Philosophical commentary on contemporary political issues in the tradition of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Capabilities and Ethical Choice

“I believe that for all of our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”

-President Barack Obama, January 12, 2011

In his recent essay, my friend Peter Hurford put forth an argument that continued his previous claim that there is no "rationally binding" code of ethics for human beings. His argument hinges on one major claim: that the differences that occur between individuals are too great to result in any clear standard of morality for all individuals. Since we have some aspects of our identities and personalities that are idiosyncratic, we can thus not establish any objective standard for rational moral behavior. This claim is not a new one, but it is one that deserves attention for the sake of showing its flaws.

The claim that people have too much variance to establish a rational morality fails in two main ways: by resting on oversimplification and ignoring the strong empirical evidence available.

To begin with the problem of oversimplification, Hurford himself admits that there are many "shared goals" between human beings, examples of which are "eating and sleeping."1 Martha Nussbaum puts forth a longer list than this in her book Frontiers of Justice. In her innovative "capabilities approach," Nussbaum puts forth a list: life, bodily health, bodily integrity, sense, imagination, thought, emotions, practical reason, affiliation, other species, play, and control over one's environment.

One can argue about what should make list (even Nussbaum does), but to say that there is no such fundamental list of capabilities that every human being needs to flourish denies people of their fundamental humanity. Without such qualities, it is not a stretch to say that we "cease to be human."

This leads nicely into Hurford's claim that knavery and sociopathy provide a challenge to morality derived from man qua man. Knavery, the word I am using here to refer to supposedly "immoral" acts that bring a satisfaction to the actor for their carrying out, seems to fit very well into Nussbaum's capability theory. What is fun about playing the ruthless baron in a game of Monopoly? It carries out man's need for "play," "practical reason," "imagination," "control over one's environment." This can be extended to a certain extent into "troublemaking" of a more serious sort, such as fraternity prank-pulling or April Fools jokes.

A counter to this claim could be that any human action can be drawn back to some capability. But the capabilities cannot be handled in isolation. While a night out for drinks for friends could provide for the human need for affiliation, night after night of drinking can threaten the capability of bodily integrity. It can be generally acknowledged that April Fool's pranks can be had in all good fun while still holding that some pranks would not be appropriate for one reason or another, possibly relating to the damaging of emotional or affiliation ties. This also brings us to the example of the sociopath. The sociopath's crippled emotional capacity and inability to affiliate with others cuts him off from basic human needs, thus holding him back from a moral life and a flourishing existence.

Further, Hurford claims that the diversity of human beings leaves mankind helpless to determine an objective morality. For instance,
Going to the nightclub might be great for one person’s needs and what they ought to do, but definitely not right for another person. One person might accomplish their goal to flourish and self-actualize through community service, whereas it might be a rather miserable experience for another person.
A diversity in the manner by which men exercise their capabilities does not refute the existence of capabilities in the first place. People can be rightly more social or less social, more playful or more serious, but the man who is always alone or always serious shows a distinct lack of humanity and fails to have the opportunity to flourish qua man. This does not mean that every man needs to like baseball rather than hockey or reading rather than gardening in order to flourish. A world in which every man must act exactly the same would not be a world where people were responding to their natures. We must be aware of the differences between people, but not let that obscure the significance of our similarities.

The similarities uncovered by the capabilities approach has some strong empirical footing, as well. An important essay by psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman finds strong empirical data that sociability correlates very highly with happiness. The long-held tabula rasa view of development is unraveling with new studies detecting onset of moral thinking at earlier and earlier ages. On the macro level, control over the political process has provided example after example of better outcomes for democracies, such as the fact that no democracy in human history has ever experienced a famine.

As I have said in previous posts, one does not need to believe morality is a non-natural property to understand that morality is objective and rational. One needs simply to acknowledge that man can only understand the world and thus understand himself qua man. And yes, part of our humanity is our individuality, but our individuality does not eclipse our humanity. That which divides us is certainly not as strong as that which unites us.

1 It should be noted that there is some ambiguity with the use of the phrase "shared goals." For the sake of this conversation, we are not referring to goals that individuals wish to achieve together, but rather goals that separate individuals happen to have.

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