Once More unto the Veatch
Human Rights: Fact or Fancy?
by Henry B. Veatch
LSU Press, 1985; xii 258 pp.
Henry Veatch was one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century, though sadly neglected by most contemporary analytic philosophers. He was a resolute defender of Aristotelian ethics against rival ethical systems, and in this week’s column, I’d like to look at an argument which he deploys against these rivals in his book Human Rights: Fact or Fancy?
The argument is this. A system of ethics must offer a convincing answer to the question “Why be moral?” Answers to this question must meet two requirements, but the requirements seem difficult to meet at the same time. Only Aristotelian ethics has an intellectually satisfying answer.
For Veatch, then, moral motivation is crucial. He says,
When it comes to a question of justifying anything like moral “oughts,” rights, duties, and the like, the teleologists, or partisans of a desire ethic, do appear to have the jump on the deontologists. For is it not true that with respect to any and every moral judgment of whatever kind . . . is not the question “Why?” always and in principle pertinent. . . . In other words, in a desire-ethic, “oughts” and obligations are held to be always and in principle relative to and conditional upon what our human desires, ends, and purposes happen to be.
He reiterates this point:
And yet how else can any “why”-question with respect to an “ought” be answered, unless one appeals to some purpose or end that one wishes to attain thereby and in terms of which the “ought” becomes intelligible as being that which one needs to do if one is to attain such-and-such an end or achieve such and such a purpose?
The deontologists who oppose a desire ethic have a point too. “There is no discernible necessary or rational connection, be it in fact or in logic, between my liking to do something or my enjoying it and its being the something that I ought to do.”
Veatch goes further. The two principles to which he has appealed are self-evidently true:
Very well, I suggest that both of these principles, which I would say are fundamental to moral philosophy, can never admit of demonstration through outside evidence. . . . Instead, the only way in which principles such as these may be evidenced is t
Article from Mises Wire