What is the function of morality?
Let us ask a quasi-Aristotelian question: what is the function of morality? More generally, what is the function of norms in general—for a major and persistent mistake in ethics has been to treat morality as some very special realm of its own rather than a particular (if over-arching) realm of norms.
The function of morality is to permit human society to happen. To be a bit more precise, the function of morality is to manage the reality that we are mutually vulnerable beings with purposes. (Purposes in the ‘goals intended by us’ sense, not the ‘inherent directedness’ sense: if I mean the latter, I use the word ‘function’.) In fact, all systems of norms arise from us being beings-with-purposes.
The function of rationality is to manage acting to achieve goals (instrumental rationality) and that we have all sorts of goals and purposes (substantive rationality). The function of morality is to manage interacting with others, given we have goals and are mutually vulnerable. The function of law is to manage interactions within a political community. The function of courtesy is to manage simple, day-to-day interactions. The function of game rules is to manage certain sorts of highly structured fun/entertainment interactions. And so on. There is not a thing called “morality” which is off in its own realm. There is a whole realm of different levels of norms which all flow out of us being beings-with-purposes: beings that act to achieve certain things.
That morality arises out of our being mutually vulnerable creatures-with-purposes is why all human societies have morality of some sort or other. If we were not beings with some moral sense then, given our mutual vulnerabilities, we could not have much in the way of society at all. The moral orders of human societies do not come from discovering our “natural ends” but that we have ends and are mutually vulnerable (and dependant).
This is what I mean when I wrote that, in a sense, Thomist ethics are not a moral system at all. Thomist ethics treat the question of how are we to live (wise living) and how are we to get along (moral living) as if they are the same question: or, at least, as if they are answered the same way—live according to our natural ends. But they are not the same question.
The former is about dealing with ourself and our place in the world. The latter is about interacting with others regardless of how we answer the first question. A question that arises regardless of how many different answers to the first question are operating, or whether people even ask it.
If the issue is managing our agency in the context of our mutual vulnerability (and dependency), then we no longer are in the realm of deciding that there are proper and improper versions of the human beyond individual transgressions against that mutual vulnerability and dependency. We can deal with people in all their diversity much more readily.
But if managing human agency is at the centre of morality, and one does not acknowledge that openly, then one ends up doing it surreptitiously. For example, Feser writes in The Last Supersitition:
Natural law theory does not entail that every frustration of nature’s purposes is a serious moral failing. Where certain natural functions concern only some minor aspects of human life, a frustration of nature’s purposes might be at worse a minor lapse in a virtue like prudence. But where they concern the maintenance of the species itself, and the material and spiritual well-being of children, women and men – as they do where sex is concerned – acting contrary to them cannot fail to be of serious moral significance. (p.149)Which is an argument grounded in human purposes passed off as an argument grounded in final causes. Thomist ethics claim that the social element of morality is manageable by the fact that we are naturally social animals, so our natural end is to conform with what that requires. We are social animals, but such handwaving is hardly sufficient. Thomists use our social nature to smuggle in the moral function.
Thomists hide behind allegedly “objective” facts while deciding—as any moral system must—that some flourishing counts more than another. They just do it not as a matter of reciprocity, but by belittling the humanity of their fellow humans, thereby, of course, diminishing their own. (It is amazing how many alleged followers of Christ do not understand, let alone follow, His fairly clear teachings on such matters.) Worse, they do not do it to set boundaries to mutual trespass but to anathematise mere difference.
What is not legitimate is to use notions of human flourishing unconnected to the question of “how do we get along” to define the human. For once we accept a mechanism to “define out” people from moral protections independent of their actual transgression against such protections, such mechanisms can (and will) be used to “define out” others. Again, we see the invidious effects of overweening confidence in the ability of the intellect to directly apprehend the forms—and thus the key feature of the nature—of things in this attack on reciprocity. Reciprocity is central to the mutual protection function of morality, rather than the powerful or numerous oppressing the weak or scarce.
Contesting the human
It is obvious that the concept of human flourishing involved in Thomist ethics is highly selective about which facts count. Indeed, is clearly quite uninterested in inconvenient empirical data, for it is a concept of human flourishing based on a highly stylised and restricted selection of alleged facts about human flourishing. Rather than considering how people actually are—diverse in many things, including sexuality—it is decided how they “properly” are and all who do not fit are defined out of the properly human: along with any inconvenient facts. So, for example, human flourishing is defined so that the same-sex oriented, qua same-sex oriented, are excluded: indeed, are deemed to be required to be excluded by the demands of human flourishing. Their flourishing is not “proper flourishing” at all: so let’s burn them at the stake so as to prune humanity into the “properly human”.
For if our natural ends are not readily and reliably accessible, than they become both contested territory and a basis for claiming authority due to one’s “greater insight”: that one is in full possession of the moral truth and all who disagree are in error, and error has no rights for it is not operating to our natural ends.
Indeed, leads to the wicked notion that one should kill people horribly for engaging in the “wrong” form of sex. A history which is a perfectly fair matter to consider, for a moral system that claims to be dealing in “objective” moral facts is not in a position to complain about examination of the history of its operation, since the implications of an objective morality should be consistent across time.
Not that “sodomites” were even remotely the only victims of this grim logic. Heretics and witches received the same treatment. Just as the explosion in knowledge of the variety the natural and human worlds, and the workings of the natural world, worked to undermine confidence in Scholastic metaphysics, so the grim reality of the Wars of Religion and the looming menace of the Inquisition discouraged the notion that God was a good grounding for political order or that some group could prune the human with quite the enthusiasm Scholastic Inquisitors managed. As Montaigne observed,
… it is putting a very high price on one's conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.The historical record suggests that Thomist ethics, with their downplaying of human agency, the enormous significance given to how one defines what our natural ends are, and who claims to have such objective moral knowledge of human ends and moral truth, are not accidentally or incidentally oppressive but inherently and naturally oppressive. For if one is so confident that the intellect can directly apprehend determinative moral truth, then difference becomes wilful deviance. If one denigrates human agency so thoroughly, then difference becomes deviance without any recourse since individual judgements, desires and aspirations have no claim against “objective truth”. They only count if they “get it right”.
Hence, for example, the Catholic Church is in favour of “the family” in the same sense that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was in favour of “the workers”. It is in favour of the ones who do as they are told.
Monotheism is naturally inclined to the view that, not merely is truth coherent and consistent (that is, in some important sense, singular), but that there is a single authoritative point of view on the truth. It is prone to the view that those who put themselves in the way of God take on His authority and so step outside human epistemic frailty. Thomist thought regularised this tendency into a grand metaphysical system. One possessed the truth and so could prune the human in the name of this possessed truth.
It was natural for thinkers to turn to concern for human agency in reaction to the Inquisition and the wars of religion. Hence the importance of Thomas Hobbes changing the subject of political (and moral) philosophy away from what God thought, what God ordained, what followed from the needs of Godly order or what grand metaphysics claimed and to the question of what are we actually like? And, given what we are actually like, how can we get along without all this mass slaughter by those who think they Know God’s Point of View—yet cannot agree what that is (nor, of course, could He be directly and publicly consulted). Not to mention the odd burning people alive for what they think and publish. (Or, indeed, getting married: Montaigne is part of this shift in perspective.)
Working through the implications of putting what human nature is actually like (rather than allegedly ought to be like) and human agency at the centre of morality has been quite a process. But what it has not been has been a process that encourages human violence and cruelty. Rather the opposite. Not only has human slaughter and cruelty declined (particularly in the societies that have most embodied such views), it is those who have continued to deal in notions of proper and improper forms of the human who have engaged in the mass slaughters which disfigure modern times but—which contrary to common belief—do not make our period of history particularly murderous.
If we consider what the function of morality is, and grasp human epistemic frailty—including what a boon modern science has been to that frailty—then we can see how morality can evolve. It evolves since our knowledge, the range of our interactions and our sense of who is in the moral community, and what it is to be human, evolves. Moral change is not automatically moral decay—a movement away from an already apprehended objective moral reality—but can be genuine advance, a genuine improvement in moral understanding. (No guarantees, of course: we do not want to fall into the Modernist delusion that the new is always better; just an awareness that it can be, even much better.) The moves to declare first slavers and now torturers as being, like pirates, hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind, is just such a moral advance, an improvement in the functioning of morality.
Thinking about the function of morality also allows us to see how all the major approaches to moral philosophy are on to something. Morality relies on us having a moral sense, so moral intuitions matter. It is a reciprocal, interactive structure, so contract theory is on to something. It is about human agency, so liberal views identify key points. It is about managing what people want, so utilitarianism is also onto something. It is necessary for society to exist for morality to have authority to function, so critics of simple emotivism are on to something. And so forth.
Divine command ethics, not so much: apart from the various standard objections (such as Mill’s objection that the concept of the good will not be exhausted by any set of divine commands), as I noted in a previous post, we no more need God to ground morality than we need God to ground grammar or games.
What consideration of the function of morality also does not support is the notion that we are defined by the good, or some definition of the good, as Thomism holds. That there are always moral questions of dealing with conflicting goals that cannot be wished away by reference to natural ends: that being a good x is not the same as it being good to be a good x. But setting boundaries to the properly human can be—however oppressive, indeed murderous that might be—very useful for some.
How, after all, do priests get their authority? They get their authority by acting as “gatekeepers of righteousness”: deciding who is “in” and who is “out” of the moral community, how and why. For priests, systems of taboos are very useful. They:
(1) establish the authority of priests as morally authoritative guardians of moral truth;
(2) give people markers of membership of the community of the virtuous; and
(3) define people those who publicly uphold the taboos can look down on and project any cathartic anger from the burdens of the taboos against.
The sexual taboos of traditional Christianity perform all those functions quite nicely. Hence, even if husband and wives are technically engaging in the same sin as same-sex couples when they have orgasms from sex not procreative in form, adherents can feel effortlessly virtue against the same-sex active, as they have no desire to have sex with members of their own sex and so are giving up nothing in despising such folk as evil and unGodly. So such lofty contempt, genteel condescension or active hatred can be very cathartic, discharging any emotional burdens the structure of taboos have placed on them by projecting their negative emotional burden onto these ready-provided scapegoats.
Not that the taboos need to be sexual, but sexual taboos have an emotional charge that is certainly useful. With the rise of a visible gay community, gays can now perform the same role that Jews used to: an identifiable “other” who can be derided as dangerously corrupting and hateful to God in their practices yet are a small minority that can be accused of pernicious power. So one gets Catholic apologists (and others) treating equal protection of the law for “sodomites” as the same reductio ad absurdum of liberal modernity that treating Jews as equal and legitimate citizens previously was. Thomists in particular have a long history of supporting denying equal protection of the law to religiously suspect categories of people which their current opposition to equal protection of the law for the same-sex attracted is just a continuation of.
A thing reveals its nature in its history.
In other words, it is quite appropriate that a queer-hating, Jew-hating, misogynist is the patron saint of preachers. There can be emotional power from harnessing and twisting people’s moral sense: particularly by tying it to our sense of, and concern for, status.
(Are there some similarities to how political correctness—the combination of evangelical niceness and opinion bigotry—operates? Of course there are.)
This is, I would argue, why “Christianity Lite” seems to lose ground compared to stricter denominations—abandoning the sexual taboos undermines the authority of the priests as reliable sources of authoritative moral truth, lessens the marks of membership and deprives members of people to feel cathartically, contemptuously virtuous against.
It is also where the metaphysical epistemic confidence of Thomism is so useful. It provides a grand metaphysical scheme to support such taboos—one, moreover, people can even claim is not “religious”, so good grounds for public policy or when otherwise arguing with different-believers. Its normative essentialism is particularly useful, since it justifies citing those bits of reality which support one’s case and dismissing those which do not as aberrant, deviant, immoral, etc.
That the normative essentialism of Aristotle himself led to quite different conclusions on a whole lot of issues than Thomist ethics (such as on infanticide, abortion, contraception and slavery), one can just draw veil over. Though, if there was any intellect which was going to correctly apprehend the forms of things—and the natural ends flowing from them—one would have thought it was Aristotle. And if, apparently, he could not quite manage it, why would anyone else be expected to?
But hey, to get to be even cleverer than Aristotle, what a buzz!
For, just as monotheism is inherently inclined to the notion that there is a single, authoritative, point of view on truth (which the metaphysical epistemic confidence of Thomism works just fine with) as distinct from a single reality partially apprehended, it is also inherently inclined to the notion that sex is deeply problematic. Since sex—apart from procreation—is something that starkly differentiates us from the One God (who, unlike the gods and goddesses of polytheism, and the spirits of animism, is not overtly and actively sexual). Hence all the monotheist concern about nudity, sexual sin, and so on. The normative essentialism of Thomism works particularly fine with that, since it just declares sex as having a single end (reproduction) and dismisses everything that does not fit with that as moral dross. Even if it ends up at some variance to where the normative essentialism of Aristotle took him: but he was not operating off the same religious presumptions, and that demonstrably made a difference to what conclusions are drawn. Which it should not do, if this really was a method for revealing “objective moral facts” embedded in the structure of the natural order to be found “by reason alone”.
Combine the notion that there is a single, authoritative point of view on truth with sex as inherently problematic and one naturally gets the misogyny of monotheism. Since possession of that authoritative point of view turns out (surprise, surprise) to be a male monopoly and women get tainted with all the difficulties of sex. (Along, of course, with men who “taint” themselves by acting like, or “in place of”, women.)
Misogyny that Aquinas was just fine with too, as it happens: his discussion of sexual sins is quite big on differentiating transgressions on the basis of the harm done to the man responsible for the woman. (Raping a widow is less of a sin than raping a virgin daughter or wife since the latter also attacks the rights of her father or husband, as the case may be. Questions such as whether a lone woman may have less support, whether it destroys the marriage, how supportive her father might be and so on would give far too much credence to human agency.) His position that two men having sex are committing a graver sin than a man raping a woman fits right in. Just as does Martin Luther (highly trained medieval theologian) calling contraception “far more atrocious than incest or adultery”. If natural ends are morally determinative, then crimes against them do count more than crimes against people: indeed, they count as more important than people because it is they, not respect for people, which are morally determinative.
We might say Aquinas was a man of his time. Yes, exactly. Moral understanding evolves because our intellect does not directly apprehend the forms of things, does not directly apprehend or infer their ends and morality is not about following a single, static-for-all-time set of natural ends. The problem with Thomist ethics is that it is simply wrong: and noxiously wrong at that. But, it is also—in harnessing and twisting moral sense to the service of priestly authority and religious doctrine—terribly, terribly useful.