Ethical Theory Spring 2021

Natural Foundations


In the readings we discussed last time, Williams established, to his satisfaction, that facts about the nature of some things can determine their value. For instance, a clock is a good clock only if it tells time accurately. You can do something similar with roles that people occupy. What counts as being a good cricketer depends on the skills used in playing cricket, for instance.

This led to a question about moral standards. Can we infer standards for human beings from an understanding of their nature? If so, maybe we can base morality on human nature.

In today’s reading we will talk about Aristotle’s attempt to show how this might be done. Next time we will talk about the attempts of Christian thinkers and Immanuel Kant to carry this kind of project off.

What did Aristotle say about ethics?

We have not read Aristotle, of course. So I will ask you to take for granted that this is an accurate summary of the chief points of his ethical theory.

  1. There are powers and activities which are distinctively human. “Distinctively human” means they separate human beings from other animals. These powers and activities identify the nature of human beings or, in other words, the essential properties of human beings.

  2. The good life for a human being involves the full development of these powers and the pursuit of those activities that are distinctively human.

  3. Specifically, Aristotle maintains that the ability to shape their actions by reason is the distinctive human characteristic. The good life for a human being is one in which reason is present in the highest degree. Reason, in turn, governs the extent to which other abilities will be developed and used.

Three problems for Aristotle’s ethics

Williams argues that Aristotle faces four broad problems.

  1. The development of a person’s powers of reason may be in tension with the development of that person’s ethical qualities. This is the point of his examples of Gaugin and Plato. Paul Gaugin left his family to pursue his art. Plato recommended the suppression of works of art that would teach immoral lessons (Williams 1972, 57).

  2. Many distinctively human traits are irrelevant to morality (Williams 1972, 59).

  3. Some distinctively human traits are morally ambiguous; they can be used for either morally good or bad purposes (Williams 1972, 59–60).

  4. There are passions that are also distinctively human and it is absurd to insist that reason should take priority over them (Williams 1972, 60–61).

Key Points

You should have a sense of why Williams thinks that these things cut against Aristotle.

  1. Gaugin’s career.

  2. “having sexual intercourse without regard to season.”

  3. why it is “terrible” to think of the ways that “be a man!” could be taken literally.

  4. “to be helplessly in love is in fact as distinctively a human condition as to approve rationally of someone’s moral dispositions”


Williams, Bernard. 1972. Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.