Smith discusses the source of moral obligations and the general approach of Aristotelian ethics.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In my last essay I distinguished between a cognitive (knowledge‐​yielding) discipline and one’s personal commitment to believe or to act according to the conclusions of that discipline. This distinction, simple though it may seem, can clarify some potential misunderstandings about ethics. Consider this passage by Ayn Rand (“Causality Versus Duty,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It?) in which she summarizes her alternative to a deontological (duty‐​based) ethics:

Reality confronts man with a great many ‘musts,’ but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: ‘You must, if’—and the ‘if’ stands for man’s choice—‘if you want to achieve a certain goal.’ You must eat, if you want to survive. You must work, if you want to eat. You must think, if you want to work. You must look at reality, if you want to think—if you want to know what to do—if you want to know what goals to choose—if you want to know what to achieve.

Depending on how we read this passage, it may seem to reduce ethics to a string of hypothetical imperatives (to use Kant’s term) by characterizing all moral obligations as contingent on personal choices. If I don’t choose to accept the consequences of a rational ethics when living my life, then I am not obligated to follow moral principles. Although this is probably not what Rand meant to say, since it cuts against the grain of her theory of objective morality, let’s accept the foregoing interpretation for the sake of argument and see where it leads.

In my last essay, I wrote:

By moral obligation I mean rational obligation as applied to actions instead of to beliefs. Just as a rational person will feel obliged to base his beliefs on rational cognitive standards (coherence, evidence, etc.), so a rational person will feel obliged to base his actions on rational moral standards. Of course, if you arbitrarily repudiate the conclusions of both epistemology and ethics, then you will have rendered yourself personally immune to both cognitive and moral persuasion. But your stubbornness and irrationalism in these instances have no bearing on the validity or objectivity of those disciplines per se.

As I see the matter, our cognitive and moral obligations are justified and generated by the disciplines of epistemology and ethics; these obligations do not depend on our personal choices and commitments. It is not as if I “must,” or “should,” accept a conclusion in mathematics only if I want to know the correct answer. Whether my answer to a mathematical problem is correct or incorrect will be determined by the rules of mathematics, quite apart from my personal desires. In this sense I am rationally obligated to accept the objective outcomes of mathematical calculations. Whether I personally want to embrace those outcomes is an entirely different matter, one that is irrelevant to the rational obligation—what I should believe—generated by the discipline of mathematics itself.

Even readers who agree with me so far may question whether the example of mathematics should be applied to moral theory. After all, mathematical reasoning is precise in a way that moral reasoning is not. To paraphrase Aristotle, we cannot demand more precision from a moral conclusion than the discipline of ethics is capable of yielding. Moral reasoning may yield a number of legitimate options, whereas mathematical calculations generate only one right answer. Ethics, in short, is not a strictly rule‐​governed discipline. We frequently cannot determine what we should do in a particular case by mechanically applying rules to complex moral situations. Applied ethics requires the skill of judgment in a way that mathematics does not.

This problem, though interesting, is irrelevant to my major point. To question whether the discipline of ethics can generate objective knowledge is a different issue than my insistence that we should distinguish between a cognitive discipline and one’s personal commitment to abide by the conclusions of that discipline. Indeed, my distinction presupposes that ethics is a cognitive discipline, one that is capable of giving us knowledge of how we should live. If this presumption is defeated, if we decide that moral “oughts” are so much hot air without rational justification, that ethics is merely a pseudo‐​discipline, then my distinction would not apply. Assuming, however, that ethics can yield at least some reliable knowledge, then ethics may properly be classified with mathematics for the purpose of my distinction. As Jack said in my last essay: “Suppose I agree with your argument that is the moral thing to do. Why should I care?” Note that Jack concedes the validity of moral reasoning in at least one instance, so he is not a moral skeptic who questions whether ethics is a legitimate discipline. Rather, he wants to know why he should personally commit to a justified moral conclusion. This demand runs parallel to Jack’s previous question as to why he should care about the rules of addition.

Let us now return to the passage I quoted above by Ayn Rand. She called “conditional” (if‐​then) must‐​statements “the formula of realistic necessity”; you must do x only if you want y. According to Rand, all must‐​statements are conditional in this sense. Of course, given that Rand’s essay is a critique of deontological (duty‐​centered) ethics—an approach which attempts to justify unconditional, or categorical, “musts” regardless of what our personal goals or desires may be—it makes sense that she would contrast duty with a teleological (goal‐​directed) conception of ethics. But one reading of Rand’s comments (a reading that she almost certainly did not intend) is very troubling. If all must‐​statements are conditional, such that we must do x only if we want y; and if by “must,” Rand meant the same thing as “should” (a point that is not entirely clear to me), then all moral “shoulds” would depend on our personal choices and goals. In other words, no moral obligation would apply to me unless I desired the end that the action in question would bring about.

We should, I think, distinguish the moral obligations established by moral theory from our personal commitment to observe those obligations in our own lives. If I believe that individual rights can be justified rationally but decide not to observe the rights of others in my personal life, then I might rob another person or even murder him. But I will still have defaulted on a moral obligation and violated the rights of my victim. I will still have behaved immorally and unjustly regardless of my decision. Thus in this and similar cases moral obligations are not conditional. It is not true that I must, or should, respect rights only if I desire the outcome of respecting rights. My refusal to commit to the principles and conclusions of a rational ethics does not add an asterisk to moral theory that specifies me as an exception.

Many moral philosophers have discussed essentially the same issue that I have raised in this and in my previous essay. Consider the classic essay “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” (1912) by the English philosopher and ethical intuitionist H.A. Prichard. Prichard analyzed a question similar to the Why should I be moral? question that I discussed. After explaining how Plato justified morality by maintaining that the observance of moral principles will make a person happier in the long run, Prichard argued that the desire for personal happiness (or any kind of desire) fails as a legitimate reason for observing moral obligations. To invoke a moral obligation as a reason for doing x implies that a person is not already inclined to do x and so demands a reason to do x. If, in response to this demand, we say that doing x will make the person happier or better off, then this may make the person want to do x, but wanting to do x because of its consequences is not the same as understanding and being motivated by one’s moral obligation to do x. This is basically the same distinction defended by Immanuel Kant, who claimed that acting in a manner consistent with a moral obligation (or duty) differs from being motivated by a moral obligation per se.

We find a different view expressed in a brilliant reworking of Aristotelian ethics (along Objectivist lines): Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order (Open Court, 1991), by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl. Like other Aristotelians, the authors claim that human beings have a natural end, and they characterize this end as “happiness,” “human flourishing,” and so forth. The purpose of ethics is to teach us, through the formulation of abstract principles, how to live happy and flourishing lives by living according to our rational nature as human beings. But if we appeal “to the natural end or function of a human being and argue that we ought to follow this most basic prescriptive premiss because it will tend to bring about well‐​being and fulfillment for us, we can still ask ‘Why?’ If we want to have well‐​being and fulfillment, then we ought to follow this most basic prescriptive premiss, but why should we want well‐​being and fulfillment?” Rasmussen and Den Uyl go on to argue that a personal disregard for “human well‐​being and fulfillment” does not negate the principles of a rational ethics. “Thus, the ability to willingly act in a manner contrary to the requirements of human flourishing is not sufficient to show the nonobligatory character of the natural end.” As for the ultimate basis of moral obligation, the authors write (p. 49):

Actualizing our potentialities is not made good by the fact that we choose or desire it. Rather, what we choose or desire is made good when and if our choices or desires in fact actualize our potentialities. Thus the obligatory character of ‘One ought to live in accordance with the requirement of one’s nature’ results from the fact that this is the good for a human being. The demand that we justify the obligatory character of this statement supposes that something else is required for there to be values that are good. It supposes that this ultimate prescriptive premiss is in fact not ultimate. This demand ignores the facts which give rise to obligation. Further it fails to realize that in ethics, as well as elsewhere, an infinite regress in justifications is not possible, and there must be something ultimate; something which is simply the case.

Does an Aristotelian ethics reduce to a series of hypothetical (if‐​then) imperatives? Does the moral obligation to lead a rational life depend on personal choices and commitments by individuals to the effect that one should do x (be rational) only if one wants y (to be happy)? Here is what Rasmussen and Den Uyl have to say (p. 51):

Aristotelian ethics is not ‘hypothetical’ in the sense that the obligatory character of its ethical first‐​principle depends on whether one desires or chooses fulfillment. Desires and choices are for the sake of fulfillment. The human good is objective. Unless one is bewitched by the Kantian claim that an ethical first‐​principle must be independent of the facts of nature, that it cannot be based on facts of nature without destroying its ‘categorical’ status, there is no reason to regard the first‐​principle of an Aristotelian ethics as hypothetical in the sense of being somehow less than fully obligatory.

Although I am skeptical of the Aristotelian premise that human beings have a “natural end,” this difference does not affect my agreement with the important points made by Rasmussen and Den Uyl in the passages quoted above. We agree that the obligatory character of moral principles is generated within the discipline of ethics itself and does not depend on whether we personally choose to accept and live by those principles. Moreover, the authors do not make the mistake of Prichard by driving a wedge between our wants and our moral obligations. On the contrary, our rational wants and desires are informed by our moral obligations and so will embody those selfsame obligations. A person who wants to do the right thing as a matter of habit possesses the virtue of rationality, which Rasmussen and Den Uyl (p. 64) call the “cardinal virtue, and that which is the source of all other virtues.” I could not agree more.