Remembering an Aristotelian Radical: Henry Veatch and Rational Man

In Aristotle’s eyes, ethics does not begin with thinking of others; it begins with oneself. The reason is that every human being faces the task of learning how to live, how to be a human being, just as he has to learn how to walk or to talk. No one can be truly human, can live and act as a rational man, without first going through the difficult and often painful business of acquiring the intellectual and moral virtues, and then, having acquired them, actually exercising them in the concrete, but tricky, business of living.

Henry B. Veatch, Rational Man

Henry Veatch was a radical. He was so in the sense of that word’s etymology—namely, he was concerned with getting at that which formed the root of things. He was also a neo-Aristotelian-Thomistic thinker that practiced the techniques of what in the 20th century was called analytic philosophy. He was highly concerned to analyze what people presupposed in their arguments and what they meant by crucial terms. In many respects he applied this very technique to such analytic philosophers as G. E. Moore, Gustav Bergmann, and W. V. O. Quine, as well as to pragmatists such as Richard Rorty. He dared to suggest that despite their brilliance, these thinkers, and many like them, failed to appreciate fully the insights of Aristotle and Aquinas—insights which he thought provided guidance in dealing with fundamental philosophical questions and problems.

Veatch was our mentor. Neither of us actually took a class from him, but we spent long hours with him at his home and elsewhere. Henry was both a critic and promoter of our own work, but more often the latter. He was a rock star at the American Catholic Philosophical Association (ACPA) meetings when we were both graduate students at Marquette University. Henry was not Catholic, and neither were we; so perhaps the interest in the Aristotelian/Thomist tradition as “outsiders” brought us together. In any case, Henry took us under his wing back then—as he was willing to do for anyone interested in that tradition—and we remained loyal to him then as now. It is fair to say that we both broke our teeth on Rational Man. And while we read everything else we could get our hands on by Henry, this particular book holds a special place, though not for just sentimental reasons but for intellectual ones as well. As Douglas Rasmussen notes in his preface to the Liberty Fund edition, this book manages to do what few others are able to do—transcend the gap between novice and expert and appeal to both. Henry was interested in fundamental ideas and wished to discuss them with whomever was interested. In this regard, his writing style is highly understated. The ideas seem simple enough upon first reading, but reflection impresses upon one their power and importance.

As the preface to Rational Man makes clear, the approach Veatch proposed in the 1960’s to natural-end virtue ethics constituted a major alternative to utilitarian and Kantian ethical theorizing. It still does so today. Though interest in virtue ethics has grown since the publication of the Liberty Fund edition in 2003, it has also been the case, with a few exceptions, that this approach to ethics has generally been expressed in either communitarian or constructivist terms: the communitarian expression being one in which individualism is treated as atomism, and the constructivist expression being one in which moral character of obligations is grounded in human thought, not human nature.

From the perspective of Rational Man, however, such developments fail to take note of the truly radical character of the approach to ethics found in that work. In fact, all of Veatch’s central works in ethics offer, for those who want to follow his line of thought, the foundation for an ethics that espouses individualism without either atomism or egoism; objectivity without impersonalism or dogmatism; and practical wisdom without rationalism or constructivism. This is an ethics that sees responsibility as the fundamental existential fact from which ethics starts. [1] It is a process Veatch calls “a-do-it-yourself-job,” and one in which the moral perfection of the individual human being is the aim of human living. This is without a doubt a major alternative to much contemporary ethical philosophizing.

Neither Communitarian nor Atomistic

Contrary to the communitarian assumption, Veatch’s approach to ethics holds that there is no incompatibility in human good being both highly individualized and profoundly social. Contrary to the constructivist assumption, his approach holds that there is no sufficient reason for assuming that eudaimonia (human flourishing) cannot be grounded in the nature of individual human beings. Of course, much of the basis for the communitarian assumption is grounded on the unnecessary equation of individualism with social contract theory—an equation Veatch rightly rejects not only in Rational Man but also in his other works, especially Human Rights: Fact or Fancy? Further, much of the basis for the constructivist assumption has been the dogma that goodness cannot be “defined” and accordingly that there is an alleged ontological gap between what is and what is valuable. In Rational Man and in his later work, For An Ontology of Morals, Veatch tackles explicitly this assumption—the so-called naturalistic fallacy—and he provides a basis for showing that this assumption is without foundation. Moreover, as many (for example, Philippa Foot in her Natural Goodness and us in The Perfectionist Turn) have argued over the last decade, the case for a biocentric natural teleology is quite strong. Speaking of a living thing’s natural end can be justified by a realistic, but not a reductionist, account of living things. There is nothing spooky or anthropomorphic (or anthropocentric) about it, and Veatch agrees with this approach to natural teleology as well.

Veatch sees human beings as part of a natural order that is not ultimately constructed by humans but is nonetheless knowable and open to human flourishing. So then, maybe, the most basic insight from which Veatch’s challenge to contemporary ethical theorizing stems is found in this comment by the Elizabethan divine, Richard Hooker, which as noted in Douglas Rasmussen’s preface was one of Veatch’s favorite quotations: “That which doth assign unto each thing the kind, that which doth moderate the force and power, that which doth appoint the form and measure of working, the same we term a Law.For Veatch, it is ultimately the nature of the individual human being that provides the standard or measure for determining the morally worthwhile life, and this is the ultimate sense of “law”—not commands, conventions, or practices, regardless of their source—that is expressed by the words “natural law.”

In the last fifteen years, there has been a flurry of research and discussion over the nature and prospects for human happiness or eudaimonia. An entire field of psychology—so-called Positive Psychology—has largely developed during that time, but much of the literature has questioned the power and efficacy of human reason and the mistakes people make in reflecting upon and pursuing their own happiness. Daniel Kahneman comes to mind here, but numerous others have also given reasons to be pessimistic about the achievement of eudaimonia. Although more philosophical than psychological, it is clear from reading Rational Man that Veatch is actually an optimist about eudaimonia. This may be at least partly because the teleological dimension that we are drawn to our own well-being remains In Veatch while absent from many other approaches to eudaimonia.

Daniel Kahneman reminds us also of how much of an attack upon human reason as being accurate and efficacious has taken place in the last decade and a half. Errors of judgment, in reasoning, and in inference, not to mention a litany of prejudices, all seem to characterize the human agent whether in psychology or behavioral economics. Yet, such studies are really beside the point that Veatch is advancing. It is not that Veatch believes that human beings are not capable of these errors or cannot often be characterized by them. Rather he has a more expansive notion of reason which includes the ability to discover and correct such errors in a way that puts human reason in the service of our flourishing and not as an impediment to it.

Reason and Flourishing

Human reason in service of human flourishing is the central theme of Rational Man. As Rasmussen noted in his preface, for Veatch, human flourishing

consists in our living in accordance with a “rational principle”; and “rational principle,” in turn, is to be understood broadly as intelligence: intelligence that may be applied to art, craft, science, philosophy, politics, or any area of human endeavor. Such living includes capacities possessed by other animals, such as those for pleasure and health and many other things as well. Our distinguishing characteristic, our capacity to reason and choose, characterizes the modality through which the development of these other faculties will be successful.

What makes the development successful is that “the rational principle”—in this case, practical wisdom—determines the proper weighting of the goods and virtues of human flourishing. This is not dictated by an abstract consideration of human nature alone (as constructivism would have it), nor is it merely the result of one’s participation in community life (as communitarianism would have it). Instead, such a weighting is only achieved by individuals using their own practical wisdom to discover the proper balance (or “mean”) for themselves as they actually live their lives. It is the ability of the individual to discern, in particular and contingent circumstances, what is morally required at the time of action, and it is the insight of this central intellectual virtue that transforms the use of reason into wisdom.

Veatch often remarked that there is a difference between having what it takes to live well and living well. Though he certainly would not dismiss empirical studies of human flourishing that attempt to measure the development of the capabilities people need for flourishing, he would rightly insist on a difference between the development of people’s capabilities and the exercise of their own practical wisdom. It is the deployment of the latter that is central to what constitutes one’s flourishing.

In sum, we can say that Veatch has offered in Rational Man and his other works a way of understanding ethics that celebrates both the individual and the importance of the self-perfecting life. This celebration is based on his thorough-going realism—a realism that rejects the temptation to make reality simply a human construction but also a realism that holds that human knowing, achievement, and flourishing are possible, if we will but exercise those virtues that make us rational animals.

[1] Veatch’s central works are noted in the annotated bibliography of the Liberty Fund edition.