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Anger and Forgiveness"Are You There Alone?"10 Good Questions about Life and DeathA Casebook of Ethical Challenges in NeuropsychologyA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to Muslim EthicsA Cooperative SpeciesA Critique of the Moral Defense of VegetarianismA Delicate BalanceA Fragile LifeA Life for a LifeA Life-Centered Approach to BioethicsA Matter of SecurityA Natural History of Human MoralityA Philosophical DiseaseA Practical Guide to Clinical Ethics ConsultingA Question of TrustA Sentimentalist Theory of the MindA Short Stay in SwitzerlandA Tapestry of ValuesA Very Bad WizardA World Without ValuesAction and ResponsibilityAction Theory, Rationality and CompulsionActs of ConscienceAddiction and ResponsibilityAddiction NeuroethicsAdvance Directives in Mental HealthAfter HarmAftermathAgainst AutonomyAgainst BioethicsAgainst HealthAgainst Moral ResponsibilityAgency and AnswerabilityAgency and ResponsibilityAgency, 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How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
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."
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.
"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
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
2004 Ben Mulvey
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