness of nature in its multiplicity, i.e., nature is represented through this concept as if an understanding contained the ground of the unity of the manifold of its empirical laws.21

So, although I have to come to find through experience what some form of life (say, the bird) is like, I am justified in saying that that is what an individual of that kind ought to be like because the teleological structure that regulates my understanding of a form of life generally, and moreover any product of nature, is governed by a transcendental principle of purposiveness.

Image result for kantNotice how this resembles our working conception of Natural Goodness thus far. We start with some idea of what a form of life is—say, whatever is captured in a natural-historical judgment about, say, a species of bird—and from there we can make a judgment about what or how individuals of that life form ought to be. If the wing of a bird is broken, then it is not doing well because that is not how a bird’s wing ought to be. What justifies us in making the normative claim about biological individuals ought to behave on the basis of the descriptive claims concerning how they in fact behave in general is this: our understanding of a species-concept as such is only possible because we bring to bear on teleological judgments the a priori concept of purposiveness, a principle which helps us to make sense of our world as we find it. Without this a priori principle, we wouldn’t, in the first place, find any such teleological “regularities” in our representation of forms of life.

With this we have an argument for why we are justified in making normative claims about individuals on initially descriptive bases—the objective teleological concept of some form of life allows us to make claims about how individuals of some form of life ought to be—i.e. whether or not individuals are exhibiting their Natural Goodness—because our cognitive faculties require us to understand forms of life according to the presupposed regulative principle of purposiveness. But we do not yet have a justificatory basis for the claim that life-form concepts are tied to anything morally valuable like intrinsic value, or Natural Goodness, which, from the point of view of our Aristotelian framework, will be found in an affective state that accompanies such concepts.

The good news for us, however, is that for Kant the concept of purposiveness is not just found to be a regulative principle governing our judgments of the teleological structures of nature; the concept of purposiveness is also found to regulate our judgments concerning the beauty of nature, judgments which are based in the feeling of disinterested pleasure. A judgment of beauty for Kant is one that is made not on the basis of an objectively universal concept (say, some property concept of “beauty” that is captured in a list of necessary and sufficient conditions that objects can display), but is rather made on the basis of a subjectively universal feeling of disinterested pleasure. To say that one can feel pleasure in a disinterested way means that “one must not be in the least biased in favor of the existence of the thing, but must be entirely indifferent in this respect in order to play the judge.”22 One does not, in other words, get pleasure from making use of the thing that is being judged beautiful. If I say that the trees are beautiful, it does not mean that I take pleasure in the thought that they can be used for making paper—that is not why I value them. I simply take pleasure in the purposive form of the trees as I reflect on them, and because the form of purposiveness in general doesn’t depend on any particular tree, my pleasure is not “in the least biased in favor of the existence”23 of this or that tree, e.g.

Another way to talk about this is to say that the pleasure I take in something when I judge it to be beautiful is the result of a happy accident—it’s simply a delight that my cognitive faculties are suited to fit the purposive structures I find in nature, although I cannot explain why this should be necessary.24 In a judgment of beauty, I feel pleasure because I find things in nature to be purposively formed for no particular purpose, i.e. toward no particular final end, except that the objects of nature and the cognition that reflects on them happen to be in harmony with one another, and as such, fit together to form a coherent worldview. As Kant points out, because we are confined to reflect on objects of nature as purposively structured, we can create narratives as to the purposes that various things serve, but ultimately, we are not justified in saying that there is a single, final purpose that the whole of nature moves toward. Thus, “beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object, insofar as it is perceived in the object without the representation of an end.”25

Now to say that the feeling of disinterested pleasure is a “subjectively universal” 26 ground for judging something to be beautiful will at first sound strange since typically we don’t hear “subjective” and “universal” in the same breath. If anything, we are used to hearing “objective” and “universal” in the same breath, meaning they are usually thought to go together less problematically—what is objective can be thought to be universal. To make sense of this, recall what I said above about how beauty is not a determinate concept. What this means is that beauty does not have necessary and sufficient conditions like the concepts “flower” and “photosynthesis” do. The word “beauty” in this context refers us to a state of the subject, namely that they are experiencing disinterested pleasure in their judgment. That is why it’s “subjective”. And since the pleasure I experience is just an excitation of the human faculties at large, the feeling of disinterested pleasure upon which I judge nature to be beautiful must be something that anyone else who shares my human cognitive faculties could feel as well. Thus it is both subjective and universal. One’s ability to judge the beauty of nature presupposes a common sense which makes the judgment possible, and in that sense beauty is a subjective experience that is, or at least could be, shared universally.

We could also arrive at this conclusion by noting how when I make a judgment of beauty, I take myself, not to be expressing something that is peculiar to me and my personal dispositions, but convicted that all others ought to judge, and thus feel pleasure, as I do. To say that nature is beautiful, for example, is not just to describe something unique to me. When I say this I demand assent from everyone; and such a conviction, Kant argues, could only be possible if we assume beauty to be a common experience in the sense that it is the product of a shared disposition across the human form of life. As Kant means it, this would be true even if no one in fact agreed with my particular judgments of beauty. Someone could be a real drab and dreary nihilist, for example, and insist that nothing is meaningful and nothing is beautiful and that it’s all just an illusion. But this is not a counter-example to the claim that beauty could, in principle, be shared universally. The point is that there are salient features of our experience which point to something like a common shared nature, and if the normative conviction in our judgments of beauty speak to anything, they speak to something that we are all capable of. It is in our nature, as it were, to appreciate nature’s beauty.

Since the concept of purposiveness that regulates our judgments of the teleological structures found in nature is identical with the purposiveness that regulates our judgments of the beauty of nature,27 in the feeling of disinterested pleasure we have found a subjective-affective ground for knowledge of the value we find in the objective-teleological concept of Natural Goodness. And since the feeling of disinterested pleasure is something like a moderate affective state (insofar as it falls between the two modes of (1) being interested in nature so as to only value it instrumentally, i.e. to treat it as a mere means to other things, and not as an end in itself, and 2) being uninterested in nature so as to not give it any value at all), to find oneself in a state of disinterested pleasure toward natural forms of life is a virtue. This would in effect confer to those forms of life something like a moral value to the extent that moderate states of character are the mark of moral excellence in human beings, according to the Aristotelian framework in which we have been working.

If an individual is said to be exhibiting, without defect, the teleological necessities that constitute the form of life of which it is one instance, that is an objective, value-neutral normative claim about how an individual ought to be. But once we can learn to feel disinterested pleasure in relation to the concept of a form of life in general, then the normative claims about whether or not individuals are properly exhibiting their kind become moral claims about their Natural Goodness. The moral value of Natural Goodness is known through the feeling of disinterested pleasure.

One might object that it is inappropriate to make use of Kant’s philosophy of aesthetics and teleology in the way that I am here, namely to talk about the moral value of the Natural Goodness of forms of life. After all, he clearly says that “the satisfaction in the good is combined with interest” and this would therefore seem to preclude from the disinterested pleasure found in aesthetic value something like moral value (where morality has to do with “the Good”).28

But none of this is actually inconsistent with what Kant has in mind. For one thing, the sense of good that Kant has at 5: 207 when he talks about satisfaction in the good being combined with interest is one of taking pleasure in exploiting practical reason for the sake of attaining human defined ends. “The good” here is an instrumental good. However, to take pleasure in the consideration of nature’s purposiveness without a final purpose is to find nature “good in itself”, is to see the beauty of nature as “a symbol of morality.”29 In the words of the great master himself:

We call…trees majestic and magnificent…because they arouse sensations that contain something analogical to the consciousness of a mental state produced by moral judgments. Taste as it were makes possible the transition from sensible charm to the habitual moral interest without too violent a leap by representing the imagination even in its freedom as purposively determinable for the understanding and teaching us to find a free satisfaction in the objects of the sense even without any sensible charm.30

The pleasure we take in the beauty of nature puts us in touch with a feeling that we could associate with those less charming aspects of our moral considerations, and for this reason, though the concept of a life form might not in every instance bedazzle my eyes or my ears, it at least gives me a clue as to what I should strive to feel toward life forms in general since it would be required as part of my human Natural Goodness.

Closing on a Wittgensteinian Note

In my closing words, I would like to say something about how all this is connected to a point that Wittgenstein once made about the limits of language in communicating ethical concerns.31 This should shed light on why C&G find it important to focus on the language of conservation, and why the development of this language is considered to be a game.

The thought is that when we go to make an ethical judgment, say about the moral significance of Natural Goodness gone lost, the meaning we wish to express undoubtedly misses the mark in a way that saying “the tree has no leaves” does not. This is similar to what Kant says about judgments of beauty. Beauty cannot be properly communicated because it is not judged on objective, logical grounds, but rather a subjectively universal feeling. Wittgenstein shares this thought with respect to ethical judgments. Although he thought that we cannot properly communicate ethical values, he at least thought it possible to describe an experience “so that we may have a common ground for our investigation.”32

It would therefore be wrong to think that just because moral value is hard to communicate, since it is hard to communicate our feelings, that this rules out the possibility of using language to gesture at a certain sentiment that we find driving our ethical judgments. The point is that, though we cannot deductively demonstrate what is ultimately good about a life form by drawing inferences from (1) some concept of Natural Goodness to (2) a judgment about whether some individual is said to be properly instantiating its kind, we can play games with language so as to inch each other closer to the feeling and the sentiment that registers the value of that concept. This is because the meaning of what we say, especially in the context of value communication, is not necessarily found in a one-to-one correspondence between singular words and singular meanings behind them. The meaning of what we say, rather, is found in the resemblances that our use of language draws up—a use which in effect shapes our thinking inasmuch as our language is the mark of thought itself.

This is why C&G have sought to develop a new language game around conservation—if our language changes, then our values might change insofar as the language game we are playing shapes our thinking in a certain direction. If one avenue doesn’t work, try another. And as I mean it, “feeling’” is just the way that we think the moral value of Natural Goodness, the moral value of life. For that reason, words like “feeling” and “beauty” and “virtue” deserve their place in a language for conservation, just as much as “logic” and “rationality” deserve their place.

Endnotes

1 This paper is the result of many fruitful discussions had around the developing metaethical theory of my professors Claudio Campagna and Daniel Guevara, a theory which ultimately seeks to provide us with a moral framework in which a more virtue orientated language for conservation and conservation policy can be couched. Where their earlier joint research took a critical approach to the language for conservation, this late work–which my paper here is an expansion of–is the positive component of that larger, ongoing project. I wish to express my gratitude to both Campagna and Guevara for allowing me to publish this paper before their own, despite the fact that my paper is properly considered an after-thought, and which would otherwise be put into print as a follow-up piece to their own once it had been published. I wish to also thank them and my fellow colleagues for the wonderful, thought provoking conversations had in our Winter 2018 seminar. Without our collective efforts, I certainly would not have had occasion to produce this paper.

2 See Campagna and Guevara, “A language for conservation ethics grounded in the value theory of Natural Goodness.”

3 Foot, Natural Goodness; Thompson, Representation of Life.

4 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1.7 1097b26-27.

5 Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment.

6 Wittgenstein, “Lecture on Ethics.”

7 de Quieroz, 2005; 2011. For an earlier survey of species-concepts, see Mayr, 1976.

8 Thompson, Representation of Life, p.53.

9 Ibid., p. 56.

10 Foot, Natural Goodness, p.27.

11 For a contemporary understanding of biological teleology along non-theological lines like this, see Trivers, Social Evolution.

12 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1.7 1097b26-27.

13 McDowell, “Virtue and Reason”, p.333.

14 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1106a20-25.

15 See Heidegger, Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy.

16 Withy, “Owned Emotions: Affective Excellence in Heidegger on Aristotle”, from Heidegger, authenticity, and the self: themes from division two of being and time, pg. 23.

17 Heidegger, Being and Time, sec. 29.

18 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1106b30-1107a25.

19 Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, FI X, 20:240.

20 Ibid. 5:184

21 Ibid. 5:181.

22 Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 5:205.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid5:184.

25 Ibid5:236.

26 Ibid. s.8.

27 Hannah Ginsborg has a similar, yet perhaps more interesting and sophisticated view on the connection between aesthetic and teleological purposiveness for Kant. See Ginsborg, The Normativity of Nature, essay 10, “Kant on Aesthetic and Biological Purposiveness.” I’d like to thank Samantha Matherne for contributing research materials on this point.

28 Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 5: 207.

29 Ibid. 5:351.

30 Ibid. 5:354

31 Wittgenstein, “Lecture on Ethics.”

32 Ibid.

Bibliography

Aristotle, 1941. Nichomachean Ethics, from The Basic Works of Aristotle, Random House.

Campagna, C. and Guevara, D., “A language for conservation ethics grounded in the value theory of Natural Goodness.” Manuscript.

de Quieroz, 2005. “Ernst Mayr and the modern concept of species”, PNAS, vol. 102, suppl. 1, pp. 6600-6607.

“Branches in the lines of descent: Charles Darwin and the evolution of the species concept”, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 103, pp. 19-35.

Foot, P. 2001. Natural Goodness, Oxford.

Ginsborg, H. 2015. The Normativity of Nature: Essays on Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Oxford.

Heidegger, M. 2008. Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, Harper Perennial

Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy, trans. Metcalf and Tanzer, Indiana University Press

Kant, 2000. Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Guyer and Matthews, Cambridge.

Mayr, E. 1976. “Species Concepts and Definitions”, from M. Grene et al., Topics in the Philosophy of Biology, D. Reidel Publishing Company, pp. 353-371

McDowell, J. 1979. “Virtue and Reason”, The Monist, vol. 62, no. 3, The Concept of a Person in Ethical Theory, pp. 331-350.

Thompson, M. 2008. “The Representation of Life”, from Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought, Harvard University Press.

Trivers, R. 1985. Social Evolution, The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc.

Withy, K. 2015. “Owned Emotions: Affective excellence in Heidegger on Aristotle”, from Heidegger, Authenticity, and the Self: Themes from Division Two of Being and Time, Routledge.

Wittgenstein, 1929. “Lecture on Ethics”, delivered to the Heretics Society, Cambridge University.

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