Tom Angier is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town. His research focuses on Aristotelian and Neo-Aristotelian ethical and political theory.
Q: Tom, you recently joined CRASSH as a Visiting Fellow. Could you tell us a little bit about what you are working on during your fellowship?
I’m working on the topic of human nature and its relation to ethics. If you ask most people in the non-academic world, do you think there is such a thing as human nature? And if so, do you think it bears on how we should act and think? Most people will respond to both questions: of course! If you read much current ethical theory, however, you’ll find instead a mixture of scepticism and denial. As a neo-Aristotelian philosopher, I find this disparity between ‘the many’ and ‘the wise’ troubling. In short, I want to reconnect ethical theory with common sense, and thus see the above gap as something to be overcome – in the direction of ‘the many’ (a direct translation of the Greek, hoi polloi).
Like hoi polloi, I think there is such a thing as human nature. Granted, it is more complex than the nature of cows or cacti. And true, there are many cultures, in and through which people live their lives. But all these cultures are human cultures, and hence there are things – foundational things – which they have in common. My work is aimed at uncovering these foundations. In doing so, I am drawing on my background in Aristotle research, which has been largely text-focused. But here and now I am interested in applying Aristotelian ideas, arguments and methods in order to arrive at an original theory of human nature and its ethical significance.
Q: What drew you to your research initially and what parts do you find particularly interesting?
One key thing that drew me to my research is a concern that intellectual life has become, in many ways, divorced from practical, everyday, life. Normative ethics and metaethics, in particular, are dominated by highly abstract work, which is consequently of dubious relevance to practical choice. Normative ethicists speak a lot about ‘reasons for action’, for instance, but the methods they supply to inform those reasons seem unusable by and even unintelligible to ordinary agents. This gap between theory and practice is worrying and needs to be addressed. Has there ever been, say, a genuine utilitarian agent, who tots up quanta of ‘utils’ or ‘hedons’ in order to arrive at the maximal overall ‘good’? No. Likewise, no one (I’d wager) has ever been a genuine Kantian, deploying the ‘categorical imperative’ to arrive at practically rational choice. We need to start earlier, or lower down, as it were, to arrive at the real stuff of moral decision-making.
What I find particularly interesting is trying to develop a theory that starts at this more basic, but also most vital – because practically helpful – level. Admittedly, there are philosophers who despair of ethical theory, perhaps because they’ve been fed a diet of utilitarian and Kantian abstractions. But I think an Aristotelian approach to ethical theory can overcome this despair and deliver what we need. Aristotle himself thought that the centre of ethics was not some notional overall utility, or set of merely self-consistent universal rules, but rather virtue, i.e. good character. And I have a lot of sympathy with the project of adding virtue to the roster of ethical concepts and concerns. Where I depart from Aristotle, however, is in thinking that virtue, too, fails to reach practical bedrock. Instead, we need to dig deeper, to the level of what I call non-moral or ‘pre-moral’ goods. These are the ultimate, intrinsically valuable objects of choice which utilitarians, Kantians and virtue ethicists all take for granted, yet do not investigate or supply a systematic account of. Things like knowledge, family, health, friendship and aesthetic experience. These are what we all aim at, ultimately, in our actions – and Aristotle helps us think about such goods. But oddly enough, he himself does not thematise or supply a theoretical account of them. So there remains a job to be done, one that I am taking up in my book.
Q: You are currently working on a book, could you tell us about it?
My book is called ‘Human Nature, Human Goods: A Theory of Natural Perfectionism’, and will be submitted to Cambridge University Press by December 2024. At its core is the idea that we can give a systematic account of human goods by analysing what ‘perfects’ human nature. ‘Perfect’, in this context, is an old-fashioned verb that means to ‘complete’ or ‘fulfil’. In other words, we can reach the practical bedrock I spoke of earlier by thinking about what completes us as a species of animal. Now this idea, too, can appear unhelpfully abstract. But when we break human nature down into its component parts or aspects, things become more manageable and, indeed, enlightening. Basically, my argument will be that our nature consists in various functional systems, and that human goods can be specified by determining the ends or ‘goals’ of those systems. For once those goals are achieved, we are perfected – at least with respect to the system in question. Take the most rudimentary case as an example: the kind of functioning we share with plants, viz. nutrition and growth. If we are not properly fed and watered, we, too, fail to grow in the way we should. To use the idiom I’ve outlined, we fail to perfect ourselves in the vegetative aspect of our being, and thus fail to achieve a fundamental good.
In order to make this argument, I need not only to detail the positive ‘mechanics’ of natural perfectionism, i.e. the theoretical nuts and bolts of human natural teleology (from the Greek telos, viz. end or goal). I need also to respond to various critiques of my neo-Aristotelian approach, of which there are several. One claims there is a dichotomy between ‘facts’ and ‘values’ – thus rendering the notion of natural perfection illegitimate; another that evolutionary biology has overturned the very idea of natural teleology. Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most recent, critiques are grounded in transhumanism, anti-ablism and anti-natalism. Transhumanism argues that we can leave human nature behind, yet still retain a grasp of goods; anti-ablism holds that the perfection of human faculties is, as an aim, a reflection of mere prejudice among the able-bodied and able-minded; while anti-natalism claims that human life as such is disvaluable, and hence should not be brought into being. I think all these critiques are defeasible, i.e. can be overcome, and are in fact ultimately self-defeating (albeit in different ways). Showing this will be hard work – but is worth the effort. For if natural perfectionism can be fortified against serious objection, ethical theory will be put on a genuinely firm foundation, delivering an irreducible array of goods among which ethical choice finally makes sense.
- Tom Angier has published many journal articles and book chapters, along with several edited collections, including ‘Skill in Ancient Ethics’ (2021), ‘The Cambridge Companion to Natural Law Ethics’ (2019) and ‘The History of Evil’ (2018). His most recent monograph is entitled ‘Natural Law Theory’ (Cambridge 2021)
- Find out more about Visiting Fellowships at CRASSH