Human Goods: Why Human Distinctiveness Matters (Morally)

In the anthropology department here at Notre Dame, there is a poster that says "Anthropologists want to know everything about our species." There is no corresponding poster in the theology or philosophy departments, but perhaps there ought to be. At least, that is one of the convictions of the Human Distinctiveness Project – that knowing more about the kind of creature we are can be profoundly informative, especially for areas of scholarly endeavor that haven’t always paid close attention to human nature.

Department Of Anthropology Poster

One of my areas of interest – ethics – has sometimes been guilty of this. A large part of that is due to the way we approach moral theory. The underlying principles and structure of our moral thinking are responsible for shaping what we think is (and isn’t) morally pertinent. In this case, the language we use when we talk about morality can affect whether or not we think human nature is important. In particular, I think it makes a big difference whether we focus our moral dialogue on human rights or on human goods.

First, what happens when we think of morality mainly in terms of human rights? We think that all humans have the right to life, freedom of religion, and freedom of movement. And we do not think that we need to understand our evolutionary past, genetic structure, or national histories in order to know that we have these rights. Knowing that humans have human rights doesn’t seem to depend all that much on knowing about humans.

I think this is because these rights are not, strictly speaking, human rights at all. Now, politically and legally they certainly are, but the moral question is something different. These rights are not ours because we are humans per se, but because we fall into some other category which humans (mostly) seem to inhabit. Possibilities for this category include personhood, rationality, the possession of a soul, consciousness, or sentience. To see this, think of the confusion over where the boundaries of human rights lie, at the end and beginning of life or even, in a recent court case, at the boundaries of our species. The question at stake is rarely ‘are they human?’ because that is often obvious. Instead we ask ‘are they persons?’

I have recently re-watched some of the X-Men films, in which a new super-powered ‘mutant’ species lives alongside humans. One of the themes of the series is how governments should handle the rights of two species living alongside one another. The heroes fight both against humans who want to kill or incarcerate mutants, and against mutants who want to destroy humans. They do this because they recognize what their enemies do not: regardless of the species they belong to (mutant or human) both sides are people and so deserve certain rights.

This is why I think some ethicists (and others) don’t always think as much as they could about human nature. Unlike the anthropologists with their poster, if you are interested in human rights you don’t need to know ‘everything about our species’. You just need to know that humans are persons (or rational, or sentient, etc.) and off you go. If we do this, though, I think we are making a mistake. Human rights are important; but if you are anything like me you probably don’t think about them much in your day-to-day moral life. Violating someone’s human rights isn’t typically a moral option for me. And (I hope) violating my human rights doesn’t really get much serious consideration from my friends and family either.

Instead, the moral questions I deal with tend to be much less dramatic. How much should I tip? Should I tidy up the kitchen, or hope my wife does it later? Who should I vote for (and should I bother)? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a wonderful document, but it doesn’t help me much with any of these. We could try to cover all of these situations with extra rules, I suppose. But we would end up with a list so long we couldn’t remember it, or rules so broad they wouldn’t be much help.

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So what happens with the other approach? I think that focusing on human goods does start to help with these problems. By asking if something is for my good, or for someone else’s good, I can consider a much broader range of moral questions. Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas both took this approach. But if you are going to do this, you have to address the fact that it isn’t necessarily obvious what my good is, either in general terms (what is a good aim for my life as a whole?) or in specific terms (what would be good in this situation?). To the latter, writers often stress the importance of prudence, also called practical wisdom – the ability to effectively judge particular contexts and situations. But in developing prudence, it helps to have an answer to the former question as well.

Ethicists who talk about human goods are therefore interested in what a good aim for a human life might be. And if you are interested in what is good for something, it is important to know as much about that thing as you can. This is why human nature and anthropology matters morally. By understanding humans as a species, we can start to understand the kind of things that matter to us and the needs that we share. Understanding human nature is part of understanding human goods. Evolutionary anthropology is particularly interesting in this regard, as it can help us to identify some of the characteristic features of our species – things that will be part of our lives whether we like it or not, because they are part of being human.

So, as someone interested in moral theory, I am also deeply interested in human nature and human origins. One of the great pleasures of working in a transdisciplinary group like the Human Distinctiveness project is the chance to pool very diverse areas of expertise, and to share (often very different) perspectives on questions that both of our disciplines care about


Further Reading
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Indiana, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).
Jean Porter, ‘From Natural Law to Human Rights: Or, Why Rights Talk Matters’, Journal of Law and Religion 14.1 (1999), 77–96.