Do You Even Telos, Bro?

So I’m reading After Virtue, surprisingly (shamefully?) late in my virtue ethics reading list. It’s living up to its reputation so far; I think it’s safe to say that there’s something in it for everyone here; history, philosophy, and social science.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the fall of virtue goes something like this:

  1. Aristotle and the ancients set up the virtue framework in which there is man-as-he-is and man-as-he-ought-to-be, the latter defined by man’s telos, his purpose. The gap is bridged with practical reason.
  2. The scholastics came along, though this framework was pretty awesome, but added that man-as-he-ought-to-be is man acting in accordance with divine law. Despite later claims to the contrary, these guys are still all about reason.
  3. The Calvinists comes along and ruin everything (note: MacIntyre is Catholic). OK, not everything, but they set the stage for the decline: they reject the idea that reason can bridge the gap between man-as-he-is and man-as-he-ought-to-be. But they still believe the gap can be bridged—it’s just that only divine grace can get us there.
  4. The Enlightenment philosophers inherited the Calvinist-influenced version of this framework and agree with the notion that reason can’t bridge the gap. Only they’re a bunch of secularists, so they don’t think divine grace has any place either. The gap can no longer be bridged.
  5. Eventually, man-as-he-ought-to-be is forgotten altogether, and the idea of telos is rejected in basically all and any contexts.
  6. Enlightenment philosophers begin the work of constructing a framework in which moral law (inherited from the notion of divine law) is grounded in “human nature” (which is basically just man-as-he-is) without reference to a telos.
  7. Despite investing the greatest minds of the era, perhaps of any era, they fail miserably.

As a result, we’re stuck with a bunch of fragments of the old framework that don’t work well on their own, and attempts to make them stand on their own that simply don’t pass muster.

That’s all very interesting, and you don’t have to have MacIntyre’s point of view to agree that there’s at least something to that characterization of how events unfolded.

But my question, as a concerned virtue ethicist, is: can we resurrect a human telos?

Telos gets a bum rap because a lot of people get the wrong idea when they hear about a human “purpose”. They think religion. But we needn’t have a religious notion of telos and Aristotle certainly didn’t.

The idea, explored at length by Philippa Foot in Natural Goodness, is sort of functional. When we speak of “a good sailor”, we think of someone who performs a specific role well. When we speak of “a good wolf” or perhaps “a good example of a wolf”, we think of a wolf that is able to operate with its pack effectively, that isn’t self-destructive or likely to get the rest of its pack and its kin killed, and so on.

The crucial question for ethics is whether it is meaningful to speak of “a good human”. Foot and MacIntyre think so, as do most virtue ethicists in general. And it’s hard for me to disagree when I read, for instance, Daniel Russell’s Happiness for Humans:

So here’s a piece of advice: the person with the best chance for a happy life is the one who can cope with change, finds people to love, and then loves them as if his happiness, his very identity, depended on them. On my view, doing all of that wisely is just what happiness is.

Let’s taken as a given, for the sake of argument, that this quote describes the parameters of an ideal life. If this is the sort of life that “a good human” lives, it is also clearly not the life that all people are living. Let’s tentatively bring man-as-he-ought-to-be back into the picture then.

But where does this telos come from? A popular argument circulating on behalf of things like the paleo diet is that we evolved in one environment and since then have moved on to ways of life that are drastically different from that. I’m skeptical of the particular application (you can pry my processed sugar and carbs from my cold, dead fingers) but clearly the line of thought involves man-as-he-ought-to-be and an evolutionary story to justify it.

Certainly psychology, self-help, and happiness studies all have an implicit telos of the healthy, happy, fulfilled human in mind. There are plenty of problems with particular instances of each of these areas but all I’m attempting to demonstrate here is that telos need not seem so remote and ancient to us as it is often presented as being.

MacIntyre argues that the is-ought divide is an artifact of a specific history rather than an intrinsic gap. I’m inclined to agree. But that’s a much longer conversation, to be returned to at a later time.

3 thoughts on “Do You Even Telos, Bro?

  1. I should be the last to ever talk about over- thinking or over-complicating matters, but I do think we might run into trouble, intellectually, by perhaps creating a sense of distance through the formal analysis of ethics. We externalize things that maybe should (ought?) be internalized and personalized, more accessible to us as individuals and a society. I wonder if we live in a less ethical world than we otherwise might as a result of the public view of the study of ethics, the domain of philosophers rather than the average person (despite the agency that average people possess). I know that in business school, ethics is viewed as a subject for the classroom, not the office. I view that as problematic. I’d be more inclined to explore ethics through experiential approaches such as that of the Buddhists. I suppose this is a philosophical indifference, in itself. I also respect the fact that this is outside my area of expertise, and I try to keep my mind open at an according level.

    1. I agree with you. Two things I’ll say in response:

      1. Aristotle didn’t think you were a real philosopher unless your philosophy was learned from actually living your life, and your philosophy was just ideas rather than things you actually went out and did something with.

      2. Stories are better than philosophy for teaching ethics.

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