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.]


  1. Reading the start of this, I was reminded of Aleister Crowley's famous (and much misunderstood) maxim “Do what thou Will shall be the whole of the Law”.

    Of course, when Al said this, he was using Terms of Art, as he laid out in the voluminous commentary he (and other Thelemites) made on the Liber al vel legis.

    In the Thelemic theory, one's ‘Will’ is shorthand for one's connection to one's proper place in the Universe. It has nothing to do with what one might necessarily want. The point of Thelema, and the GD, and many other mystic movements, is to figure out what one's rôle is in the Universe, and align one's self with that. This rôle might not be amenable, but the general mystic theory is that if the Universe itself has set this course for you, fighting (or ignoring) it can only make things worse. Which is why so much of mystic practice is about subduing the ego: it might be that your purpose is to be humble, so be proud in what you do. It might be that your purpose is to be great, in which case you should not be any more proud than the fulfilled sweeper, as you have both filled your purpose. (I don't know if I'm making sense, but the idea is that a humble purpose should guard against too little pride in ones self, but that a glorious purpose should guard against too much.)

    And once one has discovered and aligned one's self with one's Will, one's Cosmic purpose, then it is one's duty to follow that purpose: to Do what one Wills. Purpose without action is frustrated. Action without purpose is futile.

    Al's Law doesn't do away with free will, though. It might be that one's purpose is to do unpleasant things, which will involve unpleasant effects. Much of his commentary was pointing out that the point was to go through with such action (killing, say), if and only if one was sure that it was one's Will, and if one was willing and prepared to accept the consequences. It is by no means a license to a free-for-all, but of recognising that if one gets into a fight, you're going to get bruised... and it might be that your purpose is to be a horrible example.

    And to shut up the ‘Natural Law’ bigots, the usually forgotten second line of the Law is: “Love is the Law, Love under Will”. If one's Will involves being attracted to the same sex, then it is the Will of the Cosmos, and who is any man to stand in the way of the Will of the Cosmos?

    This probably sounds horribly pretentious, but I thought it needed pointing out.

  2. Aleister Crowley studied philosophy at Cambridge and was deeply interested in religious thinking, so that there might be some connections is not all that surprising.

    But the whole approach seems to take one where one wants to go, but with maximum pretension added in.

  3. Well, theoretically, the point is to be really, really sure you want to go there, but ... yeah. Pretty much. Certainly that's how it's usually interpreted, and definitely how it usually ends up in practice.

    Crowley has never been accused of being a retiring, modest type.

    There are those who think Crowley was entirely full of himself. There are those who think Crowley had a direct line to Godhood. Then there are those who think he had some good ideas amongst the narcissism, and are trying to figure out which ones they are.