Becoming What You Are, Virtue and Practical Wisdom as Natural Ends

  1. Introduction
  2. Chapter 1: Many Sorts of Naturalism
  3. Chapter 2: Organic Naturalism
  4. Chapter 3: Practical Primates
  5. Chapter 4: What We Are
  6. Chapter 5: Practical Reasoning
  7. Chapter 6: Natural Reasoning
  8. Chapter 7: Conclusion

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Dedication
  • Acknowledgments
  • Epigraph
  • Preface
  • Table of Contents

Becoming What You Are, Virtue and Practical Wisdom as Natural Ends

A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Kentucky.

By Keith Buhler

Directed by Dr. David Bradshaw



This dissertation is about ethical naturalism. I defend and bolster Philippa Foot’s sort of neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism against that of John McDowell.

Foot and McDowell are united in the affirmation that virtue is ‘natural goodness’ for human beings. They are also united in endorsing scientific naturalism. Nevertheless, they are divided in their rival conceptions of ‘nature.’ McDowell distinguishes “second nature” or the “space of reasons” from “first nature” or the “realm of law.” Foot rejects this division. Even though human practical reasoning is unique in the biological world, she argues that natural goodness is a just as much a feature of “first nature” as life and health. The human goods of excellent practical reasoning and virtuous living are of a piece with other natural goods such as health and well-functioning.

I defend Foot’s view by appealing to “generic propositions,” a little-utilized feature of linguistic theory. Generic life forms and organic functions are just as scientifically respectable as other naturalistic concepts. I then argue that human beings are best understood as practical, rational primates. It follows that the ethical and rational norms defining a good human life are a subset of natural norms which can be known as such from an “external” scientific point of view as well as from an “internal” ethical point of view. In short, despite varying abilities and life circumstances, all of us ought to pursue virtue and practical wisdom because of who and what we are. Virtue and practical wisdom are natural ends.

Going beyond Foot’s view, I articulate novel neo-Aristotelian accounts of virtue and practical reason. While the normative force of my thesis is clear, I aim to secure its naturalistic credentials by examining three influential conceptions of ‘nature.’ I criticize McDowell’s conception, and show how my view is consistent with either of the remaining two.

The resulting view is called “recursive naturalism” for practical reasoning, which is natural to human beings, is part of the natural world even though we reason about the world, ourselves, and our own reasoning.

KEYWORDS : ethical naturalism, neo-Aristotelianism, virtue, practical wisdom, nature, natural ends


For Lindsay Elizabeth.

“Oh, who shall understand but you; yea, who shall understand?”


I am sincerely grateful to Dr. David Bradshaw for being my advisor on this project. He was not only a professor but a model of virtue and practical wisdom. I am also grateful for the early encouragement of friends and family members such as Kristi Buhler, who first taught me to dream big, and John Mark Reynolds, who first told me I was a philosopher. Alfred Geier, whom students have characterized as “Zeus in human form,” mentored me in philosophical dialogue, while Gary Hartenburg’s invaluable feedback helped me transition into graduate school. Timothy Sundell first pushed me toward serious research in metaethics, and Anita Superson helped with early and tough criticism of my project. I am especially grateful to Stefan Bird-Pollan and Dan Breazeale for saving the day and serving on my committee last minute. Once I began writing in earnest, Lindsay Buhler was the first to read and edit each chapter. Even before a chapter was written, she played the role of Socratic midwife, testing each new idea to see if it was viable or only a “wind egg.” Michael Garten was the last to read and edit each chapter, providing incisive objections I can only hope I have adequately overcome. Great strides in the construction of this dissertation would have been impossible without the very practical help of a few others: Dan Sheffler trained me, like his father trained him, in the ways of formatting in Markdown and LaTeX. Also, the University of Kentucky Graduate School hosted a writing boot camp to help folks like me to write intensively for two weeks. Eric Peterson was not only a fellow companion in graduate school but a friend and source of encouragement. Finally, the United Way of the Blue Grass generously donated tuition dollars, books, and the laptop computer on which I wrote this dissertation. These people, and more whom I forgot to name, helped bring this project to fruition. My late father, Dr. Rich Buhler, received two honorary doctorates for his work in radio. I recently found out that he told others (when I had just started college) that he suspected I would be his first child to receive an earned doctorate. I was happy to learn this; I am even happier now to justify his suspicion.


γένοι’ οἷος ἐσσὶ μαθών. (Become what you are, having learned what that is. (Pindar, Pythian 2, line 72.)


It is all very well to talk of clarity, but when it becomes an obsession it is liable to nip the living thought in the bud. (Friedrich Waismann, How I See Philosophy, 16.)

I went down to graduate school with a decade-long resolution to write on Plato’s later dialectic. My resolution was challenged by Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness. The astonishment I felt when first reading her work can only be compared to my first encounters with the Platonic dialogues: confusion, tempered with delight.

Natural Goodness is one of the rare philosophical monographs that manages to be a work of art. One reviewer warned that it is “so gracefully written that the reader runs the risk of… mistaking the book’s fluidity for shallowness. In fact, the depth… is remarkable.”^[@sadler2004review] Indeed, it is a delight to read for its elegance and pugnacity, but it is a duty to read for its wisdom and profundity. Building on her prior work in virtue theory, Foot blends metaethics and normative ethics by laying the foundation for what Mark Murphy calls a “secular natural law theory.”^[@sepnaturallaw] She argues that living virtuously and wisely is natural goodness for human beings just as hunting in packs is natural goodness for wolves.

The obvious objection to such a thesis is that it inappropriately blends facts and values, that it either “biologizes” ethics or “enchants” science. This obvious objection (which Foot tackles head on in her monograph) rests on the common notion that nature and science are entirely distinct from values and ethics. This objection is a serious one. But it is more likely to be leveled reflexively by someone who has not wrestled with Foot’s argument. John Hacker-Wright is correct to say that “Foot’s recent readers have made some rather serious missteps in approaching her work.”^[@hacker2009natural 321]

Receiving an initial “cool reception”^[@hacker2009natural 309] is not an infallible sign of a classic, but it is one tell-tale sign. It is plain from the literature that too few ethicists and metaethicists have come to grips with the precise details and wide-ranging implications of her argument. For example, James Barham suggests that Foot’s Natural Goodness and Rosalind Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics are making the same case, but that Hursthouse’s “account is the clearer and more detailed of the two.”^[@sepmoralnaturalism. He says, “Neo-Aristotelian naturalism is articulated at length and along mutually similar lines in two recent monographs, Foot’s Natural Goodness and Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics.”] This comparison is misleading on two fronts.

First, even though both books are successful in their aims, they have very different aims. Hursthouse’s book is intended to render modern virtue ethics conventional; Foot’s book is intended to disrupt a hundred years of metaethical convention.^[@foot2001natural 5: “For better or worse—and many will say worse—I have in this book the overt aim of setting out a view of moral judgement very different from that of most moral philosophers writing today.”] Hursthouse offers an olive branch to deontologists and utilitarians, trading in her formerly combative rhetoric for mutual respect so that iron may sharpen iron. Foot (like Anscombe and MacIntyre) calls into question much of what has passed for modern moral philosophy, naming names and picking fights.

Secondly, the relative clarity of the two books fits their aims. Hursthouse’s overview of virtue ethics is aimed at non-expert graduate and undergraduate students. It therefore exhibits some of the necessary, though unfortunate, style of textbooks: comprehensive, responsible, and occasionally plodding. Foot’s “fresh start”^[@foot2001natural 5] is aimed at professional ethicists. It is therefore more comparable to a Platonic dialogue or Humean treatise: Foot plays the Socratic gadfly to the experts with “a swaggering gait and roving eye.” Her book is “crude”^[@foot2001natural 1] because it is what Waismann calls a “living thought,” digging deep into the soil of our presuppositions. On Virtue Ethics is a thoroughly respectable book, but Natural Goodness makes one proud to be a philosopher.

Happily, some ethicists have come to grips with the significance of Foot’s case, such as John McDowell and Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre’s eventual position begins to look similar to Foot’s position, for he defends the importance of human biology to human ethics in his most recent ethical monograph more than he did in After Virtue.^[@macintyre1999dependent] By contrast, McDowell’s opposition to scientism leads him to disagree with Foot.

McDowell’s and Foot’s respective approaches to neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism represent rival visions of the relation between human beings and nature and hence between ethics and science. The fault line between these rival views is of enormous philosophical and ethical significance. The fault line between these views is the theme of this dissertation.

Though my research focus changed, there remains one respect in which these chapters might be seen as fulfilling my original resolution to study Plato’s later dialectic – not by examination but by enactment. That is, I aim to construct the argument as a sort of dialogue between author and reader. I take my primary audience to be readers who share (with Foot) an attraction to moral realism about virtue but who share (with McDowell) a commitment to modern science. In order to persuade this kind of audience that the two are not incompatible, I aim to assume nothing they would not assume, and to address first the objections that might arise in their minds.I would have written differently for a different implied audience, but every dialogue must have a limited scope and a definite voice. For this reason, I have bracketed worthy discussions of supernaturalism and non-naturalism. If my study of the Platonic dialectic has taught me nothing else, it is that one must not only understand one’s interlocutors but in some sense become them.

Table of Contents

  1. Chapter 1: Many Sorts of Naturalism
  2. Chapter 2: Organic Naturalism
  3. Chapter 3: Practical Primates
  4. Chapter 4: What We Are
  5. Chapter 5: Practical Reasoning
  6. Chapter 6: Natural Reasoning
  7. Chapter 7: Conclusion