• Pierre-Normand
    2.3k
    First, a note of caution: If you are going to download the pdf available online, makes sure you are using the uchicago link already provided. Another version is available on Thompson's personal website, but it is missing the last 10 pages or so!

    Now, a few words in order to contextualize the paper: Most of Michael Thompson's work concerns the philosophy of action and meta-ethics. Two main influences on Thompson's thinking are G.E.M Anscombe and Philippa Foot who both have pioneered the revival of neo-Aritotelianism in ethics -- the approach now called virtue ethics -- which competes with the consequentialist, deontological and non-cognitivist (e.g. emotivist) approaches that used to dominate Anglo-American work on ethics.

    One main reason why virtue ethics has been resisted -- unjustly, according to Thompson -- by many mainstream moral philosophers is because of its reliance on the central idea of virtue conceived as a natural excellence for human beings; and such a reliance has been seen as tantamount to committing the naturalistic fallacy, or invalidly deriving a moral norm (an ought) from a natural fact (an is). What it is naturally good for a human being to be (or for her to do), from the point of view of empirical biology, isn't necessarily morally good (or just), and Thompson agrees. However, the standard of natural goodness at issue in virtue ethics isn't an empirical standard but rather a standard that we know to be morally good a priori (and is thus a standard that has little to do with empirical biology), or so Thompson argues. His demonstration relies on the logico-metaphysical analysis of the concept of the human form, a specific instantiation of the concept of a form of life.

    The argument in the paper is very dense. The first part condensates material previously published as The Representation of Life, which was reworked as the first part of Thompson's book Life and Action. The seemingly obscure link between the idea of our apprehending non-empirically the concept of our own form of life, and our gaining knowledge of what it is moral for us to do, is spelled out in more details in What is it to Wrong Someone? A puzzle about Justice.

    If you are puzzled by the idea that we can gain knowledge a priori of substantive facts about ourselves, you may want to read my short comments about Kant's synthetic a priori in the Pattern and Being thread. If you also are puzzled by the idea that such facts can ground normative judgments, reading Apprehending Human Form should provide some insight. I am unsure that I have a full grasp of Thompson's whole argument, myself. I hadn't read this dense paper previously -- I though I had, but I had it confused with The Representation of Life! Maybe the discussion will help.
  • Jamal
    9.2k
    Thanks @Pierre-Normand for a great introduction.

    The paper's argument is somewhat convoluted, especially if you're like me and you're not familiar with the literature. And, assuming familiarity, Thompson doesn't really tell us what he's getting at until half way through. So first I'd like to say what I think he's trying to do and then lay out the paper's structure.

    The point

    The point of the paper is to defend neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism against a certain kind of criticism. Ethical naturalism of the neo-Aristotelian variety is the meta-ethical component or basis of virtue ethics, which is the revival of Aristotle in moral philosophy that began in the late twentieth century, and which is distinct from deontology and utilitarianism.

    Neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism...

    ... does not involve a non-natural source or realm of moral value, as does Kant's ethical theory, or Plato's or Moore's. For Aristotle, judgments of what are goods for a human being are based upon considerations about human capacities, propensities, and the conditions for successful human activity of various kinds. Thus, while it is not a scientistic conception of human agency or moral value, it also contrasts clearly with many clearly non-naturalistic conceptions of agency and moral value. Central to the view are the notions that there are goods proper to human nature and that the virtues are excellent states of character enabling an agent to act well and realize those goods. — IEP
    http://www.iep.utm.edu/naturali/#SH3a

    The fact that it's not "scientistic" should allay concerns that this is a naturalism that seeks to reduce morality to biology, as we might say about evolutionary ethics; or seeks to address ethical questions with an empirical "science of morality" a la Sam Harris. This is significant, because this claim, that the naturalism of virtue ethics is not biologistic in this reductionist sense, is precisely what Thompson is defending in the paper.

    The following passages tell us what he's doing, and they're worth including here for orientation because they're buried in the middle of the paper.

    The concept human as our naturalist employs it is a concept that attaches to a definite product of nature, one which has arisen on this planet, quite contingently, in the course of evolutionary history. For our naturalist, this product of nature is in some sense the theme of ethical theory as we humans would write it. But there is in the larger literature a kind of fear or dread of any appeal to this sort of concept in ethical theory, and this is what I want to address. The contemporary moralist is anxious to leave this concept behind, and to develop his theory in terms of ‘persons’ and ‘rational beings’, but if the naturalist is right the concept in question is everywhere nipping at his heels. There is in practical philosophy a kind of alienation from the concept human and the sort of unity of agents it expresses — Thompson

    The theory he is defending...

    ...might seem, for example, to constitute a sort of vulgar evolutionary ethics: a system, in any case, which doesn’t know how to distinguish a mere ‘is’ from the genuine moral or normative ‘ought’ ... And such a theory might seem to give a wrong position to natural facts in the formation of ethical judgment, to turn ethics into a sub-discipline of biology, and thus to deny what is legitimately called the ‘autonomy of ethics’. — Thompson

    More specifically, the issue for Thompson is this: virtue ethics rests on a notion of what is characteristically good for a human being, which in turn rests on the naturalistic concept of the human form of life (the form that is instantiated in individual humans). But if this concept is an empirical one, then whatever we identify as the characteristically human good, and whatever states (the virtues) are identified as being required for action towards this good, can be thus identified only on the basis of experience.

    And this means that neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism is open to accusations of the naturalistic fallacy and of an attempt to derive ought from is. I'm not so sure that the position would collapse under these criticisms if indeed the human form of life is an empirical concept, but Thompson takes it for granted, so I'll go along with him. But I'd quite like to see someone address this question in the discussion. For example, do we have to accept that is-to-ought entailment is impossible, and could we not arrive at a non-biologistic meta-ethics even on the basis of an empirical concept?

    The criticisms, Thompson says, rely on an empiricist thesis, namely that form of life is an empirical concept. Breaking this down, he identifies five empiricist propositions to attack, against which he proposes five anti-empiricist propositions. I won't cover them in this post, because my aim right now is just to explain (or work out) what he's doing.

    The structure

    The way I see it, the basic structure of the paper looks like this:

    • He begins with the example of a naturalist examining jellyfish, to reveal the logic of various types of judgments, based on observation, that we make about living things, identifying types A through E.
    • Next he presents the empiricist propositions and his own anti-empiricist propositions, relating them to the types of judgment found in the first part, and then explains how the empiricist propositions function in criticisms of virtue ethics.
    • These propositions form the basis of the rest of the paper, in which he argues against the empirical and for the a priori.
    • Finally he concludes that we can indeed interpret moral judgments naturalistically, on the basis that ethical naturalism can rest upon a non-empirical concept of the human life-form.

    Anyway, this post is just scene-setting, partly for my own benefit. I hope to delve into the argument in future posts.
  • Jamal
    9.2k
    Incidentally, my only encounters with virtue ethics have been with Aristotle and MacIntyre, and I like the approach a lot. Although it's a side-issue, I'd be interested to see someone more knowledgeable than me compare MacIntyre with Thompson, Foot and others. I'd imagine MacIntyre's focus on history to be one of the distinguishing things about his version of virtue ethics. But one book of his that I haven't read is the one where, as far as I can tell, he sets out his own ethical naturalism: Dependent Rational Animals.
  • mcdoodle
    1.1k
    One difficulty I'd like to clear out of the way is the analogy Thompson draws between his approach to 'life forms' and a linguist's approach to language:

    These three sorts of judgment about the umbrella jelly and umbrella jellies might be compared to three parallel forms of judgment about human speech - an analogy Darwin himself
    draws. As we distinguish various species, or natural forms of life, so also we distinguish various
    languages, or customary forms of discursive interaction...
    — Thompson

    To me this analogy fails from the outset. The Darwin analogy I know traces an account based on history/genealogy of both species and language, which isn't what Thompson seems to be saying at all: this paper presents a static, 'equilibrium' account which only gets itself into a muddle by comparing itself with language.

    Well, that's how it seems to me. Other comments welcome of course :)

    With that analogy cleared out of the way, I like the basic Thompson justification for virtue ethics, which is how I read the thing, even if at times he's infuriatingly oblique.
  • Jamal
    9.2k
    the analogy Thompson draws between his approach to 'life forms' and a linguist's approach to languagemcdoodle

    Yeah, after reading that bit the first time through I chose to ignore it, as it just didn't seem helpful. I thought I had a decent enough grasp of what he was talking about without any analogy.
  • Mongrel
    3k
    The Darwin analogy I know traces an account based on history/genealogy of both species and language, which isn't what Thompson seems to be saying at all: this paper presents a static, 'equilibrium' account which only gets itself into a muddle by comparing itself with language.mcdoodle

    How muddled? I thought he was aiming to say that when we identify what a thing is, we end up talking about a form. Its like he's talking to an audience who has no comprehension of the word "form", so he's giving an example of it: when we talk about a language, we're talking about a form (as opposed to any particular instance of it.)
  • mcdoodle
    1.1k
    How muddled? I thought he was aiming to say that when we identify what a thing is, we end up talking about a form. Its like he's talking to an audience who has no comprehension of the word "form", so he's giving an example of it: when we talk about a language, we're talking about a form (as opposed to any particular instance of it.)Mongrel

    Well, I think he referenced Darwin in an odd way, because Darwin traces a different analogy. Plus I'm thinking a lot about the philosophy of language at the moment for my own work, and I reacted adversely to his examples of what a linguist does from the get-go:

    We classify individual organisms as bearers of particular life forms; and so also we classify people as speakers of particular languages (type A)... — Thompson

    I immediately find myself burrowing into that notion of classifying 'people as speakers of particular languages' and finding it wanting. It muddles me and diverts me from Thompson's path. So for me to accept his five-fold system I had to try and forget the language analogy!
  • Deleteduserrc
    2.8k
    Regarding the language metaphor: It's basically the old langue/parole distinction so dear to the structuralists.

    To understand any particular utterance in language x, one must have a broader understanding of x as a whole. This broader understanding - comprising syntactic rules, vocabulary etc. - is atemporal in the same sense that 'umbrella jelly' is atemporal. It doesn't - in fact, cannot- fully realize itself in any one instance, yet is the implicit whole without which the understanding of any instance would be impossible.

    While it's certainly true that all languages develop over time, it nonetheless remains the case that to understand an utterance in any particular language, one must have a relatively fixed understanding of that language as an atemporal whole. Similarly - to multiply analogies - you can't make a move in chess (or identify your opponent as having made a move himself) without understanding a static 'atemporal' set of rules.

    I think the analogy is a fine one, though I agree with jamalrob that Thompson's point was clear enough without it.
  • Jamal
    9.2k
    Here's what I'm thinking about Thompson's argument. I want to agree with the conclusion that we can interpret moral judgments naturalistically, i.e., that virtue ethics could have a sound meta-ethical basis. But I'm not convinced by Thompson's arguments against the empiricist propositions, and I'm not even clear on what the propositions really mean. That leaves me either looking for a way to make room for the "autonomy of ethics" and natural goodness within a framework of empirical concepts, or beset with doubt over the distinction between empirical and a priori.

    So in this post I'm going to dodge the jellyfish and look at the section headed "Against the empiricist propositions".

    These are the empiricist propositions:

    • The concept species or life form is itself an empirical concept.
    • Concepts of particular life forms (moon jelly, umbrella jelly, white oak, horse- shoe crab, human) are invariably empirical, or observation-dependent, concepts.
    • Singular representations of individual organisms are invariably empirical rep- resentations.
    • Substantive knowledge of any given individual organism (propositions of types A, C and D) can only arise from observation.
    • Substantive knowledge of the character of a given species or life form (propo- sitions of types B and E) can only arise from observation.

    And these are Thompson's counter-propositions:

    • The concept life form is a pure or a priori, perhaps a logical, concept.
    • The concept human, as we human beings have it, is an a priori concept attaching to a particular life form.
    • A mature human being is typically in possession of a non-empirical singular representation of one individual organism.
    • Individual human beings are sometimes in possession of non-observational knowledge of contingent facts about one individual organism.
    • Human beings are characteristically in possession of some general substantive knowledge of the human life form which is not founded empirically on observation of members of their kind, and thus not ‘biological’.

    In this post I'll probably just look at the first proposition and counter-proposition.

    Inevitably I found myself wondering: what is an empirical concept? Thompson describes it as an "abstract precipitate of observation", and this seems like the standard view. Kant's view is interestingly different. On the one hand, Kant agrees that an empirical concept is a general concept derived and abstracted from appearances. But he has another, more original way of describing empirical concepts. Using a fortuitous example, he says this about empirical concepts:

    The concept of a dog signifies a rule according to which my imagination can trace, delineate, or draw a general outline, figure, or shape of a four-footed animal without being restricted to any single and particular shape supplied by experience. — Kant, CPR A141

    An empirical concept is a rule that can be repeatedly and consistently applied to appearances to achieve a general representation. In this example, the concept of a dog is a rule whereby we can bring particular dogs in experience under the general representation of dog as a class or form. (Whether Kant really does identify the concept with the rule doesn't concern me now).

    ...whereas all intuitions, as sensible, rest on affections, concepts rest on functions. By function I mean the unity of the act of bringing various representations under one common representation. — CPR B93

    Concepts are active, not passive. In a certain sense they order our active experience. An empirical concept on this view seems something more than just an "abstract precipitate of observation".

    Thompson's first point against the first empiricist proposition is that the five judgments can apply to things that are "utterly different from one another in material content":

    The umbrella jelly, the hayscented fern, the spirochete, the human being, slime molds, turnips, tarantulas: how much more different can things get? Yet in all cases our five forms of judgment find a foothold. We see nothing unintelligible in imagining even more violently different forms of life arising on other planets, or even under different regimes of fundamental physical law. It seems that a very abstract grammar finds a place in the description of all these things, the grammar we found by reflecting on your study of the umbrella jelly. This intellectual structure is not a response to a common empirical feature of things, but is somehow carried into the scene. — Thompson

    It seems to me that although there may be an intellectual structure carried into the scene, it doesn't follow either that this structure is not empirical, or that the relevant structure is that of life forms. Don't we carry the concept mammal, which Thompson accepts is an empirical one, into observations of both dolphins and monkeys? And if we also agree that there is an a priori intellectual structure carried into the scene, couldn't we say that this structure is not that concerning life forms, but is rather that which lies behind these concepts, pure a priori concepts such as universal and particular or form and individual?

    Next, he says that the reciprocal interdependence between natural historical judgments about life forms and vital descriptions of individuals, described in the first part of the paper, lends support to the a priority of life forms.

    ... almost everything we think of an individual organism involves at least implicit thought of its form. — Thompson

    To me this doesn't seem to carry the point. For one thing, I imagine many of his critics could agree. He says that the life form concept is "everywhere at work" and that we "arrive at an explicit conception of it by reflection on certain of the forms of thought of which we are capable". I think he is suggesting that the implicit nature of the life form concept entails that it is a priori. But can't one absorb an empirical concept such that it becomes part of the way one implicitly structures experience? Is this enough to make it a priori? (maybe it is, as Thompson is using these terms). Alternatively, the life form concept may be no different from the concept of a mammal, in that the implicit a priori structure is what lies behind it, allowing us to distinguish generally between form and individual.

    It's at this point that I begin to lose my grip on the a priori-empirical distinction, wondering if empirically formed concepts can become a priori. The concept of a life form may develop from experience based on a person's socialization combined with primitive a priori concepts or faculties; and indeed, based on the formation of personal identity and the "I".

    Does it matter? Thompson seems to accept that if the human form of life is an empirical concept, then virtue ethics is biologistic or may as well be. But I don't quite see why this should be, because describing the human form of life requires more than just biology.
  • Pierre-Normand
    2.3k
    Hi Jamalrob,

    I don't have time for a lengthy reply now, but I may make a few tentative suggestions and maybe elaborate later on. I anticipated that most readers would find it puzzling that formal concepts that find application in experience could be known a priori. My suggestion would be to understand judgments that ascribe a form to an item of experience as being expressed by synthetic a priori propositions. Maybe my comments in those earlier -- two -- posts -- about the Kantian distinction between those elements of knowledge which arise from experience, or which begin with experience, may be relevant. I would suggest that only the former, not the latter, can properly be called empirical.

    It is a general feature of Thompson's work, as it is of Sebastian Rödl's (who travels a parallel path) that when he speaks of forms of judgment, the forms at issue belong to metaphysical logic, such that they characterize the way elements of thought are joined in a predicative nexus -- making up determinate judgments. Correlative to the form of such judgments (that is, to the way elements of the judgments hang together) are the metaphysical categories. Thus, a judgment that ascribes a category to an item of experience (e.g. a substance or a quantity) is a synthetic a priori judgment since it expresses how such an item can be joined to other items of suitable categories in order make up a determinate judgment. (In Haugeland's framework, we could say that the set of constitutive rules (synthetic a priori judgments) that determine a specific empirical domain express the tacit theoretical understanding a subject must bring to bear a priori to experience in order that her observations be intelligible and contentful. For one to come progressively to master a paradigm, and thus to come to see things aright, is for one to gain an a priori knowledge that "begins with" experience. When one has amassed a sufficient amount of such knowledge -- which adds up to understanding -- then, and only then, can one gain genuine knowledge from experience (that is, understand what one sees).
  • Jamal
    9.2k
    Thanks @Pierre-Normand.

    I don't have time for a lengthy reply now, but I may make a few tentative suggestions now and maybe elaborate later on. I anticipated that most readers would find it puzzling that formal concepts that find application in experience could be known a priori. My suggestion would be to understand judgments that ascribe a form to an item of experience as being expressed by synthetic a priori propositions. Maybe my comments in those earlier two posts about the distinction between those elements of knowledge which arise from experience, or which begin with experience, may be relevant. I would suggest that only the latter, not the former, can be properly called empirical.Pierre-Normand

    As you're using Kant's phrasing, shouldn't this be the other way around? "There can be no doubt that all knowledge begins with experience [but] it does not follow that it arises from experience." That is, some knowledge that begins with experience actually arises from the mind, and only knowledge that arises from experience as well as beginning with experience is empirical. But that's a minor point; we're probably better off without "arises from" and "begins with", which are ambiguous out of context. I understand what you are saying.

    I don't think I have trouble with the notion that "formal concepts that find application in experience could be known a priori". It's just that I doubt--or am unclear about--the a priori status of these particular concepts, i.e., the claim that Thompson is arguing.

    It is a general feature of Thompson's work, as it is of Sebastian Rödl's (who travels a parallel path) that when he speaks of forms of judgment, the forms at issue belong to metaphysical logic, such that they characterize the way elements of thought are joined in a predicative nexus -- making up determinate judgments. Correlative to the form of such judgments (that is, to the way elements of the judgments hang together) are the metaphysical categories. Thus, a judgment that ascribes a category to an item of experience (e.g. a substance or a quantity) is a synthetic a priori judgment since it expresses how such an item can be joined to other items of suitable categories in order make up a determinate judgment. (In Haugeland's fremework, we could say that the set of constitutive rules (synthetic a priori judgments) that determine a specific empirical domain express the tacit theoretical understanding a subject must bring to bear a priori to experience in order that her observations be intelligible and contentful. For one to come progressively to master a paradigm, and thus to come to see things aright, is for one to gain an a priori knowledge that "begins with" experience. When one has amassed a sufficient amount of such knowledge -- which adds up to understanding -- then, and only then, can one gain genuine knowledge from experience (that is, understand what one sees).Pierre-Normand

    Seen in the context of his other work, then, Thompson's argument in the paper can be seen as arguing for the inclusion of the concept of life form, or the judgments wielding this concept, among these synthetic a priori judgments, yes? My doubt, I suppose, is about how and whether the life form concept is one of these formal concepts (I know it's in the name, but still), because I can't see exactly how the life form concept differs logically from other concepts that Thompson admits are empirical, such as mammal.

    However, I'm not especially committed to this line of criticism.
  • Mongrel
    3k
    I anticipated that most readers would find it puzzling that formal concepts that find application in experience could be known a priori.Pierre-Normand

    I personally wouldn't reach for Kant here. I'd go straight for Quine. The ability to apply logic to new situations has to be apriori knowledge. Quine's argument is directed at logical positivist claims that logical know-how is knowledge of conventional use of language (an attempt to give logic itself an empirical foundation).

    Once we accept Quine's argument (from Truth by Convention), it shouldn't be too hard to accept that the application of "mammal" to a new situations demonstrates apriori knowledge.

    BTW... I've been reading about the largest land mammal who ever lived... paraceratherium (about the size of a one-story house.) So I've been using that special apriori knowledge. :)
  • Pierre-Normand
    2.3k
    "As you're using Kant's phrasing, shouldn't this be the other way around?"

    For sure. I caught and fixed this mistake while you were typing your early reply to my post. Thanks for paying attention!
  • Jamal
    9.2k
    Ha! Yeah I hate it when people respond to my posts before I get a chance to correct them.
  • Jamal
    9.2k
    I'm a bit confused. Would anyone like to try setting out exactly why a meta-ethics based on an empirical concept of the human form of life is such a bad thing? Why, for example, the position automatically falls at the hands of Moore and Hume.

    I said that our normative naturalists are marked off by the central place they give to the concept human in practical philosophy, as its highest concept and the index of the generality of its most abstract principles. This feature of these doctrines has been greeted with alarm by the larger literature as introducing something empirical or even biological into ethical theory. — Thompson

    I understand the concern about biologism, but the empirical as such doesn't seem too threatening.
  • Mongrel
    3k
    I'd grant that the use of the concept of a life form is apriori knowledge.

    I don't see that protecting naturalistic normativity from the Sojourner Truth test. Sojourner Truth, a famous American civil rights activist answered a naturalistic argument for sexism by presenting herself as evidence (she was a six foot tall former slave.)

    'You say that women have to be helped up into carriages and given the best places to sit. Nobody helps me up. Nobody gives me the best place to sit. Ain't I a woman?'

    Naturalistic normativity ends in ambivalence because we can't be sure if what we observe is the human form or a cultural form (just one tiny portion of the human potential.)

    I'm pleased that I could explain that without bringing up Nazi science. Crap....

    No, normative naturalism contains a latent danger. It's better to remember that every generation does the best it can. Every generation screws up. The world will never be perfect.
  • Pierre-Normand
    2.3k
    My doubt, I suppose, is about how and whether the life form concept is one of these formal concepts (I know it's in the name, but still), because I can't see exactly how the life form concept differs logically from other concepts that Thompson admits are empirical, such as mammal.jamalrob

    Here is a suggestion: Although 'mammal' may be viewed as a (purely) empirical rather than a formal concept, it can't be applied in experience autonomously without reliance to the formal concept of a form of life, just like the empirical concept of something's being red can't be applied without the formal concept of a 'substance' (or a so called 'spatiotemporal continuant' -- P.M.S. Hacker); or like the "restriction of a sortal-concept" (David Wiggins), such as 'child' can't be employed without also tacitly employing the formal concept of the specific substance 'human being' that it is a restriction of. In this case, the (unrestricted) sortal-concept carries with it all the individuation and persistence criteria needed to single out in thought the singular substances falling under it.

    The idea of a 'purely' empirical concept, I think, may be the idea of a common accidental feature that can be abstracted in a principled way (maybe for some explanatory, pragmatic or theoretical purpose) from a range of possible object of experience, albeit not such a highly systematic manner that the object themselves can't be thought of apart from their constitutive relations with this empirical concept. Hence when we have thought of some singular X as being a child (or as being red), we haven't fully individuated this object of experience in thought (i.e. understood what it is, in the Aristotelian sense of quiddity) unless we also have grasped that this individual also is a human being (or a bookshelf) say. However, if we have simply grasped that X is a human being (while ignoring how old she is) or that something is a bookshelf (while being unable to distinguish its color) then we still have fully singled it out in thought.

    Maybe 'mammal's status as an empirical concept is contentious since, viewed as an evolutionary separate lineage (i.e. a clade), is it tantamount to a concept of a species, and hence is "formal" at this level. It is, in other words, an essential rather than an accidental property of the individuals belonging to this class. But it is still suitably 'empirical' as a category that is abstracted from experiences we have had of some range of individuals, each of which is independently understood to be an exemplar of a specific life form, and prior to our having individuated them more specifically as belonging essentially to this class. If such a more specific concept is viewed as necessary in order to fully grasp what the object falling under it is, then the more abstract and generic form can thereafter be viewed as a schema that needs being filled up with an index in order to figure in an empirical judgment concerning a singular individual.
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    12.6k
    His demonstration relies on the logico-metaphysical analysis of the concept of the human form, a specific instantiation of the concept of a form of life.Pierre-Normand

    What do you think is meant by "the concept of a form of life"? In Aristotle's biology, "On the Soul (De Anima)", soul is defined as the first actuality of a natural body having life potentially in it. Bk. 2 Ch.1. Under Aristotelian definitions, an actuality is a form, and he is careful to distinguish between a natural body and the form of the body.

    Thus he proceeds to differentiate between two senses of "actuality", corresponding to "possessing knowledge", and actual exercising of knowledge. Each of these are forms, or actualities, but one, "possessing knowledge" can be understood as inherently a potentiality, because possessing knowledge is what gives one the capacity to act. This is the type of actuality which Aristotle assigns to the soul.

    So, despite the fact that it is defined as an actuality, soul is described as a potentiality. This is a substantial ambiguity which manifests with considerable significance in such fields as ethics; "ought" being associated with potential, and "is" being associated with actual.

    The difference is this. Traditional logic accepts as what actually is, a defined state, this is the form of what is, the first sense of "actuality". But in the process of change, there is activity which occurs between one defined state and another. This produces the second sense of "actuality", the exercising of knowledge, the activity which exists between two temporally separated, defined states.

    The activity which produces one state from another is described in terms of potentiality, or possibilities, because one state doesn't necessarily lead to another, there are many possible states which may follow any particular state. So the determination of a desired state (the end), dictates what "ought" to be carried out (the means), for achieving that end. Then "ought" refers to the activity which occurs between two definable states (actual logical forms), but is itself a type of actuality which is described logically in terms of potentiality, in order to separate it from logical actualities (forms of what is).

    I'm a bit confused. Would anyone like to try setting out exactly why a meta-ethics based on an empirical concept of the human form of life is such a bad thing?jamalrob

    The problem should be evident if you can decipher what I just said. We have two distinct types of actualities, and therefore two distinct types of forms. The logical form is the defined "what is", and this is your "the human form of life", the human description of itself. But this type of form is inherently inconsistent with the other type of actuality, or form, which is the activity itself, that occurs between such described states of what is. So to base an ethics in this artificial description, "the human form of life", rather than in the activity which life is involved in, simply misses the mark of what ethics should be all about.
  • Deleteduserrc
    2.8k
    And if we also agree that there is an a priori intellectual structure carried into the scene, couldn't we say that this structure is not that concerning life forms, but is rather that which lies behind these concepts, pure a priori concepts such as universal and particular or form and individual?jamalrob

    I had this problem as well. Thompson kind of - kind of - addresses this:

    "The opposition of individual organism and life form is, as we might say, a more determinate form of the opposition of individual and universal in general, and shares the a priori character the latter"

    But I can't identify any aspect of Thompson's five-fold grammar of life that is more determinate than the universal 'grammar' of any object at all. Wouldn't all five types of judgments apply just as well to, say, stars?
  • Jamal
    9.2k
    Yes, I did notice that bit, and I agree it's not satisfying. Really it's a different way of putting the point at issue. May say more later.
  • Deleteduserrc
    2.8k
    I understand the concern about biologism, but the empirical as such doesn't seem too threatening.jamalrob

    The only way I can parse this concern is to read into it a fear of ethical dictates being merely contingent. Except (1) Thompson has already jettisoned any hope for a universal ethics (maybe justice wouldn't apply to aliens) & (2) the a priori knowledge he claims we have about our own life form is thoroughly contingent (&, like you, I'm not even sure it really is a priori. )

    It feels to me like Thompson, in this essay, is more concerned with beating his opponents on their terms (wiping away the 'smugness' he mentions) than with working out the immanent logic of his own view.
  • Deleteduserrc
    2.8k
    i think it's also worth mentioning that, for Kant, a priori knowledge is always characterized by both necessity and universality. Thompson does not appear to share this view. But this means he's more or less guaranteed to talk past any deontologist he chooses to engage.
  • TheWillowOfDarkness
    2.1k
    Life has no form. The problem with such an argument is that it confuses the form expressed by instances of life for an ethical value. Somewhat similar to the direction Thompson takes when talking about the "a priori" notion of life, our concept of "life" or "human" or "nature" is not biological.

    It's logical (and ethical). When we use the category of "human life," we are pointing out a logical expression of many things which have an a equivalent logical value. This is why the "Is it human?" or "Is it life?" question comes up so often. We are not trying to identify a particular body or life form with this concept, but rather the presence of a being who matters like some others.

    When we refer to "form of life" or "nature" we are either attempting to limit use of this category those with a particular form or believe that states of (i.e. existing life) is only restricted to them--e.g. "gay people are monsters (i.e. not human life) who cannot even exist (i.e. for someone to be gay is logically impossible; humans are necessarily heterosexual)."

    Ethics based on the form of human life is made on the equivocation of a form expressed by some (e.g. heterosexual) with the category of life (e.g. a being who is a state of the world). It defines normative prejudice (e.g. only heterosexuality is moral) as equivalent to the meaning of a present biology or practice (e.g. human "nature" is heterosexual. Anything else is logically impossible), hiding it beneath the masquerade of it "being the facts."

    Our concepts of the empirical world never are the empirical world. One is our understanding of something, at best description of on small part of the world or person, at worst an insistence of what we think they are meant to be. I'm reminded of the distinction between bodies and the discourse of sex here.

    We say that, upon apprehending the form of individual's body, that they must belong to the category of "male" or "female" because of it. Supposedly, existing with a body that expresses a particular form is meant to define which sex category someone belongs to. But it doesn't. A body is not a sex category. One is someone's body. The other is entirely our notion of what someone means. To have a body expressing a form does not mean someone must belong to any particular sex category at all. Which category we use for someone is entirely up to us, defined in our actions, reactions and language towards the person in question, a question of the logical meaning of the ethical category itself, not any form of the body we might have understood.

    Biological meaning is not ethical meaning (not even the ethical meanings which reference biology).
  • Pierre-Normand
    2.3k
    Biological meaning is not ethical meaning (not even the ethical meanings which reference biology).TheWillowOfDarkness

    Thompson would certainly agree. On his view, the validation of ethical principles is internal to practical reason. This is why he agrees with McDowell that ethics can't be validated "from sideways on" with an eye, that is, on empirical biological facts about our own "nature". Substantive biological facts are predicated of individual living organisms according to a form of predication that is brought to the scene a priori, and so is it for normative standards of goodness that attach to specific life forms (such as our own). Here again, it is only the form of predication that is known a priory, not the truth of the substantive propositions that results from such predication (including general ethical principles). What is also known a priori is the scope of the generality of the principles, and this is the class of the bearers of the life form that we belong to (the human form). But this again doesn't entail that there are any biological facts that we can gain a priori knowledge of, let alone them being such as to ground general moral principles (which we rather validate through practical reasoning).
  • Mongrel
    3k
    I understood Thompson to be suggesting that ethical statements are generated in basically the same way normative statements about sight are.

    I don't see how it matters that practical reasoning is used for validation. The normative statements themselves are supposed to be derived from an understanding of the human form. Our ability to do that sort of derivation in regard to sight is apparently apriori. Same goes for deriving moral principles. That is his position, right?
  • TheWillowOfDarkness
    2.1k
    From my initial read, that was my feeling too. Use of the logical expression of biology to defend the idea of a naturalistic morality. To me it felt like he was doubling down on the biologist error, equating the descriptive meaning (e.g. sight) expressed by states of the world with the expression of ethical meaning.

    It's more a defence of naturalistic morality built on the grounds that "nature" is not a question of existing states, but rather a logical rules of existing states, so eliminating the accusation of equivocating descriptions of ethics with descriptions of the world-- those descriptions of nature are really logical not empirical, so (supposedly) naturalistic morality isn't confusing the empirical with ethics.


    "And this means - doesn't it? - that we have provided an opening, however narrow it may be,for the possibility of a naturalist interpretation of the content of normative judgment. We have provided an opening, that is, for the view that our fundamental moral and practical knowledge - our knowledge of good and evil and of what is rational and irrational in human action - is at the same time knowledge implicitly about the specifically human form, knowledge of how the well-working human practical reason reasons, yet in no way a biological or empirical knowledge or any sort of knowledge that derives from observation." — Thompson

    In concluding he ends up equivocating knowledge of ethics with understanding of the human form. It is, to my mind, just more of the same equivocation of human form with ethics. We might well use his "alien" argument within the context of humanity itself. If a different species doesn't work to our rules, even ones are clearly about something important (e.g. it's wrong to eat other living humans), due to a difference of biology and opinion, why can that not work within the human community too? What if a human has a biology and understanding that has them hunting other humans? In comparison to other humans they are effectively "alien," so how come they have to endure immorality while other species who do exactly the same do not?

    Thompson is still making ethics a matter of "human nature"-- if you are understood as human, then this must apply-- rather than a question of ethics an states themselves. In the process, he makes a mockery of ethics. If we met an advanced alien species which happens to hunt other life forms, are we to set back and say: "Yes, that's morally fine because we are human?" Or conversely, if we meet an advanced alien species, are we going to sit back an say it's fine for humans to hunt them because they aren't human?

    He keeps the underlying equivocation of the biologist-- ethics are derived from our logical understanding of the existence of particular beings. He just treats description of the logical expression of out identity as existing states as the ground, rather than description of bodies as other moral naturalists might.
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    12.6k
    The problem here is that the intent of ethics is not to maintain the status quo. It is not to maintain the human form. Ethics is all about improvement, that's why it is concerned with what ought to be, rather than what is. Therefore any such naturalist ethics, which derives what one ought to do, from a principle of what the human form is, misses the mark, and should be rejected because it has no provisions for improvement of the human species. And when we move to produce the premise of what the human form ought to be, there is an issue of objectivity.

    Clearly, it's a very practical problem. When we produce the universal, which is the abstract concept, of "the human form", the definition of the human being, which will act as our logical premise, do we include the bad properties of human beings as well as the good? To create a true definition of what the human form is, we must include bad with good. To create a definition of what the human form ought to be, we must exclude the bad.

    This is a reflection on the way we use words in general. There is "a way" in which any word is used in practise, but this includes multiple different senses of usage in different contexts, and problems with ambiguity. So when we define a word, as a premise for a logical proceeding, we restrict the meaning, of that word, assuming that certain usage is inappropriate for that proceeding, focusing on a specific definition which suits the purpose of the intended logical proceeding. Living things are active, and we may attempt to define them with respect to the activities which they engage in. In the case of "the human form", we'd be inclined to say that such acts as murder and rape are not human acts, despite the fact that some human beings engage in those acts. Those are accidentals which we must work to exclude, completely.

    A problem arises if we start to go beyond the bounds of what is reasonable, in our attempts to restrict the definition of a word. We cannot force an unreal description of what it means to be a virtuous human being, despite the fact that we want the highest standards of excellence for the human race. This ties in to Aristotle's doctrine of the mean. If the proposed definition is not acceptable as a good representation of what the human form ought to be, whether having too little, or too much, restrictions, it will be rejected as a false premise.
  • mcdoodle
    1.1k
    If a lost group of neanderthals emerged from the forests of Siberia, how would we react? Are they Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or homo neanderthalensis? Apparently some of 'our' ancestors and some of 'their' ancestors fucked, so are 'they' 'us'? Or am I misunderstanding the boundary of a form of life?

    I've reread the article a few times now, and I keep thinking: I wouldn't start from here. Maybe it's because for fun I'm reading Levinas for the first time, but I'm feeling that Thompson is reading something from the outside in, which one of those darned Continentals would read from the inside out. Dasein begins with Dasein's being-in-the-world, and this may be non-analysable. Even to edge towards the notion that the form of life is a priori seems more of a nod to Plato than to Aristotle - to what Levinas calls the Eleatic, i.e. the universalising, the univocal, against the pluralist.

    But perhaps this just demonstrates I'm committed to a pluralist empiricism and that I accordingly agree, I can't see what's wrong with a meta-ethic built from its foundations :)
  • Deleteduserrc
    2.8k
    @Pierre-Normand
    I'm curious as to whether you think Thompson's argument works. It feels to me like, if you drop the slightly confused transcendental idealist trappings, he's basically saying we can discover moral truths through self-examination alone. But what if I'm a sociopath? Doesn't his argument presume that through introspection alone I can infer rules which obtain for the entire species? And doesn't that presume I'm well-formed, not "blind?"
  • Deleteduserrc
    2.8k
    Isn't Thompson explicitly arguing from the "inside out"?
  • mcdoodle
    1.1k
    No, I don't think Thompson argues explicitly from the inside out. I said the opposite. My suggestion is that he's trying to find an analytic-style answer to a question that isn't susceptible to such answers. Perhaps you could quote where he's arguing that 'we can discover moral truths through self-examination alone', or explain the steps from his words to your summary.
bold
italic
underline
strike
code
quote
ulist
image
url
mention
reveal
youtube
tweet
Add a Comment