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Once More unto the Veatch

Human Rights: Fact or Fancy?
by Henry B. Veatch
LSU Press, 1985; xii + 258 pp.

Henry Veatch was one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century, though sadly neglected by most contemporary analytic philosophers. He was a resolute defender of Aristotelian ethics against rival ethical systems, and in this week’s column, I’d like to look at an argument which he deploys against these rivals in his book Human Rights: Fact or Fancy?

The argument is this. A system of ethics must offer a convincing answer to the question “Why be moral?” Answers to this question must meet two requirements, but the requirements seem difficult to meet at the same time. Only Aristotelian ethics has an intellectually satisfying answer.

For Veatch, then, moral motivation is crucial. He says,

When it comes to a question of justifying anything like moral “oughts,” rights, duties, and the like, the teleologists, or partisans of a desire ethic, do appear to have the jump on the deontologists. For is it not true that with respect to any and every moral judgment of whatever kind . . . is not the question “Why?” always and in principle pertinent. . . . In other words, in a desire-ethic, “oughts” and obligations are held to be always and in principle relative to and conditional upon what our human desires, ends, and purposes happen to be.

He reiterates this point:

And yet how else can any “why”-question with respect to an “ought” be answered, unless one appeals to some purpose or end that one wishes to attain thereby and in terms of which the “ought” becomes intelligible as being that which one needs to do if one is to attain such-and-such an end or achieve such and such a purpose?

The deontologists who oppose a desire ethic have a point too. “There is no discernible necessary or rational connection, be it in fact or in logic, between my liking to do something or my enjoying it and its being the something that I ought to do.”

Veatch goes further. The two principles to which he has appealed are self-evidently true:

Very well, I suggest that both of these principles, which I would say are fundamental to moral philosophy, can never admit of demonstration through outside evidence. . . . Instead, the only way in which principles such as these may be evidenced is through their being seen to be evident simply in and through themselves. In other words, they are either self-evident or not evident at all.

How do we get out this bind? How do we get something that is both a desire and also more than a desire? Here we reach a key principle in Veatch’s philosophy. Ethics is not a free-standing science but must be grounded in metaphysics; moreover, human beings have the capacity directly to perceive reality and, by abstracting from it, to know its nature. Such abstractive inquiry, and here Veatch follows Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, reveals that the world consists of substances, each with its own nature, and human beings are no exception. In the Aristotelian and Thomist view, Veatch summarizes, the good of a substance is “that thing’s own proper end or perfection. For how else may we understand ‘good’ or bonum, save as the good of something? And what is the good of a thing if not its full being, or its fulfillment or perfection, toward which it is ordered by nature or its own nature” (emphasis in original).

What, from this perspective, is the good of a human being? Veatch says that the good of each individual is his own flourishing as a rational being:

So be it: the natural end or telos of a human being is attained only insofar as one actually lives and functions in a certain way. But what is that way? . . . man’s characteristic activity must consist of the practical exercise or use of reason. That is, the distinguishing activity of a human being must consist not just of living but in living intelligently—in being guided in one’s day-to-day conduct by a knowledge of what ought or ought to be done in the particular case.

Followers of Ayn Rand will find themselves in familiar territory, but there are significant differences between the Objectivist outlook and Veatch’s position. For one thing, a person’s obligation to act to fulfill his nature does not rest on a supposed “choice to live.” For Veatch, you are obligated to fulfill your nature even if you do not make this mysterious choice, the nature of which has not been clarified by Leonard Peikoff and hoc genus omne.

Veatch holds that the requirement to fulfill your nature is categorical, not hypothetical. “So far from its being a case of mutually exclusive alternatives, either of desires or oughts, it now turns out to be an obligatory end: it is something that we come to desire because we see we ought to desire it.” He credits Robert Paul Wolff for recognizing, in his book The Autonomy of Reason, that a categorical imperative would have to appeal to obligatory ends, but Wolff did not claim to have arrived at such an imperative.

If Veatch is correct, he has shown how his two requirements can jointly be met: we have an objective requirement, not a subjective whim or caprice, but it also a rational desire. But before he can retire from the field of battle, Veatch must meet a challenge. He relies on an Aristotelian philosophy of nature, but many would say that this has been outmoded by modern physical science, which uses a concept of laws of nature very different from natural law in the Aristotelian sense. With great panache, Veatch argues that modern physical science poses no threat to the position he defends.

Has Veatch succeeded in his impressive project? He makes an excellent case, and in my view he very well may have. Further, the project has libertarian implications (which I hope to address on another occasion) as it has been developed and extended by his disciples Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl in an impressive series of books. (For further discussion of this project, I may be allowed to refer to my review of Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s The Realist Turn in the October 2021 Philosophical Quarterly.)

I shall conclude with two related challenges to Veatch based on an entirely different view of moral obligation. Considering these two views together helps to clarify both. To understand the competing perspective, let us turn to one of the most significant articles of twentieth-century moral philosophy, H.A. Prichard’s “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” (Mind, 1912). Prichard argued that morality confronts us with direct demands—here is what you must do—and that seeking a motive to obey these demands other than the force of the moral “ought” itself trivializes morality. To view morality as Veatch does, is, from Prichard’s standpoint, to reduce it to advice on how to live well—where is the absolute demand? Veatch would no doubt respond by denying the existence of categorical “oughts” of Prichard’s kind, ungrounded in metaphysics, consigning them to the realm of the gorgons and harpies; but he is far from denying the existence of categorical oughts altogether. Prichard might be worried that answering the “Why be moral?” question by appeal to one’s flourishing takes the moral virtues to be a means to an end, in consequentialist fashion. But for Veatch this is not so. The virtues are constitutive of flourishing (i.e., they are part of being good) and what is to one’s advantage is to be understood in terms of that good. The fundamental issue between Veatch and Prichard, then, is whether “duty” is ontologically prior, as Prichard thinks, or whether it operates within a wider ontological context, as Veatch suggests.

And Veatch would press his attack by disparaging the supposed moral intuitions on which Prichard rests his case. Veatch says,

It would seem to be little better than an ad hoc, and hence highly dubious device, whereby we conjure up a seemingly mysterious faculty of moral insight, simply to assure ourselves that as human beings we can and do have a genuine knowledge of moral principles. And yet, unfortunately, why might not such a supposed intuition be the resource of just about any prejudiced or even fanatical Tom, Dick, and Harry, whenever the occasion might serve him to make appeal to it?

I think Prichard would respond that Veatch also appeals to the supposed self-evidence of his two principles of moral motivation and that it is not clear (not self-evident?) why one appeal is epistemologically better than the other.

Can Veatch overcome the Prichardian challenge? He has every prospect of success. (I am most grateful to Doug Rasmussen for helpful suggestions, which I have shamelessly incorporated into the text.)

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