Humane Studies Review

Volume 9, Number 1 Summer 1994

Aristotle, Human Rights, and Classical Liberal Ethical Theory

by Henry Veatch

Book Review

A review of Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl, Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1991); and Douglas J. Den Uyl, The Virtue of Prudence (New York: Peter Lang, 1991).

What is there about these two books that is at once so timely and so significant? Of course, it goes almost without saying that both books reflect their author's firm commitment to classical liberalism and/or libertarianism. More specifically, each book reflects a determined and sophisticated attempt at providing a properly philosophical -- a particularly moral-philosophical -- basis and foundation for the author's undeviating liberalism in ethics. This explains why the concern in both books is not so much with law, with economics, or even with political philosophy. Rather, it is with ethics.

Nor can there be any denying that given the present state of Anglo-American philosophy, ethics merits particular attention. Throughout nearly the whole of the present century, what one might call academic ethics or moral philosophy has been almost entirely dominated by the fashions of a so-called Altruism and/or Impartialism, as the current terms have it. Be they Kantians or Utilitarians, nearly all professors of moral philosophy seem to share the conviction that ethics only begins when the moral agent looks away from his or her own interests or personal concerns, and looks instead to the interests and concerns of others. The basic and all-pervasive moral imperative is that in all of one's choices and decisions one ought never to put one's own interests ahead of the interests of others. The morally requisite course should be, the thinking runs, always to value all interests equally, whosoever and howsoever they may be -- and this entirely impartially.

Little wonder, then, that libertarians like Rasmussen and Den Uyl are determined to counter all such fashionable affirmations of Altruism and Impartialism in ethics with a determined reaffirmation of a genuine moral individualism. But, just how are they to do this, and upon whom do they propose to rely as forerunners and authorities for their own subscription to a moral individualism in the present day? When it comes to working out a genuinely liberal or libertarian moral philosophy for today they believe they can turn for inspiration and support to Aristotle and, more generally, to the long Aristotelian tradition in ethics.

Immediately, though, one might counter with the observation that such appeals to the authority of Aristotle are decidedly "old hat," so far as libertarians are concerned. For who else but Ayn Rand originally, and quite vociferously, proclaimed herself to be an Aristotelian in matters of philosophy and, particularly, of ethics? And, no doubt, neither Rasmussen nor Den Uyl would deny that in their earlier years they directed their own affiliation and allegiance toward Rand and the Randians. There can be no denying that, whatever may have been true of Rasmussen and Den Uyl in the past, they have not left Rand and the present-day Randians far behind. In their subtle and sophisticated reliance upon Aristotle for philosophical resources they attempt to counter the fashionable Kantian and Utilitarian ethical traditions that dominate moral philosophy today.

When it comes to leading present-day moral philosophers out of the doldrums of an ever-repeated Altruism and Impartialism in ethics and onto the more exciting playing fields of a genuine moral individualism are Rasmussen and Den Uyl really well-advised to make Aristotle their guide and mentor? True, Aristotle did insist -- and insisted most emphatically -- that the key notion in ethics should be a human individual's own personal happiness and well-being. Only this notion should guide a human individual in all of his choices and actions, this being no less than the proper end or goal or telos. And, only in the light of the telos can one make sense of anything and everything that he undertakes to do or to accomplish in his life.

Unfortunately, given the present state of the art in ethics and moral philosophy, no sooner does one undertake to follow Aristotle and to make the individual's own happiness and well-being the key concept in ethics, than one is likely to be simply laughed out of the court by nearly all present-day moral philosophers. For just how, the critics will ask, can one possibly set up an individual's own happiness, or what that individual takes to be of supreme personal value to himself, or what he likes and cherishes most in life as the central concern of a moral system? How can one, the critics will continue, take this sort of thing to be the veritable key to how a human individual ought morally to order and conduct his or her own life? After all, the standard moral-philosophical consideration currently contends, how can one possibly determine what one morally ought to do by merely having a regard for what one just naturally likes to do or is inclined to do? And, who is there who does not as a result of mere natural inclination, seek after his or her own happiness or well-being?

In other words, what is at work here in such standard criticisms of an Aristotelian eudaimonism -- or happiness-ethics if you will -- is the recognition that there is nothing normative about such an ethics. And, what kind of an ethics can one be said to possess, if it leaves no place for genuine moral norms, standards, and obligations? Yet, there is no way in which one can very well get from mere considerations of what human beings just naturally do, or are inclined to do -- namely seek their own happiness or well-being -- to a conclusion that therefore it is only right (morally right) that human beings should, or ought, to seek their own happiness or pursue their own interests. Such a move would be tantamount to what Hume would have labeled an attempted inference from "is" to "ought" -- i.e. from what human beings do (namely follow their own inclinations and seek their own happiness) to what they ought to do, or what it is only right that they should do.

Still more telling, contemporary moral philosophers continually, with little more than supposed facts of a largely logico-linguistic nature, attack Aristotle's attempt to erect his eudaimonism into an actual ethics. In this case, the criticism turns on what these present-day philosophers are wont to call the "Principle of Universalizability." According to this principle, all words of a proper normative -- hence, of a properly moral and ethical -- import are held to be universalizable, whereas all words or terms expressive merely of our personal desires, preferences, and values are, it would seem, never universalizable.

For instance, suppose I say that I ought to do thus and so, or that it is right, or my duty, that I do thus and so, then the implication -- by the very meaning of terms such as "right," "ought," "duty" -- is that it is no less right, or no less the duty, of each and everyone else to do thus and so, given similar circumstances. Contrast what one might call mere "desire words," or words expressive of one's own likes, preferences, or personal desires: such words or terms are never universalizable just as such. For instance, suppose I say that I like x, or that x is a thing of personal value to me. From such statements it can never be inferred that therefore x must also be liked by, or be reckoned to be of personal value to, any and everyone else as well, given similar circumstances.

Apply the "Principle of Univer-salizability," then, in the context of an Aristotelian and, therefore, of a teleological type of ethics and the consequence would seem to be nothing if not disastrous for any and all would-be Aristotelian moral philosophers. For, if such an ethics counsels us to seek no more than our own personal values, and, hence, merely our own personal happiness and well-being, it would seem that all such advice would have to be ruled out as not having even the slightest import for any kind of ethics -- at least not for an ethics properly so-called. How could recommendations to the effect that, as moral agents, we need have regard only for our own personal values and interests, or for our own personal happiness and well- being, have any properly normative import? Thus, granted that I do indeed have a genuine concern for my own values and my own well-being, it still does not follow from this that anyone and everyone else ought to have a like concern for my values, happiness, and my well-being as well. But, if my testimony to the value of my personal values or my own happiness (well-being) to me is not universalizable, then that can only mean that my mere personal concern with pursuing my own values, or with achieving my own well-being, will be a concern without the slightest normative force or import. Neither can I claim that it is only right -- i.e. morally justified -- that I pursue my own ends and foster my own interests -- nor can I claim that, as an individual moral agent, I have a right -- a natural and a moral right -- to such a pursuit of my own interests. With that, the entire case for either an Aristotelian or a libertarian type of ethics or moral individualism seems to collapse like a house of cards, and to collapse simply as a result of the application of what seems to be merely a purely verbal -- which is to say, a purely logico-linguistic -- Principle of Universalizability.

Is it any wonder, then, that Rasmussen and Den Uyl, given their subscription to an Aristotelian and libertarian type of ethics, when faced with such generally accepted logico-linguistic presuppositions as characterize so much of modern ethics, have their work cut out for them? Happily, one has only to read their two books, and one quickly comes to see that they not only face up to the work cut out for them, but they also execute that work deftly and brilliantly. More specifically, it should be apparent from what we have said thus far that what Rasmussen and Den Uyl need to do to answer the anti-Aristotelianism and anti-teleology of modern ethics is precisely to show how an individual's pursuit of his or her own ends, or his or her own personal values -- yes, even of his or her own happiness or eudaimonia -- can be an entirely principled pursuit.

To do this, they need to show, and they do show, that the end or goal of life for a human being -- man's very telos, if you will -- is a properly objective and, therefore, an entirely obligatory end. That is to say, the true end or goal for a human individual is not merely what a given person just happens to like or desire. But, rather, the end is something that not only that individual, but also, by the Principle of Universalizability, something that each and every individual ought to like and desire, and, therefore, ought to direct his or her every effort toward trying to achieve and to accomplish. With a human being's true end being thus what each individual ought to pursue, the prescription of such an end will be nothing if not universalizable. The human telos rightly understood, therefore, will be normative and obligatory for all alike, considering always and in each case their several circumstances.

But, what is this telos, and how do Rasmussen and Den Uyl specify it? It is principally in their joint volume, "Liberty and Nature," that they show how a human being's true end or telos is something determined by nature. That is, it is from nature and from the observation of nature -- as opposed to obvious examples of human failure, folly, and frustration in the living of our own human lives -- that we human beings learn to recognize in what true human fulfillment, perfection, and flourishing must consist. As the title, Liberty and Nature, implies, it is only in freedom and only in the light of an individual's own self-determination that the individual is ever able to bring himself to just such a condition of well-being, as is demanded of him by his very nature, and which thus constitutes for him his true natural end and natural perfection.

Moreover, for a fuller and more illuminating account of in what this natural end or natural perfection of a human must needs be thought to consist, one needs to turn to Den Uyl's extremely luminous account in his own volume "The Virtue of Prudence." Here, one finds spelled out in contemporary language a brilliant account of Aristotle's famous characterization or definition of human happiness as simply "the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue." The relevant virtues in such a case are the so-called intellectual virtue of "prudence" and good judgment and the moral virtues of character through which we have schooled and disciplined ourselves to choose and to act ever in accordance with the determinations of our own "prudence" and good judgment.

Very well, let this suffice by way of a characterization of how Rasmussen and Den Uyl manage so successfully at once to differentiate and to defend their own ethics of an Aristotelian moral individualism, in contrast to the still fashionable and dominant ethics of moral Altruism and Impartialism. But, what of other moral philosophers of a more or less libertarian persuasion on the current scene? For, though these may be avowedly libertarian ethics, it can hardly be said that they are necessarily Aristotelian as well. What significance, then, do the Rasmussen and Den Uyl books have for their fellow libertarians who would scarcely want to -- or who scarcely could -- call themselves Aristotelians?

Let me single out, somewhat arbitrarily to be sure, an issue that is very much a concern to all classical liberals, but with which not many such liberals, other than Rasmussen and Den Uyl, have dealt either very forthrightly or very successfully. This is the issue of human rights. Do not all classical liberals wish to champion human rights -- particularly so-called "negative rights" to such things as life, liberty, and property? Still, to what philosophical ground or principle do such liberals say one must appeal, if one is not merely going to affirm such rights but actually going to lay claim to them even if the societies in which we human beings are living have deprived us of such rights in actuality?

Unfortunately, all too often present-day libertarians are unable to give a proper philosophical defense of the contention that human beings really have certain rights "by nature" and "by right," even when they are quite patently deprived of them in fact. Not so for Rasmussen and Den Uyl. For, particularly in "Liberty and Nature," they have propounded a most interesting line of argument to show just how a proper ground for human rights may be derived from the Aristotelian notion that man's end or telos is no less than a veritable natural and obligatory end for human beings. We have noted, in an Aristotelian context, that a human being's end or telos in life is not one that all human beings happen to want, to like, to desire, or to find pleasing, but rather one that amounts to what we earlier defined as an obligatory end -- i.e. an end which it is morally right for human beings to choose as their true end or goal, and, therefore, should pursue accordingly. Availing themselves, therefore, of this Aristotelian notion of man's end or telos in life, Rasmussen and Den Uyl argue that human rights need always to be understood with reference to prior duties -- specifically with reference to our duty to work toward a more or less specific type of goal.

It is important not to fall into what is, perhaps, a natural misunderstanding. One frequently hears the assertion that rights and duties are reciprocal. If A enjoys a certain right with respect to B, then B may be said to have a duty to respect A's right. Correspondingly, if there is some duty B owes to A, then A may be said to have an obvious right-claim with respect to B -- namely that B acquit himself of his obligation.

Such is not the relationship of duty to rights, or rights to duty, that is in question. Rather, if A were said to have a duty, or to be obliged, to act or to live in a certain way, A could hardly be expected to fulfill his obligation, if he were forcibly prevented from doing so or if the very means and resources necessary for his doing so were taken away from him. Thus whenever someone is under obligation or has a certain duty to do thus and so, that person can surely claim that he has a right not to be interfered with in the exercise of his duty. Otherwise, he could no longer be said to have the duty or to be under the obligation, given that it would be quite beyond his power to perform the duty or to acquit himself of the obligation. Nothing more nor less than the somewhat shopworn Kantian principle that "ought" implies "can" is involved.

Applying such considerations, then, in the context of an Aristotelian system of ethics -- in which human beings have a certain basic moral obligation to try to perfect themselves and to try to achieve the sort of end or goal that is appropriate to human life and to human existence -- it would seem such human beings have a moral right -- and, by extension a political right -- not to be interfered with. Simply because they are humans, they should not to be deprived of the means necessary to lead such lives as are required of them. As I suggested above, according to an Aristotelian view, the end goal or telos in life, as far as a human being is concerned, is simply that a person live rationally -- which is to say that he needs both to cultivate and exercise the so-called intellectual and moral virtues.

But, how can a person live rationally -- which is to say, how can one possibly follow a life of (1) wisely coming to see and understand what a concrete situation demands, and (2) then actually choosing to do it, and choosing to do what the situation requires frequently, in the face of countless contrary impulses, desires, passions, and feelings of all kinds. How, all of this is to ask, is such a business of one's actually living wisely and intelligently ever going to be possible for a human person if he is prevented from anything like genuine self-determination, if he is killed, or if he is deprived of the necessary physical and spiritual resources for the living of one's life as it ought to be lived?

Merely by raising such a question, however, have we not in effect simply enumerated the very items that have traditionally been cited as being the objects of so-called "negative rights" -- life, liberty and property? Furthermore, is it not by now apparent that the only way a claim to such rights -- the same would go for positive rights as well, if there are any -- can ever be justified is by showing the possession of such rights to be nothing less than necessary means to our acquitting ourselves of our basic obligations and responsibilities, as human beings, to try to become the kinds of persons that as individuals we ought to be. In other words, "ought" implies "can." Given that our natural end or telos as humans imposes certain obligations upon us, we should be able to claim, as being our natural right as humans, that no one should deprive us of the necessary means and conditions of our flourishing and fulfillment -- again, life, liberty, and property.

Such, I would suggest, is no more than the basic line of argument that needs to be followed if one is not merely going to affirm such things as human rights but is actually going to show that there is a genuine -- even if long neglected -- argument to justify them. Moreover, what is so distinctive and, as I feel, so eminently commendable about the two books by Rasmussen and Den Uyl is that they not only see the need for trying to provide a genuine argument in defense of so-called natural rights, but they actually provide the argument itself.

Still, one must raise the question whether Rasmussen and Den Uyl deserve the distinction here ascribed to them of not merely talking piously about human rights but of actually providing an argument to justify them. And, what about other classical liberal philosophers? May it not be said that at least some of them have been forthcoming with actual philosophical arguments in support of such things as human rights? Here and now is hardly the time to offer anything like an exhaustive review of philosophical writers of a classical liberal persuasion to see whether or not they actually affirm rights and try to come up with philosophical arguments in demonstration of them. Instead, let me confine myself to a few examples before concluding.

For instance, what about liberal legal philosophers like Richard Epstein or Randy Barnett? Certainly, there is no denying that theirs is a most impressive and even pyrotechnic display of legal sophistication. But, what about philosophical sophistication? More importantly, what about a philosophical sophistication which applies directly to specific questions in ethics and moral philosophy? Subject to correction, I would suggest that in neither Epstein nor Barnett does one find much actual philosophical discussion pertaining to morals or ethics per se. Certainly, apart from repeated and commendable affirmations of human rights, the reader will not find an actual moral-philosophical argument in justification of such rights.

Take another example, Stephen Macedo's book "Liberal Virtues: Citizenship, Virtue, and Community in Liberal Constitutionalism" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). While this book is both a rich and intriguing one, so far as the manifestation and import of the so-called liberal virtues in society are concerned, Macedo is largely silent on the more fundamental philosophical questions -- "Why liberal virtues?" or "What sort of justification is to be given in justification of the practice of liberal virtues?" or "How does one argue directly to the point that there really are such things as human rights, which it is the concern of liberal virtues to acknowledge and recognize?"

And, now finally, consider the example of Loren Lomasky. Certainly, in his brilliant book, "Persons, Rights and the Moral Community" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), he displays considerable philosophical sophistication. Directly in the title of his book there is a manifest and commendable concern with rights and, particularly, with the rights of individuals within the community. But, what about an actual argument to show that rights are not merely things to be championed but also things that people actually do possess? Here Lomasky faces a problem. Presumably what he wants to show, with respect to the "project-pursuits" of individuals, is not only that such project-pursuit is what human beings are given to doing and like to do, but also that it is morally commendable for human beings to engage in it. In fact, it is commendable to such a degree that human beings should be able to claim a right to their own project-pursuits. But, just what is the basis and ground for such right-claims on the part of individuals to choose their own project- pursuits?

Here Lomasky falters. For, unlike Rasmussen and Den Uyl, he does not argue that our projects should be directed toward the end of our own true human flourishing or perfection. Instead, Lomasky does not tolerate any notions of obligatory ends or genuine standards of perfection in human projects. Still, he wishes to insist that human beings do have rights and rights that are not to be interfered with -- so far as the pursuit of their own projects are concerned. However, as an argument for such rights, Lomasky is somehow precluded from following Rasmussen's and Den Uyl's Aristotelian line that because projects should be directed towards the obligatory end of a human person's own self-perfection, project-pursuers have a right not to be interfered with in their project pursuit -- and this simply on the ground that "ought" implies "can."

Rather, Lomasky falls back on the argument that, as we saw earlier, the so-called ethical Altruists and Impartialists are given to using. Accordingly, as applied to the question of one's right to one's own project-pursuit, what such a line amounts to is that while my neighbor's projects do not have "personal value" (Lomasky's term) for me, they do have value for my neighbor -- even though they have an "impersonal view." But, value -- particularly if it is reckoned to be of "impersonal value" -- being universalizable, I am supposedly compelled to acknowledge that my neighbor's project, even though it can only be of impersonal value for me, still deserves my respect and even my aid and cooperation. In short, my neighbor can claim it as being no more than his right that I both honor and contribute to his own project-pursuit.

What we have here, if not a case of Lomasky's forsaking his friends and associates among the libertarians and classical liberals, is his seemingly going over to join the welfare liberals! I do not mean to judge Lomasky by what, from his own point of view, seems to be the rather questionable philosophical company that he now appears to be keeping. The really serious thing about the kind of argument to which Lomasky here seemingly wishes to resort to, to justify the rights of project-pursuers, is that, as we have already seen, it is simply a bad argument. In effect, it abuses the Principle of Universalizability by supposing that because my neighbor's project- pursuit has value for him, it must therefore be pronounced to have value for me as well. That does not readily follow: the supposedly mere impersonal value that my neighbor's project has for me in no way commits me even to respect his project or, in any way to concede that my neighbor has any moral right to pursue his own project. Instead, all that application of the Principle of Universalizability requires of me is a recognition that the kind of project that my neighbor has undertaken for himself is the kind of project that I may myself want someday to undertake, given similar circumstances. But, that his same identical individual project is anything that I am in any way committed to furthering does not follow from the argument from universalizability. It does not even follow that I have so much as an obligation merely to respect my neighbor's project, much less to further it or to concede that he has a right to his own project-pursuit.

Returning again to the books of Rasmussen and Den Uyl, they have clearly recognized that right-claims may be upheld only if a proper philosophical argument can be made to support and justify them. Moreover, Rasmussen and Den Uyl have worked out and developed such an argument. Be theirs the credit, then, as well as the compliments and congratulations!

Professor Henry Veatch is a philosopher who spent his teaching career at Indiana University, Northwestern University, and Georgetown University. Veatch's book Human Rights: Fact or Fancy? was reviewed in the Humane Studies Review 4 (Summer 1987).


Copyright 1994 by the Institute for Humane Studies.

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