Desiring the Good

Desiring the Good: Ancient Proposals and Contemporary Theory, Oxford (2017), intro chapter penultimate (pdf).

In this book, I take seriously the claim that agents want their lives to go well. This central Aristotelian intuition is largely absent from contemporary appropriations in the theory of action. I argue that this absence is a deep and far-reaching mistake, one that can be traced back to Elizabeth Anscombe’s influential proposals. Still, I am sympathetic to Anscombe’s project. Like her, I engage with ancient texts as a philosopher interested in agency.

I begin with a defense of a certain way of doing ethics, inspired by Plato’s Philebus. Ethics, I argue, asks: “what is the good?” I start out with a version of this question, namely: “what is the good for human beings?” This question leads—via the notion of good-for and via its relatum, human beings—into psychology, epistemology, and metaphysics. After laying out what I call a broad conception of ethics (chapter 1: A Blueprint for Ethics), I turn to NE I and the premise that the good is the good human life (chapter 2: The Good and the Good Human Life). I draw on Plato’s arguments about the nature of value in the Euthyphro (chapter 3: Disagreement, Value, Measure) and develop my own account of good as good-for (chapter 4: The Long Goodbye from Relativism). The premise that the good is the good human life is a cornerstone of Aristotelian ethics. And yet it is absent from Aristotle-inspired approaches in the theory of action. I aim to remedy this by putting forward my own version of the Guise of the Good. I distinguish between small-scale particular actions, mid-scale actions or pursuits, and the largest-scale desire to have one’s life go well (chapter 5: The Guise of the Good), and then zoom in on the role of pursuits in human motivation (chapter 6: The Nature of Pursuits). Finally, I turn to the metaphysics of the domain of action, arguing that the widely accepted view that situations in which we act are particulars is only half the story. The domain of action is governed by for-the-most-part regularities—otherwise ethics and rational decision-making would be impossible (chapter 7: The Metaphysics of the Sphere of Action). The position I end up with is Aristotelian in this latter respect: I embrace Aristotle’s notion of for-the-most-part regularities and their role in agential thinking. It is Anscombian in the way it reaches out to psychology and philosophy of mind. And it is inspired by Plato, insofar as on my reading the Philebus, the Euthyphro, and the Symposium put forward compelling ideas about motivation and value that cannot be found, or that are highly implicit, in an Aristotelian framework. I conclude with remarks on what follows from all this for the prospects of Guise of the Good theories, contemporary appropriations of ancient ethics, and the analysis of small-scale/particular actions.

“Vogt proposes a new way to orient our thinking about Aristotle’s ethics and ethics more generally. Her invitation to construe Aristotelian ethics as a theory of human motivation rather than practical reasoning is refreshingly different from the emphasis by scholars in recent decades on questions about practical reasoning in Aristotle and on well-worn debates about the nature of and relation between virtue and happiness in ancient ethics.” Susan Sauvé Meyer, University of Pennsylvania

“Vogt’s method resembles that of modern thinkers who have drawn on Aristotle as a resource to inform contemporary virtue-ethics and eudaimonism, though she herself carves out a different line, which does not fall neatly into these categories. The book has an original and arresting thesis, which is stated and argued with clarity and in an engaging way. The book is challenging, intellectually, and is in this sense a demanding read, but is not especially technical and is sometimes disarmingly straightforward in its claims.” Christopher Gill, University of Exeter