Critical Précis of “Human Nature and Moral Sprouts: Mencius on the Pollyanna Problem” by Richard T. Kim

by John Hacker-Wright

It is a pleasure to comment on this rich and interesting paper. As will be apparent in what follows, I am deeply sympathetic with the Mencian views that Richard expounds, but not yet convinced that those views have the advantages Richard claims for them over neo-Aristotelian views. In short, I think neo-Mencians and neo-Aristotelians are in the same boat, facing common hurdles that require them both to advance some substantive claims about human nature that are at least superficially at odds with what empirical science tells us about the same. Hence, neo-Mencians, like neo-Aristotelians, must advance some methodology for approaching human nature that shows there to be more to human nature than what empirical science reveals; or so I shall argue in what follows.


Neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism (hereafter “Naturalism”) is a metaethical view embraced by many contemporary virtue ethicists. The central thesis of Naturalism is that moral goodness is a species of natural goodness. As sharp teeth and keen senses are necessary for a tiger to be a good tiger, so is goodness of the will necessary to be a good human. Of course, there is a ‘sea change’ (as Philippa Foot calls it) between non-human animals and human beings in that rationality brings with it crucial differences in what constitutes goodness in the human case. Still, there is a common logical structure in both cases of attributing goodness: attributions of goodness in each case are indexed to the species. According to Naturalism, we are making a claim about what an organism of that species needs to carry out its species-characteristic life. On this view, the virtues are something human beings need to be good qua human, that is, to live our species-characteristic life. Neo-Aristotelians want to claim things like, “humans beings respect rights,” “humans beings care for their young through childhood,” and the like. Of course, these claims feature what Michael Thompson calls a ‘non-Fregean generality.’ A cat having three legs does not disprove the claim that cats have four legs. Rather, the three-legged cat is defective qua cat. This holds even if some cat-cleaving maniac has seen to it that no living cat has four legs. It is emphatically not a statistical claim.

Many readers of Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness have worried that she ignores obstacles standing in the way of such a view that come from a careful empirical study of human nature. The anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has shown, for example, that human maternal commitment is highly contingent, with high rates of infanticide in the first seventy-two hours of an infant’s life, at least when alloparental support is lacking. This seems to belie claims that the neo-Aristotelians are making about what characterizes our species. Neo-Aristotelians presumably claim that mothers committing infanticide is defective, but this behavior seems to have some claim to characterize our species: it might be said to be our species-typical life. Indeed, it almost singles us out among primates, according to Hrdy’s research (callitrichids are the only other primate group exhibiting such high levels of infanticide, Hrdy tells us). This gives rise to the so-called Pollyanna Problem: neo-Aristotelians seem to be making false claims about human nature

So, neo-Aristotelians must say something about the Pollyanna Problem (hereafter “PP”). One approach, advocated by Micah Lott and me, is to note that the neo-Aristotelians are not committed to an underlying methodological assumption behind the PP: empirical science is the only way to learn about the human life form. Following Lott, Richard calls this the Empirical Science Assumption. Richard wants to defend an approach to the PP that embraces this assumption. He believes that this is the only way to defend the so-called Central Point of Aristotelian Naturalism, viz., that the criteria for goodness and defect are have an objective foundation in facts about the nature of the thing. As I see it, Richard embraces the following argument, which I will refer to as the Empiricist Syllogism in the commentary:

  1. Naturalism aims to ground judgments of natural goodness and defect objectively in facts about the nature of organisms.
  2. Only empirical science offers us objective facts about the nature of organisms.
  3. Therefore, Naturalism must embrace the findings of empirical science.

So, Richard thinks that any approach sidelining empirical science will lose the Central Point of Naturalism.

Here, Richard turns to Mencius. He believes that Mencius offers a version of naturalism that can address the PP while not rejecting the Empirical Science Assumption, thereby saving the Central Point of Aristotelian Naturalism.

Mencius defended Confucian views when they were attacked by egoist followers of Yang Zhu and proto-utilitarian Mohists. His argument was that human nature is inherently good, containing the seeds of benevolence, righteousness, propriety and wisdom (Mencius’ four cardinal virtues, see Mengzi 6A6).  He held that these seeds or “sprouts” must be nourished by family and ritual to attain the Confucian ideal of being a gentleman, who exhibits a proper balance of self and other-regard (e.g., fleeing in a hopeless situation (4B31) but helping by doing what is necessary to save a life when under other circumstances, it would be forbidden (4A17)).

Richard finds that Mencius’ claims about human nature are amenable to empirical scrutiny. That is because Mencius acknowledges that although human nature is good, some individual human beings are bad. The sprouts are only sprouts and can be thwarted in their development by different conditions. A mother surely has the sprout of compassion for her infant, but dire circumstances such as the absence of alloparental help, may lead mothers to do things that are inconsistent with those sprouts. On Mencius’ view, according to Richard, the vices are not basic or fundamental. It’s just that our sprouts can be overridden, and our nature deformed by prevailing circumstances. Mencius thinks that our non-moral desires can lead us to petty actions, but reflection can correct us and save us from depravity, through leading us to favor our greater (moral) parts. Hence, proper moral growth requires care on the part of the agent. We are also very susceptible to external conditions, including war and poverty, that can impede moral growth.

Mencius’ account helps because it gives an account of how things go wrong. The cases that those propounding the PP point to are cases involving a defective environment with a pathological mechanism that undermines proper moral growth.

Of course at this point many will ask for an account of normal or proper circumstance, and Richard is admirably honest about how much he thinks we can offer them:

Admittedly, there is no simple procedure for determining whether a circumstance is normal or proper. All we can do is to examine each circumstance carefully and use our best judgment to decide on a case-by-case basis, in the way that we also figure out what conditions are proper or normal for non-human animals. (155)


1. Aristotle too: I won’t belabor this point, but Aristotle also appeals to social conditions and individual choices to offer an account of how we can go wrong. The Nicomachean Ethics is explicitly “a sort of politics.” Human beings are political animals, on his account, and living in a polis of a sort is necessary to living well: “it is through laws that we become good” (NE 1180b24). As Richard hints, Aristotle may be somewhat darker about human nature than Mencius; ordinary people may have greater need law for Aristotle than for Mencius. It seems that the virtues are acquired through habituation for both, and it is clear that careful deliberate choice takes over at some point; through making bad choices we can veer into vice. But law is obviously crucial for Aristotle, “It is difficult… for someone to get correct guidance toward virtue from childhood if he has not been nurtured under laws of the appropriate sort.” So, Aristotle too gives us an account of how things go wrong; a bad upbringing deforms us and leads us not to be able to fulfill our human ergon.

Contemporary Aristotelians have not offered anything as robust as either Aristotle or Mencius in this regard, but I don’t think what they both have helps much to reply to the PP. Instead, I think they are both in the same boat regarding the issue.

2. In the Same Boat: The passage with which I ended the synopsis seems to me very clearly to relinquish the Empirical Science Assumption. Judgments of what makes for a ‘normal circumstance’ or ‘proper environment’ are intuitive case-by-case judgments, not scientifically supported judgments. I take it that the whole point of the PP is that there is a natural soundness to the responses that are prompted by the supposed ‘abnormal environments’ and hence there is no scientific basis for designating the environment as abnormal: the organism just has an alternative strategy (involving, e.g., sociopathy, infanticide) for surviving and passing its genes along in a different set of circumstances. In setting aside one set of circumstances as normal and promoting proper development, one is surely making a non-statistical, interpretive judgment that is not supported by scientific evidence. Abnormal conditions can certainly predominate, as they did during the Warring States period. Richard’s Mencius is thereby embedded in the interpretive framework that Aristotelian naturalists defend. It is the way in which this appears to be at odds with empirical science that invites the PP.

Mencius strikes me as committed to views of human nature with striking similarities to Aristotelian views. It is, after all, a “robust teleological conception of human nature” (147), and one that aims at the achievement of specifically moral excellence (a view that strikes me as more congenial than Aristotle’s contemplative ideal). It is a view that makes a role for first and second nature, showing that the second nature grows out of our first nature, as the sprouts are perfected with a good upbringing, along lines that are also quite Aristotelian. Reflection plays an important role for Mencius, and indeed, may outstrip the role that it plays in an Aristotelian framework. After all, in a famous passage of the Mengzi (1A7), Mencius leads King Xuan of Qi to reflect on his compassion for a bull the king spared from slaughter and urges him to show the same compassion for the commoners under his rule on the basis of that reflection. We are told that this reflection leads to genuine moral growth in the king. This is another area in which Mencius’ views are congenial and inspire hope, but surely they could be put under considerable empirical pressure. Can human being really achieve such moral growth through such reflection?

My suggestion is, then, that Mencius is putting forward a view that stands under the same challenge as Aristotelians face and does no better than Aristotelians in addressing. The challenge is to convince the proponents of the PP that there is reason to see empiricist views of living things as inadequate, and standing in need of an a priori conceptual framework that requires us to make determinations of what constitutes a normal environment –  a conception, that is, of the essential features of the life form that are not straightforwardly settled by empirical science.

I am puzzled, really, as to whether Richard really takes himself to be embracing the Empirical Science Assumption, despite his claim to do so. After all, he states:

Our understanding of human nature and human flourishing is, on this picture, interdependent and must arise in tandem, and the claim that human nature grounds human flourishing should be understood as a metaphysical rather than an epistemological claim that is fully compatible with the view that  complete understanding of human nature cannot arise without (some) knowledge of human flourishing. (150, emphasis added)

I’m in full agreement with this passage, but I think it deeply at odds with the perspective of those who are putting forward the PP, and that the advocacy of this view on the part of a neo-Mencian is required and puts him in the same boat as a neo-Aristotelian.

3. Rejecting the Empirical Science Assumption:

(a) In the above synopsis, I attributed to Richard an argument I labeled the Empiricist Syllogism. One might react to this syllogism with the thought: where else are we to get objective judgments about the nature of living things than from empirical science? Another possible reaction is: wait, empirical science tells us about the nature of living things? If one thinks living things, or other things in nature, have a nature, this may well be a metaphysical commitment that is itself not a deliverance of empirical science. Neo-Aristotelianism is itself inspired by Wittgensteinian views about what is required to be able to speak meaningfully about living things. Anscombe, for example, takes up Wittgenstein’s dictum “Essence is expressed in grammar,” and interprets what he is talking about as an extension of his discussion of logical form in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. She discusses the connection between the concept of a kind of stuff and a pure sample. Our ability to talk about the former is tied, Anscombe claims, to our ability to apply the latter concept. This is not something obvious – Locke apparently failed to see it – but once spelled out, it is compelling : “you need ‘pure samples’ to get knowledge of the properties of the kind of stuff you are examining: that gives the grammatical connexion which makes the particular grammar express the essence of the particular kind.” Only through grasping that connection between kind of stuff and pure sample, can I come to grasp that gold is a kind of stuff and come to differentiate it carefully from other kinds stuff, eventually learning of its particular atomic number separating stuff of that atomic number out from other stuff of different number, and learning about its other properties, its malleability and conductivity for example.

Picking up on Anscombe’s points about grammar and essence, Michael Thompson works out a detailed grammar of vital descriptions. The question is, what implicit logical connections are behind basic vital descriptions such as “Philippa is eating/walking/etc.”? On Thompson’s understanding of the grammar of vital descriptions, they depend on insight into the form of life featured in the description. Philippa, say, is my cat. Walking is something that cats do, and that fact underwrites my attribution to Philippa of the activity of walking, on Thompson’s understanding. What is happening in the organism considered as a concrete individual occupying a given region of space does not determine that there is something with legs, capable of locomotion, not to mention perception and nutrition. As Thompson puts it, “When we call something eating… we appeal to something more than is available in the mere spectacle of the thing here and now.” That ‘something more’ is the life-form. In seeing something as alive and engaged in a vital activity, I am seeing what is going on here and now as part of a larger process. I am taking its movements not as adventitious flailing, but as forwarding a process that is directed under the unity of the individual organism. It is only through understanding the thing as belonging to a form of life in which parts are organized so as to carry out these functions that we can take it to be an organism. Living things are essentially bearers of life forms. Even understanding of the physical shape of the organism must appeal to the life form. As Thompson states: “such apparently purely physical judgments as that the organism starts here and ends here, or weighs this much, must involve a covert reference to something that goes to beyond the individual, namely its life form” (“Apprehending Human Form,” 52).

Richard seems to recognize the centrality of the life-form at one point in his discussion, when he states, “even to see something as a cactus… requires an interpretive understanding of the kind of life-form each living thing exemplifies” (151). At other points he seems to be saying that it is only when we are making a judgment of natural goodness or defect that the life-form is in question. This point is crucial because it seems to me to get at the underlying motives for challenging the Empirical Science Assumption, and to yield the basis for an argument against it.

The idea that understanding something as an organism requires an interpretive process challenges the Empirical Science Assumption, unless one takes empirical science in a very expansive sense. It means that when we encounter an organism we are applying an interpretive framework that involves a judgment about what it is to flourish qua organism of that type. These judgments can be revised in light of further information, of course, and so they are in part empirical, but on the other hand, given the distinctive non-Fregean generality of natural historical judgments, we can hold tight to a judgment in the face of the stats. This might seem to undermine the objectivity of judgments about living things, but that might just be a matter of important a standard of objectivity inappropriate to this domain.

Neo-Aristotelians hold that this interpretive framework is necessary for getting at something qua living thing. Such judgments ‘go beyond physics’ in Anscombe’s words. They take there to be a unity and directedness of process that requires grasping what is happening as characteristic of the life-form. And so, the idea is that this notion of life-form is logically prior to empirical study to living things. Behind evolutionary biology and such ideas as the selected effects notion of function, there is this more rustic idea of the organism that picks out the subject of that science.

So, this is the first way in which neo-Aristotelians take issue with the Empirical Science Assumption: in order to get at living things as a subject of possible empirical study, we must apply an interpretive framework that appeals to the notion of a life-form. The grammatical framework itself is not the outgrowth of empirical science, and it argues for a view on which our judgments of living things are irreducibly interpretive.

(b) A second way in which neo-Aristotelians take issue with the Empirical Science Assumption concerns the way in which we know our own form of life. We have a distinct, non-observation access to our form of life. Richard acknowledges this, but, in my view, misinterprets it as a matter of ‘subjective experience.’ No doubt we can make judgments about our life-form based on subjective experience, but that is not non-observational knowledge. What neo-Aristotelians like Thompson are talking about relies on an a priori conception of our life form. So, Thompson frames certain aspects of our life form as known implicitly; from this implicit conception we can derive truths of reflection a priori. The concepts that Thompson arrives at to characterize the categorial structure of such thinking, including ‘life-form’ and ‘natural historical judgment,’ are “supplied by reflection on certain possibilities of thought or predication” rather than by experience (Life and Action 20). They are pure a priori concepts, on his view. Thompson frames the implicit form consciousness as follows:

In the self-conscious representation of myself as thinking, as in all my self-conscious self-representation, I implicitly represent myself as alive, as falling under life-manifesting types. And in bringing myself under such types I bring myself under a life form… Self-consciousness is thus always implicitly form-consciousness. (Thompson, “Apprehending Human Form,” p. 68)

On Thompson’s understanding, we cannot get ourselves into view, describe ourselves, or so much as be aware of ourselves as thinking without situating ourselves as a members of a life form (the life form that I bear) that features some norms of which I am ipso facto aware. To be aware of an episode of thinking requires that we grasp what is going on as an occurrence of a certain sort, which can occur only in the context of a life form with the power of thinking. Inasmuch as reasoning and acting are characteristic activities of human beings, the implicit form consciousness of a self-conscious human also includes some norms concerning what it is to reason and act well. Those norms, whatever they are, form a part of the norms that comprise our conception of what it is to live well qua human. These norms do not come to us from without, from observation, but are embedded in the a priori self-conception that is at the basis of our self-consciousness, according to Thompson. These norms are my norms if anything is mine. No intentional action or thought could be attributed to me in the absence of powers for thinking that belong to me as a member of the human form of life; any attribution to me of action or thought must happen against the background of that form of life. Further, that power must include a capacity for self-conscious representation if intentional action is to be possible. When I act intentionally, I know myself to be doing something under a relevant description, and thereby situate myself against the background of a form of life with capacities for such action.

Thompson thereby embraces a sort of life form internalism, according to which when we act deliberately and not in weakness of will, we necessarily demonstrate our conception of what it is to live well qua human. Those norms could, I would note, come apart from the norms we think we advocate about how a human should act: hence, I might think “I am hereby acting badly” but in the absence of any inner conflict, my true conception of how one ought to live is shown in how I act. The idea of a life form in my own case is a practical conception. It is formed not through observation, but through practical reflection on what it is to live well qua human, where practical reflection is thought that terminates in action.

I would note that one can embrace these ideas without thinking that “empirical science is generally irrelevant for understanding human nature” (144). Rather, one can think that empirical science is relevant, but that the relevance is limited. If I reject a practice, say masturbation, on the basis of its being bad for my health, upon finding out it is not, I may change my judgment about human nature. I go from thinking masturbation makes one a defective human, at least when it is done with knowledge of the harm it brings, to thinking one can do it innocently. If it were harmful, it would make one a defective human in the moral sense on the grounds that one who knowingly does something harmful is irrational, which is a defect in a human being. On the other hand, if I reject masturbation on the basis of it being contrary to chastity, as does Anscombe, finding out that it is not bad for health may be beside the point. One may take it to be an inherently base practice, incompatible with living well qua human, quite apart from its impact on one’s health. For Anscombe, as I understand her, it was simply a lascivious practice.

So, this is not a matter of looking within, introspecting, and arriving at insight into our form of life based on what we find there, but a matter of practical thinking with an a priori basis that involves interpreting our form of life. There are some features of our form of life that are incontrovertible, such as that we think. Other aspects of our form of life appear to be up for grabs. Is charity a virtue? Foot thinks so, but others, such as Yang Zhu, think we are naturally egoistic; they think that Confucians and Mohists propose modes of living that lead us to live defectively.

(c) In addition, I think there is some evidence that Mencius is actually the one who makes use of introspection (in a way that I have argued Thomson does not). Mencius writes:

The reason why I say that humans all have hearts that are not unfeeling toward others is this. Suppose someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: everyone in such a situation would have a feeling of alarm and compassion—not because one sought to get in good with the child’s parents, not because one wanted fame among their neighbors and friends, and not because one would dislike the sound of the child’s cries. From this we can see that if one is without the heart of compassion, one is not a human. (Mengzi 2A6, trans. Van Norden)

I think this is an interesting argument, but it goes beyond both what Thompson and Foot talk about and beyond empirical science. Mencius asks us to look within and ask ourselves about our inclinations confronted with this situation. It could be approached empirically with a view to testing whether everyone does have such responses. I’m betting that some people would not respond as Mencius claims they would. I agree with Mencius that they would be defective human beings. But I don’t know that because of anything empirical science tells me; it is an interpretation of the life form that I have arrived at through reflection. This argument may be part of charting a path forward on questions concerning the human form of life; perhaps it persuaded some followers of Yang Zhu to abandon their views. So, I think Mencius may have really interesting resources to bring to the discussion that has been sparked by neo-Aristotelianism, but not because Mencius is more reconcilable with empirical science. Rather, it is because he is just as at odds with the prevailing empirical scientific approach to human nature and has some distinctive approaches to filling out what makes us good qua human.

15 Replies to “Kim on Mencius and the Pollyanna Problem

  1. I am most grateful to John for an insightful and carefully argued response to my paper. I have learned much from John’s work over the years, and especially from his excellent recently edited volume, Philippa Foot on Goodness and Virtue (Palgrave). Reading through the edited volume and John’s other published works have really helped deepen my understanding and appreciation for neo-Aristotelian naturalism. (I should also give a plug here to my friend Micah Lott whose insightful work on this topic has also been illuminating.)

    In fact, I should begin by noting that my views are largely in agreement with much of what John says. I do think we must employ some interpretive background to understand the nature of things, and that this interpretive background cannot simply be derived from the empirical sciences. Reading through John’s comments, I have started to wonder if I do, in the end, disagree with him in any deep way. I’m not entirely sure at this point, and I take this as a terrific opportunity to sort this out and to get clearer on what I think about all of this.

    My aim in this paper was built around the basic thought that there is a substantial connection between our understanding of human nature and empirical inquiry. The worry I addressed in this paper was that in detaching human nature or the Aristotelian Categoricals from scientific or empirical research, it seems difficult to see how we can preserve what I called in the paper the Central Point of Aristotelian Naturalism: “The criteria for goodness and defect of any species X are given its objective foundation in facts about the nature of X.” (144)

    Since we are a biological organism with an evolutionary heritage, it seems that empirical facts about the kinds of creatures we are should influence our understanding of human flourishing or the human good. If, for example, we were non-social or had radically different bodies, I would think the Aristotelian Categoricals, and our understanding of what constitutes human good or defect would also change as well.

    So the thought is that empirical facts ought to influence our understanding of human nature. After all, we also understand what is good or bad for other organisms without being organisms of that kind. We can come to know what environments are good or bad for owls and dolphins, and how they flourish as creatures of that sort, and it seems like we gain this knowledge through observation and empirical work.

    But what John might say is that for the neo-Aristotelian, understanding the good of owls or dolphins isn’t a matter of collecting statistical data, but about employing an interpretive framework and making certain assumptions about what benefits or harms living organisms. And so, even when it comes to other living entities, what is fundamental is the interpretive framework. Without that, we simply cannot begin to figure out what the good of an organism is.

    This is a compelling argument, and one that I also brought up in my paper. And I actually agree with the need for such an interpretive framework. So what’s the disagreement? At this point, shouldn’t I reject the Empirical Science Assumption (ESA) that I tried to preserve in this paper? Recall that ESA (borrowed from Micah Lott’s formulation) was stated as follows:

    In formulating Aristotelian categoricals about the human will, we must rely on the same type of procedures and considerations we rely on in formulating categoricals about other life forms in the natural, or empirical sciences. (p. 141)

    Here’s something interesting that I’m unsure sure about. ESA seems to suggest that in formulating categoricals about other life forms, we do rely on the natural or empirical sciences. And this was how I understood ESA while writing this paper. But it seems that on John’s view, ESA is mistaken for an additional reason: even for understanding other life forms we need not rely on the natural or empirical sciences. But this seems implausible since how we understand the flourishing of spider, dolphins, or owls depend on empirical study. Or perhaps I am mistaken about this point, which I would be glad to be corrected on. But if we can understand other animals through an empirical approach, why can’t we also understand human beings in this way as well? And if we can, shouldn’t an empirical approach to understanding human beings also serve at least as one resource that ought to harmonize with the kind of non-observational knowledge of life-form that John takes as central? (I will come back to this point.)

    But reflecting more on ESA, I think I would now revise the way it was worded, because the central idea (at least for me) was really meant to capture the need to harmonize our understanding gained from empirical inquiry with our understanding of human nature and the Aristotelian Categoricals. To explain what I mean, it might be worth at this point turning to John’s argument, attributed to me, which he calls the Empiricist Syllogism. It went like this:
    (1) Naturalism aims to ground judgments of natural goodness and defect objectively in facts about the nature of organisms.
    (2) Only empirical science offers us objective facts about the nature of organisms.
    (3) Therefore, Naturalism must embrace the findings of empirical science.
    John attributes this argument to me, and I see why. But I would reject it because, while I do think the empirical sciences are relevant to understanding the nature of organisms, I wouldn’t say that it alone can provide us with everything we need to understand about nature, especially given the sense of ‘nature’ that I deploy, which as I note in the paper is not value-neutral. As neo-Aristotelians such as John and Micah Lott have effectively pointed out (drawing on, of course, the work of Foot, Thompson, and Hursthouse), even doing proper empirical science seems to require some notion of life-form and certain background normative assumptions pertaining to the concept of life. Nevertheless, I do think we should uphold the idea that the empirical sciences do matter for our understanding of human nature. And so, I would want to propose the following, revised argument:
    (1) Naturalism aims to ground judgments of natural goodness and defect objectively in facts about the nature of organisms.
    (2) Our understanding of the nature of organisms ought to harmonize with findings in empirical science.
    (3) Therefore, Naturalism must consider the findings in empirical science.
    But what exactly do I mean by “harmonize”? I mean at least this much: our understanding of the Aristotelian Categoricals, and more specifically, about what is good or bad for humans should make sense in light of the empirical research. In the paper I tried to flesh out how empirical inquiry is connected to investigating human nature by drawing on the distinction between ‘first nature’ (those features that belong to human beings as such) and ‘second nature’ (those characteristics that human beings develop through habituation and culture). While there might not be a sharp line that divides the two, I think empirical research can help develop our understanding of first nature.

    As human beings we are given an initial, biological starting point that provides us with a certain general structure that determines basic needs and drives, and a developmental path for becoming mature, virtuous adults. A fully satisfying naturalistic account needs to incorporate this idea. Alasdair MacIntyre captures this point nicely:
    [N]o account of the goods, rules and virtues that are definitive of our moral life can be adequate that does not explain—or at least point us towards an explanation—how that form of life is possible for beings who are biologically constituted as we are, by providing us with an account of our development towards and into that form of life. That development has as its starting point our initial animal condition. (Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, x)
    For a satisfying, Aristotelian-style picture, we need to show how it is that our first nature can be developed into our second nature in a way that harmonizes with the understanding of ourselves as given by certain empirical sciences such as developmental psychology, sociology, evolutionary biology, and anthropology. It’s not that these disciplines can sufficiently explain what constitutes the Aristotelian Categoricals or human flourishing (they can also err as well), but that they can help provide a holistic picture of why it is that, for example, we all understand life as a good, strive for social ties, or need affection and care. It can also support claims about why certain human virtues are a natural development of certain basic emotions and inclinations (first nature).

    (continued in next comment)

  2. This last point was partially what motivated me to draw Mencius into this discussion, since I think Mencius’s view provides an instructive picture of how first nature and second nature are connected. In a well-known passage from the Mengzi that I cite in the paper, Mencius comments,
    “…we can see that if one is without the feeling of compassion, one is not human. If one is without the feeling of disdain, one is not human. If one is without the feeling of deference one is not human. The feeling of compassion is the sprout of benevolence. The feeling of disdain is the sprout of righteousness. The feeling of deference is the sprout of propriety. The feeling of approval and disapproval is the sprout of wisdom. People having these four sprouts is the like their having four limbs. To have these four sprouts, yet to claim that one is incapable (of virtue) is to steal from oneself.” (Mengzi 2A6)
    There are, on Mencius’s view, certain basic inclinations in human nature (the moral ‘sprouts’) that are actually directed toward certain virtues. But, for Mencius, these virtues can only be developed with nurture, education, and culture. What is especially nice about this passage is that there is a picture of first human nature that is tending toward a mature, virtuous second nature, So we have a smooth, psychological story to tell about how our given first nature is ordered toward the kind of virtuous second nature that we ought to develop. Of course, Mencius knew all too well that people often fail to become virtuous (he lived during a very violent and bloody age) and he provides various explanations of why many of us fail to become good.

    With Mencius I think we do get a clearer picture of how human nature grounds human virtues than what we find explicitly in Aristotle. (But feel to correct me Aristotle experts!) This is because it is not clear to me that Aristotle provides a picture of first nature that is tending toward a virtuous second nature. At least in one well-known passage we find Aristotle remarking that, “From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature…Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.” (Nicomachean Ethics Book II, Ch. 1) In this passage we only seem to get the idea that nature is compatible with virtue, rather than the idea that nature is directed toward virtue, which is what we find in Mencius.

    While John is right that Mencius’s account of human nature is not something we can just derive from a set of empirical data, it is one that can potentially harmonize well with empirical research. In fact, when we turn to the last few decades of research in developmental psychology, the larger picture that develops is that human beings are naturally equipped, even from infancy, with various incipient or nascent moral inclinations, not altogether unlike our native linguistic capacity (which also requires considerable time and education to develop fully). Michael Tomasello comments, “…from around their first birthdays—when they first begin to walk and talk and become truly cultural beings—human children are already cooperative and helpful in many ways, though obviously not all situations. And they do not learn this from adults; it comes naturally.” (Why We Cooperate, 4) Paul Bloom has also done much work on infants and have argued that empirical research shows that babies have certain basic moral capacities. Bloom comments, “babies are moral animals, equipped by evolution with empathy and compassion, the capacity to judge the actions of others, and even some rudimentary understanding of justice and fairness.” (Just Babies, 218)

    But as Bloom would be quick to point out, tremendous cultural and educational work must be done on those basic moral capacities for full moral development. (On this point, the classical Chinese Confucian Xunzi is especially insightful.) Nevertheless, I think the empirical research in developmental psychology above, while not proving Mencius correct, can serve as a part of the broader, holistic picture that we should seek to provide in explaining our moral lives.

  3. First let me say thanks to Richard for writing an interesting paper. It’s very clearly presented and does a nice job articulating the challenges for neo-Mencians and neo-Aristotelians to defend positions that are both meaningfully naturalistic and normatively informative. Next, thanks to John for giving a thoughtful précis and response to Richard’s paper. The ensuing discussion is an admirable example of engaging in cross-cultural philosophy, and I’m enjoying what it’s teaching me about similarities/differences between Mencius and Aristotle on normative issues. Still, I’m going to put on my bad guy hat and try to succinctly explain why I’m not persuaded by either position. In this sense, I agree with John that both views are in the same boat!

    The core problem I’ve tried to articulate in more recent papers since my initial (2006) critique of Foot, is that the Pollyanna Problem is just one branch of a broader dilemma. Yes, one can evade the Pollyanna problem by moving from empirical (and thus normatively unreliable) observations about human nature to either (a) Thompson-inspired a priori reflection about our life form or (b) more general observations about proto-moral sprouts of morality that, in proper conditions, might develop into fully realized and morally trustworthy features of human nature. Yet in either case the move invites an indeterminacy problem. It’s not clear to me how the Thomson-inspired view (that John has done a great job elucidating!) can generate substantive content other than what is already presumed from the outset. And in the Mencius version, as Richard notes, the proto-moral sprouts are compatible with all kinds of different social behaviour, so the normative heavy lifting occurs when we attempt to specify the “proper” conditions for developing these sprouts. The dilemma, then, is to avoid both the trap of relying on excessively optimistic empirical data about human nature while also avoiding the trap of retreating from unreliable empirical data in a way that leaves the view unable to provide substantive normative content. The pitch in my most recent Red Dragon paper was that dealing with both sides of this dilemma simultaneously is vital because advocates of the naturalism at stake tend to emphasize abstraction from empirical data when faced with the Pollyanna problem… but then claim that the view is tethered to real facts about humans if pressed about indeterminacy when it comes to otherwise open-ended options for interpreting human nature however we like. (Ok, in that paper I set up a trilemma, not a dilemma, and I used a mutant objection instead of the Pollyanna problem to mix things up a bit. But the main strategy at stake is the same.) The critic of this naturalism ought to emphasize that proponents of the view can’t have it both ways.

    So there’s my bad guy pitch. I hope it’s clear that I find the view stimulating enough to take the time to argue against it, and I hope I’ve been able to do so in a respectful manner. Take care!

  4. Thanks for these comments Scott! I would argue that you are being a good guy, but doing what philosophers are supposed to do!

    I’m curious what John will say here, but I think you are nicely capturing the basic tension here between completely relying on a non-empirical, apriori procedure for understanding human nature and human flourishing, and completely relying on empirical research.

    Here is one question I have: would you say that the same tension exists when it comes to understanding other animals? I think this is a question I have for John as well since it seems to me like empirical inquiry and third-personal observations do help us grasp what constitutes the good or bad for other living organisms.

    The response that tends to come up at this point is that we are also rational creatures, which makes our good radically different from the good of other entities. That’s certainly right, but I think that just like other living organisms we have a certain biological nature that gives rise to certain basic drives as well as fundamental needs, and human rationality has to work with those basic drives and needs. This is how our first human nature provides the basis for understanding the kind of second nature we should develop. So in fairly broad ways, I do think that first nature provides an outline of human developmental structure and what is necessary for flourishing, e.g. attention, love, exposure to language, security, self-respect, and so on. So while we do have to make some normative assumptions and draw on an interpretive framework (as John nicely articulated), we also need to work with basic facts about our nature, which prevents some forms of all-out relativism.

  5. Does it matter that in any ordinary (non-scientific) context we never have pure samples of any stuffs at all (given both space and time dimensions)? (Only at the microscale – how small dependent on the interval of time we consider – can we isolate small amounts of, say, water alone. And there we have the problem that these microscale things have different properties than their macroscale aggregates.)

    This can be turned into a remark in the ethical direction: do we need an understanding of what would be the “idealized human nature” (or however one wants to put this) or only what would be comparatively better or worse, which might be doable without a “non-naturalistic” sense (or whatever again)? For example, it might be doable by looking at large numbers of human lives and seeing that if one permutes in this direction rather than that one gets the appropriate sort of flourishing, etc.?

    So the history of philosophy of remark then becomes: Does either Aristotle or Mencius show awareness that one can “sample” in this way? That way you don’t need the interpretive framework “all at once” – one sort of “bootstraps” it.
    (To anticipate an answer: I do not remember anything like this, but I would be pleasantly surprised to hear otherwise!)

  6. Hi Keith,

    Interesting question about the model sample. One quick thought, which has been developed by Amy Olberding (drawing on the work on moral exemplarist theory of Linda Zagzebeski) has been to focus on the role of moral exemplars. Certainly Mencius (like all Confucians) appeal to the sage-kings as models of virtue. I would think that they would also count them as models of human flourishing as well, so perhaps they serve as a paradigmatic sample of the human life-form!

  7. Hi Richard. The non-human animals question is interesting, because (as you note in your paper) there are probably people who agree that we can make common-sense judgments about what counts as a “good octopus” but who remain skeptical about the same kind of normative judgments when it comes to humans. Speaking only for myself, though, I jump ship right from the beginning. I don’t understand what statements like “good octopus” mean other than to map out statistical regularities, patterns for convenient identification, or qualities that are particularly conducive to survival/reproduction/welfare that can diverge from what is characteristic for members of the species. Said another way, I think the interpretive process Thompson emphasizes by which we identify individuals as a certain type of being, rather than just sensory noise or part of the environment, is super interesting as a matter of philosophy of mind and perception… but I think it has no normative upshot. So, yes, I look out my window and categorize some of the information as “hummingbird”, and by doing that it generates expectations about how a member of that species ought to behave (even if those expectations can change as I discover new empirical information in an interesting back & forth process). I just think the ‘ought’ in question here is merely predictive. It’s a helpful heuristic to navigate the world, but it doesn’t set up normative claims about what is good or bad apart from independent considerations.

    Thus, when you propose that, “… in fairly broad ways, I do think that first nature provides an outline of human developmental structure and what is necessary for flourishing”, my view is that this is only true in a normatively banal sense of the necessary conditions for normative questions to get off the ground for discussion. As humans, we need attention, love, security, respect, etc. Fair enough. But those proto-moral sprouts are so vague, imho, that one might as well add our need for oxygen, reasonable levels of gravity, or basic logical inference skills. To return to the Pollyanna theme, I think that by the time human nature is specified in more detail, beyond these first order necessary conditions, it’s optimistic to think that what happens to be characteristic of our species (after a long, strange history of blind evolutionary processes) ought to be considered normatively trustworthy.

  8. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the clear and insightful comment. I think I see more clearly where you are coming from. Perhaps I would respond with the argument that the neo-Aristotelian view does seem to capture better ordinary judgments about what is good or bad for living organisms. It does seem to me like there is quite a bit of convergence on what harms or benefits dogs, owls, dolphins, or even humans as well. If we focus on infant well-being, for example, I think there’s fairly widespread agreement across the world about what is good or bad for them. We do seem have a clear sense of what would count as fetal defects (say brought on by fetal alcohol syndrome) or the basic developmental stages that constitutes healthy growth. And when things don’t go well with infants and children, I think most people do see these events as bad for them, which might require some kind of special treatment. But perhaps you would invoke a kind of error-theory to explain such judgments?

  9. Thank you all for these thoughtful responses to my critical précis.

    To Keith Douglas: I think the answer is “not in so many words.” But the idea is that the notion of an uncorrupted human being is implicit in Mencius, as when he says, “without the heart of compassion, one is not a human” and in Aristotle’s Function Argument. The notion of an uncorrupted human being is playing a role similar to that of the pure sample in Anscombe (her notion that the idea of a pure sample is behind our notion of a ‘kind of stuff’) which I believe inspired Michael Thompson’s notion that the life form is implicit in our ascriptions of vital activities to life form.

    To Scott Woodcock and Richard Kim:

    The recurrent issue here is the role of empirical science in grounding our judgments about non-human animals and then in turn about human beings.

    I think understanding Anscombe, Foot, and Thompson requires grasping something they get from Wittgenstein, their ‘grammatical’ approach. I think this approach is insufficiently appreciated, even by many people who read them and write about them. Their claims are about what is required for us to talk about certain kind of thing, in this case, a living thing. Taking up Scott’s claim in his recent comment:

    I look out my window and categorize some of the information as “hummingbird”, and by doing that it generates expectations about how a member of that species ought to behave (even if those expectations can change as I discover new empirical information in an interesting back & forth process). I just think the ‘ought’ in question here is merely predictive. It’s a helpful heuristic to navigate the world, but it doesn’t set up normative claims about what is good or bad apart from independent considerations.

    About this, I think, this just won’t do for getting a handle on living things. I suppose I bring predictions about what will happen to all of my perceptual experience and I operate with various heuristics in doing that. But with living things, I am attributing something to them, a sort of vital agency, that what is happening with them is part of a process operating under the unity of that organism. We might say, to pick out an organism is to pick out something that is, in a broad sense, “self-moving,” but pick out something as self-moving requires situating it against the background of its kind, and so to see it as instancing characteristic powers of that kind. So, we must at least mark a difference, I think, between the heuristics I use in contending with my perceptual domain between the living and the non-living. To identify an organism is to think something like: “*It* (say, the hummingbird) is behaving in a certain way.” I am apprehending something unitary and distinctive in the manifold of my perceptions — unless we are going to collapse it all into an undifferentiated sensory manifold concerning which we are making predictions. But even here, I would still be attributing sensations and perceptions to myself: they are my sensations, actualizations of my power to take in the world, which can go well or badly. Is it possible to see *that* as a mere heuristic?

    I think the point I’d like to make is empirical inquiry into living things, whether human or non-human happen all happen implicitly against the background of a conception of the life form, against this rather rustic conception of the kind. But this background is forgotten, under pressure of an ideal of empiricist rigor, we lose track of the conditions under which the object is available to us to begin with, and lose track of the fact that our getting a handle on an organism involves an implicit judgment concerning what is good or bad for the kind of thing that it is. This makes it appear as though all the observations we make about an organism are on an equal footing. The grammatical method serves to remind us that it is a condition of talking about an organism that we’ve identified something that has a good, made a determination of what that good is, and we can never outstrip that without losing touch with the object qua living thing.

    So, about ‘harmonizing’ with empirical science, as Richard proposes I would say that this sounds good, provided the science is not refracted through the lens of the philosophical picture that gives rise to the PP, the picture that makes all the observed facts appear on equal footing. Something has gone wrong when there is no alloparental support for a human mother, however common this might become, and something would be very wrong with us if we didn’t react with alarm at a child falling in a well, however common that might become.

    Scott wonders how we can bring determinacy to this picture and he seems to want to box neo-Aristotelians into a dilemma between the a priori and the empirical. But the approach is, I think, more of a hermeneutic one, just as Thompson proposes in “Apprehending Human Form.” I think there is much more interesting philosophy to be done filling out a picture of human life from the neo-Aristotelian point of view. It will involve getting clear on what our basic human powers are and what constitutes their perfection. I think it is here that contact with the Confucian tradition is productive, especially with Mengzi’s explicit talk of our being compassionate by nature.

  10. This is such an interesting discussion! Thanks to Richard for sharing his thought-provoking and well-argued paper and to John for presenting a concise and clear summary as well as a compelling response. I find the idea of defending Naturalism against PP by appealing to the idea that human nature involves “sprouts” of the virtues promising. I also agree with John’s claims about the similarities between Aristotelian and Mencian views. Here I only want to make a small point about a dichotomy that seems to be operating in the background—a dichotomy between empirical science and interpretive judgments.

    John takes issue with Richard’s claim that determining whether a circumstance is normal or proper is not a straightforward matter and requires interpretive judgment (155). He remarks that this undermines the Empirical Science Assumption, because it implies that these judgments are not scientifically supported but rather intuitive judgments. However, this presupposes that empirical science cannot involve the kind of interpretive judgment that is required for determining what is normal or proper. This assumption, although shared also by the critics who raise PP, is contentious. Some philosophers of biology defend a version of Aristotelian essentialism, according to which the concept of the essence or the nature of an organism plays an explanatory role in biology. The essence of an organism involves goal-directed capacities that are causally productive of an intrinsically privileged, albeit dynamically plastic, developmental template, which represents the ‘natural state’ of the organism (see Walsh’s “Evolutionary essentialism”, 2006; Organisms, Agency and Evolution, 2015; and Austin’s “Aristotelian essentialism: essence in the age of evolution”, 2016). If this view is correct, then biology already involves judgments regarding what is a ‘normal’ developmental path for an organism, and biologists already make the kind of interpretation involved in the process.

    What this means for the debate surrounding PP, I think, is that Naturalists cannot write off empirical science as irrelevant when it comes to the study of the nature of living things. John and Micah are right that not every branch of biological science is concerned with the study of living things as living. Particularly, they are right to insist that the kind of empirical studies that are cited in the various versions of PP are not in the business of giving an account of human nature (as opposed to revealing what is causally significant for explaining our evolutionary history). That said, there is still room for other empirical sciences such as developmental biology or the empirical study of autonomous systems to cast light into the nature of living things as living. To me, the intuitive, natural-historical judgments that are at the core of the neo-Aristotelian account do not seem to have a privileged epistemic position with respect to revealing the nature of various forms of life. A philosophical study of the the various implicit commitments of empirical studies of living things (e.g., commitments regarding capacities, goals, and functions) can be just as revealing–at least when it comes to non-human forms of life.

  11. Hi Parisa! It interesting to see the variations in how you, John and Richard see the role of empirical data in your accounts. For my part, I can happily sit on the sidelines and watch that discussion unfold, since I don’t think my objection to the view depends on those details. Let me try to phrase things in a different way in light of John’s recent post. First let me say, again, that I find the interpretive process proposed by John (via Wittgenstein, Anscombe, Foot & Thompson) really interesting. The idea that we unavoidably make implicit judgments in order to identify living things and that these judgments necessarily involve attributions of unity and commitments to what is good/bad for them is a stimulating idea. It may seem like I’m just being polite here, but I really do think this part of the AN program is appealing.

    The key sticking point for me is why we ought to think the “vital agency” that we apprehend from this process provides normatively justified prescriptions for us upon reflection. I don’t mean this in some kind of deep Moore-ian way, so my point is not about invoking the naturalistic fallacy with the overly demanding expectation of analytic identity. I just mean that I don’t understand why we ought to feel bound in any way by the results of a blind evolutionary process. Whether we come to apprehend this information via empirical methods or implicit judgments that we inevitably bring to our observations about living things, I take it the fundamental idea behind AN is that there is *some kind of content out there to be apprehended* in the world when it comes to living species – content somehow normatively authoritative for how we ought to live. And I have so little faith in the bizarre twists and turns of an evolutionary process that brought us lower back pain, the appendix and a compromised capacity to sort conditionals from biconditionals that I feel mystified when naturalistic claims idealizing human nature are put forward as prescriptively binding. The evolutionary origins of human sociality/rationality are fascinating, but they don’t inspire normative confidence. One would, I think, have a more persuasive case privileging human nature if one were working with a religious or enchanted perspective regarding our origins. I just don’t share that perspective.

    So the dilemma for me is not so much about empirical vs a priori methods as it is about untrustworthy evolutionary results that can only be avoided if one proposes a mechanism for apprehending details about human nature that allows us to fill in the blanks ourselves. The latter option is not so terrible, but it’s best called something else rather than AN because the contingent natural facts for our species are no longer not doing the real work setting determinate normative content. Anyway, I hope that helps a bit for trying to put a finger on what leads to my point of view on this material. Take care.

  12. Hello Everyone. I’ve really enjoyed reading this exchange. Thanks to Richard and John for so many rich ideas and such careful articulations of the issues!

    Here are a few points that I’ve taken away from the discussion so far:

    (1) In talking about the Empirical Science Assumption, we should be clear if we are concerned with our knowledge of living things as such (including plants and non-human animals) or whether we are concerned with our knowledge of “the human” in particular — i.e., our grasp of the human good and especially practical excellence.

    (2) There is a non-empirical element in our grasp of *all* living things, not just human beings. That is a key upshot of Thompson’s work.

    As I understand the “Polyanna Problem”, however, it does not take issue with this point per se. That is, one might say: “Fine. I grant that life is not a concept that can be derived from experience, because life-form thought is a distinctive mode of representation that we must already presuppose and bring to bear as a condition of representing any individual as living. However, our substantive understanding of any particular life-form does require empirical observation — e.g., what is actually true of “the blue-ringed octopus” can only be known by going and looking at them. And that is true for the human as much as for other creatures. And that is all you need to get the PP going.”

    (3) Focusing now just on the question of our substantive grasp of human form, there are weaker and stronger (and vaguer and more specific) ways of formulating the Empirical Science Assumption. Here are a few:
    (a) Empirical scientific investigation can yield some important insight into human form; it has *something* to contribute to our efforts to work out a substantive view of ‘the human.’
    (b) Our substantive account of human form must at least be consistent with empirical scientific investigation.
    (c) Empirical scientific investigation *all by itself* can generate substantive conclusions about human form.
    (d) Empirical scientific investigation is an *especially privileged* or authoritative source for substantive knowledge about human form.
    (e) Empirical scientific investigation is the *only* source of substantive knowledge about human form.

    Personally, I think that some version of (a) and (b) is correct, but not (c), (d), or (e).

    (4) It probably best to think about the Polyanna Problem together with the Authority of Nature Challenge — or at least to be clear on how they are related to each other. This came through for me when reading Scott’s last post.

    Okay. Thanks again everyone.

  13. Thanks, Micah – that’s helpful. I agree with your points, and I hope I’ve been fair in my papers critiquing AN that it’s based on some version of (a) or (b) rather than (c), (d) or (e). As you suggest, I think (a) & (b) are enough to get the PP started, and then the indeterminacy side of the dilemma starts up if the blanks filled in by our presuppositions about life-form concepts are open-ended rather than constrained by the results of a normatively unreliable evolutionary process. For example, if alien anthropologists arrived to study us, could they start with different presuppositions that would lead them to apprehend the details of human flourishing differently despite the same empirical evidence available?

    Note that I’ll stop here to allow the rest of you to discuss the more subtle details of your respective AN views. Thanks for letting me jump in for a while! All the best.

  14. Hi Scott! Thank you for your response. It does help to clarify the particular concern you are raising for AN. You are asking why a nature that is the result of a contingent evolutionary history should be considered normatively binding for us. I think the neo-Aristotelians’ response to this particular question is that (a) it doesn’t matter how we came to have the kind of nature that we have; and (b) we cannot step outside our human nature (which also determines the shape of our practical reason and agency) to assess our nature from without. Natural goodness is an evaluation of aspects of an entity based on internal standards that are constitutive of its nature. So, from the neo-Aristotelian perspective, it doesn’t make sense to talk about whether evolution has given us a good nature or a bad one. The nature is what sets the standard for evaluation. Of course, we can evaluate many of our human tendencies and characteristics (e.g., back pain) based on how well they contribute to a good human life. But these will be merely contingent or statistical facts about us, not the kind of natural-historical characteristics that neo-Aristotelians take to be constitutive of our nature. The latter kind of characteristics set the standard for what human flourishing and a good human life consist in, and there is no outside point of view to evaluate them from.

    As you have pointed out, there is a question about how AN can generate substantive content if we have no way of distinguishing between constitutive and merely accidental aspects of a kind of organism. I agree with you that we don’t seem to have any solutions to this “indeterminacy problem”. But I also don’t think that’s what the view aims to do. Even if it doesn’t offer a substantive account of virtue, AN does offer a metaethical account of virtue as an instance of natural goodness. So for those of us who accept natural-goodness evaluations of plants and animals as unproblematic aspects of the natural world (I suspect that you don’t), AN provides an argument for how moral virtue fits within our picture of the natural world (as opposed to belonging to a special, sui generis domain).

  15. Thanks for that really helpful comment Parisa, which chimed with my own thoughts about Scott’s comments.
    I also would say that at this point of the dialectic, the neo-Aristotelian could also ask what a more satisfying alternative to the neo-Aristotelian account would look like. It seems that when we talk about the good or flourishing of X we must have a grasp of what X is. (Peter Geach’s old point about ‘good’ being an attributive adjective.)To understand what constitutes physical health, say, we need to understand the nature of human bodies. What is the alternative picture? At the same time, this is all both a factual and normative inquiry and so there is no way to not invoke certain normative assumptions. But these assumptions can also be revised in light of further inquiry.

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