Saturday, January 06, 2018

It was the sophists?

I am reading A Short History of Ethics by Alasdair MacIntyre. In chapter 3 MacIntyre explains how the Greek concept of the natural man came about. According to MacIntyre, the sophists were moral relativists. They believed that a man was virtuous if he functioned well as a successful citizen. To do this, he had to conform to the prevailing conventions of what was just and right. But these varied from one city state to another. Therefore, the important thing was to learn to adapt to whatever the prevailing usage was.

So, and this is the important part, what was moral was identified with the conventional. What this meant is that the natural man, hidden inside the conventional man, was identified with the non-moral or pre-moral.

The next part is worth quoting in full:
"The natural man has no moral standards of his own. He is therefore free from all constraints upon him by others. All men are by nature either wolves or sheep; they prey or are preyed upon.

The natural man, conceived thus by the sophist, has a long history in European ethics in front of him. The details of his psychology will vary from writer to writer, but he is almost always - though not always - going to be aggressive and lustful. Morality is then explicable as a necessary compromise between the desire of natural men to aggress upon others and the fear of natural men that others will aggress upon them with fatal consequences. Mutual self-interest leads men to combine in setting up constraining rules to forbid aggression and lust...

A good deal of variation is possible in the way that this intellectual fairy tale is told, but its central themes, like those of all good fairy tales, are remarkably constant. And above all, at the heart of the account there remains the idea that social life is perhaps chronologically and certainly logically secondary to a form of unconstrained nonsocial human life..."

The problem with the view of the natural man that seems to have originated with the sophists is that it reduces the nature of men to a few basic, destructive instincts; that it sees the natural man as an atomised agent seeking his own selfish purposes; and that it severs the connection between the natural man and the collective institutions of society, with these institutions only existing as part of a social contract to constrain the destructive aspects of natural man.

It possibly also led to equally unhelpful counter-positions, in which the natural man living outside of convention was thought to be noble and only corrupted by conventional society, or in which the social institutions were thought to be a contract for the purposes of a few against the many and therefore oppressive, rather than being necessary constraints upon the natural man.

What is missing is a more nuanced few of human nature, one which sees men as having a moral nature, albeit a flawed one, so that men have it within their nature both to embody noble qualities as well as to pursue an aggressive self-interest. Nor does the natural man exist prior to human society - he has always been part of it. Institutions like the family or the tribe were not somehow contracted for but reflect the social nature and the social needs of the natural man. The family does constrain aspects of human nature, but it fulfils others at the same time.

You cannot sum up the nature of man in a line. You could write a whole library of books describing the biological, the intellectual, the moral, the spiritual, the social, the emotional, and the psychological impulses that run through men. Out of all of this, an individual and a culture attempt to come to a sense of what is most excellent, profound, admirable and true within human nature, but in a way that integrates or harmonises the different aspects of who we are as men (you cannot, for instance, ignore the biological drives of men in attempting to come to an integrated ideal of manhood.)

In short, it is wrong to see the natural man as being pre-moral and pre-social, and morality as being wholly conventional. I'll be interested to see how MacIntyre describes the unfolding of this sophist view of natural man later in his book.


  1. "Out of all of this, an individual and a culture attempt to come to a sense of what is most excellent, profound, admirable and true within human nature…"

    Could this expectation be too idealized perhaps? I think there is a more practicable domain where the individual and culture are mostly trying to realize what is simply _successful_ in a material and social sense, whatever their societal structure may be. The group of higher human virtues you cite, while obviously very important from our standpoint, are scarcely leading values across time and cultures.

    1. Yes and no. I do agree that the question of "what is successful" needs to be asked. You could, for instance, look on the decline of the traditional family and be concerned that the social outcomes, of both individuals and the larger community, will be most likely harmed.

      But the question of the good seems to be prior to this. Liberals, for instance, are willing to accept whatever negative social outcomes arise from the decline of the traditional family, because their understanding of justice and of the good leads them to think of this decline as an aspect of moral progress.

      Or let me give you a somewhat extreme example. What if the ancient practice of a father deciding whether a newborn child should live or die could be shown to improve the social and material success of that community? Is it then morally justified? Most people would answer no, but why? Presumably, it is because their concept of the good is not tied entirely to what brings about social or material success - that there are other moral concerns that have to be considered.

      Also, the criteria of "what is simply successful in a material and social sense" doesn't answer more fundamental questions of "what constitutes success for an individual?" or "what kind of community is seeking success?"

      For instance, is a multiethnic society with a higher standard of living more or less successful than a monoethnic society with a higher sense of cohesion, tradition and belonging? What determines the answer to this question? How do you determine what is the higher good?

      What makes my life as an individual successful? Liberals tend to think that career success is what matters. Or perhaps a life full of hedonistic pleasure. Or perhaps a life that is politically correct in which there is no discrimination or bias.

      Trads might agree with the aim of a life that is successful. But our criteria would be different because our sense of what constitutes the good for individuals is different. So the criterion of "success" doesn't go far enough as it doesn't answer the question of what constitutes success.

  2. If we say that the good and the successful are both relative values then the relationship between them is more difficult to sort. I would argue that "success" is ineluctably subjective (I think we agree on this point) while the "good" represents more timeless and essential ideals-- ideals that rise to the level of objective if one follows the Bible, e.g.

    The good and the successful have an interesting relationship but they are not exactly directly comparable. I think it would be very easy to say "we are good" (and our values are good-- look what they have wrought) on the basis of evident material success, regardless of the ethics involved. Viking and Buddhist examples both come to mind. But upon material or social _failure_ the good may be reexamined, diminished or displaced altogether.

    The ancient Egyptians were certainly materially successful. Some would argue that the Jews, as their slaves, maintained a "better good" but over long periods they remained as slaves. Ultimately the beliefs of the Jews served them well. Perhaps this is an example of the good being more important than success, but it is an oversimplification.

    The differences between those sharing a society or country, relating to these topics, can be healthy and productive. We expect differences no matter how small the group. But many modern developments now threaten whatever harmony we have built up to date, placing both the good and our success at risk.