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!