Saturday, February 27, 2010

Considering Thomist ethics (2)

Following my two part review (here and here) of Edward Feser’s Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, this is the second part of an examination of Thomist ethics arising out of that following on from my previous post.

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.

Morality evolves
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.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Considering Thomist ethics (1)

In two previous posts (here and here) reviewing Edward Feser’s Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide I noted that Feser summarised the key elements in Aquinas’s ethics as follows:
(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. This is a notion of the good as something immanent in the nature of things, not some Platonic perfection imperfectly reflected into a flawed universe. But it also a notion of the good which is, in an odd sense, not a moral one, since it is not about an authoritative mechanism for dealing with varied people interacting and having incompatible goals. Instead, pursuing natural ends is held to create practical issues law has to deal with, but not moral issues as such: for if there is a moral standard to judge between natural ends, then natural ends are not setting the moral standard.

Moreover, there is a hidden move. For (2) should read:
(2a) I do what I judge is good for me.

So the argument should read:
(1) If I want what is good for me then I ought to pursue what realizes my natural ends and avoid what frustrates them.
(2a) I do what I judge is good for me.
(3) I ought to pursue what realizes my natural ends and avoid what frustrates them.

The original (2) downplays human agency. (2a) makes its reality clearer. Though the downplaying of human agency involved is still not fully revealed. For the purposes we chose are deemed to be valid only if they align with the ends immanent in human nature. That is, our chosen purposes are only morally kosher if they conform appropriately to the ends we are for, that we are held to be naturally directed to. We are conduits for immanent causation.

There is also a missing premise in the argument:
(0) Realising my natural ends is good for me.
That is, realising the ends immanent in our nature makes us a good person. By being a good instance of a human, we become a morally good human: one who acts morally. (Remember all that stuff about what makes a good triangle? This is it applied to humans.) Except of course, the notion of good for a triangle does not make a lot of sense. But triangles do not act, they just are. So does a notion of being a good instance of an x applying to an inanimate thing really translate usefully across to people as beings-who-act?

So the argument becomes:
(0) Realising my natural ends is good for me.
(1) If I want what is good for me then I ought to pursue what realizes my natural ends and avoid what frustrates them.
(2a) I do what I judge is good for me.
(3) I ought to pursue what realizes my natural ends and avoid what frustrates them.

Notice that (3) is an instrumental “ought” applied to my own good. How does that become a general “ought” so that it is good (as a general moral standard) for me to be a good instance of a person? (As distinct from an instance of a good person?) How indeed.

Leaving aside that fascinating question for the moment, even in the instrumental sense of good-for-me, (3) only follows if I can judge what those natural ends that are good for me are. So Thomist ethics requires a strong confidence in the easy accessibility in realisation of what our natural ends are. Note, it does not require perfect or infallible accessibility, just that these ends are determinable fairly readily. For, obviously, if it was hard to determine what those natural ends are, then that would turn morality into both an intolerable burden (how can we expect people to keep to moral obligations which are mysterious or hard to determine?), not conducive to any strong sort of order (since there would be much flailing around in moral indeterminacy) and no useful determinative way to do what is good for me other than what seems good for me: hardly an objective, built-into-the-nature-of-things, measure of action.

Now, as discussed in my above-cited review of Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide, Thomist metaphysical epistemology—with its notion that the intellect directly apprehends the forms of things that exist—entails a very strong confidence in the ability of the intellect to directly apprehend how the world is that the collapse of Aristotelian physics—along with being confronted with a dramatic range of quite different conceptual schemas from other societies and civilisations—fatally undermined. It is perfectly reasonable to hold that matter needs structure to exist. But what the mind apprehends when it categorises things is a highly abbreviated take on such structures which—as the failure of Aristotelian physics illustrated—does not, of itself, lead to more than limited, and quite possibly erroneous, understanding. Our thoughts need structure to exist as much as things in the world do: but there is no necessary connection between the structures in the world and the structures in our thoughts.

Epistemic frailty
There is a persistent tendency for the natural law approach to ethics to presume a knowledge of the ends of things that the practitioners simply did not have but presumed they did. This includes St Paul on human hair, St Gerard on what is appropriate work for a women and Aristotle and Aquinas on the nature of money and charging interest. The comment by Oliver Wendell Holmes that:
The jurists who believe in natural law seem to me to be in that naive state of mind that accepts what has been familiar and accepted by them and their neighbors as something that must be
accepted by all men everywhere
seems very apposite. Such as the “objective moral fact” that the only permitted deliberate orgasms come from unobstructed penile-vaginal sex within marriage: an "objective moral fact" that no other human society or civilisation managed to discover.
The problem is that it is easy for someone operating on such normative essentialism to pick on those elements of phenomena that are convenient, dismiss all others as wrong, deformed, illegitimate, subordinate, or otherwise not relevant, and draw conclusions accordingly: something that is as much a problem for Aquinas and Aristotle as less intellectually celebrated adherents. The claim that there is an identity between the form of something in the world and in the intellect provides a basis for the very strong level of epistemic confidence required. But, as the failure of Aristotelian physics indicated, this is a quite unwarranted confidence.

It is, of course, particularly easy confidence to have if one is simply ignorant that other societies have other ways of doing things. (Many of the opponents of same-sex marriage, for example, seem entirely ignorant that many societies had various forms of same-sex marriage.) But that is the problem with Thomist ethics: it absolutely relies on the natural ends of things to be readily accessible. Which appears to rather too often to be simply not the case, leading to reasonable suspicion that such natural ends do not exist in quite the way alleged.

The Thomist notion that we directly apprehend the forms of things in our intellect—and so can directly apprehend the ends of things—not only entails a very singular notion of the nature, the essence, of things. (For, if we are importantly varied in our nature, that is unlikely to be directly apprehended simply from form: the implications of such variance even less so.) It also involves a singular notion of the natural ends of things—something able to be directly grasped and then straightforwardly inferred from. So the end of sex is procreation and only sex that serves the end of procreation is moral. Leading to the conclusion that if a man gives his wife a sensual massage, that a legitimate expression of love and intimacy. But if he adds in oral sex to the point of orgasm, that is wicked (indeed, the same sin as two men or two women having sex together: engaging in sex not directed towards its natural end of procreation).

Now, this is a view of sex one expects theorists to come up with. Missing lots of the point by focusing on the one aspect their theory says is terribly important. But if sex is not defined merely in terms of the end of procreation, if its other functions (catharsis, pleasure, intimacy) are treated as legitimate manifestations of sex, then what the husband did is just fine: indeed, very sweet. But such a multiplicity of functions (of ends) is hardly suggests that apprehending form leads to apprehending some definitive natural end, nor that there is a determinative-end making “objective” moral facts. For then human agency becomes central as the chooser between legitimate ends, none of which is determinative. In the case of varied functions, there is no determinative thing to judge we should be pursuing.

Without this notion that the intellect directly apprehends the forms—and thus can directly infer the singular determinative end of things—we would look at how sex actually is in nature, note that it is used for many purposes, and not wilfully decide that only one function “counts” and all others, except insofar as they serve that one function, are dross. The former is how an approach grounded in how things actually are would proceed, not via some inferred presumption about how things should be and call that “objective morality”.

Once again, the metaphysical epistemology of Aquinas leads thinking astray. Just as our expanding knowledge of the basic structures of the world undermined modern physics, so our expanding knowledge of biology, psychology, anthropology and so on undermines the epistemic confidence that we know the ends of things by directly apprehending their forms. We can see a bodily organ or feature (such as a kidney) has a function without knowing its evolutionary history, but the evolutionary history (in the sense of comparative analysis in the light of evolution) of an organ or bodily feature can certainly expand our understanding of its function: the appendix being a case in point; or the pattern of human hair or the role of sex in nature or the functions masturbation fulfil, and so on. It is precisely because our intellect does not directly grasp how things are in a way that allows easy inference to all the relevant features of the function of things that biology, psychology, anthropology and so forth are genuinely revealing. Aristotelian ethics regularly falls into error about defining functions because it presumes an epistemic confidence that is both unwarranted and needed to make it work.

Not that this problem is likely to strike Thomist thinkers, since they have their key ethical conclusions foreordained. The great thing about normative essentialism for a religious philosophy is precisely that one can select the convenient parts of phenomena and dismiss inconvenient ones as improper, aberrant, deviant, subordinate or whatever. This minimises the risk one will reach conclusions in conflict with Church doctrine.

Of course, that to outsiders a moral philosophy keeps conforming to Church doctrine is a suspicious and troubling feature of it. To a believer, however, it just confirms that his or her faith is "in possession of" the truth.

If human agency is central to morality, then what the husband did in pleasuring his wife is fine. It is due to human agency being subordinated to the deemed definitive and singular natural ends of our genitals that there is a problem (according to Thomist ethics). Which is the other end of the difficulties with final causality “smoothing out” important distinctions. If final causality means inanimate things, action and processes are too easily described in ways that imply intention not merely intentionality—that is it obscures the difference between living and non-living by making non-living things too like living things—it also obscures the difference between sentience and non-sentience by turning people into instruments of biological processes. A husband is not allowed to orally pleasure his wife because that is not what genitals are “for”. The denigration of human agency is very clear.

And more: this is how natural ends get to define the human, including defining people out of the realm of the properly human—by elevating natural ends over people, and the purposes people chose to have, for the ends are the morally determinative things.

I have no particular problem with descriptive essentialism. Indeed, some form of it seems clearly true. Human society, let along the studies of the human, would be impossible without regularities in how people are: that is, without there being human nature. Things could not exist without structure and we could not act in the world without discoverable commonalities of structure with causal significance.

But normative essentialism—defining the properly human as being smaller than the set of actual humans in a way that delegitimises said excluded humans—is a wrong and wicked doctrine: one whose logic is inherently oppressive, indeed exterminatory. It is no accident that normative essentialists—when they talk of sexual sin—typically use the term ‘sodomy’, which both invokes and justifies the notion of God-the-virtuous-exterminator. The homicidal elevation of the procreative end—and thus creating homicidal taboos about the form of sex—is how the notion of virtuous extermination became embedded in Western civilisation.

Nor does descriptive essentialism require normative essentialism. In particular, it does not require that we define people according to a particular concept of what constitutes flourishing. On the contrary, descriptive essentialism would say we look at how people actually are, and work from there. Not from some defining concept of what humans ought to be like, with those who do not fit within that treated as various levels of human dross.

If one is same-sex oriented, then
(0) Realising my natural ends is good for me.
clearly includes integrating one’s sexual nature into one’s sense of self, rather than constantly being at war with it. One of the many inconvenient bits of reality that Thomist reasoning ignores is the very large amount of evidence that, if one is same-sex attracted, doing that greatly increases one’s happiness and, often, integrity in a straightforwardly moral sense: the only thing pathological about same-sex attraction is the belief that it is pathological. Abandoning that belief is the road to psychological health, making it utterly different from genuine mental pathologies.

Of course, one does not wish to say the same of those who, for example, are sexually aroused by children. But that just points to the moral function of managing human interaction. Saying we “should” have a certain nature is no solution. It does not solve the “how should we get along?” question at the centre of morality as a social phenomenon. The answer is not “they should have a certain nature” but “abusing children is wrong”: a truth that is a moral one, not a result of natural ends embedded in the nature of things. The wrong of abusing children is not in failing to follow natural ends, it is the wrongness of abusing others made worse by children’s vulnerability and the capacity for damage. The extent of the attack on the victim's agency is central to its wrongness. But if one puts it like that, the monstrousness of the brutal (if fitful) persecution of the same-sex oriented is also clear, and clearly wrong.

It is reasonable ask if being steeped in an approach to ethics that degrades human agency so thoroughly made it easier for Catholic hierarchs to treat protection of the authority of the priesthood as more important than protecting the children in their care. Ideas have consequences.

The problem is not saying that some people are defective: we are all defective in some sense because none of us is perfect. It is not even in saying that some people are defective in morally problematic sense (e.g. sociopaths and psychopaths). But such people are morally problematic because of their propensity to behaviour that is damaging to others: actions whose condemnation is basic to moral systems. It is holding that some people are defective in such a way their experiences, feelings, hopes, aspirations and so forth are simply discounted in themselves, not because of some actual transgression against, or direct danger to, others from them. In other words, not for moral reasons to do with human interaction and reciprocity but for essentialist reasons, based on a conception of the properly human that excludes actual humans and fundamentally denies reciprocity.

A key problem is the way Thomist metaphysics classes us as a rational animal. The notion of ‘rationality’ involved is a very dry and Appollonian rationality in which the Dionysian is a hostile, unnatural and thus dubious (or even evil) intrusion. Hence none of the sense of the cathartic power of sex. This is not a deeply textured view of human nature: another example of the overweening epistemic confidence that apprehending forms allows us to apprehend nature (even our own).

Not enough commonality
The sort of criticism one sometimes sees that same-sex attraction threatens the procreation of the human race (an odd criticism to be made by adherents of a religion with celibate priests, monks and nuns) makes some sense if one sees it as a manifestation of the notion that human nature is, and ought to be, singular. To anyone with the simple ability to observe the reality of human diversity, the argument makes no sense. But it is revealing of underlying presumptions—that human nature is properly singular so difference has to be understood as (1) deviance and/or (2) as if it is making a statement about everyone’s nature.

But if people are legitimately varied in nature, then nature is not a singular moral standard. If things have varied functions, then their “natural ends” do not provide determinative standards. Nor does apprehending form allow us to infer ends. There are lots of reasons for Thomist ethics to view the same-sex attracted as the people who should not exist.

If these morally determinative ends are inherent in our nature—and the intellect can so readily apprehend how the world is (or, at least, how we are) as it needs to in order to make the system work—then we would expect to see a high degree of commonality in morality across human societies.

Which we do, but not sufficient to sustain Aquinas’s claim. C. S. Lewis famously gleaned common moral notions across human societies. What he almost entirely left out are questions of sexual morality, because these vary enormously. As do conceptions of gender (a not unrelated matter). In fact, on the matter of same-sex activity, societies tend to cluster at two points:
(1) it is a part of how people are, so we will just accept and incorporate that (often including forms of same-sex marriage): the position historically generally taken by animist or polytheist societies; or
(2) such people should not exist, kill them: the position historically generally taken by monotheist societies.
Such clustering makes sense, for if such attraction is not to be violently repressed, then it is a legitimate manifestation of the human and such folk are entitled to equal protection of the norms. Hence the movement in the Anglosphere from capital crime to same-sex marriage in less than 150 years: there is no stable stopping point in the middle.

Of these responses, response (1) is one based on morality-as-reciprocity, a response as an inclusive net of mutual regard and limitation. Response (2) is a power response, based on denigration of the humanity of others, which denies and attacks such mutuality and reciprocity.

As for identifying common patterns in moral judgement, moral psychologists, such as Jonathan Haidt, have done lots of research on human moral intuitions and judgements. These also do not support the view of morality that Aquinas puts. Even if Haidt's work does identify mechanisms Thomist rejection of same-sex attraction use, they also show that such mechanisms are "free floating" and apply equally to any system of taboos.

What such research generally supports is a view of morality much more centred on human agency. After all, if morality is objective, a matter of how things are, then research into how things are should provide good support for the “objective” morality of Thomism (yet, somehow, not be needed to make such ethics work). Of course, Thomists are likely to take what endorses their views, and dismiss the rest as irrelevant aberrations. But that is precisely the problem.

[This will be continued in my next post.]

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Resource curse or resource trap?

This is an expansion of a comment I made here.

The notion of a “resource curse” was largely kicked off by a 1997 paper (pdf) co-authored by Jeffrey Sachs. It has become a fairly established part of the literature, appearing in papers and books from a variety of perspectives including property rights analysis (pdf). It has informed my own thinking and commenting on matters.

The notion of a resource curse is now being challenged. Including on the grounds that:
… it uses dependence (the share of GDP from that resource) and calls it abundance (the stock of a resource in the ground). But dependence in turn depends on institutional quality—if you have sound institutions, natural resources take their place along other industries. If not, natural resources will by default constitute a large share of GDP because poor institutions stifle an advanced division of labor. When you look at cross-sectional data using dependence as a proxy for abundance, it will look like natural resources compromise institutional quality.
In the discussion on the post quoted above, a comment was made positing the idea of a resource trap that countries could fall into, rather than a curse as such.

I like the idea of a resource trap, because there does seem to be something going on. Australia was, for example, a significantly richer (per capita) country than the US throughout the C19th and early C20th. We adopted a “Deakinite” policy model aimed at (rural) exploiting resource-exporters for urban (union and manufacturing) interests via protection and wage arbitration. The long-term economic results were not good (though not disastrous either, due to the strength of Australia’s basic institutional structure). Australian economic performance (particularly Australia’s comparative economic performance) has improved markedly as that policy system has been largely dismantled.

Comparing the oil-rich theocracies (Saudi Arabia, Iran) of the Middle East to the effect of silver on Iberia, particularly Spain, from the C16th-C18th, there are some strikingly similar patterns: autocracy, de-commercialisation, aggressive religious obscurantism. We forget that medieval Spain was a pioneer of parliamentarism (giving merchants representation via elected delegates was a Spanish, not an English, innovation: the English copied it later). The flood of silver from the Americas undermined both parliamentarism and what had been a highly commercial society by giving the Crown the financial power to buy off/ignore commercial and other interests that the Dutch and English were forced to incorporate into their political processes. The Spanish Crown could also be as religiously obscurantist as it liked: which turned out to be quite a lot–after all, it provided a way of sorting who was “in” and who was “out” (how to be “in”) when it came to handing out the goodies.

A comment by an Iranian intellectual shows just how live an issue such patterns are today:
Oil is the greatest hindrance to democracy in all oil-producing countries. Instead of promoting the development of these societies, oil, this gift from God, has held them back. Because we don't work. We just devour the money. If the state had to live off my money, it would have to consider my demands. But when money just falls into the lap of a state, that state doesn't need its people. We need the state but it doesn't need us. We are beggars of the state, we devour its bread. So no class can develop that's independent of the state. Civil society and democracy require the separation of state and society. To create a civil society that has influence and can hold its own against the state, we need free enterprise. But we don't have that. Instead, 85 percent of the economy is controlled by the state. That's our weak spot. And not just ours. We share it with all oil-producing countries.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Grievances make great assets

Grievances make great "assets". A grievance is something you deem to be a wrong done to you and which you still feel as an emotional burden. There may be continuing real burdens from this wrong, but the essence of a grievance is that you feel it as a wrong. That the emotional burden of it weighs on you.

Grievances make great "assets" because, if you are determined to keep a grievance, no one can force you to give it up. A grievance is yours, something to keep polished and vibrant in a bright memory of the past where you are the wronged party and so forever in the right. For the past cannot be changed: only how you think about it can change, and only if you choose to do so.

But if you act as if your grievances are among your most precious assets, then there is very little anyone else can do. They cannot take your grievance from you, unless you choose to give it up.

And the more precious a grievance is to you, the more frightening it is to give up. For then you have to move out of the endless loop of the remembered past where you are forever in the right. You enter a realm of uncertainty and responsibility. You might even have to deal with that past not being quite as you remembered it.

In some ways, it is even better if the grievance has continuing effects. Because, then any steps to deal with them can add to the sense of monstrous unfairness. You can remain inside your pain, endless consoled by how in the right you are and how in the wrong they are.

Then the question arises, how much of your pain is from what they did and how much is from the burden of grievance you have laid on yourself? That can be a frightening question: not least how much you have made those who did you wrong the captains of your soul.

For there can be great pride in grievance: the pride of being forever in the right, forever being the wronged party. To lay aside the grievance is to lay aside that pride. But is not to make someone who wronged you so the captain of your soul an act of false and destructive pride? The pride of delusion: not the respect of, and from, truth.

Yes, a grievance can be a great “asset”: something that is yours, yours forever, that no one can take from you. But assets are also burdens, and what can be a greater burden than to make those who have wronged you the captains of your soul?

ADDENDA A nice post on the frailties of human memory (via).

Friday, February 19, 2010

Regimes have their own logic

This extends a comment I made here.

Rhetoric is how a leadership communicates publicly with its supporters and reaches out to undecideds. The trick is to work out what it is communicating.

In the case of the recent statements by Iran's Supreme Leader, it is pretty clear. The ideology of the regime remains unchanged and the US is still the Great Satan: that is, the Great Tempter, the great source of all the corrupting distractions of the modern world. Given the democratic anti-regime agitation within Iran, this is more true, not less: since full democracy gives sovereignty (which belongs to Allah) to the people. (Hence opponents can be hanged for the "crime" of "enmity against God".) The US notions of separation of church and state, of female equality, religious freedom, open sexuality and the legitimacy of the pursuit of happiness are all affronts to the fundamental principles of the Iranian regime.

For the regime to be conciliatory is to imply that the Great Satan has its positive points. This would undermine its position domestically, not strengthen it.

Whatever chance the Obama Administration's realist (in the international affairs sense) approach of engagement had (very little IMHO), it died as soon as Iranians began to make clear their rejection of the (patently) rigged Iranian Presidential election. It is not clear to me that the Administration has grasped this point. But, of course, this is always the weak point of realist analysis: it tends to take incumbent regimes as givens while not giving due weight to how foreign policy can be driven by the specific logic of a regime's nature rather than always being trumped by the logic of the state's geopolitical position.

In this case, the specific logic of the regime is that it is the instrument of Allah's sovereignty, which is universal. So its foreign policy is to promote acceptance of that sovereignty to reflect and maintain its internal legitimacy as the manifestation of that sovereignty. The Iranian regime has inevitable limitations, including being unable to evade the constraints of Iran's geopolitical position and the resources available to it. Nevertheless, the regime sees itself as a global player: in some ways as the ultimate global player.

There is nothing the US can offer the regime in any permanent strategic sense that it wants (apart from the US's submission to the sovereignty of Allah). The regime's push for nuclear weapons is the culminating military-power expression of its role as the instrument of Allah's sovereignty. What can the West offer Iran which would be worth giving that up? Which would be worth a state whose legitimacy is as the embodiment of Allah's sovereignty accepting indefinitely second rank status?

To ask the question is to answer it. Either the regime collapses or this is all going to end badly.

ADDENDA I have edited this post to make it clearer without changing the argument.

A short rant on education

This extends a comment I made here.

I remain amazed that when it is fairly clear that government production of food is a bust, government production of cars is a bust, etc there are still adherents of the notion that somehow government production of education is so terrific it should be The One And Only System.

Particularly as it would clearly reduce the total resources available to schools, since there would no longer been private income being added in.

One of the effects of private schools is to put more pressure to perform on public schools. The issue of “dumping” of problem students (and toxic kids are an issue) is due to the failure of government school systems to develop effective ways of dealing with them.

Why might that be? Not due to lack of resources, which have been going up over time, but to pretty dreadful incentives. Inevitable, when the regulator is also the main provider: a conflict of interest that does much to explain the generally poor record of government production. (Including a well-established tendency to falling productivity over time: which eats away at the effectiveness of the spending. A tendency that appears to apply to schooling, both in the US and in Australia [pdf].)

One reason parents like private schools is the sense of greater control, if only in the sense of picking a specific package rather than the generic model. A system where the main “input” is electing a parliamentary majority who will pick an education minister who will supervise a department responsible for both regulating all schools and administering some of them is not exactly a great control mechanism. But, of course, that is part of the appeal for those who wish to game the system.

For so much of this is not actually about inculcating skills but controlling the socialisation of belief (pdf). Hence the biggest providers of schooling after the state are religious bodies: hence also totalitarian systems do not allow private schools. While educational theory is an intellectual slum dominated by theories about how to, you guessed it, inculcate “appropriate” beliefs.

Remember, if a student screws up, the student pays the price. If a teacher screws up, the student pays the price. If a teacher trainer screws up, the student pays the price. If an educational theorist training the people who train the teachers screws up, the students pay the price. There are lots of bad incentives in education, and setting up a monopoly provider who is also the regulator is, as they say, not helpful.

The paucity of government-funded research on what makes for good teaching is another telling indicator. A vital issue, one would think, for governments who spend billions on schooling. But not so much, it turns out. Though a service-oriented NGO has done some interesting work.

The real solution to the problem of government schools is not to have any. To have a regulator who is completely independent because they are not running any schools.

Then we can fund students, not schools. We could pay premiums for students with educational disadvantages. We might even consider paying by results! (Adjusted for the profiles of the students.) Who knows what might happen then ...

ADDENDA: And the notion that an all-government system means everyone gets the same schooling quality is nonsense. Government schools from higher socio-economic areas tend to be better than government schools from lower socio-economic areas because the parents tend to be more education-motivated, lobby better, their children tend to be more pleasant and easier to teach. To the extent that areas with good schools acquire housing-price premiums.

Which goes back to the point that it is really about controlling the socialisation of belief combined with minimising accountability. With the latter having the added effect that the belief-set in question becomes whatever has captured teachers, teacher training and curriculum setting. If your belief-set has done that, then you really want a monopoly provider with minimum parental (or, for that matter) voter control, which is what an all-government the regulator-is-the-provider system delivers. Either way, eliminating private schools is about eliminating rival belief-sets from the education process.

FURTHER: A comment I made here:

Public primary education is a fundamental link between people and government, and schools are where civic education most often begins.
But often not in a good way. States and religious bodies are the biggest providers of schooling because they want to control the belief formation of students (pdf). People who are against private schooling are typically so because they want to eliminate rival belief sets in education. (The claim that it is about “equality” is a nonsense; government schools vary enormously and inevitably in quality because, given a standard model, the demographics particular schools draw on will profoundly affect quality.)

Weak states are typically bad regulators and poor providers. A regulator who is also a provider suffers a conflict of interest that makes them a worse regulator AND a worse provider than they otherwise would be. What is an endemic problem in developed countries schools is hardly likely to be less of one in developing countries.

That private and unregistered schools do best is itself an indicator of the problems of governments regulator-plus-providers being compromised in both functions.

150 YEAR OLD WISDOM: John Stuart Mill had it right 150+ years ago (via):
A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State, should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.

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.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (1)

Edward Feser’s Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is, as one would expect, an excellent, lucid introduction to the thought of the greatest Catholic philosopher, the creator of the Aristotelian-Christian synthesis now known as Thomism. Scholasticism was a genuine intellectual achievement that kept forms of intellectual debate and questioning alive. Indeed, its success in Latin Christendom against its doctrinal opponents may well have been a crucial preliminary to the Scientific Revolution: that the debate went the other way in Islam likely aborted whatever possibility there was for something similar in Islam.

Feser’s book takes us through the life of Aquinas, his metaphysics, his natural theology, his psychology and his ethics in five chapters. Feser is particularly clear in explaining the notion of the four causes (Pp16ff), especially that endlessly tricky issue of final causality, making it absolutely clear that final causality is an entirely unconscious notion of directedness (p.19). The trouble is, the human mind is so primed to see motive, that even Aquinas keeps sliding into language that implies intention. Hence Feser writes:
… by “desirable” Aquinas does not mean that which conforms to some desire we happen to contingently to have, nor even, necessarily, anything desired in a conscious way. … a thing’s final cause, and thus that which it “desires” (in the relevant sense) might be something of which it is totally unconscious, as in the case of inanimate natural objects and processes … (p35)
I am sorry, that is both poor terminology and revealingly poor terminology.

This matters. Feser has already written of something being a good or bad triangle and that:
“Good” or “bad” are taken to be understood here in the sense in which we describe something as a good or bad specimen or example of a type of thing; and as this makes it evident, the terms are therefore being used in a sense that is broader than (though, as we shall see, it also encompasses) the moral sense of “good” and “bad” (p.34).
'Encompasses', pardon? That something is a good triangle does not mean that it is good to be a triangle, or good that it is a triangle (it may be very bad if a square was what was needed, for example). Something may be a good virus in the relevant sense without it remotely being good that it is a virus: particularly not that it is good at being a virus. This would appear to be a philosophy that slides into inappropriate intentionality far too easily.

So, when Feser writes:
Philosophers in the classical (as opposed to modern) tradition, such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, tend to think of goodness as conformity to the ideal represented by a thing’s nature or essence (p.34)
he is presenting an idea that may be venerable, but would also appear to be wrong.

Feser takes us carefully through Aquinas’s concept of form as an inherent, indeed vital, constituent of the nature of things and the way Aquinas applied categories. The Thomist concept of categories is a very confident one. Confronted with how human societies have created a dramatic range of conceptual schemes (including extremely varied linguistic categorisations), this confidence begins to look rather overstated. Particularly given how Aquinas used the notion of truth. To Aquinas:
A thing is true to the extent that it conforms to the ideal defined by the essence of the kind it belongs to (p.33).
This is surely a lot more plausible in a society used to dealing with a small range of related languages (so closely related ways of dividing up the world) and which has not had to grapple with the re-conceptualisations of modern science. That Western philosophy abandoned Aristotelianism as its apprehension of the natural and the human world were massively expanding is not likely to have been a coincidence. (This applies even more to notions of “good” than this usage of ‘truth’.)

Feser is rather disingenuous about the success of modern science, which he characterises as powerful in terms of its expansion of human material capacities. Particularly when he writes:
If the new science of the moderns has “succeeded,” then it might be argued that this is in large part because they stacked the deck in their own favour. Having redefined “success” as achievement of dramatic technological progress and in general manipulation of nature to achieve human ends, they essentially won a game the Scholastics were not trying to play in the first place (p.40)
First, the moderns were clearly concerned with truth about nature, not merely “gadgetry”. Secondly, science’s application to technology has greatly increased human material capacities, but it has done so by greatly expanding our understanding of nature. That is, science is the finest means ever developed of revealing truth about the natural world and it is that feature which needs to be grappled with. This is what makes the rejection of final causality by many of the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution so awkward, not that we have lots of cool gadgets. (Particularly given the medieval period was actually very into “gadgetry”—a denizen of Latin Christendom lived surrounded by more machines than those of any equivalent civilisation at or before that time.) Indeed, one way to summarise the Scientific Revolution is that it is the first time that science—precisely due to its massively expanded understanding of nature—comes to drive technology instead of science trying to explain after the fact what technology does.
Feser notes that Aristotelianism was rejected in part because it buttressed the existing political order (p.40), which is true. But it is worth noting that it was specifically priests-as-commissars that was very much at issue. ('Commissars' is a modern term, but not an inappropriate one since so many of the techniques of modern totalitarianism—agitprop, show trials, commissars, censorship, heresy hunts, population culls, informers—were pioneered by the Catholic Church: modern totalitarianism is the Holy Office with better technology and less capacity for mercy.) Nor was this a minor matter: people were burned alive for having the “wrong” opinions and what they were permitted to publish was tightly controlled. Scientific publishing, for example, was driven into Protestant Europe by priestly licensing of what could be printed: this despite Catholic theology being inherently friendlier to science than Protestant insistence on the primacy of Scripture. Descartes stopped working on his cosmology after Galileo was condemned and, when he resumed, published outside France. Scholasticism suffered from being an ideology of Inquisitorial oppression (generally run by Aquinas’s own order, the Dominicans): rejecting it naturally seemed a blow for liberty and freedom of thought.

Feser is on much stronger ground when he argues that rejection of Aristotelianism created a host of philosophical problems (p.42). One of the clearer examples of this is that al-Ghazali, in his rejection of Aristotelianism in Islam, ended up mounting the same argument against strong notions of causality in the C11th that Hume did in the C18th.

Similarly, there is, indeed, a lot of functionality in biological phenomena that looks somewhat final cause-like and Feser is correct to point this out against rigidly non-teleological conceptions of reality (Pp44ff). But it also might something that very much differentiates living things from non-living things.

Feser makes it clear that, in Aquinas’s metaphysics, chance happenings do not have final causes (Pp113ff). This is surely a necessary claim to make any sense of directedness in causation work, but it also seems a division of phenomena that would be hard to define in any useful way (and non-circular) way. The claim is that X is “directed to” Y and any case of X leading to not-Y is a chance happening. So, how do we know that X is directed to Y? And what sort of “directed to” is it that it is so directed, except when it isn’t? If final cause is an inherent tendency, what determines when it does or does not operate? Does this mean that chance happenings are uncaused? If they are caused, why do we need final causation?

Aquinas would reply we need final cause to make sense of the entire package of the universe. In particular:
What Aquinas actually says … is that every agent has a final cause; that is to say, everything that serves as an efficient cause “points to” or is “directed at” some specific effect or ranges of effects as its natural end. … He would insist … that such natural processes embody patterns of efficient causation that are themselves intelligible only in terms of final causation (p.114).
There are some real questions about knowing what these final causes are, what the concept is needed for and its connection to possibility (hence the issue of chance happenings). But there are also very real questions about a narrowly mechanistic view of the universe and modern science as well, which Feser takes the reader through with useful clarity.

Feser particularly shines in taking us through Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God. One really does have to approach them with a good understanding of Aquinas’s metaphysics, because “translating” them into modern philosophical assumptions turns them into caricatures of themselves. The centrality of the Aristotelian conception of causation (which is quite different from modern conceptions) to Thomism is made very clear.

In taking us through Aquinas’s psychology, Feser is at pains to distinguish between imagination and intellect. The intellect is where the mind grasps, stores and applies categories by a process of abstraction. It:
… it strips away all particularizing or individualizing features of a phantasm so as to produce a truly universal concept or “intelligible species” leaving you (for instance) with the idea not just of this or that particular cat, but of “catness” in general, of that which is common to all cats (p.145)
Which is actually a pretty good summary of how human infants learn about the world around them. In the words of a friend who is an early childhood educator, infants:
“… apply limited Action Schemes to everything they come across, which is part of learning about the world. The earliest action schemes are things like grab and suck. Babies are born knowing how to do this—or at least they can do it within hours of being born. Later there is grasp & shake, which is why we give babies rattles. There's also banging, dumping (around 9 months) and turning things over to see the other side. As babies develop they get to combine these basic action schemes into more complicated patterns. So younger babies are kind of looking at the world of objects as: is this something I bang, something I shake or something I ignore? Babies & toddlers put everything in their mouths too, just like animals do. Touch it, to feel its texture, grasp and shake and turn it over, taste it. Watch a gorilla do the same thing to an unknown item the next time you're at the zoo
So far so good. Indeed, just as things could not exist without having structure, so we could not act in the world unless there were identifiable commonalities in structure. Playing football without the balls having common and predictable properties would clearly be impossible: but that is true of any actions. Hence so much of how human infants learn is learning about pattern and structure by sought experience and testing. Hence also the ubiquitous utility of mathematics for science, as the science of pattern and structure.

But this is where we begin to get a certain unwarranted epistemic certainty in Aquinas’s thought:
… when the intellect understands something, it grasps its form. And that means that one and the same thing, namely the form of the thing understood, exists both in the intellect and in the thing itself. … There not two things, a subjective representation … and an external object … There is just one thing, a form which … exists in two ways (p.148)
(In what instantiates it and in the intellect.) In other words:
… what Aquinas is saying … seems, then, to be something like this: when the intellect grasps the form of a thing, it is necessarily one and the same form that exists both in the thing itself and in the intellect (p.153).
That would seem to create an enormous gulf between correct understandings and incorrect understandings. But if the form of something that does exist can be in the intellect and the form of something of something that does not exist can be in the intellect (either because one is in error, or it is imaginary or whatever), then there is no identity between what is in intellect and what is the case. It seems much more plausible to think that what is in the intellect is all the same sort of thing, it is just that its connections to what is the case that can vary.

A stronger sense of the epistemic frailty of sentience seems to be required than is dreamt of in Aquinas’s philosophy. Unwarranted epistemic confidence in such a basic matter is likely—as it indeed does—to have implications for the rest of Thomist thought.

Feser’s keenness to differentiate Aristotelian metaphysics (which he argues is fundamentally correct) from Aristotelian physics (which clearly is not) may mislead him on why Aristotelianism lost ground. It is not that this separation—the claim that the metaphysics stands or falls independent of the physics—is in any sense an illegitimate exercise. It is more that proving Aristotelian physics wrong (which various folk, including Galileo and Newtown, did rather spectacularly) suggested a human epistemic frailty—an ability to get conceptual schemas seriously wrong—that Scholasticism as a metaphysical system coped poorly with, given this notion of identity between what was in the mind and what was in the world, even beyond any contagion effect from the collapse of Aristotelian physics. The human intellect seemed to be both capable of great achievements (e.g. Newton) and getting things very seriously wrong (Aristotelian physics) even when guided by Aristotelian thought: indeed, particularly when so guided.

So the human intellect could apprehend the world, but could also get it strikingly wrong for a long time and do so within Aristotelianism. Not merely wrong in some details, but wrong in basic framework. Indeed, as people became aware of other civilisations looking at the world quite differently, the reality of very different conceptual schemas needed explanation. Hence the concern of modern philosophy from Descartes onwards with epistemology, with what we know and how, and so with learning how to learn and how we learn. Hence also Descartes’s wish to start with certainty—not merely to get over the shock of so many clever people being so wrong but wanting something that we could be as confident, or even more confident, about as Scholastic direct apprehension of the form of things. (Those who have read David Stove on Popper and the shock of the fall of the Newtonian empire in physics may note some familiar themes—though I would argue that there was a lot less to that fall than met the eye, however great Einstein’s achievement was, as Newtonian mechanics do work just fine except for very, very big and very, very small things.)

All this undermined the intellect as a direct path to knowledge and validated a much more empirical (in the sense of evidence-and-experimentation) approach that, in effect, overcame the frailties of the human intellect. (Evidence and experimentation that is, in a sense, a regularisation and immensely powerful extension of how children actually learn.) When it came to science, the methods of the Scholastics clearly did not work, and suffered a loss of intellectual prestige accordingly. Descartes kicking off modern philosophy with his concern with what we really know was not some wilful rejection of Scholastic truth. He was wrestling with what loomed as a fundamental failure in Scholasticism.

The subsequent failure of Cartesian physics simply further undermined the notion that metaphysics and pure reason was a successful way of apprehending how the world is.

Back to the book, and Feser takes us through Aquinas’s arguments for the immateriality of the intellect and his form-based (hylemorphic from the Greek ‘hyle’ matter and ‘morphe’ form) dualism. Feser usefully places this in relation to contemporary positions in philosophy of mind (such as functionalism). (Feser is also the author of a very useful book on the philosophy of mind).

This includes the following revealing passage:
… for the Aristotelian, a machine could not possibly count as a living thing, precisely because it is an artificial construct whose parts are naturally ordered to various other ends rather than to the flourishing of the system into which they have been for configured for human (and thus external) purposes (p.173).
Revealing in two senses. First, if people are constructed by God and directed towards an external end (Him: see the next post) then ‘artificial’ is doing a lot of work here, and how does it bear the metaphysical weight so loaded on it? Second, note the complete lack of any reference to human agency, which surely would be the obvious difference between human and machine.

But not to Aquinas, who held that two men having sex was a graver sin than a man raping a woman. Getting the category right, and the deemed ends of bodily organs, mattered more than human agency. Clearly, this is an ethical system that does not put much weight on human agency. This brings us to the final chapter on Aquinas’s ethics, which I cover in my next post.