Telos, Contigent or Unconditional

Sweet Talk hasn’t been around for very long and already I’ve offended someone as famous as Heraclitus. We are living the dream, achieving our telos over here.

After reading this interesting post on process vs substance philosophies and the role of each in biology, I came back around to thinking about David’s post.

I would never think to know of a telos (mine or anyone else’s) in some complete, universal sense of the word. But it does seem to me that we can grasp at something more contingent, historical; of the moment and the circumstances, in short.

Process philosophies, of which Heraclitus is the great grandfather (but don’t call him a philosopher, he doesn’t like that) seem to me to be true in some universal, unconditional way. There are these grand processes of which everything about us merely constitute a moment or sum of moments in time. But substance philosophies are more useful within the window of those moments. Within that time window, I have been equipped with eyes which observe things that my brain interprets as discrete things that I need to make decisions in relation to. Taxonomies of these things can be useful for informing those decisions, but we needn’t fall into essentialism and think there is something like a Platonic form behind the categories in these taxonomies.

Purpose, or purposes, for a human life, can be substantive in that sense and that sense only. And as with everything human we do not look upon such a thing without filters; something like a telos does not exist in any concrete way without an ethical framework within which it is coherent. And such frameworks are themselves merely eddies in Heraclitus’ river.

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Tell Us, O Tell Us of Your Telos

See, this is just the kind of thing to get Heraclitus foaming at the mouth so that we think of him as irascible, melancholy, misanthropic and altogether grumpy, along with being a warmonger, this thing from Adam Gurri. How, just how do you think that you would ever in a million years have any confidence in knowing the telos of the sum of your short number of breaths in this mortal coil? That really is the nub of the thing: one simply does not have enough time to contemplate the day ahead before its sun sets, and you expire, going to rest in the dust. There’s yer telos, right there.

This, I submit in behalf of Heraclitus, is the great genius of the Declaration of Independence (despite its revolutionary fomentation, pace Adam Blackstone): the Americans stood astride the Enlightenment, shouting “Stop!”, inscribing their property, their lives, and their John Hancocks on those three concepts, the most debatable of which is the last, that is, and the pursuit of happiness. I do believe that this revolutionary idea, coupled with life and liberty, was a fundamental moment, a convergence of history, perhaps the telos of history, in the sense that they rejected the common notion of telos (qualified here as knowable, and therefore pliable) and set the world free to pursue happiness.

You would take up arms to pursue happiness?

Come to think of it, this most ethereal (ephemeral?) of concepts is the least abstract of the three. We can’t concretize life nor liberty to the same extent nor with the same categories as we can the pursuit of happiness. “The pursuing of happiness.” It is the story of a mother running after her toddler while grandma and grandpa gander at the image of their own tender youth, when they were pursuing. It is the story of a driven businessman raising up corporation after corporation for sale to the public. It is the story of [you fill in this space].

This is why the American experiment is mostly a story, a collection of stories, of episodes, whereas other experiments are epochs, eras, and dynasties. Heraclitus would approve. Even our wars (until the middle of the 20th Century) were Heraclitian in their character, the American people demurring on things such as revolution, slavery, European misery, fascism and Communism, until they couldn’t stand no more (again, pace Adam Blackstone), and then a wrath unleashing, which, among all its debatable effects, brought a fire upon the earth, which, in and of itself, is the telos of war, of existence.*

Being caught up in war, of course gives one a sense of personal telos, but not without the lingering doubt that the battle, even for the victorious soldier, is for nothing, considering the grand sweep of history, that great abstraction. Many WWII veterans died in their old age bitter towards their own children for a betrayal of all the things they fought and were wounded for and their closest comrades died for. “Of course it’s for nothing!” Heraclitus the Wise exclaims.

Other wise people nod their heads in agreement. It is enough, they say, to have at the end of the day someone to talk to and the knowledge that at least you had something to do while the sun traversed the sky from horizon to horizon.


*I contend that Heraclitus would have approved most heartily of the practical American doctrine of Manifest Destiny. I agree with some of his reasoning, but not entirely with his moral outlook.

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.