The Metaphysics of ‘Natural Goodness’, Pt. III

This is part of a series where we outline a way that we might base some sort of Aristotelean philosophy on modern science, especially biology. In this post, we look at modern biology a la “Selfish Gene” for some conception of the “Summum Bonum” or “Supreme Good”.

Modern views on life’s “top-level function”.

Modern biology has an ambiguous relationship with teleology. One famous quip (whose source I cannot recall) says that “evolutionary biology believes in teleology during the week but not on Sundays.” I take this to mean that teleology is necessary in everyday biological work, but in biological theoryteleology seems out of place. Why is this so? For these reasons:

  1. Biology supervenes on physics.
  2. Physics lacks teleology.
  3. Darwinian theory is utterly a-teleological.

In the following, I hope to show that even though points 1) and 2) are correct, point 3) does not follow.1Even if we did assume all three points, biologists are forced to admit that something like “purpose” is part of their field. The very concept of “adaptation” implies being adapted for some sort of purpose, and this sense of purpose clearly supervenes on physics. Julian Huxley and Niko Tinbergen both listed “function” as one of the major questions answerable by evolutionary science, in addition to phylogenetic, ontogenetic, and mechanistic questions. (Hladaky andHavlíček1998) But when theoretical biologists thematize the teleology inherent (as I believe) in their field of study, they do so in a way that betrays how weird Darwinian teleology truly is. Take for example the opening of “The Selfish Gene”:

This book should be read almost as though it were science fiction. It is designed to appeal to the imagination. But it is not science fiction: it is science. Cliche or not, ‘stranger than fiction’ expresses exactly how I feel about the truth. We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. Though I have known it for years, I never seem to get fully used to it. One of my hopes is that I may have some success in astonishing others. (Dawkins pp. vii)

Notice how in this statement, he states what natural living thingsqualiving are for, according to evolutionary theory. Later on Dawkins characterizes his ‘Selfish Gene’ thesisagainst a background of competing evolutionary teleologies:

The trouble with these [other]books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).(Dawkins pp. 2)

The “Selfish Gene” theory is a teleological theory that prescribes what we should expect to find in the structure and behavior of living creatures:

If we were told that a man had lived a long and prosperous life in the world of Chicago gangsters, we would be entitled to make some guesses as to the sort of man he was. We might expect that he would have qualities such as toughness, a quick trigger finger, and the ability to attract loyal friends. These would not be infallible deductions, but you can make some inferences about a man’s character if you know something about the conditions in which he has survived and prospered. The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. ‘Special’ and ‘limited’ are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense. (Dawkins pp. 2)

So we can clearly see that the entire Selfish Gene theory is about natural teleology. Clearly we have come a long way from Athens to Oxford, butteleologicalconcepts arestill just as essential for Darwin as they are for Aristotle.

Conclusion: Ethics As Physics

Now we are in a position to ask some rather weird questions about morality. For example, what is the purpose of morality? There are two trends to be noticed in most modern authors: one is that morality is an inherent good; I am now thinking of Kant’s statement ‘There is nothing in heaven or earth that is good in itself except a good will.’ (Citation?)Others think that morality is some instrumental good; most consequentialism or contractualism would say that moral behavior serves to maximize the payoff of the felicific calculus. In the light of our previous discussion, we are not in a position to develop a new approach to this, that of biology. We shall strive to place ourselves in the epistemic position of some alien anthropologists who step off their flying saucer and observe various behaviors of the species Homo sapiens. How would they explain moral behavior within the limits of science alone? This is not an idle question; every day biologists in the field are faced with unexplained behaviors of a wide variety of organisms. An instructive example is a recent decade-long effort to explain the reproductive behavior of a certain slime-mold. This slime mold is a ‘colonial’ organism; meaning that while it does exhibit extensive cooperation, it is made up of separate cells with their own genotypes.


Among the many implications of this view are the following:

Morality is for a purpose, this purpose is the purpose for which we are alive, it is natural, morality is not a “by product” of the structure of our brains which evolved for some other purpose:

It may be objected that if some aspects of our capacity to reason conferred an evolutionary advantage, while other aspects were disadvantageous in that respect (perhaps because they lead us to act more altruistically that we would otherwise have done), then those other aspects would have been selected against and would have disappeared. … It appears to be the case, however, that we have retained capacities to reason that do not confer any evolutionary advantage and may even be disadvantageous. How can that be? A plausible explanation of the existence of these capacities is that the ability to reason comes as a package that could not be economically divided by evolutionary pressures. Either we have a capacity to reason that includes the capacity to do advance phyics and mathematics and grasp objective moral truths, or we would have a much more limited capacity to reason that lacks not only these abilities but other that confer an overriding evolutionary advantage. If reason is a unity of this kind, having the package would have been more conducive to survival than not having it. (de Lazari and Singer pp. 17)







Aristotle, & McKeon, R. (1941). The basic works of Aristotle.NY:Random House.

Boulter, Stephen. Metaphysics from a biological point of view. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Dawkins, Richard. Theselfish gene. Oxford Univ Press, 2016.

De Cruz, Helen. Innate ideas as a naturalistic source of of mathematical knowledge; towards a Darwinian approach to mathematics. (PhD. dissertation) Brussel: Vrije Universiteit Brussel, 2007

De Lazari-Radek, Singer, P. “The objectivity of ethics and the unity of practical reason.” Ethicsvol. 123, no. 1 (October 2012), pp. 9-21.

Feser, Edward. “From Aristotle to John Searle and Back Again: Formal Causes, Teleology, and Computation in Nature.” Nova et vetera, vol. 14, no. 2, 2016, pp. 459–494., doi:10.1353/nov.2016.0039.

Haidt, Jonathan. Therighteousmind:whygoodpeoplearedivided by politics and religion.New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Hladky,V., Havlíček, J. “Was Tinbergen an Aristotelean? Comparison Of Tinbergen’s Four Whys And Aristotle’s Four Causes” Human Ethology Bulletinvol. 28, no 4, 2013: pp. 3-11

Hull, David L. and Michael Ruse, (eds.), 1998, The Philosophy of Biology, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lowe, Ernest Jonathan. The possibility of metaphysics: substance, identity, and time. Clarendon Press, 2004.

O’Rourke, F. “Aristotle and the Metaphysics of Evolution” The Review of Metaphysics vol. 56, September 2004, pp. 3-59.

1. In short, I will argue that adaptive purpose is an emergent quality of physics, and thus does not derive its telosfrom physics in the same way we find in Aristotle. So long as adaptive functions can be implemented in known physical interactions, then we have all we need for our concept of ‘purpose’, which we hope to show is substantially the same as the of Aristotle.


Response to “A Critique of Foot’s Natural Goodness ” by Michael DeBellis

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The following is my response to an essay by Michael DeBellis criticizing Phillipa Foot’s thesis that virtue ethics can be based on a neo-Aristotlelian analysis of human behavior as a biological process. Below I will only respond to the first major section of the essay and hope that the reader will be able to see how I may approach the rest. As for Foot’s work, I have not read it but from what I have heard second-hand it seems to resemble mine in many respects, insofar as it takes interest in the sense that Aristotle treated ethics to be a subfield of natural science. Indeed any modern person is compelled to believe something like this upon the reading the “Physics” followed by the “Nicomachean Ethics”. So what I say below should not be taken as saying anything about Foot’s presentation of these ideas. Rather it is only concerning the issue she, Michael and I deal with in our work: the deeply Aristotelian idea that moral criticism of behavior might somehow be based on the same implicit biological teleology. In my view, the “implicit teleology” of biology is not that of form but of telos. What does this mean in normal non-philosophical English? When you hear people claim that “evolution has no telos”, this is correct if they are saying this in one of three ways:

  1. Evolution does not have intentions in the same way that an animal or human might; i.e. some subjective sense of purpose for action.
  2. Evolution does not aim at a particular form as its end point. It does not inevitably create humans or any other lifeform.
  3. Evolution does not arrange things to benefit any particular living creature or species. Nature is not ultimately “for” human benefit or welfare.

I do not deny any of these theses, but they do not exhaust the senses of natural purpose or function that are accepted among biologists. To see how this is so, I suggest you read the latter section “Different Sense of Ought” of my “The Theory of Ethical Selection”, where I have a taxonomy of goal oriented behaviors from Aristotle and show how phylogenetic evolution (teleology that is not oriented toward a particular form or beneficiary) is purposeful in a way that fits comfortably within an Aristotelian view. I think that the only reason that this is not common knowledge among philosophers is due to the contingent fact that the readership of Aristotle and evolutionary theory are somehow distinct. This need not be so, and this contingent fact makes much mischief with moral theory’s inability to deal with natural teleology and natural axiology.

DeBellis: “Aristotle or Evolution?”

From DeBellis: “In Natural Goodness (Foot 2001) Philippa Foot bases part of her argument on her interpretation of biology and what biology defines as a good non-human animal. I think her understanding of biology is flawed and her concept of a good or defective animal is incoherent. Early in the book, Foot declares that a wolf who is a free rider is defective. This is not accurate from a biological sense. Free riding is an example of a game theoretic strategy. It is usually the case that within a species different organisms adopt different strategies depending on the genes of the individual and/or the characteristics of the environment. Free riding is no more an a-priori defective strategy than sharing. They both emerge at various points in most social populations. Biologists analyze how often and when free riding occurs in social animals such as wolves and primates and the consequences that may apply to them by others in the pack when they do. However, these free rider animals are not considered defective, indeed in some species virtually all the conspecifics are free riders at some point in their lives.”

My Reply:

The main problem with this paragraph is that when discussing “ethics” DeBellis implicitly assumes that ethics is from a “God’s -eye view”. Indeed, he is correct in the sense that from a God’s eye view, parasites are just fine and in no way defective.  But no living creature exhibits cognition from God’s persepctive, they all seem to take on their own perspectives, and their perspectives always seems to be oriented towards increasing their inclusive fitness.

So parasitic species such as cuckoos and ticks do exist, and from a God’s eye view they are just as “fit” as other species, but this does not mean that we do not try to deny parasites the opportunity to free ride on our resources or bodies. But we do not ascribe moral vice to them; they are merely “bad” creatures, creatures whose badness is inherent in the entire species. Note that this “badness” is not from God’s eye, but from the “gene’s eye view”. From the view of our gene pool (the “gene’s-eye view”), parasites are indeed very bad and we should expect that any creature with any feelings or thoughts would dislike parasites. In fact, we can go further than this and say that any sentient creature ought to hate parasites. And more than that, all non-sentient creatures ought to behave as if they hate parasites. Why? From a gene’s eye view, it is obvious why, and this is the same reason why real actual creatures who actually believe in God (as in traditional peoples and modern conservatives) tend to believe in a God who hates parasites. (Surprise, surprise!) Why? Because they, just like everything else in the natural world, evolved. This fact alone, according to evolutionary theory, is enough to imply an objective and essential telos. In natural teleology, according to Richard Dawkins:

We are survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. (“The Selfish Gene”, preface to the 1976 edition, pp. 1)

The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. (“The Selfish Gene” pp. 2)

This is nothing other than a teleological argument, which claims that the axiom of modern biology is that all living creatures qua living creatures are for something. The “something” is none other than reproductive fitness over the long term (i.e. evolutionary or geological timescales), and this goal is what I will call “The Final Cause” (with capitals). It follows that everything about any living creature is either for The Final Cause, or is a by-product of some other trait which is for The Final Cause. Now you can doubt Dawkins on this point and claim that he is merely going with his religious instincts, but I will assume that he and Aristotle both know what they are talking about.

So now we turn back to morals: morality is not some imagined “God’s-eye” cognition, but rather evolved for The Final Cause. How would it benefit The Final Cause for a pack of wolves to accept a free rider or other parasite? It would not; on the contrary, it would cripple “their” Final Cause very much. In other words they ought not to allow parasites and free riders. By this use of “ought” I am not making a claim about what biologists should feel or think about the wolves, but only what wolves should feel or think about the creatures they meet and deal with.

Morality is itself an evolved behavior; its imperatives and principles are derived from those of life itself. At least that is my hypothesis, and it is falsifiable in the same way as any other hypothesis of ethology (the biology of animal behavior) is. Before you decide that it is wrong, perhaps you should ask your self if you actually have another explanation for moral behavior. As far as I can see, there have only been two other sorts of explanations given for morality: theism and dialectical materialism. Both of these share with my own Darwinian materialism the axiom that the cause for being of a thing is the essence of the thing. The parallels of Darwinian materialism and theism are explaored in the the section “God vs. the Fact/Value Distinction” of “The Theory of Ethical Selection”. (Someday I may explore the parallels with dialectical materialism. )

The key thing is that morality (qua animal behavior) originates from within the process of evolution and its imperatives are only meaningful from within that context, not from the deist God’s eye view standing outside the world. But this does not mean that these imperatives lose their force, on the contrary they gain their force from our status as living creatures of a certain type. So just as most standard non-Darwinain moral theories assume that moral laws only apply to humans and are based on human nature, so also do Darwinian materialists. The main difference is the we moral materialists have a defensible explanation for why all creatures could have different moral codes that are binding on each of us differently. All moral laws, for wolves or humans, only apply to the beings for whom they evolved. This does not deprive them of their imperative force, but is its “originative source” (Greek- “arkhe” a.k.a. “principle” or “foundation”).  In that sense they are all different, being specific in the original sense of “specific” – referring to a species of some genus (e.g. rational animal), but not to all the members of that genus (in my example, the genus “animal”).  On the other hand, all the specific animal moralities are not merely synonymous by chance (as where two unrelated things are called by the same word), but all refer to a common telos, sincethey all are based on the pursuit of the same thing: The (biological) Final Cause. In this sense,  darwinian materialism is closer to traditional human beliefs than the modern secular ethical theories of recent times. In fact, it never fails to astonish me just how effective religious practice is from a Darwinian perspective. And how could it be otherwise, given that the principles and causes underlying the behavior of living creatures be they religious or otherwise? The laws of nature are not up for ratification by anyone regardless of creed, we can only choose how we follow them. If you want to be moral, you will behave in such a way as to increase the fitness of your gene pool, if you behave the opposite, then you will be “immoral”.

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Noramativity a la Nature

In Evolutionary Ethics, ethics is an adaptation that comes from evolutionary processes. A common response to this is “It may be empirical theory, but is it also a normative theory? If evolution can can say why ethics exists, but can it say what we should do?” In the following I argue that it can in the following ways.

  1. Ethical Selection Theory gives a final cause for ethics, not merely a formal or material cause. Only a final cause can provide a normative theory.
  2. It constrains our choice of ethical theory based on the final causes for ethical behavior.

Once we see that ethics is essentially evolutionary, then evolutionary ethics is at least as normative as any ethical theory that has ever been proposed, in addition to having a factual basis in a well-founded theory of natural science concerning humans, the creature widely known to be ethical in nature.

The Final Cause of Ethics – “Not going extinct.”

  1. Evolutionary theory accepts final causes. It has to. Evolution is the explanation of adaptation. Adaptation is always essentially adaptation for something. As in for a purpose. “What is the purpose (Grk. telos) of bird’s wings?” Is a perfectly answerable question from within biology; not requiring any input from a non-naturalistic value theory. This is because evolution cannot be defined without adaptation and “adaptation” cannot be defined without teleology or “final causes”.
  2. Evolution is not merely about physical structures, but also about behavior.Behavior includes not merely physical movements, but also speaking, thinking and feelings. Your feelings of anger, love, or hunger are adaptive or maladaptive and serve a purpose. There is no ethologist in the world who does not think that animal feelings are not explained by evolutionary biology.
  3. Thus our ethical intuitions, both rational and sentimental, are all of them adaptive. This is proven by thinking what would happen without them. If one group people started murdering, lying, and stealing from each other without remorse, how could they compete with people who related to each other decently and morally? If this is true, then it necessarily follows that ethics is adaptive.Ethics are also inherited; by far the majority of ethical intuitions and concepts can only be understood and acted upon by humans. No animal raised as a human could ever be held ethically responsible nor hold other ethically responsible for acting from the respect of duty.
  4. Thus ethics is a evolved adaptive behavior, not just bodily movements or working together, but also the words, ideas and feelings that are also part of cooperation. Even the common idea that ethics is somehow supernatural is part of ethical behavior and should be explained by evolution.
  5. In science, the purpose of anything is “How it contributes to preventing extinction.” (Cf. Darwin 1859 )
  6. Therefore,  the purpose of cooperation is to avoid extinction.
  7. By 4 and 6, the purpose of ethics is to not go extinct. Q.E.D.

The normative value of avoiding extinction. Part 1: The Simple Cases

The most simple cases; or the paradoxes of modern non-evolutionary ethics:

  1. “The Repubnant Conclusion” – a paradox of utilitarianism.
  2. Extreme pacifism a la Tolstoy and Jesus.
  3. Voluntary Human Extinction
  4. Fad diets that do not suit your system such as vegetarianism and veganism. (Note that I am assuming that these diets are not healthy. I might be wrong. My point is that any diet which does not suit you is by that fact alone eliminated from your list of moral duties.)
  5. Many forms of radical feminism that discourage the reporductive role of women.
  6. Universal celibacy
  7. Extreme versions of animal rights.
  8. Extending full civil rights to children.

In all of these cases, we might have a hard time justifying our common practices within modern non-teleological ethical theories, but once ethics is placed in the context of natural final causes, their refutation is trivial. Furthermore, the way in which evolutionary ethics handles these paradoxes is quite in keeping with out naturally evolved moral intuitions.

Part 2: The Categorical Imperative as Evolutionary Stable Strategy

By the above Final Cause of Ethics, you can never be obligated to go extinct, because that would contradict the entire point of ethics. In other words, we can eliminate or argue against any ethical principle or rule that we have good reason to believe is maladaptive. “Maladaptive” in biology means that it cannot become part of an Evolutionary Stable Strategy.(ESS). Conversely, we can argue for actions that are part of our current ESS or may become our future (successful replacement) ESS. This means many things; but one of the most interesting is that an ESS must be able to be followed by the vast majority of a population and not lose its competitiveness. In my view this is the truth behind Kant’s requirement that the Moral Law must be universalizable. Any moral precept must be able to be followed by a moral community as a whole for it to be an ESS. There are many strategies which are “stable” (in another sense) but are rather parasitic, for example being s a thief or liar are stable in that there will always be individuals who follow this strategy, but they can never be ESSs because they can never define an adaptive strategy for an entire gene pool. As such, an essential part of many ESS is the naming and shaming of these deviants. Ethical discourse evolved in humans as part of this need to protect the current ESS against those who seek to disrupt its effectiveness and drive their population extinct. In this way, we can derive the need to make ethical judgements from evolution. I propose that any species that uses language like we do must also follow a somewhat similar morality.

Of course, there is always room for debate; one generations deviants can eventually define the next ESS. This is rare but possible, ands is an essential part of evolution. But whether the ESS will continue to be stable or not, it is a natural fact that is so or not so. The fact of real issues for ethical debate is not one strike against moral naturalism if we have a natural account of this debate.

Secondly, we can use biological reasoning in normative criticism of human action. Before we do this, let’s see how normativity can be used in normal biological theory.

If you take any trait in any non-human species where one allele has so much more diversity and provenance and is spreading faster and faster through time than some other allele, then you would have to say that it is “better” from an evolutionary perspective. (I’m following Richard Dawkin’s practice from the “Selfish Gene” to put scare quotes around the use of the evolutionary “should”.) Notice how sexual creatures are rapidly diversifying and outcompeting asexual creatures over the long term. This is basically what it means to be “better”.

Sometimes you might have a short burst of reproduction that is not “better”, like rats breeding on Easter Island. This is not a long-term gain because this habitat will not support much more expansion and the rats are not diversifying. Soon they will reach a limit and their population will crash. If they were diversifying, then they might come up with a new strategy that would allow them to continue to expand. Perhaps they would be able to fly or swim or learn to utilize some completely new resource that previous generations of rats did not use. Compare this with humans. Humans are “better” from an evolutionary perspective because our population is not only expanding, but creating new strategies and niches that never existed before. They are not only accessing new resources, but new types of resources. Our diversification and innovation is unparalleled in all of nature. The closest competitors are ants. However, ants are developing very slowly and I highly doubt that they will be able to survive the event of the Earth being swallowed by the Sun in 5 billion years. It is far from certain that humans will survive this, but it is a strong possibility. Ants evolved 40 million years ago, if humans survive for that long, we will certainly never go extinct. But ants are pretty much stuck. They are pretty cool and rather advanced, but they are not really going places in the way that humans are. And this fact is what is means by saying the humans are better from an evolutionary perspective.
Of course, we may still go extinct since nothing is certain, and there maybe some evolutionary bottleneck ahead. However, something line of development like what we are now following is surely the only possible way to avoid extinction. And that’s good. If you disagree with that, then I could argue that point, but on second thought I will just ignore it, because some of us like to argue useful things.
To return to our example, if you look at the metazoans that practice sexual reproduction and compare them with asexuals, you can’t help but notice that reproducing sexually sure seems to be “better” than asexuality, and evolutionary theory has a lot to say about why this is so that is very interesting.

That’s not to say that sexuality is not without its drawbacks, it’s just that sexual creatures are really doing a lot *better* than asexual creatures, so it must be the case that its advantages outweigh its costs. They are more numerous and more diverse. In fact they are more numerous because they are more diverse. More diversity gives evolution more to select from. Likewise, humans are “better” than other creatures because we are the most diverse species on the planet (and vice-versa, we are diverse because we are “better”.). So with this in mind, can we use these same criteria to point out which subsets of the human race are “better” than others? Yes, those cultures which have more diversity will tend to become more numerous over time for the same reasons as our biological examples above; greater diversity gives more raw material for evolution to select from.

And this is true not only of humans, but also of mammals. Mammals are the most intelligent Class of creatures on the Earth, and one of the most diverse. If we are merely counting species, then Beetles and Hymenoptera have us beat, but what about if we compare the diversity of habitats and survival strategies? All insects are terrestrial, whereas some mammals live in the ocean. Sperm whales even obtain most of their food from the deep ocean where sunlight never shines. That’s something that no insect could ever do. Insects are also lacking in intelligence. Every mammal is smarter than any insect. While I agree that intelligence way be overrated, it is one trait that has made mammal very competitive. For example, the cetaceans (whales, etc.) have driven many sharks extinct, and this is due in large part to their intelligence. Sharks will never come up on land and drive any mammal extinct ever. So it seems that mammals arte also “better” than your average life form. Likewise with bacteria, vertebrates, insects and angiosperms; each of these taxa are so diverse and numerous because they are “better”.

Now let’s say that you answer the above argument with the rebuttal: “Just because humans evolve to think and feel a certain way does not make it right.” Yes it does. You may as well say that “Just because female Cardinals are most sexually attracted to red males does not make red males more sexy.” What is there to being sexy besides being sexually attractive to others?  If you can answer this, then you can tell me what there is to being “good” than being to the long-term inclusive fitness of living creatures. And of course whether something is adaptive or not is not always clear ahead of time, but it is a natural property open to empirical study, not something that is magically indefinable. And if I have a word, I like it to refer to something real, especially if it’s an important one like “good”. If we take our cue from reality, we know what ethics is: it’s a set of adaptive rules for cooperation, and the feelings that motivate us to follow them. That’s good.

I’m not saying that you can’t use “good” in some other way, or that when you use it in your daily life, you have to think like this. All I’m saying is that this is what “good” really means. There are a lot of words that we use in our daily life to mean one thing and in science it means another. For example “up”. Most people think of up as one single direction, but in reality, it is any direction as long as it is away from the center of the nearest planet. So you can keep on talking and feeling about the good as you have been all your life. But if you would like to really figure out if you or anyone else is really good apart from conventional definitions, there is no other way than to take your normativity from nature. And that is what philosophy really is.

The relation of ‘Physics’ and Ethics in Aristotle

‘Physics’, for Aristotle, is essentially the study of things which change in space and time.  The only things that are not ‘physical’ in this sense are unchanging essences (math, logic) and God (which for Aristotle was an ‘unchanging substance’.). God is included in the Physics Book VIII because of its role in explaining eternal physical motion, not because it is physical in itself. On this view, anything that changes through time is part of “physics”. IN algebra, adding x to y to get z is a ‘change’ in a sense, but it’s not taking place in time, so it’s not ‘physical’. Rocks, planets, stars, the weather, atoms, light, lightning, etc. are all physical because they change in time.

Living things are also ‘physical’ in Aristotle’s sense; they have every attribute that any other physical thing has: mass, energy, size, et cetera. However, they also have other things that nonliving physical objects do not have: heredity, metabolism, adaptation, function, ecological niche, genome, genotype, phenotype, et cetera.

These are very interesting and surprising characteristics that you could not predict from physical characteristics, so many people are tempted to say that there is something nonphysical about life. This intuition is nearly universal among traditional beliefs and in “vitalism”. Vitalism was taken seriously by Aristotle and  many other scientists up until the early 20th century, but no longer. However, it is still a fact that biological properties are different in meaning from physical properties, so in philosophy some people try to make this seem like some fatal flaw in physicalism. However, every such criticism cannot get around the fact that every biological fact is “superveninent” on the physical. This  means that you cannot change a biological fact without changing a physical fact., and conversely the only way to change a biological fact is to change some physical fact. Life may of may not be ‘reducible to physics (whatever that means), but there is nothing supernatural about life; it breaks no physical laws and it is implemented only by physical laws. Biology is perhaps just a shorthand that simplifies the expression of certain things that certain physical objects do.

Just as “physics” has the subfield of biology, so also Aristotelian biology has a further subfield: ethics .  According to Aristotle, “ethics” is the study of a certain subset of living creatures which “have logos” and are “political”. Neither of these terms have a simple translation from Greek into English. But in my view it means those animals which can:

  • Speak.
  • Think.
  • Live in a society.
  • Be “responsible”, which means:
    • Be held responsible for one’s actions by others.
    • Accept responsibility from others for one’s own actions.
    • Hold others responsible for their actions.
  • Have character (behavioral tendencies).
  • Perhaps many others….

All of these above processes are changes which take place in time, and which can only be done by particular kinds of living creatures. In any case, there is no way that ethics could possibly be relevant to any non-physical being without engaging in fantastic speculations that contradict ancient and modern physics. For Aristotle, the ‘soul’ was defined as a principle of change in living creatures, and not as anything ‘supernatural’ or having anything to do with an afterlife. Ethics was thus defined as a subfield of “physics”, the study of the principles of change in nature.

The famous ‘Four Causes’ apply within ethics just as they do in every other subfield of “physics”. Perhaps there are some differences in how they are used, but they apply. As such, Aristotle’s “Physics” can be seen as a foundation for his Ethics. It is certainly a foundation for my adaptation of his ethics to our modern world. The biggest change that we see in the modern world is that only biology and ethics have final causes, whereas nonliving physics does not. This is not a very contraversial thing to say nowadays, and it leaves the validity of final causes in biology and physics intact. Biology cannot get along at all without final causes, because without final causes you could not say “birds should be able to fly” or “the immune system should retain antigens from previous pathogens” or “the temperature of the earth should allow for liquid water”. Of course each of these statements makes some assumptions to be true, but they are all naturalistically meaningful and decidable. Furthermore, if ethics is a subfield of biology, then it must also have final causes, and they must work in a similar way. Just as birds should fly, humans should be able to talk and cooperate to satisfy their mutual needs in an efficient manner. While some ants rely on slavery exclusively, humans tend to rely on voluntary cooperation, and in both cases the ultimate causes are those common to all living creatures. And as time goes on, slavery is losing out to voluntary systems and this trend is is the basis for the ethical statement “Slavery is wrong.” It could have been the case that slavery was more adaptive than freedom, but as it turns out this is not true.

Modern physics also includes everything we need to explain ethics, since all living creatures follow the physics of information. All life is just information processing; evolution itself as well as the behavior of living creatures are all essentially forms of information processing. This means that without information processing, there can be no life and vice versa, because they ultimately mean the same thing.


So what is the upshot for our current situation? Obviously Aristotle’s Physics as he has presented it cannot be accepted, so are all the above irrelevant to us? No, In my opinion the teleological aspect of Aristotle’s Physics has been merely “demoted” down to biology, which is where it was really suitable in the first place. Aristotle saw that final causes were ubiquitous in biology, so he assumed that this was true of the rest of ‘physics’ as well. But in the modern world, we know that final causes originated  with life and are meaningless apart from life. Since we know that physics preceded biology, the sun is not ‘for’ the Earth’s biosphere in the robust sense that Aristotle and Classical Theism have in mind. Rather, the teleological aspect is emergent from the behavior of certain molecules in certain conditions.

The applicability of Aristotelian teleology is limited to the results of evolution, the biosphere, and the inputs necessary for life.  Ethics falls within this sphere, and as such Aristotelian final causes are applicable. The final causes are the same as those defined by evolution: not going extinct, also known as “inclusive fitness”, the passing on of DNA. That’s what ethics is for: promoting forms of cooperation which pass on DNA. Something like this view is or should be the default view, since it assumes that the behavior of a certain organism has an evolutionary origin. This axiom is assumed in the study of all other organism besides humans, and the world will not end if you try out this assumption on one more creature.

If you disagree with this, please leave a comment telling the rest of us what ethics is for. While you formulate your answer, ask yourself is your alternative really the sort of thing that could be the founding theory of a branch of natural science? Because that is what ethics is. The only other conception that makes any sense is the Platonic and Kantian conception of ethics as a formal or exact science. This theory cannot be dismissed out of hand, but on my view all the aspects of ethics that support Platonism are most parsimoniously seen as deriving from the most general axioms of evolutionary game theory, which even in their general form are imperatives followed for a purpose.

I love ‘Franken-food’!

There is a proposal to enforce “accurate labels on food products so that consumers can choose between GMO & non/GMO products”. While this is being presented as an issue in informing consumers, ethically, it’s no different from supporting accurate labels so that employers can know the religion and ethnicity of prospective employees. Don’t people have the right to know? What do you have to hide? Only if there is some basis to these fears. Fortunately, there is not enough evidence to support either of these laws.

If minorities are actually dangerous, then label them; otherwise it’s wrong. It all depends on how you define ‘actually’. Is evolution actually true? Is there actually global warming?  Is Vitamin C actually necessary? How do you answer these questions? I prefer to use science, but some people seem to think that science is just a big conspiracy. They think that big corporate money subverts research.

If that were the case, how is it that anthopogenic global warming is backed by ~99.9% of scientists? Since the oil business is sooooo much bigger than Monsanto, then there would be more money to subvert research in this area than any other. Since this is not the case, we can be certain that Monsanto ( which is smaller than Starbuck’s! ) will not be able to use their much smaller resources to subvert research.

GMO labelling is wrong. There’s no science behind it. We have many many many times more domesticated animals on this planet than we do people. And we have detailed records of what they eat. This means that we have all the data you could possibly want about GMO’s effects on the health of large mammals and poultry. This is how we test new medicines, and medicines are far more dangerous than foods. It’s not typical to test food like this at all, but since it’s a new breeding technique, it’s best to err on the side of safety and rigorously test GMOs. Because of this, GMOs are far better tested than any other food products ever, because the testers know that people are prejudiced against them. But the time for testing many GM products is over because the evidence is in. You no longer have any right to ruin the future of the human race, so go back to your cave and live there.


GMOs are better for the environment, have a lower carbon footprint, and use less water, fuel, pesticides, and fertilizer. I’m actually not aware of any disadvantagees to them, other than the taboos of ignorant people who are not very concerned with producing food for the hungry.

GMOs can be designed for use in marginally useful soils. This is especially important with widespread desertification and climate change. This alone makes GMO essential for the future of the human race, especially the starving people in the Third World.

The GMO opposition is all a bunch of part-time Googlers who think they know more than real scientists. That’s it. Rich ignorant people are are blocking the only technology which can cure world hunger. It’s actually worse that supporting ISIS, in terms of the amount of suffering that this pseudoscience does and will continue to cause.

I saw an interview with David Suzuki explaining his opposition to GMOs. I was disappointed because there were no facts at all, just vague “Everything tells us that GMO cannot work!” We have goats that produce spider silk and rats that can provide human replacement tissue and he say that it “can’t work”? Why does he not say something to clarify what he means by this? Anything. Like a fact or two.

My wife unfriended me on FB because of my advocacy, and I was anti-GMO for 10 years before I actually researched it. Thank goodness I studied botany and general science as well during that time.

So I’m not exaggerating when I say that GMO labelling is evil. It’s about as evil as labeling people, just in a slightly different way.

‘Franken-food’, BTW,  is an allusion to ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ a creature that was artificially created, but which had everything that a human has. Because of his superficial differences from others, he was hounded from society for the rest of his life by the hatred of the ignorant many. For that reason, I embrace the derogatory term ‘Franken-food’; those who use it in its original sense merely mark themselves are members of the lowest layer of society, placing themselves and their prejudices  in the path of progress and learning.

My modest proposal:  someone should start a local GMO craft beer called “Franken-beer” to raise consciousness about this issue. Ottawa has enough evidence-based thinkers to make this work.

On Platonism, both Metaphysical and Ethical

The following selection paraphrased from the article on ‘Morality and Evolutionary Biology’ from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an objection to metaphysical naturalism, but it is also relevant to ethics as well.

The Challenge from Irreducible Pluralism

“Lets take mathematics and evolution as an example. If we say mathematical proposition x (e.g. ‘There is always a prime number between the integer n and 2n.’ ), we can determine the truth of this proposition by use of mathematical reasoning. We do not say x is true because there is an evolutionary advantage to x being true. A moral realist would argue that moral philosophy is similar to mathematics ( or physics, chemistry, etc). For example the statement that interracial marriages is wrong one can use moral reason to say this statement is false in light of the moral truth that all human beings have the same moral worth. In the same way we can use autonomous mathematical reason to evaluate mathematics we can use autonomous moral reason to evaluate ethics. Of course moral reasoning can be influenced by culture and biological factors and there are other (would argue less) plausible moral approaches like expressivism or error theory than moral realism, but the statement all ethics is simply evolutionary biology seems very premature.”

This selection is  probably the most interesting interpretation/rebuttal of ‘reductionism’, a concept commonly used but rarely well-defined. It claims that the formal sciences are in some way ‘autonomous’; they give themselves their own principles. Frege famously defended this in his conflict with Husserl’s early psychologism. According to this modern variety of “Platonism”, the principles of a formal science cannot be derived from any empirical field. If this is true of mathematics and logic, then is seems as though this sets a precedent for the “is/ought” distinction.If a priori knowldege were shown to have a separate basis from a posteriori knowledge, then it could be used to clarify the separation of fact and value. It would seem that Platonism in this sense give us at least two realms of beings who are independent and yet have a certain level of ‘pre-established harmony’ between them. Math for example, is useful and authoritative for many empirical fields from physics to economics. How this could be so was what Kant sought to explain, and his solution sought to bring both formal and ethical beings into relation with the empirical.

My basic idea for naturalistic metaphysics is this: mathematics performs a cognitive function and therefore has adaptive value in light of this function. In order to perform this function, it needs to satisfy certain formal conditions. We are constrained by the definitions of mathematical beings because changing those definitions in the least destroys the functional and adaptive value of math.

Arithmetic is founded on nothing but the set of sets whose members map onto each other. “Mapping” means that each member of one set has a unique counterpart in every other set with the same number of members. This is the only way to clearly and primitively define integers, and all other math is founded on this simple set of interrelated definitions. If you change the defintion of one interger, it becomes the same as its neighbor and leaves a gap. Thus there is only one possible set of integers, and therfore only one possible way to relate them, meaning there is only one possible multiplication table.

If you changed the definition of one of the integers, it would also lose it’s adaptive value. Mathematics is only “autonomous” because each mathematical being has NO autonomy from most if not all mathematical beings, and all are dependent on the simple idea of the relationship of sets mapping onto each other. This idea is in turn is derived from problems like figuring out:

  • how to share a big basket of fruit
  • if a war party is evenly matched by the enemy
  • if someone has stolen some of our cattle

If basic arithmetic can’t accomplish this, it’s useless crap. I’m sure I oversimplified and left out some other items ( such as the fact that there are multiple mathematical foundational theories ), but I hope this clarifies my overly-short answer of how evolution can produce creatures with a priori knowledge of the ‘universal language’ of mathematics. In this view, some ethical principles can have something like this sort of a priori validity if we can find a suitable starting point. For math, the starting point I used was defining the integers through set theory. The starting point for ethics could start with the game theory of the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this dilemma, there are only a finite number of Evolutionary Stable Strategy-schemas, i.e., definable sets of strategies that work. Examples of a strategy-schemas include “Initially Benevolent Strategies” ( strategies that do not betray without being betrayed first) and ” 2-turn Forgiving Strategies” ( strategies that stop betraying in revenge after two turns without a betrayal ). Perhaps there’s a better starting point than the Prisoner’s Dilemma. But this is just to illustrate possibility of how to get started generating ethical rules from evolutionary game theory. This could fulfill the dream of Plato, Kant and other ethical rationalists while paying proper respect to modern science.



The Metaphysics of Selection Theory


In this work I give my response to the thesis that consciousness and value are utterly outside of science. I am attempting this within the perspective of Selection Theory (If you are unfamiliar with Selection Theory, see previous post here).   By “utterly outside of science” I mean necessarily or metaphysically outside of the realm of what science can in principle explain. This is what we will call ‘non-naturalism’. Prominent examples include David Chalmers’ position on phenomenal consciousness. Many other arguments or paradoxes seem to support this sort of non-naturalism, such as the “Chinese Room”, “Mary the Color Scientist” and the “Possibility of Zombies”. In what follows, I will try to address this problem and most of these paradoxes from a naturalistic pespective using a vocabulary influenced by Aristotle. I think Aristotle is well-suited for such a project since he took information and function seriously, while constraining his theories with certain empirical demands typical of naturalism. [In a future work we shall look into the tensions of final causation with atomism, but this will not substantially affect our present thesis.] If successful, this approach should provide common solutions challenges to naturalism concerning qualia and ethics.

The Arkhe, genus, and species of Phenomenal Consciousness

Why are so many averse to agreeing that the scientific description of certain things is what they most truly are? For everything that science explains, the most essential nature of what it is is how it is is defined in the accepted theory. Consciousness and ethics should be no exception.

Explaining anything whatsoever means to subsume it under a more universal principle. This is true of all explanations from ethics to math to physics to economics to carpentry, to chess to music to any other skill or science you care to name. With consciousness, the case should be no different; any possible explanation for qualia must derive from a higher (more universal) genus of beings. But what is the genus of beings that of which consciousness is a species?  I have never ever heard anyone give an answer to this other than the one that I propose here, so it seems to me that nobody else can even get started thinking about qualia. In this work we shall  proceed with the naturalistic method, which is pretty much identical to what Aristotle would follow if he were here.

Qualia – a species of the genus “living” and the super-genus “natural”?

For Aristotle, all the different sorts of beings can be potential or actual; and it seems that qualia are not special in this respect, and it’s clear that qualia are not one of the “Categories” either. What about “natural” or “non-natural”?  I know that this is exactly what is up for debate here, but in Aristotle and in this context, “nature” (Gk. “physis”) simply means “that which changes with time’.  There is another sense of “nature” which is oppose to “tekne“, but both of these opposite sense are part of “nature” as we will use it here to mean the realm of “beings which change over time”.  Now we must notice that this is different from Descartes’ thesis that nature as res extensa occupies space. There is much evidence that qualia occupy space, but this will not be assumed for my argument.  However, even Descartes assumes that the res cogitans must change over time and is therefore part of the Aritotelian phusis. If the non-naturalist wishes to say that qualia are not natural, then they are certainly a very different sort of non-natural being from the Forms (unchanging essences) or God (unchanging substance). And of course non-naturalists have no problem with multiplying entities beyond count, for they care not a whit of Occam’s Razor. “Why not?” they might wonder? But it seems clear from a naturalist  perspective that conscious beings (those beings with qualia) are a species of the genera of animals, those beings which move and have sensation.  Animals, in turn are a subset of living things. Since consciousness is a part of biology, we should expect it to have a biological function. So on this view, consciousness must have an adaptive function or be a by-product of some adaptive function. This is exactly what biology assumes when it encounters some unexplained train in nature, and naturalism assumes that qualia are just one more unexplained trait that we have found in a living creature. This obviously true, and non-naturalism should rightly bear the burden of proof for why qualia should not be considered to be a biological trait.


The Role of Non-naturalism in Science.

Furthermore, it seems that many people who profess qualia non-naturalism also profess to being unable to imagine how qualia could have a function and how matter could give rise to qualia. Of course, this is not the only thing that they cannot imagine. They (as well as myself) cannot imagine how nothing can go faster than light, or that time and space did not pre-exist the Big Bang, but both of these have imagined, believed and proven by currently-accepted natural science. The fact that you cannot imagine something is not and cannot be boundary past which science is not allowed to go. Since this is true, non-naturalism must allow that all of its objections are not binding on science but merely voicing the implications of following out common sense intuitions about empirical theories. While it is clear that science is  not at all bound to observe the limits of common sense, non-naturalists do in fact play a postitive role in clearly defining the problems faced by naturalists (i.e. those who actually seek to solve the problems). This is the role played by WIlliam Paley with respect to Darwin, for example. Paley gave his best non-naturalist account of adaptation, which in retrospect we would not even call a “theory”, but it was the dominant theory back then. Qualia non-naturalism today plays the role of Paley for the Darwins of today’s cognitive science.

On the other hand, claiming that conscious beings (or ethical beings) are so unique as to be of an utterly separate ontological category is making a radically unfounded claim that makes further inquiry impossible. Naturalism of the sort defended here claims that ethical and conscious beings are a subset of animals, living things and physical things .Only if we grant this reasonable assumption can we even begin to solve our debates in ethics and metaphysics.

If one is to demand that we explain consciousness or ethics in abstraction from its physical and biological status, we are ipso facto refusing to even consider the possibility of explaining it. The same is true of any scientific subject.

It’s almost as if one demanded that we explain lightning without accepting that it can “be” static electricity. The hardheaded “science-skeptic” could say that lightning “expresses itself through” static electricity or perhaps merely “correlates with” static electricity but could “never be reduced to mere physical phenomena”. One could even adduce the fact that one “could easily imagine” lightning occurring without static electricity in some Twin-Earth thought experiment. This is what Chalmers seriously advocates in his treatment of consciousness, as well as what is implied by any moral non-naturalism that follows G. E. Moore’s ‘Open Question’ argument. Taking this stance makes science of any sort impossible. I am of the view that natural science has already learned that a ‘Twater’  for a “Twin Earth” is impossible, and I think we are close to proving that metaphysical zombies are impossible, and evolutionary science has all the resources needed to prove that a “Moral Twin Earth” is impossible.

Consciousness IS a subset of living systems and everything essential to it can be limited to one of two categories of predicates:

1) What it shares with other physical, living, and animal beings. In Aristotle’s terms, conscious beings share all the essential attributes of any genus of which they are a species. In terms of computer science, conscious objects, inherit all attributes and functions of their superclasses.

2) How it is different from other animals. As Aristotle said, all definitions require a differentiation to define a species within a genus.

But one of the essential attributes of living creatures ( in evolutionary theory ) is that all biological attributes are either adaptations or byproducts of adaptations. This means that consciousness is either epiphenomenal or it is an adaptation. If it is an adaptation, then it MUST have a functional characterization that can be confirmed with the same level of rigor of any other functional analysis in other areas of biology (for example the function(s) of wings, skin, livers, et cetera.). If this is true, consciousness accomplishes the same function as the processes of non-sentient lifeforms, but it uses a different means to fulfill these functions. In my view, it is a radically different means, but not so radical that it requires a non-naturalist categories. Aristotle, were he alive today might say it like this:

  • Merely physical beings (matter, energy) go through change but stay ‘the same’ through all the changes (underneath the appearances).
  • Life is just like matter except one of the changes is goes through is to reproduce more instances of the same/similar form. This is what I refer to when I say that life is essentially information processing.
  • Animal life is just like other life except it also has qualia; movement and sensation.  Perhaps this is what you mean by “consciousness”. Consciousness in this sense is having a subjective experience of sensation, motivation and animal-level identity.
  • Human life is just like other animals life except it also (following Aristotle) “has language” or in other words is “political”.  Both of these mean that humans are defined by their adaptive strategy; the reliance on language to implement rules for cooperation.

There is no other way to do science of humanity.


The Functionalistic Analysis of Phenomenal Consciousness

To answer Chalmers’ non-naturalism in philosophy of mind, we need only give a functionalistic analysis of phenomenal consciousness. The following is one  general idea that could form the beginning of such a theory: Consciousness is kind of like money. The evolution of money is “surprising” in the same way that Chalmers says that consciousness is, but once we see that it has emerged and see how it functions, we can see that money fits perfectly with Darwinian science and the physics of information. Since all life is just information processing, we need only analyze anything in terms of information to learn what it most truly ‘is’.

Using this analysis, we could have predicted  that certain commodities would make ideal forms of money, but we could not predict what money would look like, e.g. that pictures of famous people would be on it (kind of like not being able to predict the “how” of qualia).. We may also be surprised that modern fiat money would predominate over classical ‘hard’ money, but in retrospect, we can see how fiat money functions according to the same basic laws as other money. Under the evolutionary biology defined by the currently accepted physics of information, all of this is a mere extension of the fundamental definition of biological beings. Economics thus defines a normative science that inherits is fundamental principles from more general realms of beings. However, each step down the ladder of Being does introduce surprising / emergent phenomena. Emergent phenomena are fully explainable in retrospect in a reductive manner, but not ahead of time. Thus each newly emergent phenomenon is ‘surprising’ but ultimately natural.


We could not predict the emergence of consciousness, but ultimately it must have ‘the same’ higher-level functions as other forms  of biological information processing.  Animals “could” have been zombies in the same way that (for example) Saturn “could” have been a slightly smaller copy of Jupiter. After all, Jupiter and Saturn are made of basically the same stuff. However, there are mystifying differences between these two planets that could never have been foreseen. (Great Red Spot, greater visible turbulence on Jupiter, Rings and weird polar weather on Saturn, to name a few). These differences are, as with consciousness, due to the surprisingness of complex systems. It’s just that living systems are much more complex, meaning only that their physical patterns are more complex. It is hard to imagine a better solution to the same problem.

The comparison with money works on multiple levels. In the same way that money makes different values comparable among goods for sale, so also does consciousness make different values comparable among the various resources, obstacles, dangers, etc. in the world of an animal. And in both cases, we not only have various values to compare, we also have a privileged locus of comparison the self, which can either be a back account in one case or an individual organism’s subjectivity in the other. Both are forms of information processing, and neither could work without the privileged locus of subjectivity. Both require intersubjectivity to manifest their maximum effect. This is a pretty straight forward hypothesis derived from a well-established theory. The anti-naturalists, on the other hand, have nothing to go with at all except the claims that naturalism is to be eliminated because it contradicts their philosophical categories. This is not at all the first time that some new phenomenon has a clear empirical explanation that conflicts with previous philosophy. The very biochemical concept of life conflicted with previous science. So did the idea that the Earth was a planet. Non-naturalism at any frontier of science is not following a very encouraging precedent.




Notes on Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’

Note: Aritotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is an awesome book from both a scholarly perspective as well as for personal spiritual development. As a result, if seems that it might be worth it to post my notes from 2014’s discussion series on this book. As I go back and reread various sections I will update this. Leave comments here if there are any questions you have.


Book I


Key terms:

Telos – goal, purpose, end, final, good

 Eudaimonia – happiness, well-being, flourishing, having a ‘guardian angel’

 Arête – virtue

Hexis- disposition, state of character


There is inherent in action, skills, science, practical affairs, etc, an essential teleological-hierarchical aspect.

Not a teleological HIERARCHY, since the exact rank of each particular skill, science, action is up for debate.


Given telic ranking, it make sense to ask what the HIGHEST activities/sciences are.

Group activity: ‘Teleominoes’ [ I made a set ofg 3×5 cards with various activities written on them and let the participants arrange them in a telic hierarchy.]



Cavalry tactics








Home Economics






Wild Card(s)


I.3           Ethical Rationality

Key ideas:






The mark of an educated man- ‘to look for preceision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician demonstrable proofs.’

This is a key difference between A. and other theory-focused philosophies: Plato, Pythagoras.

For Plato, authoritative intuition is fundamentally:


1) absolutely theoretical, universal, rigorous, NOT conventional in any way.


2)  unified- there is one ultimate science that rules over all other sciences/skills, much as math rules over geometry, architecture, astronomy, navigation, etc,


For A., authoritative intuition is


1) separate for every regional ontology- i.e., metaphysics won’t help you very much with politics, medicine or navigation.


2) different type of reasoning in nature for each region :

  • Tekne
  • Phronesis
  • Sophos


I.4 Grounds for Confusion

On confusion concerning the supreme good- ‘Both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and faring well well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like





they differ, however from one another- and often even the sasme man identifies this with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor…’ (1095a.17

On the Platonic Idea of the Good- ‘Now some have thought that apart from these many goods  there is another which is good in itself and causes the goodness of all these as well.’ (1095a.27)

‘Are we on the way to or from the first principles (arche)?’ (1095b.1)

deduction- from arche to what is knowable for us/ immediately familiar

induction-  trom what is immediately familiar to the arche, that which is most knowable per se.


For A.-, pesumably, we must:

1) begin with what is immediately familiar and

2)proceed by induction

3) to the arche.


I.5  Common Opinions on the Supreme Good

1) money

2) honor

3) pleasure (hedonism)

4) political action (Conan the Barbarian)

5) Theory/Contemplation



I.6 Criticisms against the Platonic Idea of the Good

Just as ‘being’ is said in many ways; so also is ‘good’

‘Good’ can mean-

‘genuine’ (being as truth)

‘good for___’ (being as potential)

in the Categories-

Substance- God, Reason

Quality- virtuous

Relation- useful, good for___

Quantity- moderate, sufficient for

Time- ‘kairos’ ( good opportunity)

And so on….

If ‘the Good’ were an Idea, each of these uses of ‘Good’ would be univocal, i.e., they would all use ‘Good’ in the same sense (synonymously) but they do not they are all analogous.


There can be no ‘science of the good’ any more than there can be a ‘science of opportunity’ apart from particular sciences.



I.7 Types of Goods


When looking for the  Highest Good, it must be a good achievable by action.


Three types of goods:

1) merely instrumental- Wealth

2) Complete Goods- Happiness

Complete goods are ‘self-sufficient’, not in the sense of ‘like a hermit’, but rather in the sense inclusive of positive social context.

3) Combined Goods-  honor, reason, pleasure, virtue…


What is the Function of Man?


Not mere potential but an activity.

For any activity, there must be a soul. What type of soul?

  1. Vegetable- growth; man shares this with a living things
  2. Animal- movement and sensation, shared with animals
  3. Rational (logos, speaking or reasonling) only men and Gods.


Thus the virtue/ function of humanity is:

  • Activity of soul
  • according to/ depending on logos
  • in a complete life



I.8 How the Nicomachean Ethics agrees with Common Beliefs

  1. It recognized three types of goods:
  1. external
  2. bodily
  3. spiritual- good in the strictest sense, for external and bodily goods are define only as they relate to our soul.


  1. ‘The happy man lives well and does well.’


  1. The life of virtue is inherently pleasant.


  1. Pleasure is a state of the soul.


  1. Good men find pleasure in the good.


  1. Even if ‘virtue is its own reward’, external goods are needed as well: wealth, health, beauty, honor, etc.


I.9 How is eudaimonia acquired?

Common ideas on this include:

  1. Nature
  2. Luck
  3. Divine Grace/ Providence
  4. Learning- study, contemplation, anamneusis
    1. Techne
    2. Theoria
    3. e) Habituation (Ethismos)- conditioning, training, practice


  1. a) Contradicted by the commonness of vice. If virtue were a potential, it could not be a optential from nature, for it has opposite outcomes. Only Rational Powers (dunameis kata logos) a capable of opposite effects. While Nature is necessary, it not sufficient.


  1. b) Some Luck is necessary for eudaimonia, but it’s not sufficient; human effort is also necessary.


  1. c) Some Divine Favor is also necessary, but not sufficient; human effort is also necessary.


  1. d) has already been dealt with in Book I.6; this is the Platonic/Pythagorean idea.


  1. e) Is A.’s theory; nature, luck, Gods and learning are all necessary, but the key element is Habituation

I.10 How Certain is eudaimonia?


Must we wait till death to judge happiness?


If happiness is an activity, then how can the dead be called happy?


A happy/unhappy life can be negated after death by the Fortune/misfortune

of descendents:

  1. Honor/ dishonor
  2. Wealth
  3. Health


While the fate of descendents can affect the dead’s happiness, ‘ordinary misadventures’ cannot radically alter it, only a ‘great calamity’ can make the truly happy unhappy.

The eudaimon makes the most of her circumstances (both by virtue and phronesis).

‘the happy man can never become miserable- though he will not reach blessedness, if he meet with fortunes like those of Priam.’


The happy one/ eudaimon:

  1. Acts (it’s not mere virtue / contemplation)
  2. In accordance with complete virtue (not mere enkrateia (‘continence’))
  3. Has enough external goods
  4. Throughout a complete life
  5. Dies a fitting death.
  6. Leaves descendants who are not miserable.





I.13 What is Virtue?


Virtue is an activity of soul.


Soul (psuche) is a principle of movement/change in self or other.

There are four kinds of soul:

  • Divine- eternal motions- planets, stars
  • Mineral- gravity, wind, currents, geological forces, etc.
  • Vegetable- growth, metabolism, anything shared by ALL life
  • Animal- movement, sensation
  • Rational- (logos) thinking, speaking, consiousness(?)


So which of these souls’ activity is responsible for virtue?

  1. Intellectual virtues- rational soul
  2. Moral virtue- animal soul in accordance with rational soul



1 The Nature of Virtue

‘Excellence, then being of two kinds, intellectual and moral,


1) intellectual excellence in the main owes its birth and growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while


2) moral excellence comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name is one thatis formed by a slight variation from the word ‘habit’.


… none of the moral excellences arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. (e.g., the stone falls down , fire rises up)


Rather we are by nature potentially virtuous, i.e., fitted to become virtuous.


In nature, potential precendes the actual


For virtue, (potentials precede) action, precedes habit/character.



2 Doctrine of the Mean

We are not primarily aiming at theoretical knowledge, but PRACTICAL, not defining the good but rather to BECOME GOOD.


Thus, we must examine the nature of actions, especially how we ought to do them. Not precisely (as with ‘any art or precepts’ 1104a.7), but in a general outline.


One general formal feature of virtue (and perhaps of action as well) is that virtue falls on a continuum between excess and defect, as below:


Defect mean excess

Cowardice courage rashness

Paranoia faith gullibility

Despair hope gullibility

Hate love  ?


3. Pleasure and Pain

Not only must action fall into the mean, but motivation must as well. One who is truly virtuous must enjoy and take genuine pleasure in the mean and consequently find pain in the both excess and defect.

Not only do pleasure and pain result from virtue, as reward and punishmenrt, they are essential to training for virtue as well.

Aristotle cites the medical rule that ‘cures are oft effected by contraries’, from the theory of humours in Ancient Greek medicine as essentially similar to the use of pleasure and pain in education.


Three objects of choice and avoidance:

  1. Noble/base
  2. Advantageous/injurious
  3. Pleasant/painful




4. Value in Ethics and Tekne: a comparison


A paradox?- how can we BECOME just by doing just acts? How do we act justly without already being just?

If we look at technai, you can do something grammatical for many reasons:

  1. Chance
  2. Expert guidance
  3. One’s own skill

Any of these can develop virtue, but people are generally taught virtue or skill by first performing actions under the guidance of another, and later refine their skill under their own guidance.


But technai and virtues are different in this wise:


Tekne’s/Craftwork’s telos is in the products themselves, so that one need only see the products to judge the skill of the make.

But for Virtue, while the products must be good, to judge the virtue of the agent, we must know the agents’s condition as follows:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Choice
  3. Choose actions ‘for their own sakes’
  4. Action must process froma ‘firm and unchangeable character’ (not ephemeral moods)


For tekne, only a) knowledge is taken into account in judging skill, but virtue is judged by all of these.


5. Ontology of Virtue


People often disagree on the ultimate nature of virtue, so we can further refine our inquiry if we enumerate all the various elements of the soul and see which of them virtue might be part of.


There are three things in the soul:

  1. Passions (pathe)- joy hunger, andger, confidence, envy, friendliness, hatred, pity, feelings that are accompanied by pleasure and pain
  2. Potentials/ faculties- fundamental abilites, such as the ability to feel pleasure or pain, to feel hunger, to see, hear touch, smell, speak, think, imagine, move, fly, swim…
  3. States of character (ethismoi)- that by which we do well or ill w.r.t. passions e.g., fell anger in excess/defect or moderately or at the right time


Virtue is clearly in the genus of  ‘states of character’.




There is an essential connection between goodness and functional excellence. Functional excellence is always a proper mean on the continuum between vices of excess and defect.

Virtue, tekne and nature all aim at an intermediate.

Virtue, however, aims at the mean ‘concerned with passions and actions.’

Virtue- felling pleasure and pain thusly-

  1. Right times
  2. r.t. right objects
  3. With the right people
  4. With the right motive
  5. In the right way
  6. Moderately


Similarly w.r.t. actions, there are many ways to fail, but rather few ways to succeed.

‘In respect of its substance, and the definition which states its essence, virtue is a mean.’


Some vices do not admit of means:

Spite- feeling anger at the wrong time, too much

Shamelessness- feeling not enough shame

Envy- wanting wrong things too much

Adultery- with the wrong person

Theft- taking the wrong thing

Murder- killing the wrong person at the wrong time in the wrong way




7. Catalogue- Excess mean defect


Rashness courage cowardice

Self-indulgence temperance, insensibility (not common)

Prodigality  liberality  meanness

Tastelessness magnificence niggardliness

Vanity pride undue humility

Irascibility  of good temper  inirascibility

Boastfulness  truthfulness  over-modesty

Buffoonery ready-witted  boorishness

Bashful modest shameless

Envy righteous indignation  spite






If there are some virtues which do not seem like aiming at the mean to us, but rather more like maximizing some value at all costs, that is because our nature is biases towards either excess or defect, and thus the other extreme is not a problem for us at all. In spite of this, the mean is where virtue lies, whether it seems so or not. In some cases, we consciously AIM at the other extreme, but our true goal is the mean.


Book III


1. On freewill and compulsion.

In voluntary actions are of two kinds:

    1. Ignorance
    2. Compulsion– when the origin (arkhe) is external to the agent, so that he is both agent AND patient; for example:
  1. Of the wind were to carry you away
  2. Other were to have power over your person
  • Reflexive- see III.2
  1. Mixed– see below


Q: But what if your action’s origin is in another who is extorting your cooperation from you? (i.e., a terrorist or despot) Another similar case is in throwing a shiip’s cargo overboard in a severe storm.


A: Such actions are mixed, because

  • No one would choose these actions ‘in and of itself’ (i.e., this action would never have its arke in the doer.
  • But on a physical level, the origien is in the agent, NOT from ignorance.
  • Thus it is ‘voluntary, though in the abstract perhaps involuntary because no one would choose these acts in and of itself.’


Such cases are difficult to settle or analyze, and thus would be a good topic for further study.



  1. If the pleasant or honorable are external to the agent, AND
  2. ‘Compulsion= external origin of action AND
  3. Most actions are done for pleasure or honor,
  4. Then are not most actions compulsory? QED


A; Those who do mixed actions are pained and regretful, but those who act from reason do so with pleasure. The above argument is the basis of many moral absurdities:

  1. Easily caught by external pleasures- NOT really compulsion
  2. Claiming honorable activities as voluntary, but not the base.


Thus, of compulsory actions (those which do not carry blame or honor) there are two kinds:

  1. Not voluntary- done from ignorance
  2. Involuntary- with regret/pain


If the compelled agent is freed and gains knowledge of their deed, they may react in two ways:

  1. No regret- not voluntary
  2. With regret- involuntary


There are also two kinds of ignorance:

  1. ‘because of ignorance’- not culpable
  2. ‘with ignorance’- culpable, as with drunkenness


Q: Is it true that ultimate ignorance of one’s ultimate interests is the ultimate source of evil or vice?


A: This sort of ‘ignorance’ is not what we are talking about above; rather, this is what is normally meant by ‘depravity’ or ‘ignorance of moral principles’, which is rightfully blamed.


Q: Are actions done from passions (anger or lust) involuntary?


A: This would make all actions by animals and children involuntary, which is absurd.

Counter-Q: Do we only act voluntarily in doing the Good, and not from evil? For we may have proper or virtuous  lust and anger.

A: If yes, it’s absurd, for the cause is the same.

If no, it claims that acting properly w.r.t. virtuous lust, anger, etc. is involuntary, which is absurd.



2. On Moral Choice


Within the set of voluntary actions, there is a subset of actions originating from deliberation, and a subset of deliberate acts originate from moral choice.

Only actions from moral choice are relevant to the evaluation of virtue or moral character.

Reflexive actions- not even voluntary

Actions voluntary but not from moral choice:

  1. children
  2. animals
  3. others? (deranged)


False opinions concerning moral choice:

  1. passion- e.g. lust, anger
  2. wish
  3. a type of opinion- i.e. moral cognitivism a la Plato


  1. Vs. passion
    • Animals and children have passions, but not moral choice. [ Objection: But perhaps moral choice is a subset of passion.]
    • The incontinent (who fails at self-control) acts from passion, but not moral choice. [Objection: same as above.]
    • While lust is frequently opposed to moral choice, lust cannot be opposed to lust. [But lusts CAN be opposed.]


    • Passion and moral choice differ as to their objects:
  1. Passions- pleasant/painful
  2. Moral choice- noble or base

[From II.3 Three objects of choice and avoidance:

  1. Noble/base
  2. Advantageous/injurious
  3. Pleasant/painful]


  1. Vs. wish
    • Moral choice only applies to practical possibilities, but wishes may be for impossibilities or for IMpractical possibilities. [Objection: perhaps moral choice is a subset of wish.]
    • Moral choice only for one’s own actions, but wish may be for anyone’s actions or for no one’s. [As above.]
    • Wish is only for an end (telos), moral choice is for a means to an end.


  1. Vs. Opinion
  • Opinion may concern the necessary, eternal, natural and impossible. Moral choice only concerns the contingent and practical. [Obj.: possible subset?]
  • Opinion-true or false. Moral choice- good or bad.
  • Character is determined by chosen actions, not by holding opinions.
  • We choose to act, but do not opine to act.
  • Moral choice is commended for having ‘right object’ (proper goal/telos) rather than for being ‘judicious’. Opinion is praised for being true.
  • We choose based on knowledge, but opinon also applies to what is unknown.
  • Often, opinion is much better than choice, as with moral vice.


Q: Isn’t it true that opinon always proceeds of accompanies moral choice?


A: Not relevant- the point is whether moral choice is a type of opinion.


Moral choice- ‘that voluntary decision which has passed through a stage of moral deliberation.’


3. On Deliberation


Reasonable people do not deliberate about the following:

  1. Eternal things
    1. Cosmology
    2. Geometry
    3. Plantary motion
    4. Elemental motion
  2. things from chance/fortune
  3. actions of others
  4. details of sensation or perception
    1. Is this bread?
    2. Is this properly cooked?


Reasonable people do deliberate about:

  1. our own actions and
  2. their results.


But some of our actions we do not deliberate about:

  1. How to spell ‘CAT’.
  2. Ends of Techne– A doctor deliberates HOW to heal, not whether to heal.


Objects of Deliberation has these essential qualities:

  1. Have general principles
  2. Have uncertainty of application and outcome
  3. Variety of means
  4. It’s for the construction of a ‘practical syllogism’ whose ‘premises’ (arche) is one’s self.


Note: Friend’s action is also included in this, because our influence affects their behavior.




4, The telos, objective or subjective?   A critique of utilitarianism.


[Location 1029 on my Android kindle app]


What is the telos that wish has for its object?

  • The true idea of the Good?
  • The subjective impression of the good?


IF the true good- then what is wished for by the wicked person?


If the subjective impression of good, then the above problem is resolved, but with the disadvantage that this good is only true of the particular or the individual.


“Abstractly, and as a matter of objective truth, the really good is the object of wish… and so to the good man that is an object of wish which is really and truly so, but to the bad man anything may be; just as physically those things are wholesome to the healthy which are really so, but other things to the sick.”

‘The most distinguishing characteristic of the good man is his seeing the truth in every instance’- in this case, the ‘good’ is finding pleasure in the mean in accord with phronesis.


Against utilitarianism– The many are deceived by pleasure and pain, which appear to be the arche of all action, but is instead a sign of one’s virtue as attunement to the mean.


5. Freedom of the will vs. ignorance and vice.


Thus virtue is in our power- the influence of pleasure and pain is not compulsion, because voluntary actions are the the arche of virtue, and thus also of pleasure and pain.


Side note III.4a [Loc. 1060]


Q: Is ignorance the arche of vice?


A: Ignorance is either voluntary or the result of vice.

  • If voluntary, it is willful and thus a form of vice.
  • If from vice, then it is also the result of voluntary action, and also blameworthy.
  • In cases of ‘extreme stupidity’ one might be unaware that actions form character, but this would also be blameworthy.


The case is analogous to how certain voluntary habits or customs may cause physical illness. In both cases, it is like:

‘he who has let a stone out of his hand cannot recall it, and yet it rested with him to aim and throw it, because the origination was in his power.’


[Loc. 1074]

‘… no one would think of upbraiding, but would rather be compassionate, a man who was blind by nature, or from disease, or from an accident…


[Sidenote: II5a, Loc.1095]: actions and virtue are both voluntary, but in two different senses, ‘for of the actions we are masters from beginning to end … but only of the origination of the habits, the addition by small particular accessions not being cognizable… still they are voluntary because it rested with us to use our circumstances this way or that.’


6. Of courage.















Abortion, natal discrimination, and the rights of potential persons.

One nice thing about Canadian politics is the lack of debate on the question of abortion. Recently [in 2013] ‘Parliament Motion 408’ was introduced into parliament by pro-life conservatives in order to try and put some cases of abortion ‘on the table’, by proposing to outlaw the troublesome practice of aborting female fetuses because they’re female. Because I come from the US, I would expect that such a motion would be an embarrassment to the pro-choice side. It is a tribute to Canadian civic culture that it was not voted on for fear of forcing MP’s to ‘come out’ against choice.

Ignoring political considerations, being pro-choice should not make one oppose a motion to outlaw ‘gendercide’, which we will here call ‘natal discrimination’.  ‘Why the name change?’ you might ask. The  term ‘gendercide’ is meant to allude to the term ‘genocide’, thus playing upon the idea that killing female fetuses is the moral equivalent of killing girls. This idea is mistaken. Natal discrimination, however wrong, is not murder. Rather, its wrongness consists in its being discriminatory.


Natal discrimination is wrong for the same reasons other forms of discrimination are wrong. For example, it’s not wrong to fire an employee, but it is wrong to do so for the wrong reason, e.g. their sex or race. Similarly, it is wrong to deny women or racial minorities the right to vote or drive cars, but it is not wrong to deny these rights to minors. Nor is it wrong for a pregnant woman to deny her own unborn the right to be born. This is not to say that a fetus, embryo or zygote are completely lacking in rights. In fact, actual adults have significant obligations to children who have yet to be conceived, for example the right to an intact biosphere and  sufficient resources to sustain them, should they be lucky enough to be born someday. Also, we have obligations to continue cultural progress in the fields of science, politics, economics and art. Thus, while future persons are not yet actual persons, they are persons none the less, with all the rights pertaining to their level of development.
Every level of development has its own proper level of morality, from the unconceived, zygotes, embryos, fetuses, infants, toddlers, children, teenagers, adults, the elderly, the recently dead, to those who are dead long ago. While a fully rational adult has more rights than any other level of development, this is not discriminatory since they also have more obligations than those younger or older than them.


However, not one of us have the obligation to produce children to enjoy these benefits. Certainly, if every person in the world decided not to have children, no one would have the least right to complain against them or the right to force them to conceive, gestate and care for future generations. This is the pro-choice philosophy; we have the right to decide for ourselves the purpose of our lives; many people have decided that raising children are their purpose for living, but that is their decision.  What is wrong about natal discrimination is that it is discriminatory, and discrimination is wrong even against potential people. If someone programmed a robot to wake up in a thousand years to kill a bunch of people, it would still be wrong today, and the people wronged would be those future people, yes, those merely potential people who are not even conceived yet. But guess what? We are not obligated to conceive those future people, not are we obligated to gestate them if they get conceived. But if we bear them, we have obligations to care for them and not kill them. Perhaps this age-limit on the right to life may seem arbitrary to some, but it is no less arbitrary that age limits on the right to drive, vote, drink, legal consent, bear arms, run for political office, work, or any other right you may think of. I am willing to think that the right to be free from torture has no age limit save the stage at which one grows a nervous system, however this is not a very damning exception for choice advocates to to make.