Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A second exchange with Keith Parsons, Part II

Prof. Keith Parsons has posted his own opening statement in our second exchange, which is devoted to the topic of atheism, naturalism, and morality.  (An index of the posts in our first exchange can be found here.)  As it happens, there is a remarkable amount of agreement between what Keith says in his newest post and what I said in my opening post.  Both of us take a broadly Aristotelian approach to ethics, grounding the good for human beings in the biology of human nature.  Unsurprisingly, though, there is also disagreement.  I have argued that human biology can have moral import only if interpreted in light of an Aristotelian metaphysics.  Keith argues that it ought to be interpreted in light of a purely naturalistic metaphysics.  He would interpret the biological functions that ground what is good for us, not as instances of immanent teleology of the sort the traditional Aristotelian affirms, but rather in terms of Darwinian natural selection.  As Keith indicates, in this regard his views parallel those of Larry Arnhart.

Let me begin by noting that evolution per se is not what is at issue between us.  Given Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) essentialism, questions about a natural substance’s nature or essence -- and thus its natural ends, and thus what is good for it -- are metaphysically and epistemologically independent of questions about its origin.  Interested readers can find a useful discussion of the relationship between essence and origins in David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism (see especially pp. 170-76 and 214-24), but it is important to emphasize that you don’t need to be an Aristotelian or a Thomist to think that questions about the nature and function of a thing are independent of questions about its evolutionary history.  As Jerry Fodor once put it, “you don’t have to know how hands (or hearts, or eyes, or livers) evolved to make a pretty shrewd guess about what they are for.”

The trouble, from the A-T point of view, is in interpreting evolution and human nature within a naturalist metaphysical framework.  For given such a framework, there can be no irreducible teleology in nature, and therefore (as I argued in my opening post) there can be at most only “as if” teleology (as opposed to either “intrinsic” or “derived” teleology).  And if it is only “as if” teleology exists (if I can channel Alicia Silverstone in Clueless), then it can be only “as if” natural goodness exists, and thus only “as if” morality exists.  Morality can in this case be at most a useful fiction.

In my view, the lack of a traditional Aristotelian metaphysical foundation prevents Keith from successfully rebutting the objection that his position cannot account for the categorical force of moral imperatives.  To be sure, I agree with him that morality has a hypothetical component.  Much of it can be captured in propositions of the form: If you want x, you ought to pursue y; and if you want y, you ought to pursue z.  But this does not suffice for moral obligation.  Suppose it is true that if I want to see the movie from the beginning, I’d better get to the theater by 3 pm; and if I want to get to the theater by 3 pm, I’d better leave now.  The imperative Leave now will be rationally binding on me only if the imperative See the movie from the beginning is rationally binding on me.  But of course there are few situations, if any, in which that particular imperative has the binding nature that moral imperatives are supposed to have.

So, if a series of hypothetical imperatives is to have rationally binding force, it has to trace ultimately to some imperative at the head of the line that has categorical force.  It is only if I regard some imperative of the categorical form Pursue x is binding on me that I will be rationally obliged to pursue y and thus z.  With that much it seems Keith would agree.  But where can we find such imperatives?  Keith’s position is essentially that there are certain imperatives that most people will in fact treat as categorical.  An example of such an imperative implicit in what he says is Pursue happiness (in the Aristotelian sense of eudaimonia).  Keith considers the following potential objection:

[W]hat do you say to those who reject the antecedents of your hypotheticals?  What, for instance, would you say to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man who rejects happiness, including his own, and prefers to act out of spite?  In general, if someone does not already value one of your “natural goods,” how do you get them to recognize your moral norms? Why not just be spiteful if that is what you want?

In response, he says:

If the Underground Man genuinely scorns happiness, including his own, then there is not much that [my view] can say to him.  But then there is not much that any ethical perspective can say to him. Kant might tell him that he is being unreasonable or Christians might tell him that he is going to hell, but he will just scorn that too. Sheer defiance is not a rational act and so cannot be addressed by appeals to reason.

Now I think this is correct as far as it goes.  If someone is simply stubbornly determined to be irrational, we are not likely to reach him by appealing to reason.  The question, though, is whether someone who rejects an imperative like Pursue happiness, or any other purportedly categorical imperative – and continues to reject it no matter how hard we try to talk him out of doing so -- really is, necessarily being irrational.

From the A-T point of view, the answer is: “Yes, he is per se irrational.”  But from the Humean point of view, the answer is: “No, he’s not necessarily irrational; he’s just different from most other people, that’s all.”  As Hume famously wrote:

'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. ‘Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. ‘Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledg'd lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than for the latter. (Treatise of Human Nature

Now, if, contra the Aristotelian, there were no such thing as irreducible teleology immanent to the natural order, then it is hard to see how Hume’s position could be avoided.  For in that case nothing would be inherently for anything, would not be of its nature directed toward any particular end.  Thus practical reason would not be inherently directed toward the good, so that there would nothing per se contrary to reason in refusing to choose the good.  And of course, as I have already argued, nothing would in that case really be good in the first place.  It would only be “as if” there were goodness.  And since as a matter of statistical fact most people tend to want to pursue their happiness and tend to agree at least in a very general way about what is good and bad, it would be “as if” their practical reason were directed at the good.  Hence it would be “as if” there were such a thing as morality.  But there wouldn’t really be morality, and if everyone knew that it was merely “as if” there were morality – that morality was at best a useful fiction – then even the pretense of morality couldn’t long survive.

On the other hand, if the Aristotelian is right to hold that natural substances, powers, and processes are inherently directed toward certain ends, and in particular that practical reason is inherently or of its nature directed toward the pursuit of the good, then there would be something contrary to reason in choosing against the good, and thus (given that happiness in the sense of eudaimonia is constitutive of the good for us) something contrary to reason in choosing against one’s own happiness.  For the Humean, someone who really at the end of the day doesn’t want the good or his own happiness is just statistically unusual, but that’s all.  For the Aristotelian, by contrast, such a person is necessarily irrational.  And to the extent his irrational desires are so deep-seated that he doesn’t even feel the attraction of the good or of happiness, he is as objectively disordered or defective an instance of the kind rational animal as a dog with three legs is a disordered or defective instance of its kind, or a tree with sickly, weak roots is a disordered and defective instance of its kind, or an eye covered over with cataracts is a defective or disordered instance of its kind.

Since Keith is a naturalist, I imagine that at the end of the day he will say that the Humean metaphysical picture is the correct one.  In that case, though, I would argue that he cannot coherently maintain the neo-Aristotelian position in ethics he wants to defend.  To be sure, given an Arnhart-style reinterpretation of Aristotelian function talk in Darwinian naturalist terms, he can certainly make the case that human nature is such that it is “as if” an Aristotelian system of morality, specifically, were true.  But what he cannot coherently do is hold that it is in fact true.  An Aristotelian moral theory necessarily requires an Aristotelian metaphysical foundation; a naturalist metaphysical foundation can only ever get you a simulation, and not the real McCoy.

So that is one criticism I have of Keith’s version of neo-Aristotelian ethics.  Another is this.  Morality, from the A-T point of view, is something intelligible only for rational creatures.  It is because we are rational animals that we are moral animals.  As I indicated in my opening post, there is a sense in which a tree or a lioness can be a good or bad tree, a good or bad lioness, but it is not a moral sense, since trees and lionesses lack intellect and will and thus cannot understand or freely choose either what is good or what is bad for them.  Keith seems to take a different view when he writes:

There is one way… that the Darwinian developments must alter ethical naturalism deeply.  We now know, as Aristotle did not, that we humans are kin—not just metaphorically but in an absolutely literal sense—to all other living things… Advancing research shows that non-human animals share many of our feelings, even our “moral” feelings, and display a remarkable range of cognitive aptitudes. These developments have rendered the definition of ethics as concerned only with human life too narrow and parochial. We must expand our understanding of natural goods to encompass, at least, the well-being of sentient non-human animals…

I’m not sure exactly what conclusions Keith would draw from this, but in response I would make several points.  First, I think it is incorrect to say that Darwinism tells the Aristotelian anything new of a morally relevant sort about our relationship with other animals.  It would, after all, not have been news to Aristotle, Aquinas, or any other pre-modern Aristotelian that human beings are, like dogs and dolphins, a kind of animal.  On the contrary, they defined human beings as animals of a sort, viz. rational animals.  In their view, our animality, since it is part of our nature, is relevant to our moral lives, but only because it is in us conjoined to rationality.  Naturally they were aware that other animals are sentient -- indeed, their being sentient is part of what makes them animals in the first place (as opposed to merely vegetative forms of life) -- but this did not in the traditional Aristotelian view suffice to make them moral agents.  It is hard to see why our having non-human animals as ancestors would make any difference.  The traditional Aristotelian view is that non-rational animals cannot be moral agents, precisely because they are non-rational (not because we are not related to them in other ways).  How exactly does our having inherited genetic material from such animals change that?

Second, while Keith does say that “non-human animals share many of our feelings, even our ‘moral’ feelings, and display a remarkable range of cognitive aptitudes,” this does not, for the traditional Aristotelian, show what he seems to think it shows.  When the A-T philosopher talks about “intellect,” “rationality,” “will,” “choice,” and the like, he has something very specific in mind.  Intellectual or rational powers involve the capacity to form abstract concepts, to put them together into propositions, and to reason logically from one proposition to another.  And willing and choosing have to do with pursuing ends in light of what intellect grasps.  Now, the A-T philosopher agrees that, like us, non-human animals have all sorts of complex internal representational and affective states -- perceptual experiences, mental imagery, feelings, appetites, etc. -- but none of this amounts to intellect or volition as the A-T philosopher understands those notions.  Hence the research Keith cites, which I think would not in fact have been surprising to an Aristotle or an Aquinas, does not in the traditional Aristotelian view really change anything.  And even if it turned out that certain non-human animals such as apes had genuine rationality, that would mean they are really “human” after all in the traditional Aristotelian sense, i.e. they would in that case be rational animals.  (Not that I believe for a moment that this is remotely plausible.  Like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, I think the “evidence” for ape language is bogus.) 

Third, on the traditional A-T natural law account of rights, rights essentially follow from duties.  It is because I have an obligation to pursue what is good for me given my nature that I have a right to pursue it; rights are safeguards to our ability to fulfill our obligations under natural law.  Hence if a creature cannot intelligibly be said to have obligations, it cannot intelligibly be said to have rights.  (To forestall a potential objection, this does not entail that human fetuses and infants cannot have rights.  While qua fetuses or infants they are not yet capable of understanding or following obligations, they are nevertheless immature instances of creatures of the kind which can do so.  Similarly with severely brain damaged people -- they are damaged instances of a kind of creature which can understand and follow obligations.  Non-human animals, by contrast, cannot understand or carry out moral obligations even when mature and in good working order.  For A-T, it is the mature and normal instance of a kind that determines what is natural and good for the kind in general.)

Now, even someone who wants to attribute more impressive cognitive abilities to non-human animals than A-T philosophers do would surely agree that it is odd, to say the least, to think of non-human animals as having moral obligations.  What exactly would it mean to attribute moral duties to apes and dolphins, let alone to dogs, pigeons, snakes, or goldfish?  How exactly would we hold them to their obligations?  (Shaming?  Jail time?  Should we get the U.N. to sanction tigers and other predators for animal rights violations?)  Yet if it makes no sense to attribute moral duties to animals, why would it make sense to attribute rights to them?

Now perhaps Keith would not go so far as to attribute rights to animals, but is merely claiming that there are other moral reasons why we ought not to do absolutely any old thing we feel like doing to them, however cruel or wasteful.  But the traditional A-T natural law philosopher will agree with him about that much.  He would just deny that the reasons have anything to do with animals having rights, or with Darwinism. 

These are large issues which cannot be settled here.  (For a traditional A-T natural law account of the source of rights, see David Oderberg’s Moral Theory, chapter 2.  For a traditional A-T natural law account of the morality of our treatment of animals, see Oderberg’s Applied Ethics, chapter 3.)  Suffice it to say that it does not seem to me that Keith has shown that Darwinism requires us to “alter ethical naturalism deeply” (as he puts it).

Anyway, I would like once again to thank Keith (and our moderator Jeff Lowder at Secular Outpost) for a very fruitful set of exchanges.  It has been particularly interesting to see just how much significant agreement there is between us on various issues, despite our deep differences.  One further area of agreement is evident at the end of Keith’s latest post, where he writes:

I think that Alasdair MacIntyre was right when he… claimed that the extreme dysfunction of ethical discourse in our society—with opposing sides rapidly reduced to strident rhetoric and ad hominem abuse—is due to the comprehensive failure of what he calls “the Enlightenment Project” in ethics. He argues that the Enlightenment philosophers attempted to base ethics only upon reason and failed, leaving a de facto subjectivism in place. He thinks that the only way back from our current desolation is to return to the Aristotelian idea of humans as having a natural telos, a potential for mental and moral excellence—humans as they could be rather than how they so often are. I think he is right.

Naturally I concur.  I would only add that I think that the confusion MacIntyre identifies in modern moral philosophy is paralleled by confusion in modern metaphysics and modern theology.  And in my view the remedy in the latter cases is the same as in the former -- a reconsideration of classical philosophy, especially the Aristotelian variety. 

The last word is yours, Keith!


  1. It is very interesting that someone even try to ground morality in natural evolution - morality (and freedom also) include non-reducible teleology and there is no such think in Darwinian world. But there are more problems for Darwinian grounding of morality and those problems are epistemological in nature. How someone know what is good/bad, obligatory/non-obligatory in Darwinian world? I can imagine world where I don't know anything about evolution, biology or whatever but still have moral beliefs. Naturalist can appeal to magic and say that evolution teach as this or that.

    Also, I believe that appeal to evolution of human kind don't have any sense in this debate because important question is does moral facts are reducible or non-reducible or more specifically can we eliminate them in our description of reality (including human behavior of course). If we can moral realism is false and speaking about moral facts is just useful fiction, one more language game. But if we can not moral realism is true, with all irreducible teleology which give us good reason to believe that Darwinian naturalism is false.

  2. In writings of some naturalist philosophers there are strange idea that Darwin (or scientist after him) discover that human beings are similar to animals or that man share many attributes with animals. It is very strange idea! Does anyone believe that French peasant from 13th century really don't realize that his body have similar parts with pig, horse, that he moves, eat, sleep like just animals?

    This attitude is probably result of bad understanding of Christian beliefs - some atheists probably believe that Christians believe that humans are some king of beings totally separated from nature. But this is of course totally wrong. Christians (and other theist alike) believe that humans are part of the Creation and that they have many similarities with other creatures (including of course that they are all part of God's creation).

  3. If practical reason were inherently directed at the good, why would it be irrational to choose against the good?

  4. Regarding non-human animals, it's noteworthy that what a moral agent needs to do, on Keith's view, is conceive of the good in some way and then string together hypothetical syllogisms to attain it. But rational and linguistic capacity are essential to doing this. To point out that we share a lot of DNA and share some moral feelings does not get to the crux of what Aristotelian naturalist takes a moral agent to be.

  5. The metaphysics of naturalists always contradicts the ethics of naturalists. Not only is naturalism inconsistent with neo-Aristotlean thought, but naturalism is also incompatible with utilitarianism, which is often a preferred ethics for naturalist types. You cannot seek the greatest good of the greatest number if there is no such thing as the good. If you try to define the good as what most people prefer, then you don't have real objectivity because what people prefer differs from one time and place to another. If most of the people in your society think it would be preferable to get rid of the Jews (and we know this has happened) then there would be nothing wrong with this. In fact, carrying out ethnic cleansing operations would be the virtuous thing to do. There is no moral objectivity in a naturalist world.

  6. Steven, you have essentially just asked "Why would it be irrational to act against reason?"

    Well, that is what irrational *means*!

  7. @Gene:

    I wish it were that simple. But, there's a difference between choosing against what only appears to be good, and what is in fact good. While the former is obviously irrational, the latter is not.

  8. Do you mean the reverse?

    Choosing a thing that appears to be good but is not good isn't a good choice.

    Choosing a thing that appears to be good, precisely insofar as it is understood to be good, isn't "irrational" as such. It is a bad choice when the appearance of good is not coordinate with the reality of good. But a "bad choice" because of something outside the reason doesn't make the choice irrational.

    In any case, choosing something under the aspect of good, when on a deeper level you know full well that the appearance of good is not backed up by the reality, is certainly a kind of irrationality - the kind that is immoral. But is obviously possible.

  9. It's refreshing to see a conversation between a theist and an atheist to unfold so courteously, particularly ever since the dawn of the age of new atheism.

  10. I agree Carlos, although, again, Parson's contributions to the debate have hardly shown that the atheist can be as contemptuous of contemporary theism as his earlier resignation from philosophy of religion suggested.

  11. Anonymous,

    I concur. Hopefully these dialogues with the good doctor Feser will open Parsons' eyes a bit.

  12. Don't all creatures seek to avoid suffering and self harm? Don't they seem to obey a duty to flourish? Don't we then have a duty to allow them the maximum of what it is for them to flourish and also an obligation to avoid inflicting suffering on them? Doesn't this give them some sort of system of rights?

    Other animals lack the cognitive capacities, most importantly language, to create a system of ethical behavior for themselves but they certainly seem to possess the other crucial aspects of morality like empathy and understanding.

    Don't we then as the only creatures we know of capable of constructing a morality owe them a place in our system, one which emerges from a life world we share together?

  13. Why was virginity held to be praiseworthy in many ancient cultures?

    It is easy to see the praiseworthiness of chastity both from classical and Darwinian perspectives but I could never understand the reason for moral praiseworthiness of virginity. .

  14. Casey, Feser does note that

    "Now perhaps Keith would not go so far as to attribute rights to animals, but is merely claiming that there are other moral reasons why we ought not to do absolutely any old thing we feel like doing to them, however cruel or wasteful. But the traditional A-T natural law philosopher will agree with him about that much. He would just deny that the reasons have anything to do with animals having rights, or with Darwinism."

  15. Maybe we can have a spin-off debate in which Parsons argues with the Uncredible Hallq over whether Feser provides arguments. That would make for edifying viewing.

  16. Has Hallquist said anything about Feser recently?

  17. Great exchange. And I hope Ed plans on discussing some Sean Carroll soon, since reading WLC's recent reply to Carroll about their debate shows Carroll insisting that A) physics comes before metaphysics and B) modern physics shows Aristotilean causation to be false.

  18. I'd just like to congratulate Dr. Feser for his Scholastic Metaphysics being the #1 seller in metaphysics on Amazon.

  19. Mr. Feser:

    Would you be kind enough, time permitting of course, to help me understand why the "Argument From Reason" -- i.e., the "AFR"/Dr. Victor Reppert's dissertation subject, thus rigorously refined & unashamedly promoted by himself for quite some time now -- whose philosophical progeny seems to have been traced back through C.S. Lewis (its original popularizer), James Bissett Pratt, Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, Kant & perhaps even Plato (as some would claim), doesn't seem to find any "air-time" in your exchange with Professor Parsons?

    Given Keith Parson's a priori metaphysical starting-point (or assumption) of neo-Darwinian macroevolutionary philosophy, my question(s), framed from the perspective my overall layperson's ignorance, would necessarily include Alvin Plantinga's now-famous "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism" (or "EAAN").

    Is there some professional philosophical aversion you have for its non-use in your discourse, or do you simply find no place for "it" (AFR and/or EAAN) in an Aristotelian/Thomistic defense of Classical Theism? Your insight would be greatly appreciated by this layperson, who consistently studies to remain aware of these cutting-edge issues in our culture's so-called "religion & science wars!"

  20. David Huston,

    There's a lot of stuff I didn't discuss in my exchange with Keith, because I had space constraints. But I've discussed, and defended, a version of the argument from reason in several places. You'll find it discussed in several posts here on the blog (do a search), and in my books The Last Superstition and Philosophy of Mind.

    1. Thank you so much Ed...God bless ya' & if you're married w/children - a Happy Mother's Day celebration is extended to you and yours sir!

  21. Gyan: You have nearly answered your own question with your observation that ‘It is easy to see the praiseworthiness of chastity both from classical and Darwinian perspectives’. So you recognize a social utility in pre-marital virginity.
    Continuing from a Darwinian perspective, let me suggest another observation – do you now or have you in the past known many 12 to 18 year olds? How powerful is their instinct to wait for marriage?
    Darwinian pressures have not selected for an instinct to chastity. Post pubescent virginity actually contradicts our instinct to procreate. Instilling a behavior that contradicts instinct is difficult, and is only achieved with a modest probability of adherence within cultures that have made such behavior a moral imperative.

  22. I just noticed this post. Too bad as it's an area I'm interested in, and I don't find the A-T position to be cogent. Morality is a tough nut to crack for anyone, though. I'll wait for another time.

    Excellent discussion, though.


  23. How does your version of teleology solve Hume's problem? As a friend of mine put it, God's morality is as foreign to me as Karl Marx's morality. I don't see why I should care about his purposes.

  24. @Mup Da Doo:

    "As a friend of mine put it, God's morality is as foreign to me as Karl Marx's morality. I don't see why I should care about his purposes."

    Is your own pursuit of the good as foreign to you as Karl Marx's morality? Or did you just not read the post before replying?