Friday, January 18, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Homosexual: PART TWO (Goodness, Being, and Life)

I think this part of the argument is actually the most controversial (and perhaps complex), so I'll do my best with it. Here I will make the step from the underlying metaphysics to moral claims. Please see my previous post on the underlying metaphysics before reading this post. It is positively vital to understanding this.


The modern world is saturated with the belief that "good" is a value judgment. That while there are facts, there are values which are different. And further, because "good" is a value judgment, it is necessarily subjective. I may say that not murdering people is "good," but it's not actually good, or so it goes, in the same way I may say a particular painting is good, but in reality, it's not actually good. It's just a matter of subjective taste.

Now, very few people are willing to take this value thing (emotivism, as Philippa Foot has classified all of it) to its logical conclusion, in that the statement "it's wrong to genocide entire groups of people" would be equivalent to "I don't like vanilla ice cream." In fact, most (if not all) political complaints are made on moral terms ("it's not right that he's not in jail; he covered up sexual abuse!" "it's not fair that they get more money even though we work the same amount!" etc. etc.), even though someone who rallies for such things would be the first to say (or yell) "well, it's just your opinion that contraception is wrong; you can't prove that. We should be free to make our own choices, and you shouldn't force your values on me!" (Throwing around should's and should not's like they're going out of style.) Now, without getting too much into the inconsistency and hypocrisy of the modern secular world (though I truly find it amazing the level of cognitive dissonance...truly), I want to attack the underlying principle: that moral statements are not appealing to objective standards.

There are two popular ways to fix the problem of emotivism. One is to ignore it (as I noted, see the modern world), and two is to throw in God. That is, since the world is necessarily meaningless and without value itself (we place value on top of valueless matter, or so it goes), having God as the rulemaker will fix the problem. That is, He places value on everything, and so He effectively makes moral statements objective. In other words, "it's wrong to murder" gains objective legitimacy because God has made murder wrong. And since God is all-powerful, He can do that. The vast majority of the religious world subscribes to this position---for various reasons. One major reason, I think, is Protestantism, which emphasizes both the absolute depraved and fallen nature of the world and the almighty, infinite power of God. 

The other is that the world has changed the underlying metaphysics. The world was transformed from a place with "intrinsic meaning" or "natural goodness" to a place that is devoid of all meaning. So, now that religion has become effectively meaningless in the majority of people's lives (and the religions that are still popular are pretty pisspoor at teaching moral standards), the world defaults to "well, there really, at the end of the day, aren't any objective moral standards" and sort of live just above that standard, unwilling to jump all-in and face its consequences. Ironically, it's the second fix that the modern world relies on to keep itself out of total depravity, without really even realizing it. That is, most of their claims to "equality" are usually baseless and come from some misunderstanding of Christian principles from ideas like "God loves everybody" or that "Jesus didn't discriminate; he ate with prostitutes!" or some other quasi-Christian standard. In other words, they kept most of the rules (at least some of the strong principles anyway) while ditching the rulemaker.

The Traditional Alternative

Traditional morality was (and is), really, nothing like these two alternatives. Traditional morality, coming from the metaphysics outlined in the previous part of this series, said that one, things have intrinsic goodness or badness to them, and as such, that you don't need to appeal to God to either understand or articulate the standards that we can objectively discover. The basic argument went like this: a thing is "good" insofar as it came closer to its form or metaphysical essence, and a thing was bad insofar as it was not close to that form or essence, lacked the qualities of that essence. So, taking the classic example of a triangle, a triangle is a good example of a triangle when it has three perfectly straight sides and angles that add up to 180 degrees. So, stealing Feser's example, a triangle drawn freehand isn't as good as a triangle drawn perfectly with a computer. There's triangleness to both of them (both have the essence of triangularity), but one is a better example of a triangle. Now, this isn't a subjective judgment of the triangles. It's an objective judgment because that's just what a triangle is, that's just what it means to have the essence of a triangle: to have three straight sides that add up to 180 degrees. In other words, it's not the viewer's subjective opinion about triangularity that's driving his evaluation of the two triangles. It's the objective essence to which he is appealing.

The same goes for anything, including living things. A lion is a good example of a lion insofar as it comes close to its lion essence. And lions have four legs and strong jaws and are fast and smart enough to catch prey and etc. All the things that make up lionness. And a lion is a defective or deformed or sick lion insofar as it does not match its essence. So, a lion with three legs that can not move fast enough to catch prey is a defective lion. The same goes for humans. A child born with a cleft palete has a "birth defect" and one who cannot maintain his immune system is sick. The whole of medicine is based on this principle. (Though, don't ask an abortionist, who somehow thinks that a child growing inside of a mother is a problem, despite the fact that it is absolutely the essence of the human female to create children inside of their wombs---but another issue for another time.) But the evaluation that "that is a good example of a lion" would be an objective one based on the essence of a lion, not on the subjective preference of the viewer. Philippa Foot once said something like the only way to understand morality is to start with plants. All she meant was that goodness and badness are defined by a thing's essence or form. And a plant has the essence of life by having strong roots, etc., so a "good" plant would be one that had those characteristics, and a sick or bad example of a plant would lack those characteristics. This is the necessary starting point for evaluating goodness and badness: a thing's essence.

Morality merely presents a special case of being able to choose the goods set up by our nature. Humans, because they have rationality, can see and understand what the essence of a human is and choose to approximate itself to that essence. In other words, a person can rationally choose the good, and he is moral insofar as he does so and immoral insofar as he chooses the opposite. That is, if I know it's good for me (objectively) to have teeth; it matches my essence as a human being, so it would be bad for me to eat candy every day so that my teeth fall out. Even more extreme examples, I would be a good example of a human insofar as I have rationality to attain truth, so it would be bad for me to lobotomize myself. And, again, what would be good for a human is an objective issue. It doesn't matter what a particular human might feel is good for him. So, an alcoholic might personally think it's good to drink more than is safe, but in reality, it's actually not. Even if he's predisposed to loving alcohol, it wouldn't change the evaluation. Now, for living things, the good is always defined in teleological terms. That is, there are specific final causes to which we are aimed as human beings, and our acting in a way that does not fulfill or flouts those final causes would be bad or immoral. (The virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude), which lie at the root of most traditional moral standards, are those things that allow us to fulfill the final causes built into us by our nature. More on this later.) An eye is for seeing, so a person has good eyes insofar as his eyes see well. Legs are for moving, so a person has good legs insofar as his legs allow him to move. But why are eyes for seeing and legs for moving? Though is may seem obvious, why is it the case?

Goodness and Life

In my previous post, I noted that final cause should not initially be understood as "purpose," like you would talk about purpose with an artifact like a car, but that final cause should merely be understood as the direction to which a thing would point based on its nature. So, rocks have final causes as things that roll because that's just what they are pointed at being rocks. (It's probably more accurate to say because they are pointed at rolling, they are rocks.) In other words, if they weren't aimed in that direction, the result would not occur if a particular efficient cause actualized the inherent power in them (someone pushing them, for example). Now, I said that eyes are for seeing. But why aren't eyes for lots of things? After all, eyes could be used for any number of things: like being taken out and juggled. But how are eyes different different than rocks? After all, it would seem that eyes would not be able to be taken out and juggled if they didn't have that as at least one of their final causes, if this weren't a direction to which they were aimed. So am I just sneaking in purpose language when in reality the essence of eyes is just to do a bunch of things, only one of which has anything to do with seeing? Are traditional moralists just getting away with saying that "the final cause of sex is procreation," when in reality that's just a final cause of sex, like rolling is just one final cause of rocks, while bouncing might be another? (I will spend the whole next post explaining natural law and sexuality; you may see where the argument is going here, but I want to hold off on that whole explanation, especially as it relates to homosexuality, until the next post.)

Philippa Foot writes a great deal on this. She notes that living things present a special case (and Foot says we use a "special grammar" to describe them). Living things are concerned with "flourishing," to steal a term from Aristotle. There are certain ends a living thing must realize to flourish as the thing that it is. In other words, there are certain final causes that must be fulfilled in order for the living thing to more closely approximate its essence as a living thing. And the essence of a living thing is to maintain life and make other things like itself which likewise maintain life. So, taking something like the lion again. A lion needs strong, sharp claws to hunt and kill its prey to survive. If it didn't have strong, sharp claws, it could not flourish, it could not survive, and it could not match its essence as a living thing. It would be appropriate then to call the lion "defective" or a bad example of a lion. If it had a strange spot on its nose, though, that had nothing to do with its survival, it would not be appropriate to call it defective, because having a spot on the nose has nothing to do, really, with the survival, the life (the essence) of a lion.

When discussing living things, the lower level of the living thing is always pointed to the higher level of the living thing. In other words, every part of a living thing is evaluated in reference to the organism to which the part is related. Imagining a lion were blind, it would in a sense be right to say that the final cause of the genes that made the eye blind were fulfilled (otherwise the lion wouldn't have been born blind; after all, the final cause drives the efficient cause), it would be wrong to say that the lion's essence as a living thing were fulfilled, as sight is required for survival, and consequently flourishing, and this survival is required to approximate the essence of a living thing. The genes that control eyes are necessarily metaphysically subordinate because of the thing that an eye is. That is, even assuming that the gene's final cause that made the lion blind were fulfilled, that gene is still part of the eye, a thing which has as its essence sight, something that allows the flourishing of the greater living thing. All of the parts of a living thing are necessarily pointed upward, or to use a different, more correct sort of verb, pulled upward by the final cause of the living thing (or of the essence of the living thing) in question.

So, when one says "X is the final cause of the Y part of the Z living thing," he is really saying, "X is the final cause of the Y part that counts as relevant to the Z living thing because it allows the Z living thing to flourish as the thing it is." In other words, a living thing's parts are metaphysically aimed at the flourishing of the living thing in a way that is not the case for non-living things. Put simply, there are certain final causes that matter to living things that do not matter to non-living things. This is why a sentence like "his lungs are defective" can make sense, while a sentence like "that rock is defective" cannot. The lungs are defective (do not work) in reference to the larger living thing's essence, while the rock has no thing to be in reference to. It is just itself as a rock. This, I believe, is what Foot was getting at when she mentions a special grammar. And this is all that is meant when a scientist (or anyone) says that a plant grows upward in order to get more sunlight (or that eyelashes are for keeping things out of your eyes or whatever). They are not saying that the plant is deliberating, and they are not saying that some outside force (God) designed it this way. They are merely saying that this final cause of whatever in plants that makes them grow upward (some combination of genes, or whatever) allows the plant to flourish as the thing that it is, to more closely approximate its essence as a living thing.

And again, there is no need to appeal to God or anything else. This goodness is built into the living thing by its very nature. This is what Foot calls "natural goodness." As Michael Thompson writes, "And so...even if the Divine Mind were to bring a certain life-form into being 'with a view to' [read designed purpose] securing  an abundance of pink fur along the shores of the Manongahela, this would have no effect on the natural-teleological description of that form of life." In other words, the essence of life is a thing unique to living things that, even if God were to have designed the world, only the designs that allowed that living thing to flourish as a living thing would be relevant to that determination of what a particular part of a living is "for." This is why it makes sense to say that the random spots on a lion aren't for anything (I'm assuming they're not; I know nothing about lion biology), but that having strong, sharp claws is for flourishing, and thus the strength or sharpness of claws can be analyzed as "defective" or "bad." One is about the essence of life, and the other is not, regardless of what God has done or will do.

I'm going to stop here because there's a lot going on. There are probably a lot of questions, many of which can be answered elsewhere. I am merely trying to present the most basic principles. At any rate, all that should be taken from this, as we go into specifically sexual morality in the next post, is that goodness and badness are evaluated in reference to a thing's essence. Thanks, and I look forward to you reading the next post!


  1. Two questions come to mind. First, to what extent can natural law tell us about the morality of achieving a certain system's end at the expense of the "normal" way of doing so?

    In vitro fertilization comes to mind. On one hand, it violates natural law (penis is supposed to go in vagina, etc.), but on the other hand, it fulfills the final cause of the reproductive system (to produce babies) in a way that would otherwise be impossible.

    To put it in another way, clearly the final cause of the reproductive system is to produce children. But to what extent can we show, by natural law alone, that this production of children must be achieved in the "normal" way? Would you bring in the dual nature (reproductive and unitive) of the reproductive system to answer this question?

    My second question is this: let us say that in a particular situation, it contributes more to the flourishing of an organism to inhibit the function of a particular organ than to leave it functioning. Let's say that a man must either gouge out his eyes or be killed by armed rebels. In this case, would the flourishing of the organism (surviving) outweigh going against natural law (destroying the vision of the visual organs)? In other words, is the integrity of a particular bodily system subordinate to the flourishing of the organism, or the other way around?

    1. You are very sharp to catch the in vitro issue! I will be writing about such topics in some detail later on, but I would basically agree with your assessment that the "unitive" aspect of sexuality provides interesting insight here. Although, I find it interesting that you seem to be Implying (although I'm not entirely certain what you mean) that the unitive aspect of sexuality would be in addition to the the "natural law alone." Much more on this later.

      You are correct as well in your second question. This will be discussed in much more detail in PART THREE. There I will make the argument that the essence of life has basically two aspects to it: (1) surviving/maintaining itself and (2) reproducing. Most body parts are aimed at the first aspect, and the eyes are surely no exception. Eyes allow us to flourish as living things because they help us to do basically everything required to live. It is better then to see the final cause of the eyes as not just Sight (though that's an accurate way to describe it) but as sight For life. If the final cause of eyes is not just to see but to see in order to flourish as the things we are, it would Not be contrary to the final cause of eyes to cut them out in order to survive. It would, in such a case, be aligned with the ends set up in us by our nature. In other words, the body parts are subordinate, metaphysically, to the organism as a whole.

      Thanks for the great questions and insights! Keep them coming!

    2. I remembered the unitive aspect after I had already written the first part. The unitive aspect would, of course, be part of the natural law. Although I feel like the unitive aspect is somehow secondary to the reproductive aspect.

    3. I think that that is surely correct. There's a lot of pretty interesting analysis there, though. Especially as most people think the unitive aspect is All that matters in determining "good" sex, intentionally flouting the procreative aspect in order to attempt to acquire unity. This is common in homosexual discourse: "What could be wrong if we're just expressing our Love?!"

    4. This is common in homosexual discourse: "What could be wrong if we're just expressing our Love?!"

      You know, I think it goes way beyond homosexual discourse - heterosexuals are entirely subject to the same kind of reasoning, with the same objections being applicable. I actually wish that would be highlighted more, since I think it would help undercut the idea that this is all about singling out people with SSA.

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    1. @ SovereignDream

      One thing that I don't think the Catholic Church emphasizes enough is that masturbation/pornography will not make you happy. It's not that it's a really fun thing that will make you happy and fulfilled, and the Catholic Church is coming along to tell you that it's wrong and to be the fun police.

      Instead, masturbation/pornography will eat you up inside, make you hollow and sad and lonely. The Church is trying to stop people from hurting themselves, and from twisting their relationships with other people.

      While I am still struggling with pornography as well ("week on, week off" kind of thing), I did have one episode about 7 months ago where I managed to go about 2 or 3 months without it. And the main thing I remember is how CLEAN and HAPPY and LIGHT and RELAXED I felt. I felt as if a great weight had been taken off of my shoulders. And I think it's worth doing this kind of evangelism so that more people can experience that freedom.

      I don't think it was until then that I truly began to understand the whole "slavery to sin" thing. Until then, it was just empty words.

      Keep fighting the good fight, man.

    2. Thanks for the encouragement, you guys. It really means a lot. I was actually just looking at pictures to place next to some of the posts (to spice up the site a little bit), and because of the topic I was searching (homosexuality), I came across a ton of porn images. (Don't worry, I don't plan on using any of those ;) ). It's just everywhere, and one constantly has to struggle with it. It's rough. But always remember, true freedom is not doing or being able to do what you really want to do; it's being okay with NOT doing what you really wanted to do.

      John, people often describe the experience that way, feeling clean and happy and light (I've heard this used a few times actually). Human psychology is a fascinating thing. I think of Dostoevsky whenever I think of stuff like that. I think we feel so heavy because we have this enormous thing (this really dark thing we're ashamed of) just sitting there, unspoken and unresolved. After you masturbate (especially with pornography), you don't really feel like you're the kind of person who can kiss his mother goodnight. And what an awful thing that is.

    3. Interesting blog, I have followed you from day one. I don't really have anything smart to add or ask, keep up the good work!

      Are you interested in non natural law theory critics of modern moral, such as Scruton (postkantian ethics, if I am not wrong)? or some critics based on evolution?

      (eng 2nd lng, people from all over the world read this ;))

  3. John said: Although I feel like the unitive aspect is somehow secondary to the reproductive aspect.

    I think that depends on the definition of unitive. A couple doesn't even have to like each other or like having sex together to get validly married and have children. In fact for most of history whether a couple even knew each other first wasn't important (especially for the woman!). So I think unitive in the Catholic sense really refers to the 'marital binding' or coming together into one flesh (consummation) that each time it is repeated reaffirms the original marriage vow. Not the sexual gratification and emotional bonding so commonly ascribed to the term unitive today. So, I think that's why they can't be separated and each is as valid and important as the other. We can't morally procreate unless we are also united in marriage.

    Somewhere in all that too is the fact that biologically for humans the pleasure aspect is needed for the continuation of the species and therefore part of God's plan as well. Since we don't reproduce merely on instinct and going into 'heat' like animals do, there has to be another motivation for men and women to come together and the pleasurable aspect of intercourse fulfills that purpose and elevates us over the purely instinctual drive in animals.

    Interestingly, there is great concern in Japan these days that adolescent and 20 something males and even females to some extent are not showing normal interest in sexual relations. There is great concern as to why this is happening (some think it's the lure of technology, others that it's an escape from the responsibility of adulthood) and what this will mean for continuation of their race. Another topic, but I mention it only to illustrate that if the desire for the pleasure of sexual relations is lacking or supplanted by something else then reproduction in humans is harmed.

    1. I appreciate this definition of unitive; thank you.

  4. SovereignDream said: I greatly lament as well the sheer difficulty in finding a lady in this day and age who is both, well, beautiful and who hasn't, well, been around the block a couple of times.

    With all due respect, as a woman I ask you to consider what you would bring to marriage and whether you should be expecting more of your wife in terms of her purity than what you yourself can offer her. Is a reformed woman not just as worthy a spouse as a reformed man?