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Eros and the GoodReview - Eros and the Good
Wisdom According to Nature
by James S. Gouinlock
Prometheus, 2004
Review by Ben Mulvey, Ph.D.
Nov 24th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 48)

Since the publication in the late 1950s of Elizabeth Anscombe's "Modern Moral Philosophy," which offered a critique of dominant academic approaches to philosophical ethics, there has been a resurgence of interest in the "problems of living" that preoccupied ancient philosophers.  We have seen the publication in ever increasing rates of books and articles concerned with an approach to ethics somehow grounded in the real stuff of human reality.  A glance at the list of books reviewed on the Metapsychology web service will attest to this.   Books on virtue ethics, evolutionary ethics, and the empirical foundations of happiness and normality are frequently reviewed.  Though not obviously a work in ethics per se, Eros and the Good: Wisdom According to Nature falls squarely in this philosophical trend toward a serious engagement with what some have called the "art of living."

For Gouinlock the questions of moral philosophy "are questions of the nature of man and the world, questions of the nature of the human condition" (19).  He explains the reference to eros in the book's title by identifying his intended audience as "those who have been stirred by the quests of classic philosophic writings."  They are "seekers of wisdom and virtue.  Such is the erotic philosophic spirit, wherever he might be found" (12).  The author's immediate concern is that he is "haunted by the belief that American civilization is in a perilous state of decay, which advances insidiously—like cancer."  Thus, for him, a realistic awareness of the sources and requirements of moral wisdom is of vital importance.   To avoid such wisdom is to be threatened by "massive calamity" (14).

The book (363 pages) is divided into ten chapters, with an introduction, bibliography, and index.  Gouinlock's preface sets the stage by suggesting that as far as wisdom and the moral life are concerned, academic philosophy has drifted off its traditional Socratic course and needs something of a course correction.  In chapter one, "Introduction: Moral Appraisal," the author first analyses the miserable state of contemporary moral philosophy and academia generally, condemning philosophers for being unable to offer anything useful to those seeking wisdom.  These inquiries are currently in a state of near and total neglect.  "This failure," says Gouinlick, "is due to the peculiarly leaden state of the academic mind" (19).  The worldly wisdom necessary for discerning realistic ideals involves an intimate knowledge of human beings, their evolutionary development, and their social world.  Acquiring wisdom from such knowledge is a complicated affair.  According to Gouinlock, too many contemporary philosophers err in assuming "that we must commence normative deliberation already in possession of moral foundations."  They have it turned around such that they believe "universal principles, moral ideals, and foundational convictions…are consequent to long labors, experience, and judgment—not antecedent to them."  In other words, meaningful philosophic appraisal entails a sympathetic and experienced analysis of the possibilities and limitations of human conduct" (35).

It's not the case that all philosophers have pursued the wrong course.  Chapter two, "The Cosmic Landscape," gives "an account of the attempts of several philosophers to know better from the most comprehensive standpoint" (36).  Here Gouinlock culls important insights from the major lights in the tradition of those seeking wisdom in the most meaningful sense, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Dewey, and Santayana.  Plato's contribution was to show that nature alone is not sufficient for the realization of human virtue.  An "educative" polis is required as well.  The tradition of philosophy that Gouinlock admires is more or less a development of this idea.  Chapter three, "Worldly Metaphysics," continues this discussion and is largely a reconstruction of Dewey's naturalistic metaphysics which Gouinlock believes "draws our attention to crucial and pervasive features of the world…which we neglect at our peril" (66).  As admiring as he is of Dewey's work, Gouinock's discussion is not uncritical.  He points out limitations in Dewey's work, claiming ultimately that Dewey's treatment of virtue is inadequate.

Continuing to develop the analysis in ever increasing levels of concreteness, chapter four, "By Nature," offers an account of what Gouinlock means by a moral philosophy according to nature.  Although he claims that nature is "decidedly normative" (91), Gouinlock does not attempt to resurrect theories of natural law.  Gouinlock explains that although the universe has no moral order, "nature has established local and temporal orders that provide guidance and power in the conduct of life" that can be used to "clarify and enrich the moral life" (91).  'Nature' refers to human beings' "dispositions, ends, or patterns of conduct" necessary for their well-being deviations from which generally "meet with frustration, failure, and even disaster" (97).  Thus nature in this sense offers normative guidance.  For example, telling the truth and keeping promises are practices that are universally necessary for community life (111). 

Throughout Eros and the Good Gouinlock stresses that morality makes social order possible and thus is essential for human survival.  In chapter five, "The Moral Order," he analyzes some of the constituents of a moral order, showing how they function as parts of a more inclusive environment.  Morality is examined as the forms of conduct necessary for the preservation and prosperity of associated life rather than thinking in terms of theoretically derived principles.  Individuals are necessary for the existence of a society, just as their own good is dependent upon a social order.    Continuing with this theme, chapter six, "Justice and the Division of Moral Labor," is an account of justice, duties, and rights as instruments for sustaining and enhancing a moral order, rather than as disembodied principles.

Chapter seven, "Priorities," discusses the life of eros wherein our common and passionate tendencies to self-indulgence are taken as most subversive of a vigorous moral order and the achievement of ideal goods. Here Gouinlock takes up a discussion of hedonism and how it leads to social mediocrity.  Echoing the point he made in the book's preface, relying heavily on an Aristotelian analysis, he reiterates the point that contemporary American culture in particular is already in a rather advanced stage of decay, primarily because of our own self-indulgent hedonism insufficiently checked by individual or social constraints.  In chapter eight, "Custom and Morality," Gouinlock defends morality according to custom, which for him means evolved adaptations in the human struggle for survival.  The problem for us is that the "modern cosmopolitan state is not a unitary customary regime" (237).  "The herd instinct is our ally" (249) as long as we avoid bureaucratic leveling encouraged by many social forces.

In the book's last two chapters, Gouinlock turns his attention to the higher pleasures or what he calls "ideal goods, ideal ends" (261).  Chapter nine, "Uncommon Goods," explores the nature of the erotic life through an analysis of Plato and Nietzsche, the scientific ideal, the virtue of integrity, and the ideal of a completed life.   Chapter ten, "Meanings," concludes the book.  In it some of the ways life can have meaning within the framework of nature are characterized.  Our contemporary struggles with Nihilism and the benefits of a spiritual life are explored.

Mental health diagnoses, as well as medical diagnoses for that matter, are value-laden.  That is, concepts of disease, illness, neurosis, and psychosis identify deviations from established norms.  Norms of health and well-being are historically charged concepts and can be quite controversial.  So it is always helpful to receive a book in which insights into the characteristics of 'well-being' are clarified.  But Gouinlock clearly has a social/political agenda.  The topics he takes up more or less define the contemporary American conservative political platform:  "the tax collector is insatiable" (219), entitlements (221), faith-based initiatives (220), "the self-righteous morality of the 1960s" (223), the decline of the family (224), the "effeminization of the military" (255).  The ideological undercurrent running through the book makes it impossible to dismiss the author's polemical claims as mere hyperbole. 

The author sometimes presents a caricature (see page 213) of a political position that one might identify with the left, or feminism, and dismisses it with an insult.  I can't remember the last time I heard someone insulted by being called "unmanly" (279).

The book is a veritable who's who of social conservatives from Robert Bork to James Q. Wilson.  Gouinlock defends and lauds his intellectual heroes and identifies and condemns his intellectual villains.  Consider this representative claim.  "There are many politicians who are morally despicable, most of them on the left" (226).  There is no evidence offered for this claim, no footnote.  One wonders how such a calculation was made and what criteria of despicability were employed.  These sorts of claims are a distraction from the main argument and a deviation from the general tack of the book which is to be critically engaged with philosophical and scientific forbearers and traditions.  Eros and the Good is generally an erudite book, but its philosophical significance is weakened by the author's decidedly polemical commentary.

 

© 2004 Ben Mulvey

 

Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Division of Humanities at the College of Arts and Sciences at Nova Southeastern University.  He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University specializing in political theory and applied ethics.  He teaches ethics at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network. 


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