Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Problems with the normative essentialism of classical natural law theory 1: Sliding usages and problematic boundaries

Ed Feser has recently published an (as is typical for him) admirably clear presentation of classical natural law property rights theory. I will be examining his claims and arguments in three successive posts, part of my continuing wrestling with classical natural law theory. (There is thus some overlap from previous posts: this is done so the arguments can be presented accessibly.)

I have no great quarrel with what he says about property rights as such. In particular, I agree that control is the first element in starting property rights, not some notion of “mixing our labour”. To put it another way, property rights start with economic property rights. What I do have much greater problems with (unsurprisingly) is the natural law moral framework, and the arguments he mounts for them.

First, let us consider various claims and arguments Feser makes.

In this passage:
It is of the essence or nature of a triangle to be a closed plane figure with three straight sides, and anything with this essence must have a number of properties, such as having angles that add up to 180 degrees. These are objective facts that we discover rather than invent; certainly, it is notoriously difficult to make the opposite opinion at all plausible. Nevertheless, there are obviously triangles that fail to live up to this definition. A triangle drawn hastily on the cracked plastic seat of a moving bus might fail to be completely closed or to have perfectly straight sides, and thus its angles will add up to something other than 180 degrees. Indeed, even a triangle drawn slowly and carefully on paper with a Rapidograph pen and a ruler will contain subtle flaws. Still, the latter will far more closely approximate the essence of triangularity than the former will. It will be a better triangle than the former. Indeed, we would quite naturally describe the latter as a good triangle and the former as a bad one. This judgment would be completely objective; it would be silly to suggest that we were merely expressing a personal preference for angles that add up to 180 degrees, say. Such a judgment simply follows from the objective facts about the nature or essence of triangles. This example illustrates how an entity can count as an instance of a certain type of thing even if it fails perfectly to instantiate the essence of that type of thing; a badly drawn triangle is not a non-triangle, but rather a defective triangle. At the same time, the example illustrates how there can be a completely objective, factual standard of goodness and badness, better and worse. To be sure, the standard of goodness in question in this example is not a moral standard. But from the point of view of classical natural law theory, it illustrates a general notion of goodness of which moral goodness is a special case.
Feser talks of goodness and badness of a triangle, when what he clearly means is how close a particular triangle is to the form of a triangle. But ‘closer’ and ‘further’ does not do much at all to get one to any objective moral standard since such can be applied to any category of thing, real or imagined. (That something is a good triangle does not make it good to be a triangle.) Using the same terms as are used in moral judgement does, however, allow one to slide from one usage to another. In particular, using the same terms makes it easier to slide from a descriptive essentialism (things have natures) to a normative essentialism (things have proper natures).

In talking of Aristotelian categorisation, Feser writes:
Aristotelian categoricals convey a norm, much like the description of what counts as a triangle. Any particular living thing can only be described as an instance of a species, and a species itself can only be described in terms of Aristotelian categoricals stating at least its general characteristics.
I have no great quarrel with the presented picture of how categories work. On the contrary, as we shall see, it would be good if Feser adhered to such an approach more completely. Particularly in matters of biology, given the fuzziness of categories in that realm: the “nature abhors a category” problem which the recent Caster Semanya case illustrated so dramatically.

My quarrel is with describing such Aristotelian categorials as a ‘norm’. They do not convey a norm in the wider sense of the term ‘norm’. They set a standard, but that is not the same. Norms are typically prescriptive, setting proper and improper actions, standards are not necessarily so. For example, age categories for school athletics, for example, are standards: they are not norms in the way courtesy has norms, for example. It may be a norm to compete in your age class but the markers of what constitutes an age class are not norms in that sense. They are standards to which norms are applied. Again, using the same term to cover both usages allows one to slide from one usage to the other. (If this is beginning to sound like the problem in John Stuart Mill’s famous argument for utilitarianism where he slides from ‘happiness is desired’ to ‘happiness is desirable’, hold that thought.)

We then move to the notion of natural ends and flourishing:
There are certain ends that any organism must realize in order to flourish as the kind of organism it is, ends concerning activities like development, self-maintenance, reproduction, the rearing of young, and so forth; and these ends entail a standard of goodness. Hence (again to cite Foot's examples), an oak that develops long and deep roots is to that extent a good oak, and one that develops weak roots is to that extent bad and defective; a lioness that nurtures her young is to that extent a good lioness, and one that fails to do so is to that extent bad or defective; and so on. As with our triangle example, it would be silly to pretend that these judgments of goodness and badness are in any way subjective or reflective of human preferences. Rather, they have to do with objective facts about what counts as a flourishing or sickly instance of the biological kind or nature in question, and in particular with an organism's realization of (or failure to realize) the ends set for it by its nature.
It is important to note that these ends, and the entailed notion of flourishing, are about being an agent but are not grounded in their agency. Indeed, they operate to trump the being’s own agency. Which, as we will see, is deeply problematic in both logic and implications.

We might also wonder why does flourishing matter? And whose flourishing? The flourishing of a virus is not a good thing. A prey is not keen on being sacrificed to the flourishing of a predator. The notion of flourishing does not get us very far, even without its “interesting” connection to agency due to placing such emphasis on ends, and not seeing such ends as gaining their moral importance from (human) agency.

It gets even more “interesting” when we realise the language used talks about a thing’s nature—including human nature—as if it is singular: as if there is a single human nature. This immediately makes human diversity potentially extremely problematic. With a singular notion of human nature, it then becomes an easy move to have a notion of proper and improper forms of the human. There are very dubious games being played here with generality and particularity, with categories and individuals, typing in ways that potentially exclude particular tokens. With how “hard” these categories are being defined as. (See previous point about Aristotelian categorisation as being a standard but not imposing rigid hard boundaries.)

As we shall see, Feser’s moving from ‘closer/further’ to ‘good/bad’ and sliding over individual-versus-general does noxious work here. For there are very real issues here about the difference between good for particular individuals versus good-in-general to which I will return.
The issue of sliding across different usages once again appears when Feser writes:
The persistence of teleological thinking within biology is perhaps most clearly evident from the way in which biologists describe DNA. Accounts of the function of this famous molecule regularly make use of such concepts as “information,” “code,” “instructions,” “data,” “blueprint,” “software,” “program,” and the like, and there is no way to convey what DNA does without something like them. But every one of these concepts is suffused with intentionality, that is to say, with the notion of a thing's pointing to something beyond itself in the way our thoughts do—in this case, to an organism's physiological and behavioral traits, including those determining the species or kind it belongs to. Of course, no one would claim that DNA molecules literally can be said to think. But the notion of something which points to some end or goal beyond itself despite being totally unconscious just is the Aristotelian notion of final causality.
‘Intentionality’ in the general sense of directedness is not the same as ‘intentionality’ in the sense of the much more specific sense of purposiveness. As I have noted previously, there is a difference between role
the role of this billiard ball in this causal sequence was to knock that other billiard ball into the side pocket as a result of being hit by a cue
billiard balls have the function of being part of a game of billiards
and purpose
his purpose in hitting this billiard ball with his cue was to knock that other billiard ball into the side pocket.
An asteroid striking the moon has a key role in the causal sequence that created a crater. A kidney has the function of processing and distilling liquid waste in the body. A kidney transplant has the purpose of replacing a failed kidney. One is an individual event, one is something embedded in a functioning (indeed, highly coherent) structure and one is a matter of conscious intent. Each higher level entails the ones below it: the reverse is not true. They may, in some sense, all be manifestations of intentionality in the sense of being directed to something: they are very far from being manifestations of the same sort of intentionality. Hence rocks do not have morality or moral dilemmas while humans do. For we are purposive in a way that rocks, for example, or bacteria, are not and bacteria are purposive in a way rocks are not. This is not an attack on the general notion of final causality in the Aristotelian sense: it is an attack on using the term ‘intentionality’ to slide across very different usages.

In particular, it is an insistence that we take the distinction between living and non-living seriously. That purpose, in the sense of living things have purposes, is not the remotely the same as the way non-living things, or bits of living things, have functions. Still less is it like the general way things have causal roles. The human cognitive bias to see motive and intention in things encourages us to blur these distinctions, so it is a matter of both analytical importance and some cognitive effort to not do so.

Feser can also be somewhat too hopeful about what the notion of human ends and human nature can achieve. Consider his comment that:
So, for example, if we consider that human beings have intellects and that the natural end or function of the intellect is to grasp the truth about things, it follows that it is good for us—it fulfills our nature—to pursue truth and avoid error.
This is a reassuring idea, but surely one of the major difficulties in human cognition is precisely our natural tendency to re-edit our own experience in ways which are consoling or self-encouraging. Feser’s statement seems to be taking human nature as it is held to ought-to-be rather than as it actually is. An ought that cannot be derived from how human nature actually is.

This sliding into a normative essentialism is well in operation when Feser writes:
For a variety of reasons—ignorance, stubbornness, irrationality, peer pressure, addiction, habituated vice, genetic defect, mental illness, and so on—people sometimes do not want what is in fact good for them, and even want what is not in fact good for them, their natural desire for the good being oriented away from its proper object. The fact remains that what really is good for them is defined by their nature as human beings, and thus by the sorts of biological and metaphysical considerations summarized earlier. Subjective feelings that would incline us to act contrary to our nature must themselves be judged defective, and must be regarded as something we have a moral duty to strive against and try to overcome.
Inconvenient aspirations can thus be dismissed as pathological. There is little doubt that the concept of natural ends are being set up to trump human agency. Which is odd, given those ends only have moral significance due to human agency. As ends they only make sense in the context of human agency; any serious notion of human flourishing must have the operation of human agency at its heart; and morality is about both protecting and constraining human agency.

Moreover, the considerations Feser raises here gain their plausibility from concern for enriching human agency, making it operate better. But operate better for particular individuals, not for some “ideal type” of human. We may have a sense of what would be better from our understanding of other people: but if that understanding is genuine, it is also an understanding of the reality of human diversity. No physician of body, mind or spirit treats an “ideal person”, they treat always a very specific person. It is in obscuring this reality that Feser’s earlier games with generality and particularity bear noxious fruit.

This is also a concept of natural right that does not merely stop where the rights of others begin. Indeed, it does not go that far, for it leaves no protection to those who are defined as falling outside the boundary of “proper” ends, as Feser makes clear when he writes:
Nonetheless, this freedom cannot possibly be absolute, for while there is much that the natural law allows, there is also much that it forbids as absolutely contrary to the human good, and rights only exist to allow us to fulfill the human good.
Which has the consequence of giving the definition of the human good enormous power.

Just how much the concept of natural ends trumps human agency can be seen by the greatest proponent of classical natural law thinking, St Thomas Aquinas holding same-sex activity to be worse than rape. This is a blatant manifestation of human agency being trumped by specific ends: and, indeed, by that of a mere organ of the body, a mere bodily part. The greater (an actual person) is judged to be of less significance than the construction put on the "natural ends" of a part of the body. All part of a framework where, due to the significance put on "natural ends" and a singular human nature, we are taken to be defined far more by the shape of our genitals than the structure of our psyche so that nature errs if it creates people whose psyches do not fit according to what is taken as being the defining shape of their genitals.

The ultimate grounding of morality is a genuine difficulty that philosophers have struggled with for centuries. Feser raises some good objections to social contract theories of morality:
... contractarian theories also famously face the problems of explaining (1) why we should attribute even conventional rights to the weakest members of society (who have nothing to offer the stronger parties to the proposed “contract” in return for being left alone) and (2) why we should suppose that even every rationally self-interested individual would sincerely agree to such a contract in the first place (since some might prefer to take their chances in a Hobbesian war of all against all, or opt for the life of a free-rider who benefits from others' abiding by the contract while he secretly violates it whenever he knows he can get away with doing so). Contractarians have offered various responses to these difficulties, which typically involve inventive appeals to various less obvious ways in which the strong might benefit from leaving the weak alone, or in which even a rational misanthrope might benefit from sincerely abiding by the terms of the contract. At the end of the day, however, the contractarian can give no rational criticism of someone who fully understands the benefits that would accrue to him by agreeing to the social contract and treating others as if they had rights, but nevertheless refuses to do so. The most the contractarian can say is, “Better keep an eye on that guy, then,” for he might do the rest of us harm. He does not do himself harm, though, on a contractarian analysis; and in denying others their rights, he does not deny them anything they really had objectively in the first place.
Apart from the objections Feser points out (which are entirely reasonable) contractarian theories clearly have fundamental problems, since the notion of contract surely presupposes some moral norm about keeping contracts (mere reputational prudence does not remotely suffice): which makes it hard for a social contract to be the grounding of morality.

If morality is not grounded in God or the nature of things, it has to be grounded in the needs of human existence and be possible to be followed due to existing human propensities. (One version of this sort of approach is Larry Arnhart’s Darwinian natural rights thinking.) This may make morality’s operation somewhat like a social contract without that being its founding basis, which would give social contract theories some plausibility without making them satisfactory.

The concept of a unitary human nature with a single set of human ends also shows it can be over-hopeful when Feser writes:
For the classical natural law theorist, by contrast, such a sociopath does do himself harm, and also fails to perceive the objective facts about others.
Obviously, the major problem with sociopathy is not that it is self-harming, but, as I am sure Feser agrees, its consequences for others. But part of the problem with sociopathy is that sociopaths are not likely to be unperceptive about others: alas, quite the contrary. They fail to put that perception in a moral framework, but that seems to be something rather more than a failure of moral perception: it is a failure to be moral in a more profound sense.

The picking and choosing what counts as human nature inherent in normative essentialism manifests in all sorts of ways, as, for example, when Feser writes:
If we look at the evident facts of human experience through the lens of an essentialist metaphysics, we can see that a certain measure of fellow-feeling is, like bipedalism or language, natural to human beings and, thus, objectively good for every human being simply by virtue of being human, whether or not certain specific individuals fail, for whatever reason, to realize this.
Including certain classical natural law theorists perhaps, where such touted fellow feeling does not extend with any substantive power to those who fail to conform to the conceived-in-a-singular-way human nature and its very specific set of deemed ends.

The reality that the classical natural law conception of natural ends trumps human agency in certain key respects is pointed to by Feser when he writes:
… since if each human being has certain ends set for him by nature, he not only could not legitimately use another person, but also could not use himself, for just any ends he happens to have—as it seems he could do if he could be said to be his own property.
Yes, that is indeed the implication.

The implications of ends-trumping-agency have quite wide purchase, as when Feser writes:
Furthermore, as is well known, classical natural law theory entails that large families will inevitably tend to be the norm, given what the natural law tells us with respect to sexual morality (though this is, again, not something there is space to get into here).
Large families will be the norm in the sense of being normal (common) or proper (what we should expect)? Either would appear to override parents making judgements about their circumstances. The classical natural law theory on sex is quite extensive in its trumping of human agency.

To summarise, in Feser’s explication of classical natural law theory, we have slidings across different concepts, a highly dubious singular conception of human nature, setting up of very strong and specific set of human ends and a conception of human ends that clearly trumps human agency. The notion of natural ends for humans is thus given enormous significance. Significance which would imply very reliable knowledge of the content of such ends, for any aspirations which fail to conform to them have no recourse: certainly not from respecting the human agency of the person who has them.

(The next two posts will work through more of the implications of all this here and here.)

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