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A Harmful Ambiguity

by Bill Meacham on November 19th, 2017

Massimo Pigliucci has written an entertaining book, Answers For Aristotle, about how recent scientific discoveries can shed light on perennial problems of philosophy and how philosophy can make sense of surprising new knowledge. Drawing on neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology and other disciplines, he shows that we need both science and philosophy to make sense of who we are and how best to live our lives. Pigliucci is a skillful wrier, and the book is enjoyable and informative. But it has an annoying flaw: historical inaccuracy and conceptual confusion stemming from ambiguous language.

Pigliucci contrasts three approaches to deciding what to do in morally problematic situations. Deontology, from a Greek word meaning duty, tells us to follow moral rules because they tell us the right thing to do. Moral rules may be taken to come from divine decree or from the dictates of rationality or from a special faculty of intuition; but however we come to know them, they are to be followed regardless of their consequences. This principle is taken to the extreme by Kant, who asserts that it would be wrong to tell a lie to a murderer who asks whether our friend who is being pursued by the murderer has taken refuge in our house.(1) Most of us find such rigid honesty morally repugnant.

Consequentialism, by contrast, tells us that the consequences of our actions are of primary importance, regardless of the rules. Its best-known variant is Utilitarianism, which says that we should try to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Consequentialism evaluates moral choices in terms of the consequences of our actions regardless of whether they are in accord with moral rules. Taken to the extreme, this approach would have us sacrifice one healthy man to harvest his organs for several others who need them. This too we find morally repugnant.

Both deontology and consequentialism, despite seeming differences, are actually quite similar. Both are in what I have called the Rightness paradigm, being ways to find the right thing to do.(2) The third approach, virtue ethics, is in the Goodness paradigm. It gives us advice about how to live a good life by cultivating morally laudable traits of character such as honesty, courage, moderation and the like. This approach does not tell us what to do in particular quandaries. Instead it tells us what kind of person to be such that we will do what is morally appropriate almost automatically. We will act because of who we are, not because we have figured out what to do by consulting a moral system. Virtue ethics originated in ancient Greece and found its fullest flowering in Aristotle. The point of cultivating virtues, according to that famous philosopher, is to be able to live a life of eudaimonia, that is, a life of happiness or, better, flourishing or fulfillment. It’s not just the feeling of being happy that is the goal, but really functioning well in all areas of life.

Now consider this statement by Pigliucci:

According to virtue ethics … human beings need to steer themselves in the direction of virtuous behavior both because that is the right thing to do and because the very point of life is to live it in a eudaimonic way.(3)

There are two different assertions here, and only one of them is historically accurate. Aristotle does indeed claim that, as a factual matter, human beings seek happiness (eudaimonia) above all else since “we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.”(4) That is, we choose, for instance, health over illness because health makes us happier, but we choose happiness just for itself, not for any other reason. Aristotle goes on to claim that what makes us happy is the exercise of our distinctly human function, which is the ability to reason.(5) And not just to reason, but to reason well, that is, excellently. (The Greek word areté, often translated as “virtue,” also means excellence.) Life is activity, so the happy life is an active one that is governed by reasoning well: “The human good turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue.”(6) (Again, read “excellence” for “virtue”, and nowadays we would say “mind” instead of “soul.”) Happiness is to be found in activity governed by excellent reasoning. The activities in life that were taken to be characteristic of an excellent man—and it was free men that Aristotle addressed, not slaves or women—were virtues such as courage, moderation, generosity, honesty and so forth. Aristotle has a lot to say about the nature of these virtues, which need not concern us here. The point is that Pigliucci is correct in saying that we are well advised to steer ourselves toward virtuous behavior because doing so will bring us a happy—that is, a flourishing or fulfilled—life.

But Pigliucci’s other assertion, that behaving virtuously is the right thing to do, misunderstands how rightness figures into Aristotle’s thought. The term “right” is ambiguous. It can mean to be in accordance with a moral law; that’s what we moderns mean when we speak of doing the right thing. But it can also mean to be appropriate or fitting, as when we speak of wearing the right clothes for a social occasion. Aristotle does speak of rightness. Famously, he says that virtue of character entails feelings and actions that are had or done “at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way….”(7) But “right” in this context means what is generally accepted and approved by Athenian gentlemen of the time, not what accords with what a moral rule dictates.

As Elizabeth Anscombe has pointed out tersely and Alasdair MacIntyre much more comprehensively, our concepts of moral obligation, duty, rightness and wrongness are holdovers from a conception of ethics that no longer holds much power; and, says Anscombe, those concepts are harmful without it.(8) That conception, which arose with Judaism and Christianity, is the idea of divine law, a legal code issued by God and to which all God’s creatures are subject. Certainly the idea is not dead. Lots of people believe in a law-giving God, and most of them insist that their idea of what God commands is the right one, an attitude that promotes much strife. But for many, perhaps most, others, the idea of God has little relevance, and Anscombe’s point is well taken. It is peculiar that Pigliucci uses “right” in this sense, because he devotes three chapters to debunking belief in the existence of God.

I have argued that confusing the concepts of goodness and rightness is harmful because it inhibits clear thinking.(9) I have also argued that it makes more sense to think in terms of goodness, but that is not my point here. My point is that it is a shame to see such an otherwise cogent thinker make such a basic mistake.


(1) Kant, “On A Supposed Right To Lie.”

(2) Meacham, “The Good and The Right.”

(3) Pigliucci, Answers For Aristotle, p. 72.

(4) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.7, 1097b1, trans. Irwin.

(5) Ibid., 1097b22-29.

(6) Ibid., 1098a16.

(7) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II.6, 1106b18-24.

(8) Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy.” MacIntyre, After Virtue.

(9) Meacham, “The Good and The Right.”


Anscombe, G.E.M. “Modern Moral Philosophy.” Philosophy No l. 33, No. 124, January 1958. Online publication as of 27 October 2015.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, trans. T. Irwin. In Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle, Fourth Edition, ed. S. Marc Cohen et. al. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011.

Kant, Immanuel, “On A Supposed Right To Lie Because of Altruistic Motives.” Online publication as of 19 November 2017. Also as of 19 November 2017.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Philosophy, Third Edition. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Meacham, Bill. “The Good and The Right.” Online publication

Pigliucci, Massimo. Answers For Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

From → Philosophy

  1. Bill, you provide an excellent contrast between deontology and consequentialism. However, it seems somewhat captious to condemn Pigliucci on his usage of the word “right” that he might not insist on in the way that you do.
    The “third way” of virtue ethics of course demanded citation of Alasdair MacIntyre, who at the end of his rightly famous After Virtue, suggests the possibility of Confucianism as a practical way to pursue virtue ethics.
    What I was hoping for in your review of Pigliucci was an evaluation of neuropsychology as a validation of virtue ethics, with possibly a contrast of this author with Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, who takes a similar approach.

    • Bill Meacham permalink

      Thanks for your comment. I have reviewed the Sam Harris book here: Pigliucci does a pretty good job of evaluating neuropsychology, as far as I can tell. The field changes so rapidly that it’s hard to keep up.

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