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Against absolute goodness

Richard Kraut interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Richard Kraut broods constantly on Ancient philosophy and ethics, thinks utilitarianism, Kantian and neo-Kantian Rawlsianism are hedonistic and faulty, thinks Aristotle very relevant and thinks goodness figures large in our everyday thinking. He has written many books about these and related matters and all his thoughts are groovaciously deep-fried. Which of course makes him distinctly bodacious.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? You’ve been one for some time now. In that time, what have been the biggest changes you’ve witnessed to the way philosophy is done and its status? Has it been as satisfying as you hoped?

Richard Kraut: I started developing an interest in philosophy when I was in high school (Erasmus Hall, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn). My older sister had completed college, and had been a philosophy major, so there were some philosophy books lying around the house. I can’t recall reading any of them, but their titles intrigued me. And somehow or other I fell in with a group of brainy kids who were reading Bertrand Russell – Unpopular Essays and Marriage and Morals, not his “technical philosophy,” but, even so, enough to make me want to take a philosophy course as soon as I went away to college (University of Michigan).

The subject took hold: I enrolled in philosophy courses every term, enjoyed them all, became a philosophy major, and had no doubts about going to graduate school (I wound up at Princeton). It was a smooth, easy process. I’ve never had any regrets, and have never felt conflicted about the value of philosophy or whether it was something I should be pursuing. Yes, it’s been as satisfying as I hoped it would be – perhaps more so. I was extremely lucky, because there is no way of knowing in advance whether one’s interest in a subject is going to continue to develop or fade. Or whether new ideas will keep coming.

You ask about changes in the way philosophy is done and its status. I was an undergraduate and a graduate student in the 60s, and when I look back at the 40 years of philosophical work that has been done since then, my sense is that it has been a period of tremendous growth and accomplishment. The subject of moral philosophy has been enriched by many great figures like Rawls, Nagel, Scanlon, Williams, and Parfit. In the study of ancient philosophy, there have been many advances in our understanding of the three main Hellenistic schools (stoicism, epicureanism, skepticism), while the study of Plato and Aristotle has also flourished. My sense is that as an intellectual practice academic philosophy is in a healthy condition. The importance of such major thinkers as Hegel and Heidegger is more widely acknowledged than it was when I was a student, and there is a broad consensus among academic philosophers that the subject should never lose touch with the canon of great historical works of earlier centuries.

Since philosophy is inherently an adversarial activity (one is always arguing against someone), it is in a way remarkable that we agree as much as we do about which problems ought to be taken seriously and which authors should be read. One unhealthy change should be mentioned, however: it has become necessary for academic philosophers to do quite a bit of publishing in order to remain in the profession. Graduate students are encouraged to have one or two publications in professional journals. At research universities (and even at some teaching-oriented liberal arts colleges), junior faculty members must have five or six publications or a book, if they want to become tenured. There is nothing unfair about any of this; these or comparable quantitative standards apply to every academic field. But I think philosophy is a field in which it often takes decades to reach a point at which one has something very important and worthwhile to say. One result is that some talented philosophers who might have done valuable work leave the field because they are developing too slowly. I suspect that many other academic fields do not suffer in the same way from the pressure, which arose in the 1970s, to publish and establish one’s reputation at an early stage of one’s career. Is economics, for example, losing talented economists because of the need to publish? I doubt it. But I’m pretty sure that philosophy is.

I’m not sure what is meant by the “status” of philosophy, but here are some thoughts that might be relevant. In my experience, philosophy is a subject that has a deep hold on a significant number of intellectually curious young people. They naturally love the questions it asks, and they appreciate the rigor and depth of the great historical figures. Some people will be bitten by the philosophy bug; they need only be exposed to it. But there are other people who are annoyed when they encounter philosophy, because they expect it to be at the same time profound and easy to understand. If they have to work hard at it, they think that somehow or other this is the fault of the writer – that it should be as easy to read philosophy as it is to read a work of popular history or a magazine article. They don’t think that mathematics or physics or ancient Greek should be easy, but for some reason they do have that expectation of philosophy. This attitude exists, I think, even within academia. There too, philosophy is regarded as insular and needlessly obscure. In that respect, I think the “status” of my discipline is not what it should be. I don’t think this is a problem that has become worse over the years. But it has not become better.

It’s not as though I think that philosophers should be entirely let off the hook. I often come across philosophical writing that could have been made more reader-friendly, had the author been aiming to write for an audience of people who are interested in philosophy but are not yet specialists. Often, just a bit more effort would have allowed the author’s thoughts to reach a wider audience. So, my view is that the “status” of philosophy suffers for several reasons, and that philosophers are partly, but only partly, responsible for this.

3:AM: You’re an expert in ancient philosophy, but you use this expertise to engage with vital contemporary moral and political issues. Is this something that drew you to this domain, or was it something that grew out of realising that the Ancients had something to say to us?

RK: I fell in love with Plato’s writings as soon as I started reading him, and this made me want to learn Greek (which I began studying intensively between my sophomore and junior years). Plato’s ethical and political works are accessible to beginners and have a powerful protreptic quality – they are emotionally powerful and make philosophy seem more important than any other human pursuit. (I am thinking particularly of his Gorgias.) It took me more time to appreciate Aristotle. As a separate interest, I also started reading widely in contemporary moral and political philosophy.

It may sound strange to say that this was a “separate interest” but what I mean is that I didn’t, at first, think that Plato or Aristotle had to be compared with philosophers of the twentieth century. I found their ideas intriguing and worth exploring for their own sake, and I wasn’t committed to any notion that modern or contemporary philosophy was inferior, or that philosophy had better turn back to its roots in antiquity. But over the years, I started developing an interest, which grew stronger, in the question of which ideas (if any) in Plato or Aristotle (or later ancient Western philosophers) could still be defended – and of providing a defense for them. So I turned increasingly from primarily historical and interpretive questions to the project of assessing the strengths or weaknesses of what these historical figures were saying. When I had a year’s leave of absence in 2004, I wrote the first draft of What is Good and Why, which defends some very Aristotelian ideas about human well-being.

3:AM: In that book you challenge two mainstream strands of contemporary ethical theories with ideas developed from the Ancient Greeks don’t you? You argue that neither utilitarianism nor neo-Kantian Rawlsian contracturalism are adequate. Before you say what you propose in their stead, what are the main difficulties that you identify with these two approaches to ethics?

RK: Utilitarianism in its classical formulation (the utilitarianism of Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick) says that there is one supreme principle of morality: maximise the good. Much of the opposition to it in the twentieth century has recoiled from it because of the way in which this seems at odds with our ordinary thinking. As W. D. Ross pointed out in The Right and the Good, it is an awful reason to break a promise that, after giving one’s word, one discovers a better use of one’s time (better in utilitarian terms). No promisee would accept that as a legitimate justification for failing to honor a commitment – and who could blame him?

Rawls also used a powerful example, in A Theory of Justice: it would not be a justification of slavery if it turned out that it produced the most good – if the suffering of the slaves was sufficiently outweighed by the well-being of the masters. It’s not an adequate reason to enslave people that other people would benefit a great deal from being slave-masters.

There is another problem with classical utilitarianism: it was committed to the thesis that the good that is to be maximised is one thing only – pleasure (and similarly the only bad thing to be avoided is pain). Early twentieth century philosophers who wanted to remain utilitarians – I am thinking of G. E. Moore and Hastings Rashdall – were attracted, for good reasons, to a more pluralistic conception of what is good. They held that such things as knowledge, virtue, beauty, and friendship are good in themselves, and are not merely to be valued as sources of pleasure.

But the more fundamental problem is the one that Ross and Rawls identified. Even if utilitarianism embraces a pluralistic conception of the good, their objections will remain powerful against that new version.

As to your question about “neo-Kantian Rawlsianism”: there are several things to say here. Kant himself has a hedonistic conception of the human good, and so his theory has that weakness in common with classical utilitarianism. Rawls did well to reject hedonism in A Theory of Justice, but what he replaced it with is not very satisfactory. His idea (and here he borrows from Sidgwick) is that what is good for a human being is the fulfillment of the plan that he would rationally choose were he to deliberate fully and clearly about his options.

Basically, the thought is that you construct what is good for you by following a certain procedure: whatever the outcome of that procedure is, that’s where your good lies. He acknowledged that according to this view if someone rationally chooses to devote his life to counting blades of grass, then that really is best for him. Obviously, the notion of rationality is doing a lot of work in this theory, but Rawls, like most philosophers, makes the standards of rationality rather low – it requires little more than thinking coolly and consistently. So, he is saying: if someone coolly and consistently decides to spend his life doing something that strikes other people as boring and trivial, he is nonetheless doing what is most of all in his interest to do, because what is best for someone is defined as whatever arises from a rational procedure. My reaction to this example, like most people’s, is that it would have been better for the grass-counter to devote himself to other activities. We can recognise that such a life has less of what is good for the person living it than do other human lives. There’s a standard we use to evaluate how good his life is for him, and judged by that standard, the grass-counter could have done better – even if he made his decision without violating the very weak norms of rationality that Rawls has in mind.

In his second great work, Political Liberalism, Rawls portrays his theory of goodness (which he calls “goodness as rationality”) as one that is to be used solely for purposes of constitutional design and basic justice. It is not meant to be in competition with hedonism or any of the historically important theories of goodness: all such theories (which he calls “comprehensive”) are inherently divisive and controversial, and so they should be used primarily in the private sphere. That form of liberalism, which adopts a stance of neutrality between competing conceptions of the good, has many defenders and opponents. It is currently one of the great divisions in contemporary political philosophy.

A point that is often overlooked is that Rawls remains committed, even in Political Liberalism, to the thesis that some conception of the good must be used in the political realm. He never suggests that political theory can get by simply with a theory of justice or moral rightness – or that these notions can be understood independently of a conception of what is good for citizens. Rather, his idea is that the theory of goodness that he proposes in A Theory of Justice –what he calls “goodness as rationality” – is the theory that ought to be used by citizens when they reflect on matters of basic justice and constitutional design.

It’s therefore a fair question to pose about Rawls: what is it about this theory of goodness (goodness as rationality) that makes it the best theory of goodness for a political community? I don’t think his work directly addressed that question, but presumably the answer he would give is that justice requires one to use goodness as rationality in one’s dealings with fellow citizens. In other words, goodness as rationality does not (for Rawls) need to be the correct or best answer to the question, “what is good for human beings?” It only needs to be the theory of goodness that justice requires us to use.

I find that an implausible view because it amounts to saying that in the political realm we ought to treat others as though goodness consists in one thing, even if we think and publicly announce that it consists in another. It’s much more attractive to look for a theory of what is good for human beings that can be defended on philosophical grounds and that can at the same time serve as a publicly recognised standard of well-being. Rawls thought that this has become an impossibility in the modern world, but I am not that pessimistic.

3:AM: Your approach is largely a mix of Platonism and Aristotelianism, isn’t it? I think you call it a developmental theory of well-being that places the idea of ‘flourishing’ at its heart, don’t you? But you’re not using that term to mean ‘human flourishing’ are you? You say at one point: ‘Good poetry, good wolves, goof thieves, and good people are all good in the same way: in all cases, some contribution is made to what is good for someone, and that is what supports the judgment that S is a good K’. Can you say something about this crucial idea and then how your ethical system works?

RK: My approach does have both Platonic and Aristotelian elements, but probably the Aristotelian aspect of it is more pronounced. There is a kind of realism that both Plato and Aristotle share, and I’m very attracted to it. They both rejected the view that goodness, beauty, justice and other such properties are human constructions – that there is no other standard of correctness than an individual’s preferences or whatever norms happen to prevail in this or that society.

Against this, they think that what is good for someone is rather like what is healthy for someone: it’s not the creation of our thinking but a real property that is “there” whether we realise it or not. You can have a disease that will make you die at an early age, and neither you nor anyone else might realize that you are unhealthy in this way. That disease is bad for you, even though no one knows of it. Similarly, a society can be unjust even if no one thinks of it as unjust.

The way in which Aristotle has had a greater influence on my thinking is this: Plato tends to think of goodness as a property that mathematics can help us understand. The idea is that what makes things good (a good poem, a good person, a good building) is a certain proportion, balance, structure, or harmony. It’s not a silly idea. So, he concluded that if we study the geometry of planes and solids, or the harmonies of music, that will help make us better decision-makers (provided we have been well educated in other ways). That strikes me as an intriguing idea that has not been very fruitful.

Aristotle shows no interest in it, and I think his instincts were right. So he pares away the parts of Plato that rely on this mathematical conception of goodness, and what remains is a conception of the well-lived human life as something that arises out of the good dispositions that children normally have and the good habits they acquire when they are well brought up. It’s a process in which certain potentialities of human nature are actualised through a long and gradual process – a process in which we become more skilled at recognizing what we have reason to do and why, and in which our emotions become more responsive to those reasons.

People sometimes say that in Aristotle’s writings the Greek word that is often translated “happiness” (eudaimonia) really would be better translated “flourishing.” That’s not quite right. It would be better to say that eudaimon means something like “living well,” and that Aristotle’s distinctive conception of what it is for a human being to live well calls for that individual’s rational and emotional powers to unfold properly over a long period of time. “Flourishing” and “thriving” are good ways of capturing this idea.

As you point out, it’s part of my view that the concept of flourishing has very broad application. It applies not just to human beings but to many other living things. We can say that certain kinds of animals do not flourish in captivity. Or that your hibiscus is not flourishing in that windowsill. That leads me to the thought that what it is for any living thing to have a life that is good for it is for that organism’s potential to grow and develop and be exercised in a mature form. What makes a good human life good for the one who is living it is, in this respect, similar to what makes any living thing fare well.

Of course, this idea is too abstract to provide any answers to the concrete questions we face about how to manage our lives. But it fits with the realism that I find in Plato and Aristotle. Just as a plant’s flourishing is not a matter of it’s living according to a standard that it devises (plants can’t do that sort of thing), so too with us.

I want (finally) to respond to your question about good poetry, good wolves, good people, good thieves, and so on. One of the hypotheses I endorse in What is Good and Why is that when we evaluate things in relation to the kind to which they belong (a poem is not just plain good – it’s good as a poem), we should consider whom they are good for. Here’s an obvious example: a college or a university can’t be a good college or university unless it is good for someone. Even All Souls (in Oxford), which admits no students, has to be good for the scholars who have positions there – if it is to be a good college. More typically, good schools have to be good for students. Good people are also good for someone – they ought to be able to help at least some others.

These are very plausible and unambitious claims. But I admit that there are cases in which my hypothesis could be challenged. Must a good poem, for example, be good for someone? That’s a difficult issue in the philosophy of art, but I’m inclined to think what makes poetry good is the way in which it exercises and expands our imagination and our emotional life. A mind exposed to good poetry grows, and that’s good for the mind. But there are other hard cases. What about a good thief – is someone’s being a good thief good for anyone? Most people would say that being a good thief is simply a matter of skill at thievery, and that whether such a skill does anyone any good is irrelevant. But why do we assume that one skill a thief ought to have is the ability to avoid detection? Obviously because we take it to be bad for the thief (or for his employers, or the government he is working for) to be detected. The skills a thief ought to have are simply the ones it would be good for him (or those on whose behalf he is working) to have.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 2nd, 2012.