Critical Précis of “Human Nature and Moral Sprouts: Mencius on the Pollyanna Problem” by Richard T. Kim
It is a pleasure to comment on this rich and interesting paper. As will be apparent in what follows, I am deeply sympathetic with the Mencian views that Richard expounds, but not yet convinced that those views have the advantages Richard claims for them over neo-Aristotelian views. In short, I think neo-Mencians and neo-Aristotelians are in the same boat, facing common hurdles that require them both to advance some substantive claims about human nature that are at least superficially at odds with what empirical science tells us about the same. Hence, neo-Mencians, like neo-Aristotelians, must advance some methodology for approaching human nature that shows there to be more to human nature than what empirical science reveals; or so I shall argue in what follows.
Neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism (hereafter “Naturalism”) is a metaethical view embraced by many contemporary virtue ethicists. The central thesis of Naturalism is that moral goodness is a species of natural goodness. As sharp teeth and keen senses are necessary for a tiger to be a good tiger, so is goodness of the will necessary to be a good human. Of course, there is a ‘sea change’ (as Philippa Foot calls it) between non-human animals and human beings in that rationality brings with it crucial differences in what constitutes goodness in the human case. Still, there is a common logical structure in both cases of attributing goodness: attributions of goodness in each case are indexed to the species. According to Naturalism, we are making a claim about what an organism of that species needs to carry out its species-characteristic life. On this view, the virtues are something human beings need to be good qua human, that is, to live our species-characteristic life. Neo-Aristotelians want to claim things like, “humans beings respect rights,” “humans beings care for their young through childhood,” and the like. Of course, these claims feature what Michael Thompson calls a ‘non-Fregean generality.’ A cat having three legs does not disprove the claim that cats have four legs. Rather, the three-legged cat is defective qua cat. This holds even if some cat-cleaving maniac has seen to it that no living cat has four legs. It is emphatically not a statistical claim.
Many readers of Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness have worried that she ignores obstacles standing in the way of such a view that come from a careful empirical study of human nature. The anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has shown, for example, that human maternal commitment is highly contingent, with high rates of infanticide in the first seventy-two hours of an infant’s life, at least when alloparental support is lacking. This seems to belie claims that the neo-Aristotelians are making about what characterizes our species. Neo-Aristotelians presumably claim that mothers committing infanticide is defective, but this behavior seems to have some claim to characterize our species: it might be said to be our species-typical life. Indeed, it almost singles us out among primates, according to Hrdy’s research (callitrichids are the only other primate group exhibiting such high levels of infanticide, Hrdy tells us). This gives rise to the so-called Pollyanna Problem: neo-Aristotelians seem to be making false claims about human nature
So, neo-Aristotelians must say something about the Pollyanna Problem (hereafter “PP”). One approach, advocated by Micah Lott and me, is to note that the neo-Aristotelians are not committed to an underlying methodological assumption behind the PP: empirical science is the only way to learn about the human life form. Following Lott, Richard calls this the Empirical Science Assumption. Richard wants to defend an approach to the PP that embraces this assumption. He believes that this is the only way to defend the so-called Central Point of Aristotelian Naturalism, viz., that the criteria for goodness and defect are have an objective foundation in facts about the nature of the thing. As I see it, Richard embraces the following argument, which I will refer to as the Empiricist Syllogism in the commentary:
- Naturalism aims to ground judgments of natural goodness and defect objectively in facts about the nature of organisms.
- Only empirical science offers us objective facts about the nature of organisms.
- Therefore, Naturalism must embrace the findings of empirical science.
So, Richard thinks that any approach sidelining empirical science will lose the Central Point of Naturalism.
Here, Richard turns to Mencius. He believes that Mencius offers a version of naturalism that can address the PP while not rejecting the Empirical Science Assumption, thereby saving the Central Point of Aristotelian Naturalism.
Mencius defended Confucian views when they were attacked by egoist followers of Yang Zhu and proto-utilitarian Mohists. His argument was that human nature is inherently good, containing the seeds of benevolence, righteousness, propriety and wisdom (Mencius’ four cardinal virtues, see Mengzi 6A6). He held that these seeds or “sprouts” must be nourished by family and ritual to attain the Confucian ideal of being a gentleman, who exhibits a proper balance of self and other-regard (e.g., fleeing in a hopeless situation (4B31) but helping by doing what is necessary to save a life when under other circumstances, it would be forbidden (4A17)).
Richard finds that Mencius’ claims about human nature are amenable to empirical scrutiny. That is because Mencius acknowledges that although human nature is good, some individual human beings are bad. The sprouts are only sprouts and can be thwarted in their development by different conditions. A mother surely has the sprout of compassion for her infant, but dire circumstances such as the absence of alloparental help, may lead mothers to do things that are inconsistent with those sprouts. On Mencius’ view, according to Richard, the vices are not basic or fundamental. It’s just that our sprouts can be overridden, and our nature deformed by prevailing circumstances. Mencius thinks that our non-moral desires can lead us to petty actions, but reflection can correct us and save us from depravity, through leading us to favor our greater (moral) parts. Hence, proper moral growth requires care on the part of the agent. We are also very susceptible to external conditions, including war and poverty, that can impede moral growth.
Mencius’ account helps because it gives an account of how things go wrong. The cases that those propounding the PP point to are cases involving a defective environment with a pathological mechanism that undermines proper moral growth.
Of course at this point many will ask for an account of normal or proper circumstance, and Richard is admirably honest about how much he thinks we can offer them:
Admittedly, there is no simple procedure for determining whether a circumstance is normal or proper. All we can do is to examine each circumstance carefully and use our best judgment to decide on a case-by-case basis, in the way that we also figure out what conditions are proper or normal for non-human animals. (155)
1. Aristotle too: I won’t belabor this point, but Aristotle also appeals to social conditions and individual choices to offer an account of how we can go wrong. The Nicomachean Ethics is explicitly “a sort of politics.” Human beings are political animals, on his account, and living in a polis of a sort is necessary to living well: “it is through laws that we become good” (NE 1180b24). As Richard hints, Aristotle may be somewhat darker about human nature than Mencius; ordinary people may have greater need law for Aristotle than for Mencius. It seems that the virtues are acquired through habituation for both, and it is clear that careful deliberate choice takes over at some point; through making bad choices we can veer into vice. But law is obviously crucial for Aristotle, “It is difficult… for someone to get correct guidance toward virtue from childhood if he has not been nurtured under laws of the appropriate sort.” So, Aristotle too gives us an account of how things go wrong; a bad upbringing deforms us and leads us not to be able to fulfill our human ergon.
Contemporary Aristotelians have not offered anything as robust as either Aristotle or Mencius in this regard, but I don’t think what they both have helps much to reply to the PP. Instead, I think they are both in the same boat regarding the issue.
2. In the Same Boat: The passage with which I ended the synopsis seems to me very clearly to relinquish the Empirical Science Assumption. Judgments of what makes for a ‘normal circumstance’ or ‘proper environment’ are intuitive case-by-case judgments, not scientifically supported judgments. I take it that the whole point of the PP is that there is a natural soundness to the responses that are prompted by the supposed ‘abnormal environments’ and hence there is no scientific basis for designating the environment as abnormal: the organism just has an alternative strategy (involving, e.g., sociopathy, infanticide) for surviving and passing its genes along in a different set of circumstances. In setting aside one set of circumstances as normal and promoting proper development, one is surely making a non-statistical, interpretive judgment that is not supported by scientific evidence. Abnormal conditions can certainly predominate, as they did during the Warring States period. Richard’s Mencius is thereby embedded in the interpretive framework that Aristotelian naturalists defend. It is the way in which this appears to be at odds with empirical science that invites the PP.
Mencius strikes me as committed to views of human nature with striking similarities to Aristotelian views. It is, after all, a “robust teleological conception of human nature” (147), and one that aims at the achievement of specifically moral excellence (a view that strikes me as more congenial than Aristotle’s contemplative ideal). It is a view that makes a role for first and second nature, showing that the second nature grows out of our first nature, as the sprouts are perfected with a good upbringing, along lines that are also quite Aristotelian. Reflection plays an important role for Mencius, and indeed, may outstrip the role that it plays in an Aristotelian framework. After all, in a famous passage of the Mengzi (1A7), Mencius leads King Xuan of Qi to reflect on his compassion for a bull the king spared from slaughter and urges him to show the same compassion for the commoners under his rule on the basis of that reflection. We are told that this reflection leads to genuine moral growth in the king. This is another area in which Mencius’ views are congenial and inspire hope, but surely they could be put under considerable empirical pressure. Can human being really achieve such moral growth through such reflection?
My suggestion is, then, that Mencius is putting forward a view that stands under the same challenge as Aristotelians face and does no better than Aristotelians in addressing. The challenge is to convince the proponents of the PP that there is reason to see empiricist views of living things as inadequate, and standing in need of an a priori conceptual framework that requires us to make determinations of what constitutes a normal environment – a conception, that is, of the essential features of the life form that are not straightforwardly settled by empirical science.
I am puzzled, really, as to whether Richard really takes himself to be embracing the Empirical Science Assumption, despite his claim to do so. After all, he states:
Our understanding of human nature and human flourishing is, on this picture, interdependent and must arise in tandem, and the claim that human nature grounds human flourishing should be understood as a metaphysical rather than an epistemological claim that is fully compatible with the view that complete understanding of human nature cannot arise without (some) knowledge of human flourishing. (150, emphasis added)
I’m in full agreement with this passage, but I think it deeply at odds with the perspective of those who are putting forward the PP, and that the advocacy of this view on the part of a neo-Mencian is required and puts him in the same boat as a neo-Aristotelian.
3. Rejecting the Empirical Science Assumption:
(a) In the above synopsis, I attributed to Richard an argument I labeled the Empiricist Syllogism. One might react to this syllogism with the thought: where else are we to get objective judgments about the nature of living things than from empirical science? Another possible reaction is: wait, empirical science tells us about the nature of living things? If one thinks living things, or other things in nature, have a nature, this may well be a metaphysical commitment that is itself not a deliverance of empirical science. Neo-Aristotelianism is itself inspired by Wittgensteinian views about what is required to be able to speak meaningfully about living things. Anscombe, for example, takes up Wittgenstein’s dictum “Essence is expressed in grammar,” and interprets what he is talking about as an extension of his discussion of logical form in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. She discusses the connection between the concept of a kind of stuff and a pure sample. Our ability to talk about the former is tied, Anscombe claims, to our ability to apply the latter concept. This is not something obvious – Locke apparently failed to see it – but once spelled out, it is compelling : “you need ‘pure samples’ to get knowledge of the properties of the kind of stuff you are examining: that gives the grammatical connexion which makes the particular grammar express the essence of the particular kind.” Only through grasping that connection between kind of stuff and pure sample, can I come to grasp that gold is a kind of stuff and come to differentiate it carefully from other kinds stuff, eventually learning of its particular atomic number separating stuff of that atomic number out from other stuff of different number, and learning about its other properties, its malleability and conductivity for example.
Picking up on Anscombe’s points about grammar and essence, Michael Thompson works out a detailed grammar of vital descriptions. The question is, what implicit logical connections are behind basic vital descriptions such as “Philippa is eating/walking/etc.”? On Thompson’s understanding of the grammar of vital descriptions, they depend on insight into the form of life featured in the description. Philippa, say, is my cat. Walking is something that cats do, and that fact underwrites my attribution to Philippa of the activity of walking, on Thompson’s understanding. What is happening in the organism considered as a concrete individual occupying a given region of space does not determine that there is something with legs, capable of locomotion, not to mention perception and nutrition. As Thompson puts it, “When we call something eating… we appeal to something more than is available in the mere spectacle of the thing here and now.” That ‘something more’ is the life-form. In seeing something as alive and engaged in a vital activity, I am seeing what is going on here and now as part of a larger process. I am taking its movements not as adventitious flailing, but as forwarding a process that is directed under the unity of the individual organism. It is only through understanding the thing as belonging to a form of life in which parts are organized so as to carry out these functions that we can take it to be an organism. Living things are essentially bearers of life forms. Even understanding of the physical shape of the organism must appeal to the life form. As Thompson states: “such apparently purely physical judgments as that the organism starts here and ends here, or weighs this much, must involve a covert reference to something that goes to beyond the individual, namely its life form” (“Apprehending Human Form,” 52).
Richard seems to recognize the centrality of the life-form at one point in his discussion, when he states, “even to see something as a cactus… requires an interpretive understanding of the kind of life-form each living thing exemplifies” (151). At other points he seems to be saying that it is only when we are making a judgment of natural goodness or defect that the life-form is in question. This point is crucial because it seems to me to get at the underlying motives for challenging the Empirical Science Assumption, and to yield the basis for an argument against it.
The idea that understanding something as an organism requires an interpretive process challenges the Empirical Science Assumption, unless one takes empirical science in a very expansive sense. It means that when we encounter an organism we are applying an interpretive framework that involves a judgment about what it is to flourish qua organism of that type. These judgments can be revised in light of further information, of course, and so they are in part empirical, but on the other hand, given the distinctive non-Fregean generality of natural historical judgments, we can hold tight to a judgment in the face of the stats. This might seem to undermine the objectivity of judgments about living things, but that might just be a matter of important a standard of objectivity inappropriate to this domain.
Neo-Aristotelians hold that this interpretive framework is necessary for getting at something qua living thing. Such judgments ‘go beyond physics’ in Anscombe’s words. They take there to be a unity and directedness of process that requires grasping what is happening as characteristic of the life-form. And so, the idea is that this notion of life-form is logically prior to empirical study to living things. Behind evolutionary biology and such ideas as the selected effects notion of function, there is this more rustic idea of the organism that picks out the subject of that science.
So, this is the first way in which neo-Aristotelians take issue with the Empirical Science Assumption: in order to get at living things as a subject of possible empirical study, we must apply an interpretive framework that appeals to the notion of a life-form. The grammatical framework itself is not the outgrowth of empirical science, and it argues for a view on which our judgments of living things are irreducibly interpretive.
(b) A second way in which neo-Aristotelians take issue with the Empirical Science Assumption concerns the way in which we know our own form of life. We have a distinct, non-observation access to our form of life. Richard acknowledges this, but, in my view, misinterprets it as a matter of ‘subjective experience.’ No doubt we can make judgments about our life-form based on subjective experience, but that is not non-observational knowledge. What neo-Aristotelians like Thompson are talking about relies on an a priori conception of our life form. So, Thompson frames certain aspects of our life form as known implicitly; from this implicit conception we can derive truths of reflection a priori. The concepts that Thompson arrives at to characterize the categorial structure of such thinking, including ‘life-form’ and ‘natural historical judgment,’ are “supplied by reflection on certain possibilities of thought or predication” rather than by experience (Life and Action 20). They are pure a priori concepts, on his view. Thompson frames the implicit form consciousness as follows:
In the self-conscious representation of myself as thinking, as in all my self-conscious self-representation, I implicitly represent myself as alive, as falling under life-manifesting types. And in bringing myself under such types I bring myself under a life form… Self-consciousness is thus always implicitly form-consciousness. (Thompson, “Apprehending Human Form,” p. 68)
On Thompson’s understanding, we cannot get ourselves into view, describe ourselves, or so much as be aware of ourselves as thinking without situating ourselves as a members of a life form (the life form that I bear) that features some norms of which I am ipso facto aware. To be aware of an episode of thinking requires that we grasp what is going on as an occurrence of a certain sort, which can occur only in the context of a life form with the power of thinking. Inasmuch as reasoning and acting are characteristic activities of human beings, the implicit form consciousness of a self-conscious human also includes some norms concerning what it is to reason and act well. Those norms, whatever they are, form a part of the norms that comprise our conception of what it is to live well qua human. These norms do not come to us from without, from observation, but are embedded in the a priori self-conception that is at the basis of our self-consciousness, according to Thompson. These norms are my norms if anything is mine. No intentional action or thought could be attributed to me in the absence of powers for thinking that belong to me as a member of the human form of life; any attribution to me of action or thought must happen against the background of that form of life. Further, that power must include a capacity for self-conscious representation if intentional action is to be possible. When I act intentionally, I know myself to be doing something under a relevant description, and thereby situate myself against the background of a form of life with capacities for such action.
Thompson thereby embraces a sort of life form internalism, according to which when we act deliberately and not in weakness of will, we necessarily demonstrate our conception of what it is to live well qua human. Those norms could, I would note, come apart from the norms we think we advocate about how a human should act: hence, I might think “I am hereby acting badly” but in the absence of any inner conflict, my true conception of how one ought to live is shown in how I act. The idea of a life form in my own case is a practical conception. It is formed not through observation, but through practical reflection on what it is to live well qua human, where practical reflection is thought that terminates in action.
I would note that one can embrace these ideas without thinking that “empirical science is generally irrelevant for understanding human nature” (144). Rather, one can think that empirical science is relevant, but that the relevance is limited. If I reject a practice, say masturbation, on the basis of its being bad for my health, upon finding out it is not, I may change my judgment about human nature. I go from thinking masturbation makes one a defective human, at least when it is done with knowledge of the harm it brings, to thinking one can do it innocently. If it were harmful, it would make one a defective human in the moral sense on the grounds that one who knowingly does something harmful is irrational, which is a defect in a human being. On the other hand, if I reject masturbation on the basis of it being contrary to chastity, as does Anscombe, finding out that it is not bad for health may be beside the point. One may take it to be an inherently base practice, incompatible with living well qua human, quite apart from its impact on one’s health. For Anscombe, as I understand her, it was simply a lascivious practice.
So, this is not a matter of looking within, introspecting, and arriving at insight into our form of life based on what we find there, but a matter of practical thinking with an a priori basis that involves interpreting our form of life. There are some features of our form of life that are incontrovertible, such as that we think. Other aspects of our form of life appear to be up for grabs. Is charity a virtue? Foot thinks so, but others, such as Yang Zhu, think we are naturally egoistic; they think that Confucians and Mohists propose modes of living that lead us to live defectively.
(c) In addition, I think there is some evidence that Mencius is actually the one who makes use of introspection (in a way that I have argued Thomson does not). Mencius writes:
The reason why I say that humans all have hearts that are not unfeeling toward others is this. Suppose someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: everyone in such a situation would have a feeling of alarm and compassion—not because one sought to get in good with the child’s parents, not because one wanted fame among their neighbors and friends, and not because one would dislike the sound of the child’s cries. From this we can see that if one is without the heart of compassion, one is not a human. (Mengzi 2A6, trans. Van Norden)
I think this is an interesting argument, but it goes beyond both what Thompson and Foot talk about and beyond empirical science. Mencius asks us to look within and ask ourselves about our inclinations confronted with this situation. It could be approached empirically with a view to testing whether everyone does have such responses. I’m betting that some people would not respond as Mencius claims they would. I agree with Mencius that they would be defective human beings. But I don’t know that because of anything empirical science tells me; it is an interpretation of the life form that I have arrived at through reflection. This argument may be part of charting a path forward on questions concerning the human form of life; perhaps it persuaded some followers of Yang Zhu to abandon their views. So, I think Mencius may have really interesting resources to bring to the discussion that has been sparked by neo-Aristotelianism, but not because Mencius is more reconcilable with empirical science. Rather, it is because he is just as at odds with the prevailing empirical scientific approach to human nature and has some distinctive approaches to filling out what makes us good qua human.