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Norms in Nature?
Our friend Malcolm Pollack, riffing on some complaints of mine about Michael Anton's talk of natural rights, wrote the following:
Rights are normative in their essence, while Nature simply is. Therefore, I see only two possibilities:
1) “Natural” rights flow from an intrinsic source of normative authority. Since brute and indifferent Nature cannot be such a source, then for such rights to exist in themselves, as opposed to being mere conventions and intuitions, requires the existence of God. They are therefore “natural” rights in virtue of our nature qua creations of a transcendent and normatively authoritative Deity.
2) There is in fact no such authoritative source, and so natural rights are nonsense. (Upon stilts.) It may be in our nature to have the intuitions we do about possessing such rights, but it is a category error to imagine that rights themselves can originate in the material world.
In response, I pointed out that this is far too quick inasmuch as there are Aristotelians who seek to ground norms in nature herself. These thinkers do not accept what to Pollack and the modern mind seems self-evident, namely, that there is a gap between the normative and the factual that disallows any derivation of normative claims from factual ones. One prominent Aristotelian is Philippa Foot. So let's see what she has to say.
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Now I myself think that there are reasons to be skeptical about locating norms in nature, in particular moral norms. If these reasons are credible then we have reason to be skeptical of the notion of a natural right if a natural right is understood to be, not just a non-conventional right, but a right grounded in the natural world.
Philippa Foot, following Michael Thompson, speaks of Aristotelian categoricals. "The deer is an animal whose form of defence is flight" is an example. (Natural Goodness, Oxford UP, 2001, 34) The sentence is "about a species at a given historical time . . . ." (29) Foot is not assuming the immutability of species. But species must have a "relative stability" if true Aristotelian categoricals are to be possible at all. (29) "They tell us how a kind of plant or animal , considered at a particular time, and in its natural habitat, develops, sustains itself, defends itself, and reproduces." (29)
Foot, stepping beyond Thompson, stresses the teleological aspect of Aristotelian categoricals. "There is an Aristotelian categorical about the species peacock to the effect that the male peacock displays his brilliant tail in order to attract a female during the mating season." (31) Not that the male strutting his stuff has any such telos in mind. The thought here is that there is a teleology in nature that works itself out below the level of conscious mind. The heliotropism in plants is another example of a kind of teleology in nature below the level of conscious mind. Plants 'strive' to get into the light, but not consciously. Migrating birds are not trying to get somewhere warmer with better eats; they do not have this end in view. And yet the migratory operation is teleologically directed. Why do the birds head south? In order to survive the winter, find food, and reproduce. This is an example of a teleological explanation.
The idea is that there are purposes or Aristotelian final causes at work in the natural world. They are just there for an Aristotelian naturalist like Foot. God did not put them there. Nature is not a divine artifact. If it were, then of course nature would embody divine purposes. As I read Foot, however, she is saying that there is a teleology built into nature whether or not God exists.
In a slogan: Nature is naturally teleological. To be precise, the world of living things is essentially and intrinsically goal-directed. Plants 'strive' toward the light; their roots 'seek' water and nutrients. This goal-directedness is essential to them. They wouldn't be what they are without it.
The Crucial Question
Can we say of an individual plant or animal that it is intrinsically good or bad independently of our interests or desires? This is the crucial question that Foot answers in the affirmative. Norms are ingredient in nature herself; they are not projected by us or expressive of our psychological attitudes. They are ingredient not in all of nature, but in all of living nature. Living things bear within them norms that ground the correctness of our evaluations. Evaluation occurs at "the intersection of two types of propositions: on the one hand, Aristotelian categoricals (life form descriptions relating to the species), and on the other, propositions about particular individuals that are the subject of evaluation." (33)
Foot bravely resists the fact-value and fact-norm dichotomies. (You could say she will not stand for them.) Values and norms are neither ideal nor abstract objects in a Platonic realm apart, as Continental axiologists such as Max Scheler and Nicolai Hartmann maintained, nor are they psychological projections. Nor do they come from God. They are intrinsically ingredient in natural facts.
How does the resistance to the dichotomies go? We start with an Aristotelian categorical such as 'The deer is an animal whose form of defense is flight.' The sentence is "about a species at a given historical time . . . ." (29) The individual as a member of its species is intrinsically or naturally good if it is able to serve its species by maintaining itself in existence and reproducing. The species sets a standard that the individual specimen either meets or fails to meet. Thus the species is inherently normative.
I now note something not mentioned by Foot but which I think is true. An individual organism does not reproduce itself; it produces (usually in conjunction with an opposite sexed partner) an organism distinct from itself, the offspring. Thus an individual's 'reproduction' is quite unlike an individual's self-maintenance. It is the species that reproduces itself, strictly speaking, not the individual. A biological individual needs ancestors but it doesn't need descendants. The species needs descendants. Otherwise it becomes extinct.
Evaluation of Humans in Light of Contribution to Species?
I mention this to underscore the fact that Foot evaluates individuals and their parts, traits, and actions in the light of the species to which the individual belongs. The goodness of a living thing "depends directly on the relation of an individual to the 'life form' of its species." (27) This is said to hold for all living things including human animals. It would seem to follow that human individuals have no ultimate intrinsic value or goodness as individuals: their value and goodness is relative to the contribution they make to the health and preservation of the species. This is going to be a problem for those of us with a personalist bent. Perhaps we could say that for Foot man is a species-being in that his existence and flourishing are necessarily tied to his being a specimen of a species. (It would make an interesting post to explore how this relates, if it does, to the Marxian notion of Gattungswesen.)
For example, suppose a deer is born with deformed limbs that prevent its engaging in swift flight from predators. This fact about it makes it an intrinsically or naturally bad deer. For such a deer will not be able to serve its species by preserving itself in existence until it can reproduce. The evaluation of an individual deer is conducted solely in the light of its relation to its species. It is not evaluated as an individual in its own right.
I am not suggesting that deer be evaluated as individuals in their own right with an intrinsic moral worth that would make it wrong to treat them as means to our ends as opposed to treating them as ends in themselves. What I am doing is preparing to resist Foot's claim that human beings can be evaluated in the same way that plants and non-human animals are evaluated.
Or consider the roots of an oak tree. (46) What makes them good roots? In virtue of what do they have this evaluative/normative property? They are good because they are robust, not stunted; they go deep and wide in search of water and nutrients; they do not remain near the surface or near the tree. They are good because they are healthy. They are healthy because they preserve the oak in existence so that it can contribute to the propagation of the species. Bad roots, then, are defective roots, roots that don't serve the propagation of the species.
So evaluative properties are 'rooted in' — pun intended! — factual, empirically discernible, characteristics of living things. (The empirical detectability of normative properties makes Foot a cognitivist in meta-ethics.) The vitality of the roots and their goodness are one in reality. We can prise apart the factual from the evaluative mentally, but in reality there is no distinction. Foot does not say this in so many words, but surely this is what her position implies. Somehow, the factual and the normative are one. There is no dichotomy, split, dualism — at least not in reality outside the mind. If so, there is no problem of deriving norms from facts. The facts of nature are 'already' normative. The rabbit is already in the hat: no magic. The health of the roots and their goodness are somehow the same.
Foot would of course resist the following Moorean move: "These roots are healthy, but are they good?" You may recall that G. E. Moore famously responded to the hedonist's claim that the only goods are pleasures by asking, in effect: But is pleasure good? The Moorean point is that the sense of 'good' allows us reasonably to resist the identification of goodness and pleasure. For it remains to Moore and his acolytes an open question whether pleasure really is good.
Dualism in Through the Back Door
Note, however, that this monism is purchased in the coin of an extra-mental dualism, namely, that between species and specimen. The normative properties are 'inscribed' in the species if you will. A three-legged cat is a defective cat, but still a cat: it is is a defective specimen of its species. The generic generalization 'Cats are four-legged' cannot be refuted by adducing a three-legged cat. This is because 'cat' in the Aristotelian categorical, which is a generic generalization, is about the species, or, as Foot also writes, the life form of the species, which is distinct from any and all of its specimens. The species is normative for its specimens. The species is not identical to any one of its specimens, nor is it identical to all the specimens taken together. For more on generic generalizations, see Generic Statements.
In sum, the sameness or 'monism' of normative and factual properties presupposes the dualism of species and specimen. The ontological status of species, however, remains murky.
The idea, then, is that the species to which the individual organism belongs encapsulates norms of goodness for its members which the individual either meets or fails to meet. If an individual deer, say, satisfies the norms 'inscribed' in the species to which it belongs, then it is a good deer. Otherwise it is not. This allows for evaluations to be objectively either true or false.
Interim Critical Remarks
A. This naturalistic scheme strikes me as obscure because the status of species has not been sufficiently clarified. Aristotelian categoricals are generic statements about species, but what exactly are species or the "life forms of species"? The species peacock presumably exists only in individual peacocks, but is not identical to any such individual or to the whole lot of them. (The species is not an extensional entity such as a mereological sum, or a set.) It looks to be an immanent universal, a one-in-many. And this in a two-fold sense: (i) the species is in the individual as a sort of ontological constituent of it, and (ii) a species cannot exist uninstantiated. (A transcendent universal is a one-over-many.) But then species, as immanent universals, are not natural in the very same sense in which an individual peacock is natural, i.e., in space and time at a definite spatiotemporal location, and only there. (Immanent universals are multiply located.) So Foot's natural norms are not natural in the same sense in which the organisms of which they are the norms are natural.
I am tempted to say, with a certain amount of poetic excess, that Foot's natural norms are secularized Platonic Forms, Forms that that been brought down from the superlunary and installed in the sublunary.
There are two senses of 'nature' in play here as you may have noticed. In one sense, nature is just the space-time system and its contents. In this sense, nature is just the physical universe, the material world. In a second sense, a nature is an essence. Thus it is man's nature to be rational as it is God's nature to be good; but only man is a natural being, i.e., a denizen of the material world. God by contrast is a super-natural being. One could say that for an Aristotelian, 'sublunary' natures (essences that encapsulate norms) are in nature (the space-time system). God's nature (essence), however, is not in nature (the space-time manifold).
So there still is a fact-norm distinction in the form of the distinction between a member of a living species and the species. The member is a physical individual, a particular lion for example. The species is an essence which is not a physical individual but an immanent universal. This whole scheme will remain murky until it is explained what a species is and how it is present in its members. We are entangled in the the ancient problem of universals. Foot's norms are not outside of things in a realm apart, nor are they in the mind; they are 'in' things, but not parceled out among the things they are in. But what does this 'in' mean exactly? What exactly is the ontological status of a species?
My experience with Aristotelians is that they do not satisfactorily confront, let alone solve, the various problems that arise in this connection.
B. My second remark concerns an individual organism that cannot serve its species such as an infertile human male, or a human female who cannot have children and is therefore biologically defective in this respect. Does her biological defect make her a bad human being? Foot would seem to have to say yes: the defective woman does not come up to the norm for her species. She is abnormal in a normative sense and not merely in a statistical sense. She is not a good woman! How is this any different from the case of the lame deer? A lame deer is a defective deer, hence not a good deer. It is not a good deer because it cannot flee from predators thereby maintaining its life so that it can go on to procreate and serve its species by so doing. Likewise, a woman who cannot reproduce and fulfill her function in service to her species is a defective woman who fails of her purpose and is therefore a bad woman, not morally bad, of course since no free will is involved, but objectively bad nonetheless.
Foot wants to bring normativity down to earth from Plato's heaven; at the same time she wants to extrude it from the mind and install it in natural things outside the mind. This makes plenty of sense with respect to plants and non-human animals. But of course she wants to extend her scheme to humans as well. This is where trouble starts.
Foot sees the individual organism in the light of the species: as a specimen of the species and not as an individual in its own right. This is not a problem for plants and non-human animals, with the possible exception of our pets. But Foot wants to extend her natural normativity scheme to humans as well. But how can what I ought to do, and what I ought not to do, and what I should be and how I should be, be dictated by my species membership? Am I just an animal, a bit of the world's fauna? I am an animal, but I am also a person: not just a material object in a material world, but a conscious and self-conscious subject for whom there is a world.
The personalist approach I take does not sit well within an Aristotelian naturalism.
Is Life the Ultimate Principle of Evaluation?
C. For Foot, as for Nietzsche, life is the ultimate principle of evaluation, physical life, natural life, the life of material beings in space and time, mortal life, life that inevitably loses in the battle against death. So the goodness of a human action or disposition is "simply a fact about a given feature of a certain kind of living thing." (5) Badness, then, is natural defect and this goes for humans too: "moral defect is a form of natural defect." (27) Dwell on that for a moment: MORAL defect is a form of natural defect. A morally bad man, however, is not morally bad qua animal, but qua person where personhood includes free agency. How then can moral defect be a form of natural defect? If I am wholly natural, just a highly evolved animal, then I am subject to nature's determinism which is arguably incompatible with moral responsibility and freedom of the will.
If Foot is right, then a moral defect in a person is never a spiritual defect, but in every case a natural defect. The good man is the healthy man, the well-functioning man, where moral health is just a kind of natural health. But the health of a healthy specimen derives from its exercise of its proper function which is dictated by its species. A healthy specimen is one that serves its species. A good tiger is a good predator, and woe unto you if you a member of a species that is prey to such a predator. The tiger's job is to eat you and to be a good tiger he must do his job well. And so it seems that a good Aryan man would then be a man who serves the Aryan race by developing all his faculties so that he can most effectively secure the Lebensraum and such that he needs, not just to survive, but to flourish, and above all to procreate and propagate, and woe unto you if you are a member of weaker race, a Slavic race, say, fit to be slaves of a master race. As a member of a race incapable of exercising to the full the virtues (powers) of a characteristic member of a master race, one is then, naturally, sub-human, an Untermensch. A Mensch, to be sure, but a defective Mensch, and because naturally defective, or at least naturally inferior, then naturally bad and thus morally bad.
This appears to be a consequence of taking life to be the ultimate principle of evaluation.
At this point the fans of Foot are beginning to scream in protest. But my point here is not to smear Foot, but to explore her kind of meta-ethical naturalism. Actually, I am just trying to understand it. But to understand a position you have to understand what it entails. There is philosophy-as-worldview and philosophy-as-inquiry. This is the latter. My intent is not polemical. World-view ‘philosophers’ polemicize. Real philosophers don’t.
Anti-Individualist and Anti-Personalist?
Foot's naturalism seems to imply a sort of anti-individualism and anti-personalism. Foot views the individual human being as an organism in nature, objectivistically, biologically, from an external, third-person point of view. She sees a man, not as a person, a subject, but as a specimen of a species, an instance of a type, whose value is tied necessarily to fulfilling the demands of the type. She also seems to be suggesting that one's fulfillment as a human being necessarily involves living in and through and for the species, like a good Gattungswesen.
So even if a position like Foot's has the resources to prevent a slide into eugenics, or into the sort of racism that would justify slavery and the exploitation of the naturally inferior, there is still the troubling anti-personalism of it.
A Denial of Transcendence?
How then could a monk's choice of celibacy for himself be a morally good choice? Presumably only if it contributes to the flourishing of the human species. But suppose our monk is not a scientist, or any other benefactor of humanity, but a hermit wholly devoted to seeking union with God. Could Foot's framework accommodate the goodness of such a life choice? It is not clear to me how. It would seem that the choice to become a celibate monk or nun who lives solely for union with God would have to be evaluated on a Footian meta-ethics as morally bad, as a defective life choice. The implication would seem to be that such a person has thrown his life away.
Now of course that would be the case if there is no God. But suppose that God and the soul are real. Could a Footian stance accommodate the moral choiceworthiness of the eremitic monk's choice on that assumption? It is not clear to me how.
For Foot, norms are real: they are not conventional, socially constructed, or fictional. Although real, they do not come from God, nor do they just exist as abstract/ideal objects in a Platonic topos ouranios. Norms, then, are grounded in nature. Plausible, but ultimately untenable for the reasons given above.
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