Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Aristotelian morality

Under Aristotle an action is immoral if is goes against a final cause or purpose of either the action or any of the beings involved in the action. To make the case that any sex outside of the sex act that does not include any artificial means of preventing conception is immoral, Feser relies on the idea that the final cause of sex is conception. He goes on to state that nature of the sex act being conception, it should not be done outside of marriage, which is the institution whose nature is raising kids. Because humans are driven to copulate often, he concludes that married couples should have lots of kids.

Obviously my summary leads out the details of his arguments for his conclusions, but his arguments all rest on the definition of morality. The problem is that this ignores what the consequences might be to humans from these actions. Because advances in technology have over come certain obstacles humans have faced through out our evolution, certain parts of our nature if left unchecked could lead to suffering for humans.

First, let us deal with the idea that going against the nature of an act is immoral. Previously I discussed walking and how a treadmill frustrates the purpose of walking by not allowing us to go from one place to another, as is the purpose of walking. Consider another example, that of walking by putting one foot in front of the other so as to cause you to trip. Is this immoral? If it was done unintentionally, we would say it was silly or foolish but not immoral. What if it was done intentionally? If I trip over my feet as a means of entertaining as for example a comedian or actor, is this action immoral? Certainly not. In the case where it is meant to entertain we would not even say that it is silly or foolish.

Now let us consider what morality actually means. For an action to be immoral it would have to promote the bad, it would have to have a bad or negative consequence towards humans and that consequence would have to be known and probable. Non-procreative sex does not meet that standard. However, the notion of everyone having lots of kids does. If everyone procreated as much as they are biologically compelled to, we would have a population explosion. We would deplete our resources at an enormous rate and soon would not have enough to feed everyone. While technology might be able to help us to delay the mass starvation, we would inevitably consume all available resources.

There are 2 possible solutions to this problem, both of which go against the nature of humans as determined by Feser. The first option is the road we are currently on, using birth control to reduce the number of conceptions and keep population growth down. The second option is voluntary celibacy. It is unreasonable to expect that the population will be able to suppress their sexual urges enough for the second option to work. When under sexual arousal people tend to make poorer decisions then when not aroused. This conclusion is based on a study by Dan Ariely documented in his book Perfectly Irrational. The only option that does not lead us to increased human suffering is to support birth control.

3 comments:

Friar Tuck said...

I think you again have some very good comments here and I anticipated at least one of them after thinking about my previous comments on one of your older posts. However, I think that you are still missing some very important distinctions.

"Consider another example, that of walking by putting one foot in front of the other so as to cause you to trip. Is this immoral? If it was done unintentionally, we would say it was silly or foolish but not immoral."
However, wouldn't you still call this "bad walking"? Walking in such a way that you trip is called bad, precisely because it violates the final cause or purpose of walking. Now when we consider the intention of the person, then we enter the arena of morality.

“If I trip over my feet as a means of entertaining as for example a comedian or actor, is this action immoral? Certainly not. In the case where it is meant to entertain we would not even say that it is silly or foolish.”
Again, regardless of the man's intention, this is bad walking, because it is opposed to end of walking. However, let us make a distinction between essential and accidental ends.
Essentially, the end is locomotion, the movement of the body. Now, this may have many accidental ends, namely movement from one place to another, exercise, relief of tension, amusing others, etc.
Now, the comedian is using the motion of his body to entertain others, while this inhibits the end of walking, it is not strictly speaking walking. It is a different kind of act, namely tripping and falling over. So, he is not opposing the essential end of locomotion, which is movement of the body.

“For an action to be immoral it would have to promote the bad, it would have to have a bad or negative consequence towards humans and that consequence would have to be known and probable.”
Here I think that your definition is inadequate. You focus solely on the action itself and the consequences. However, you miss completely intentionality. For example, I think we would agree that getting a child a vaccine is a good action. Further, the probable and known consequence of the action is that the child is safer from becoming sick. However, there is a further consideration. If the adult is taking the child there to receive the vaccine for the good of the child, it is a good action. However, if the adult takes the child, because he knows the child is afraid of needles and knows the that child will suffer when poked, this is an evil action, because of the adult's intention.
Further, you do not consider actions that may not have consequences for humans, but still may be evil, say torturing small animals.

“Non-procreative sex does not meet that standard.”
I think that it may meet even your inadequate standard when we consider the true nature of sex and its intersubjective consequences. In order to make this claim, you must establish that (according to your definition) 1) it does not promote evil and 2) negative consequences would have to be unknown or improbable.
Given the nature of sex in both its objective and subjective nature, I'm not convinced that 1 is not met. Given the mounting data and evidence in numerous areas such as transmission of STD, emotional damage, promiscuity, etc., I'm not convinced 2 is met either.

“Because humans are driven to copulate often, he concludes that married couples should have lots of kids.”
I would have to read this over again, but I don't imagine that Feser means this to be an absolute motivation. He is aware as many are of the declining fertility rates in the West, which signal the death of a civilization. To reverse this, we would need to increase that rate, by having more children.

Friar Tuck said...

“The second option is voluntary celibacy. It is unreasonable to expect that the population will be able to suppress their sexual urges enough for the second option to work.”
I am sure that Feser would support this option in line with prudence. If there is reason to believe that having more children would be imprudent for whatever reasons, then a period of continence between spouses would surely be advisable.
However, I don't see any reason to say it is “unreasonable.” We expect people to restrain (not suppress) many of their passions, namely for violence, for money, for power, etc. Also, we thoroughly except people to restrain their sexual urges all the time when we oppose rape, incest, pedophilia, and so on.
I don't see why it is unreasonable to expect a population to have some discipline and restraint when it comes to their sexual urge, when we are a culture that insists on restraint, appropriate to reason to all our other appetites.

Friar Tuck said...

Further, in other discussions, you have spoken very much like Aristotle. You have talked about "well-being" as if it were the goal or end (i.e. final cause) that are actions should be directed towards.
Further, you acknowledged that there is an objective reality that needs to be considered in order to be sure to obtain this well-being.
Further, I'm sure you'd agree with the virtues that Aristotle proposes, fortitude (or courage), prudence, justice, and temperance. It is bad when we act cowardly, or foolishly, or unjust, or intemperantly.
Finally, I would argue that you cannot sensibly talk about morality without reference to final cause and human nature.