01 September 2014

Metaphysical bigotry

In researching the previous post, I came across an old post by Ed Feser, the arguments in which I've heard parroted many times by amateur Thomists but one I'd never read directly from the mouth (or keyboard, as it were) of the sacred leader of modern Thomism himself. My gut reaction to Thomism has always been twofold: one, that it's really just an elaborate, semantically convoluted way of trying to defend the indefensible — of trying to 'prove' the existence of the Judeo-Christian god. And two, that it's really just an excuse to perpetuate bigoted and antiquated ideologies about human behavior. If you ask someone what Thomistic metaphysics have contributed to science and human progress, you'll likely get a blank stare.

In any case, Feser brings out the old antiquated canard about things having 'natures' — sophisticated-sounding shorthand for "that's how God intended it to be" — as a means to argue that things like contraception and homosexuality are bad. Let's get to the meat of it. First of all, what does this guy mean by "nature" anyway?
Everyone knows that it is in the nature of grass to require water and sunlight but not too much heat, and that for that reason it is good for grass to be watered and well lit and bad for it to lack water and sunlight or to be exposed to great heat. Everyone knows that is in the nature of a tree to require soil into which it can sink its roots and from which it can draw water and nutrients, and thus that it is good for a tree so to sink them and bad for it if it is somehow prevented from doing so. Everyone knows that it is in the nature of a squirrel to gather nuts and the like and to dart about in a way that will make it difficult for predators to catch it, and thus good for it to do these things and bad for it if for whatever reason it fails to do them. The natures of these things entail certain ends the realization of which constitutes their flourishing as the kinds of things they are. 
Feser makes it clear that he's not talking about nature in the sense of how the natural world works, but in the sense of things having a quality that, when realized, allows natural things to flourish.
... a squirrel’s being born without a leg or a tree’s having weak roots constitute failures to realize the ends that define the flourishing of these sorts of thing, and thus are failures fully to realize a thing’s nature. That is why we call them defects in a thing.
This is where the slippery semantic slope starts to take hold. Yes, we know what a healthy animal or plant must have in order to flourish optimally. We also recognize when things hamper that flourishing. But we have to be careful in conceding that this is because things have some invisible 'nature' that permeates their being, because there's no reason to think such a thing exists. Feser, of course, is operating from the view that God made everything and did so with the intention that everything should, ideally, be a certain way. Ignoring for a moment the innumerable problems with the messiness of the natural world, it's sufficient to say that we can broadly agree that things have an optimal and less optimal way of flourishing.

Of course, that also depends on how we define 'flourishing' in the first place — anyone who's kept up with Sam Harris' musings on morality knows how contentious the term can be. With humans, the issue is especially complicated, as Feser himself seems to recognize:
Now where human beings are concerned, to know in detail what our nature determines to be good for us would require a careful analysis of each of our various faculties and capacities -- reason, speech, labor, sex, and so forth.
We have to excuse Feser's dubious use of the phrase "what our nature determines to be good for us". Because not only is it not evident that we have such a 'nature' in the first place, but it's also not evident that following its supposed precepts is objectively better for us given the contentious nature of what constitutes human flourishing. Anyway, Feser doesn't waste much time in getting to the ultra-conservative position of the Catholic church:
when [natural law theorists] say that contraception is bad, they don’t mean that it’s bad because it involves the use of pills, or mechanical devices, or man-made substances like rubber. They mean that it positively frustrates the natural ends of the sexual faculties (or at least partially frustrates them, since it is not denied that sex is naturally oriented toward bonding the spouses, expressing affection, and the like, as well as toward procreation).
The use of the term "frustrates the natural ends" is particularly weird. Frustration is a human construct. Feser is cavalierly using the term to describe what he perceives as the divinely imbued ideal of human flourishing not being realized.

Hand gestures may frustrate the ends of human sexuality
But while reproduction is certainly a normal and healthy part of being human, it's not evident that it's necessary for the flourishing of individuals. For the perpetuation of human existence, obviously, but that seems tangential
because merely existing strikes me as a necessary but not sufficient criteria for 'flourishing'. Presumably, flourishing has a deeper meaning about the depth of human experience, and if there's anything that's obvious it's that procreation is not an experience that is universally valued among human beings. There are many who neither need nor want it, who are perfectly content to live out their lives without having children. Should they feel guilty because blowhards like Feser are accusing them of "frustrating the natural ends" of their humanity, as though humanity itself is some deeper property we all have that is trying to realize itself through our existence?

One could quite easily make the argument, using Feser's own idiosyncratic terminology, that procreation in many ways frustrates the natural end of a great many other deep and significant human experiences. Kids are expensive and time consuming. Couples have less time for each other, for friends, for travel, for careers, for charity, etc. How do we determine which of those many components of the human experience constitute optimal human flourishing?  What is the proper balance of experience here? And why is sacrificing certain human experiences better or worse? And again, who decides? Feser?

Nature and those pesky gays

Remember again that Feser is an ultra-conservative Catholic. He despises abortion and homosexuality. He lauds the banning of gay marriage. Why? Because homosexuality, according to him, "frustrates the natural ends" of human sexuality — y'know, reproduction. But while sex clearly evolved for reproduction, the same human flourishing dilemma rears its head here. Homosexuality is, as far as we know, epigenetic. That means, in a nutshell, that people don't choose to be gay. Just as I didn't wake up one day and decide I would get a boner when I laid eyes on an 80s issue of Playboy, gay people don't wake up and decide they're going to be sexually aroused by the same sex. So if anything, given that homosexuality is epigenetically determined, suppressing one's gay desires to fake their way through a heterosexual relationship could be construed, according to Feser's view, as frustrating the ends of that person's sexuality.

Now, maybe Feser would simply say that homosexuality, like his example of the tree with weak roots, is a defect. Sex evolved for reproduction, so when someone has some genetic or epigenetic disposition that causes them to feel repulsion toward intimacy with the opposite sex, it could be considered a type of anomaly or defect. Desmond Morris would call it a mal-imprint — a behavior that evolved for survival and reproduction being directed toward something that doesn't further survival and reproduction. But even if we take that rather clinical view, it doesn't follow that this anomaly hampers human flourishing — again because human flourishing is not so rigidly defined as Feser would like it to be.

While sex might have evolved for reproduction, it's obviously become much more than that not just to us humans, but to our primate cousins as well, like the bonobos who use sex (including gay sex) to resolve conflict and strengthen inter-group bonds. It's worth noting that Feser follows up his "frustrate the natural ends" comment with this:
(or at least partially frustrates them, since it is not denied that sex is naturally oriented toward bonding the spouses, expressing affection, and the like, as well as toward procreation)
There's the rub (no pun intended). Who is to say which of those qualities of sex should be most valued? In a world increasingly plagued by overpopulation, reproduction must be controlled. Contraception is vital to the long-term flourishing of the human species, because the planet cannot sustain indefinite population growth. And since sex has all these other deep and important qualities that we value even as we necessarily reign in population growth, are we rationally obligated to yield to Feser's view that reproduction is somehow the most natural or most important of these qualities? Of course not. The aspects of sexual intimacy to be most valued is not a matter of objective inquiry, but a subjective matter to be decided among consenting adults. If adults choose to sacrifice reproduction in order to more greatly realizing bonding and affection, how are they deficient? If they choose to reproduce and thus have less time to use sex for bonding and affection, are they objectively better or worse off, objectively flourishing more or less?

Feser's inanity isn't even internally coherent. His own views are self-defeating, and that's if we grant him the charity of adopting his convoluted metaphysical lexicon, which we're under no obligation to do. Things don't have 'natures' that get 'frustrated' if they don't 'achieve their ends'. That's just some bullshit that, like most things theologians yammer on about, Feser just made up to retroactively justify an ultra-conservative, narrow-minded and antiquated world view. And am I the only one who notices the irony of a conservative Catholic lecturing people on sexual frustration?

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