Aristotelian Essentialism Notes for October 28

Main points

I tried to do two things. First, I tried to define the players on the field: essentialists, relativists, Aristotelians, and liberals. The first two are views about the nature of reality: does it include a single, defined human nature or is what we think of as a single, defined human nature really the product of our cultural backgroud? The third and fourth positions are views about the purpose of the state: does it extend to forming citizens with the aim of making them live well or is it more restricted in the name of individual liberty?

Second, I tried to distinguish between what I regard as a common sense idea and two competing theoretical explanations of that idea. The common sense idea is that there is a short, definite list of things that nearly everyone needs. The theoretical explanations are the essentialist and subjectivist ones. The point was to separate the argument in Nussbaum’s essay from the attractive conclusions that it reaches. What we’re interested in is whether the argument throws light on our reasons for accepting the conclusions, after all.

Speaking for myself, I don’t find it as easy as Nussbaum does to say what features humans necessarily have.

Human nature to ethics

I think that Emily, Dr. Brown, and Derek are all right to say that the similarity among human beings explains why they are capable of feeling compassion for one another. However, I’m not sure that Nussbaum can rest her case on this. Human beings notoriously draw distinctions among one another and have difficulty feeling compassion across those distinctions. Pick your favorite: race, class, age, gender, and so on. The thrust of Nussbaum’s argument is that there is something about the nature of humanity that gives us reasons to protect and promote that list of capabilities for every human, even if we are not otherwise inclined to do so.

With arguments like this, there is a risk of saying too much or saying too little. For instance, I think Scott had a good point in saying that the argument claims too much in the area of sexuality. Sexual desire is not essential to humanity: plenty of people lack it for reasons beyond their control. Don’t get us wrong. It’s a good thing to have. We’re just saying it’s not essential to your humanity.

Why is sexual desire on the list? Because of all the ways that we frustrate the expression of this desire. Nussbaum is against many of them. Me too. We differ in our explanations of the reasons why we’re against them.

On the other hand, it claims too little if it restricts itself to something like biology. There are some ethical conclusions that might follow from our purely biological nature. But most of them depend on assertions about our common psychological and social nature.

Finally, we shouldn’t forget what Derek and Natalie pointed out. Human nature includes a lot of nasty stuff too. Sexual desire is part of our nature, in the sense that the vast majority of people have it. But so are aggression, cruelty, fear, and a host of other less attractive qualities. If the move goes from facts about our nature to ethical conclusions, why shouldn’t we include those facts, and their unpleasant consequences, too?

Note that it’s no good to say that the conclusions are unethical. We’re trying to establish points about ethics, not take them for granted.

Off to the state of nature with ye!

Seth and I are more attracted to subjectivism than most. The main knock on subjectivism is adaptive preferences: people’s desires can reflect what others want rather than what is good for them. Hence the women who think they need far less food than, in fact, they do.

Subjectivists have to correct these desires.** Some, such as those who stop at revealed preferences, can’t do this. That’s why it isn’t much use in many contexts, such as giving advice or making education policy. One way of doing it would be to say that we could frustrate these desires in order to satisfy many more (or many more important ones). Another way is to trace the questionable desires to a deviant origin. If we found that the women had been literally brainwashed, for instance, we could dismiss their preferences as not truly their own.

But it’s not clear that we can set up a general standard for deciding which desires are legitimate and which are not without appealing to essentialism or some other objective standard of well-being.

Seth proposed an answer: see what people would want if we (metaphorically) left them in the woods. But there are problems with that, not least being that many of the things people want concern their relations with others. Look back at the Williams reading, though, and there’s a similar idea to Seth’s about truth and true belief. I think that Seth and Williams are pursuing an interesting idea, though I can’t say for sure how it will turn out.

What does “Aristotelian” mean?†† Added November 9

Having thought about it a bit, I think that the adjective “Aristotelian” in “Aristotelian essentialism” might mean three things. Since the handout only mentioned one, I thought I should amend what I said.

Nussbaum’s essentialism is Aristotelian in any one of these ways (they are all compatible with one another).

  1. The kind of thing whose essence we’re looking for, namely, humanity, is a biological species. Aristotle was deeply interested in biological classification and held that the species were fixed. Unfortunately, Darwin rather blew that up.
  2. The view rejects Plato’s ideas about what is ultimately real and about how we might come to know reality. Nussbaum, like Aristotle, uses regular, human observation as the basis for her claims. She does not systematically doubt it and turn instead to a special kind of insight that only a few can possess. That was Plato’s view, roughly speaking.
  3. Finally, Nussbaum’s position is Aristotelian in the sense that I described in class, namely, as a view about the purpose of the state. According to this view, the state’s role is to enable people to live well (rather than the more modest goal you can find in, say, Hobbes of enabling them to live in peace) and it is supposed to play a role in forming their characters (rather than the typical liberal view that the state should take people as they are).
This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-Being, PPE 160, Fall 2008. It was posted October 31, 2008 and updated November 9, 2008.
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