Acting contrary to nature or living according to nature? (I)


Somewhere near the passage to modernity, the philosophical tree sprouted some branches and grew dead. How many branches, pray, before it breathed its final breath? The contemporary philosopher Harry Frankfurt holds up his fingers, counts two, and then shades in a third. The first branch is epistemology which, he says, is concerned with “what we believe.” The second branch is ethics whose chief subject, Frankfurt does not doubt, is “how to behave.” The final branch is no mere twig for it covers the rest of human existence. It is, Frankfurt announces, the question of “what we care about.”

We are only in the third paragraph of Frankfurt’s germane essay, “The Importance of What We Care About,” when he elaborates on the scope of ethics. “Ethics focuses on the problem of our relations with other people. It is concerned especially with the contrast between right and wrong, and with the grounds and limits of moral obligation.” Frankfurt’s italics are intended to underscore the sharp contrast he wishes to draw between other people (ethics) and the self (care), between right and wrong (ethics) and importance (care), between obligations (ethics) and desires (care).

I sense mystery in Frankfurt’s design, a mystery whose shape can only be hinted at in the following remarks. Frankfurt’s neat and exacting tripartite division of philosophy transforms believing, moral reasoning, and caring into three separate enterprises, each of which is said to dwell in its own proper place: believing with a scientific conception of nature, commanding and complying with human conduct, and caring with an individual’s life projects. Because of this structure, it follows that ethical action, just because it exists solely within the realm of moral obligation, must be contrary to nature.

In this, Frankfurt is a progeny of Immanuel Kant. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, Kant had cautioned us not to be “seduced” by our unruly inclinations. “The human being,” Kant states with great certainty in his 1785 ethical treatise The Groundwork of a Metaphysics of Morals,

feels within himself a powerful counterweight to all the commands of duty, which reason represents to him as so deserving of the highest respect–the counterweight of his needs and inclinations, the entire satisfaction of which he sums up under the name of happiness. Now reason issues its precepts unremittingly, without thereby promising anything to the inclinations, and so, as it were, with disregard and contempt for those claims, which are so impetuous and besides so apparently equitable (and refuse to be neutralized by any command). (my italics)

In Kant’s picture, moral philosophy urges us to let our reason outweigh our inclinations; it does so by means of making and holding fast to obligations. Kant’s argument to this effect turns on the metaphysical distinction between humans and God. God, he thinks, can only will infallibly yet human beings’ fallibility–the fact that we err, are easily seduced by our desires, are tempted to pursue our own happiness at all costs–requires that we subjugate our passions to our reason if we intend to act well. “Necessitation” is Kant’s word for a rational being’s learning to turn his will in the direction of his higher obligations despite his will not being “by its nature necessarily obedient.”

In Kant as in Frankfurt, to act morally is to do what we ought, not as we want. The outline of this modern mystery, one filled with struggle and strife and vacillation, is revealed once it is juxtaposed with ancient philosophers’ entirely different conception of the relationship between ethics and nature. In the modern world, ethics is indeed acting contrary to nature; in the ancient world, ethics is living according to nature. How did we go from “according to” to “contrary to”? How, indeed, did ethics get prised apart from nature, and what conception of nature made this prising apart possible?

Part II tomorrow…