Roger Teichmann, Nature, Reason, and the Good Life
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- Archer, A. J Value Inquiry (2012) 46: 113. doi:10.1007/s10790-012-9315-3
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Roger Teichmann’s Nature, Reason, and the Good Life makes an important contribution to the literature on ethics and practical rationality. Teichmann provides an original and compelling account of the connection between human nature, rationality and value. This account is used to defend a view of ethics, practical reason and the good life that stems from human nature. Teichmann uses his account to construct critiques of a number of positions present in the academic literature and in wider society.
The central claim on which this book rests is that the study of ethics and practical rationality should not be divorced from the study of human nature. Ethics, Teichmann argues, is necessarily anthropocentric. To argue otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of ethical discourse. The study of ethics is the study of, “human life and what is humanly important” (p. 1). Ethics falls within the domain of practical reasoning. In order to be said to have acted rationally, one must be capable of giving reasons why the performance of the action was a good idea (p. 7). Tecihmann claims that in order to understand what kind of reasons will count as good ones one needs to understand the language game of reason giving. This language game is a human one. The rules are not arbitrary; they arise from the particular type of the creatures whose language it is. When justifying behaviour to others one seeks to give reasons that would be accepted as good ones. The important point that Teichmann makes is that these reasons do not have to be accepted by any other imagined rational beings, nor do they need to be accepted from the point of view of the universe. Justifying human behaviour involves seeking only to give reasons that would be accepted by other human beings (p. 12).
Having made it clear what he takes the nature of reason giving to be, Teichmann goes on to argue that the sorts of reasons that we will accept are determined by the sort of creatures we are. What will count as rational for human beings is determined by humanity’s pre-rational nature. Teichmann argues that this pre-rational nature is not an impediment to reason rather it determines what will count as rational (p. 35). What makes an act rational is whether or not there are reasons in favour of the action that could be accepted as good reasons by other members of the language game. When reasons are described as being good or bad what is meant is that that they are good or bad reasons for humans. Teichmann points to the natural impulse that humans have to help other humans. There is no need to ask why someone is aiding a fellow human in need of help. It would be ridiculous to ask for a reason in such a case. Indeed, Teichmann argues that in order for ethical discussion to get off the ground it needs to be accepted that humans have good reason to help dying or wounded people (p. 19). The same cannot be said for other animals. It is no coincidence, Teichmann argues, that there is a correlation between the extent that people feel moved to help non-human animals and the extent to which these animals are seen as similar to humans (p. 41). The reason for this is that the natural instinct to help other humans can be transferred to animals that appear to be like humans.
This account of the nature of reason giving has important implications for how we should view human life. Teichmann uses his account of reason giving to defend a virtue theory view of the good life. To question how a life should be lived, Teichmann argues, is to question what makes a life good for a human. Teichmann argues that to be a good human is to be a good human agent (p. 61). This involves being able to give good reasons for actions and to reason well in the domain of action. Actions should be capable of being explained with reasons that will be accepted by other human beings. Doing this involves explaining why it was thought that acting a certain way would be desirable. Again though, in order to explaining actions does not involve providing reasons that could be accepted by any possible rational creature or from the point of view of the universe. Instead it involves providing reasons that could be accepted by other human beings.
Teichmann argues that an understanding of discussions of the subject matter of ethics will make clear the way in which pleasure and pain are of ethical importance. He argues against the view that pleasure and pain should be seen as inner states of the agent (p. 96). Teichmann considers the reaction someone would have if she were informed that her friend had no brain. If we accept that pleasure and pain are inner mental states then it seems we will be forced to say that the friend cannot experience pleasure or pain. Nevertheless, if the friend were to cry out in pain the natural reaction would be to want to help him. This puts pressure on the idea the idea that pleasure and pain should be seen as inner states of the agent. Rather, Teichmann argues that psychological concepts are anchored in human reactions and interactions (p. 101).
In place of this view of pleasure, Teichmann argues that pleasure should be seen as both a characteristic of the agent and the activity (p. 114). Someone who says that hill walking is pleasant says something both about herself and about hill walking. By saying that it is pleasant she gives an explanation for her involvement in this activity. This does not mean that she walks in order to bring about ‘pleasure’. Rather it means that in going hill walking she has no other end in view, she is doing it for its own sake. This account of pleasure is linked to a view of reasons. To say that an act is pleasant is to provide a good reason for doing it.
Teichmann then proceeds to address a central question to the role that ethics should play human life. He asks whether the life of a good human being should be considered to be equivalent to a good life of a human being (p. 131). In other words, is a morally good life a life that is worth living? Teichmann accepts that there are clear reasons to doubt this claim; many morally good people have led lives that we would not wish to live ourselves (p. 131). Despite this, to have a good life it is necessary to be a morally good person. The reason for this is that there are many human goods that can only be achieved through cooperation. To lead a thoroughly individualistic life is to miss out on these goods. Nevertheless, there is more to leading a good human life than being a good human being. A good human life involves happiness, which is to say that it involves things that are good for human beings (p. 161). This will involve participation in activities that are done for their own sake not as a means to any other end.
The final section of this book investigates the relationship between thinking about life and thinking philosophically. Teichmann argues that both activities involve an appreciation of a thing’s significance and the role it plays in a wider context (p. 169). The two activities also require many of the same virtues of thought in order to be done effectively. Teichmann argues persuasively that philosophy is not exclusively about things nor is it exclusively about words, it is about both. The aim of philosophy is not to bring about progress in the common pool of knowledge, though we can bring about progress in the philosophical culture, but to further individual understanding (p. 181). This is also the aim of thinking about life; this involves striving improve individual understanding, not the sum of knowledge. One of the ways in which philosophy is relevant to people is its ability to help people to think about life effectively. It is an activity that is not just engaged in by professional philosophers but by all reflective people. It is good then, for society to value philosophy, as this will promote the same traits that are important for thinking about life.
Teichmann deserves praise for making original contributions to the fields of ethics, practical rationality and value. The book is particularly compelling when the claims about the nature of rationality are used to construct critiques of opposing philosophical positions, not just in this field but also in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language. The critique of anti-speciesism is especially convincing.
This book also manages to achieve the difficult balance of making an original contribution to academic philosophy while remaining accessible to those without formal training in the subject. This success can be attributed to a willingness to engage with positions that may have lost popularity in the academic literature but remain present in society as a whole. A particularly successful example being Teichmann’s engaging and convincing argument against moral relativism.
There are times though when the willingness to engage in a wide range of debates leads to some of these discussions being a little superficial. The discussion of consequentialism would have benefitted from a more in depth examination of the various consequentialist positions that have been defended. Teichmann rightly criticizes the consequentialist “tendency to divide all actions open to an agent into the obligatory and the forbidden” (p. 89). However, this is far from a necessary feature of consequentialism. At this point it would have been worthwhile to consider the plausibility of satisficing forms of consequentialism that leave room for acts that are good but not obligatory.
Not that this should dissuade anyone from reading what is an engaging and original book. This book is recommended reading for those working on topics related to ethics, practical reason or value and essential reading for those with an interest in virtue theory.