Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (2), ethics

This is the second part of my review of Edward Feser’s Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide following on from my previous post.

Feser’s discussion of Aquinas’s ethics is where the previous implied claim that being a good x can incorporate it is good to be a good x becomes very important. That being a good triangle does not mean that it is good to be a triangle is not a Thomist distinction. For Aquinas’s ethics, like his epistemology, flows directly from his metaphysics. For Aquinas:
... natural law (as his conception of morality is famously known) is “natural” precisely because it derives from human nature, conceived of in Aristotelian essentialist terms (p.174).
Thomism is not merely a system of descriptive essentialism, it is a system of normative essentialism. In other words, the good is in being a good x. And thus objective facts built into the nature of the universe.

None of Hume’s “is-ought” distinction here as Feser explains:
… a badly drawn triangle is not a non-triangle but a defective triangle. It also illustrates how there can be a perfectly objective, factual standard of goodness and badness, better and worse. To be sure, the standard in question is not a standard of moral goodness. But from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, it illustrates a general notion of goodness of which moral goodness is a special case (p.176).
The good is an objective implication of the essence of things.

Philosophers’ jokes about medieval philosophy being substance abuse suddenly make a lot more sense.

And if one does not realise that this talk of proper and defective triangles implies notions of proper and metaphysically defective humans, then you are not paying attention. If one is wondering where the Vatican gets its notion that the same-sex attracted are metaphysically deformed (are “ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” and thus “objectively disordered”), this is where. This is a metaphysically-grounded ethics that deems the properly human to be smaller than the set of actual humans: that is what normative essentialism means. Post the Holocaust, deeming the properly human to be smaller than the set of actual humans has a certain moral burden which seems to pass Feser by. Yet the implications were clear enough to be bluntly published in Aquinas’s own century, let alone our side of the Holocaust.

The next step is the notion of living things having ends that constitute their flourishing:
There are certain ends that any organism must realize in order to flourish as the kinds of organism it is, ends concerning activities like self-maintenance, development, reproduction, the rearing of young, and so forth; and these ends entail a standard of goodness (p.177).
This displays both a very strong epistemic confidence we know what those ends are as well as an “objective” standard that does not incorporate any input from the agency of sentient beings. On the contrary, it is a standard by which the operation of that agency will be judged, and to which it is deemed as being required to conform, and against which human thought, feelings, aspirations, etc have no claim: indeed, no role in establishing ends.

A standard why? Because of the facts of the matter about what constitutes flourishing:
For they simply follow from the objective facts about what counts as a flourishing or sickly instance of the biological kind or nature in question, and in particular from an organism’s realization or failure to realize the ends set for its by its nature. The facts in question are, as it were, inherently laden with “value” from the start. … the goodness a flourishing instance of a natural kinds exhibits is “natural goodness” – the goodness is there in the nature of things, and is not in our subjective “value” judgements about them (p.178).
So, the system rests on epistemic confidence that we know the nature of things, we know what constitutes flourishing of something—the ends to which it is naturally directed—and that flourishing is sufficiently the same for all instances of a particular type of thing (and, indeed, aspects of that thing) to set such standards. Knowing all this, we can see that preferences that fail to conform to those ends are objectively wrong. Hence the relentless disinterest in the downside of these principles for people that is notable in Thomist commentary on, for example, homosexuality. (Indeed, this is a logic which in past centuries held that it was fine to burn people alive for having the wrong form of sex or getting married.)

All this talk of flourishing and natural ends seems terribly straightforward: even apparently scientific. So, for example, sex is for procreation, marriage is for rearing children and societies that have same-sex marriages (as plenty have) are simply metaphysically mistaken.

Except, whatever we may call that last view, ‘scientific’ is not it. It is not something discovered by observation paying attention to phenomena in question and drawing our classifications from it. We are not acting like a human child, nor like a scientist, working out how the universe works by testing and considering it. We are drawing out categories based on a theory of how the universe properly is, and dismissing instances that do not fit as metaphysical mistakes, errors or deformities. The rejection of Aristotelianism during the Scientific Revolution now makes more sense, does it not?

Here is another question. Why do we care about things flourishing? Why does it matter? “Because it is what constitutes flourishing” is no answer. All this has not abolished or evaded Hume’s point that we cannot infer an ‘ought’ from ‘is’, it has just moved it along to another point. After all, when we kill a pig, smoke its leg turning it into ham and then eat it, we are paying no attention to the pig’s flourishing and the natural end of the pig leg (carrying the pig around) except to satisfy our own culinary desires: that living beings have things that constitute their flourishing does not answer the question of why it matters, nor the question of which flourishing counts (or not), when and why. That natural ends exists hardly seems to abolish the moral function of judging between ends. But a standard to judge between natural ends hardly seems to be one established by natural ends.
If we say that, as rational beings, our ends count more than a pig’s that is all very well, but why? It is not in the having natural ends, nor in them being natural ends. After all, the natural ends of our genitals (procreation) count more than our wishes—so that a man giving his wife a sensual massage is doing a fine thing, but if he adds in oral sex to the point of orgasm, that is immoral—so us merely being rational beings clearly does not give us status against natural ends of mere parts of our own body. So why against a pig and the natural end of the pig’s leg?

In case we have missed the very limited status given to human agency in this theory, Feser spells it out what Aquinas means:
By “inclination” he does not necessarily mean something consciously desired, and by “natural” he doesn’t mean something psychological deep-seated, or even, necessarily, something genetically determined. What he has in mind are rather the final causes or natural teleology of our various capacities (p.178).
These ends thoroughly trump what we may wish:
What is genuinely good for someone accordingly, may in principle be something he or she does not want, like children who refuse to eat their vegetables, or an addict convinced that it would be bad to stop taking drugs. For Aquinas, knowing what is truly good for us requires taking an external, objective, “third-person” view; it is a matter of determining what fulfils our nature, not our contingent desires (p.180)
Which gives enormous power to those who get to define “what fulfils our nature”.

If that is merely “an objective fact”, then they are just “readers of truth”: if not, something very nasty is going on. Remember, after all, what Aquinas’s order was generally in charge of.

Three categories of goods are defined by Aquinas as inherent in our nature: those shared with all living things, those common to animals specifically and those specific to us as rational animals. This is not a conception exactly naturally friendly to human diversity. Nor which seems friendly to a deeply textured concept of human nature. But these goods are powerfully determinative for:
What is good for us is necessarily good for us because it follows from our nature (p.182)
Our ends are metaphysically compelled. The intellect apprehends and the will acts. Including God, who acts according to ideas existing in the divine mind. Aquinas thereby evades the “Euthyphro objection” to religiously based ethics that either God wills something because it is good (which thus exists independently of God) or it is good because he wills it (however appalling it is).

To this concept of natural goodness Aquinas adds the principle that when we act we do so to achieve something that seems good to us. (Von Mises and Austrian economists in particular would be happy with this principle.) We so act because:
Like every other natural phenomena, practical reason has a natural end or goal to which it is ordered, and that end or goal is whatever the intellect perceives to be good or worth pursuing (p.184)
Which is what seems to be a fairly self-evident notion cast in terms of Aquinas’s metaphysics. A rational person will perceive what is good for him and so a rational person will pursue that good. Hence, for example, the only moral sexual acts are those that pursue the end of sex, which is procreation.

Feser summarises Aquinas’s position as based on the following argument:
(1) If I want what is good for me then I ought to pursue what realizes my natural ends and avoid what frustrates them.
(2) I do what is good for me.
(3) I ought to pursue what realizes my natural ends and avoid what frustrates them.
A conclusion which has categorical force because, given our nature, (2) has categorical force (p.186). Which turns morality into fundamentally an issue of correct metaphysical realisation of our nature. Where the universe is so harmoniously constructed that the correct pursuit of our natural ends can be entirely encompassed within the moral order. Since it is part of our nature to be social beings: an end, which correctly construed, precludes serious disharmony. The question of “who should we live?” and the question of “how do we get along?” thus become the same question. If we live as we should live, we will get along. (And those who do not fit, are clearly not doing it right.)

Human agency that correctly realises its natural ends will act upon them and so is fine. Human agency that fails to realise its natural ends will act incorrectly and so is not fine.

Clearly, an approach that denies legitimacy to serious diversity in human nature, since such diversity would rather get in the way of an ability to “read off” generically our ends in a usefully determinative way. This is very much an error-has-no-rights approach, as error is deemed to be objectively determined. Just as Aquinas has a metaphysical epistemology, he also has a metaphysical ethics. (I will have more to say about Thomist ethics and its implications in two later posts.)

The role of God
As Feser explains, for Aquinas, the natural law sits between the eternal law—the order or archetypes in the mind of God whereby God orders and governs the universe—and human law—laws to deal with contingent circumstances (such as specific rules of property)—and divine law (given by revelation)—also historical and contingent (since it changed according to different stages in the process of revelation) but infallible and absolutely binding (Pp187-8).

Feser is very clear on the role of God in the ethics Aquinas outlines. God is our ultimate end but this, of itself, does not have any specific ethical implications:
A natural law theory with Aristotelian metaphysics but without God is not false but it is not the whole truth either. It is, we might say, a study of the “proximate ground” of ethics, just as natural science is the study of the proximate or secondary causes of observed phenomena. Still, in morality as in science, a complete account must necessarily be a theological one (p.192)
Hence Aquinas avoids any of the difficulties of divine command ethics.

But God is our natural end, where we find true happiness. The Kantian notion of people being ends-in-themselves or self-legislators:
… would sound mad or even blasphemous to Aquinas, for whom God alone, as the “first cause and last cause of all things”, could possibly be said to be the source of moral law and an end in himself (p.192).
But that is the problem with the Philosopher’s God: he is the first and last cause of everything—good, bad and indifferent: hence the importance of our natural ends in Aquinas’s philosophy.

If we consider the function of morality in human societies, we can see that morality arises out of our being mutually vulnerable creatures-with-purposes. This is why all human societies have ethics of some sort or other. If we were not beings with some moral sense, given our mutual vulnerabilities, we could not have much in the way of society at all. That is true whether or not God exists. Indeed, it is true of all the enormous range of human norms. Ethical rules are a functional necessity for society as much as rules are a functional necessity for games and grammar a functional necessity for language. We no more need God to ground ethics than we need God to ground games or grammar.

And if human ethics do not vary as much as games or grammars because our mutually vulnerable agency puts more constraints than the possibilities of games and grammars, still they do vary quite a bit. To say moral rules evolve out of human agency is perhaps not quite the same as Kant’s notion of self-legislators or being ends in ourselves. But it does mean the Philosopher’s God is not, in any interesting sense, a moral legislator. We can and do argue about morality, but it seems a very dubious notion to say in response to moral diversity that some societies are closer to God’s morality than others: especially given Western civilisation’s own bloody experience of arguments about moral and social order grounded in such ways. (A particularly egregious instance of which is the notion that it is an objective moral fact that the only moral way to achieve a deliberate orgasm is unimpeded penile-vaginal sex within marriage, an "objective moral fact" that seems to have eluded every other human society known to history and anthropology.)

Indeed, given the long term historical tendency to less violence and cruelty, if God is our final end, we seem to be evolving towards Him not by relying more on some sense of God-given morality, but by our widening sense of the worth of human agency. After all, countries that claim to be operating according to God’s will—and so are very restrictive of human agency—are some of the most oppressive places on Earth. Not despite being so restrictive, but because they are.

But this, is of course, the power of Thomist ethics. Since it claims to be established by reason, it avoids direct subordination to religious claims and so can argue directly within the secular arena. Indeed, a full Thomist such as Feser can do so more readily than, say, John Finnis (who I discussed here and here), whose commitment to the absolute moral superiority of “unitive sex” is rather more exposed as simple religious dogma parading as something else by not being grounded in a full metaphysics. And yet, Scholasticism still has the historical burden of the Inquisition and the Vatican’s repression of Jews (the Papal State being the last European polity east of Tsarist Russia to enforce confining Jews to ghettos prior to the Nazis: a moral system which regulates the intimate details of married pepole’s sex lives has no difficulty justifying restrictive actions against those who were taken as denying fundamental truth). That is, of a long history of justifying denying equal protection of the law to the religiously suspect, just as various forms of contemporary Thomism are currently at the forefront of opposition to equal protection of the law. Given Thomism’s downplaying of human agency, this record of oppression looks less than entirely accidental.

Feser concludes his lucid study of Aquinas with:
For Aquinas, we are not here for ourselves, but for the glory of God, and precisely because this is the end set for us by nature, it is in him alone that we find true happiness. And, it must be emphasized that, as with the other themes we’ve explored in this book, he takes this conclusion to be a matter, not of faith, but of reason itself.
Therein lies the sting of Aquinas’s challenge to modernity (p.192).
But, the period since Scholasticism was largely abandoned has seen an enormous expansion in human knowledge, human capacities and human life expectancy as well as a dramatic long-term decline in human cruelty and violence and a widening sense of membership of the moral community.

Reason must take cognisance of such powerful realities. We could equally say therein lies the sting of modernity’s challenge to Aquinas.

1 comment:

  1. Lorenzo

    I noticed that you mention the fact/value gap. Is this a distinct as you say or a dichotomy between the two?