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Why Beards and Sugarless Chewing Gum Aren’t Refutations of the Perverted Faculty Argument (PFA)

What makes human actions good or bad? Eagles are good when they fly and raise their young, oak trees are good when they grow to due size. Notice here that some eagles who can’t fly have a natural defect, so too oak trees with stunted growth have a problem. But the proper size for an oak tree isn’t that of an eagle, nor are oak trees that cannot fly bad oaks. What makes something good depends upon the corresponding nature it has in question. As with organisms, so too with actions, even human actions—what makes them good or bad depends upon the nature of the action in question. Seeing is good insofar as color is being apprehended, thinking insofar as thoughts are being apprehended, growing insofar as due size is being actualized, and reproducing insofar as new life is being actualized. But note here that there can be failed actions that occur apart from any human intentionality—sometimes a human doesn’t grow to proper size as in the case of midgets. Likewise, sometimes in having sex new human life doesn’t come into existence as in the case of the infertile woman. These failed actions we might say contain a natural defect and so are bad metaphysically speaking, but that doesn’t mean they are bad in the moral order. For an action to be bad in the moral order what is required is that it proceed from an act of the intellect and will. In other words, it has to be willed in at least some sense. So, someone who willed to use his sight not to apprehend colors (or their lack) would be acting immorally. Of course, such a scenario is metaphysically and physically impossible because the power of sight cannot be activated unless colors are present. However, with the case of the reproductive capacity we may notice there is a difference. It can be activated in a manner not conducive to the good of new life. It’s possible for its use to be perverted, that is, ordered away from its end as established by nature. According to traditional morality, such a use is a morally bad action.

The aforementioned argument, in recent years, has been given the title: the perverted faculty argument (PFA). It comes in various forms, or variants. I wish to point out here that Johnathan Pearce in his article “Beards and the Perverted Faculty Argument” has given us various nice examples of bad or unsound versions of the argument.

Pearce claims that Clement of Alexandria’s argument against cutting one’s beard is a version of the perverted faculty argument. The text of Clement I have quoted below:

But for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, to arrange his hair at the looking-glass, to shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them, how womanly! And, in truth, unless you saw them naked, you would suppose them to be women. For although not allowed to wear gold, yet out of effeminate desire they enwreath their latches and fringes with leaves of gold; or, getting certain spherical figures of the same metal made, they fasten them to their ankles, and hang them from their necks. This is a device of enervated men, who are dragged to the women’s apartments, amphibious and lecherous beasts. For this is a meretricious and impious form of snare. For God wished women to be smooth, and rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane; but has adorned man, like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him, as an attribute of manhood, with shaggy breasts — a sign this of strength and rule. So also cocks, which fight in defense of the hens, he has decked with combs, as it were helmets; and so high a value does God set on these locks, that He orders them to make their appearance on men simultaneously with discretion, and delighted with a venerable look, has honoured gravity of countenance with grey hairs. But wisdom, and discriminating judgments that are hoary with wisdom, attain maturity with time, and by the vigour of long experience give strength to old age, producing grey hairs, the admirable flower of venerable wisdom, conciliating confidence. This, then, the mark of the man, the beard, by which he is seen to be a man, is older than Eve, and is the token of the superior nature. In this God deemed it right that he should excel, and dispersed hair over man's whole body. Whatever smoothness and softness was in him He abstracted from his side when He formed the woman Eve, physically receptive, his partner in parentage, his help in household management, while he (for he had parted with all smoothness) remained a man, and shows himself man. And to him has been assigned action, as to her suffering; for what is shaggy is drier and warmer than what is smooth. Wherefore males have both more hair and more heat than females, animals that are entire than the emasculated, perfect than imperfect. It is therefore impious to desecrate the symbol of manhood, hairiness (

What exactly is Clement’s argument? Here’s one possible interpretation:

1. God gave man hair as a symbol of his manhood.

2. To cut off man’s hair is to cut off this symbol of manhood.

3. Cutting off a symbol of manhood is immoral [implicit].

4. Thus, to cut off man’s hair is immoral.

Notice, strictly speaking this isn’t exactly the perverted faculty argument as defended by authors like Edward Feser, Timothy Hsiao, or John Skalko. The PFA in its true form holds the following major premise: (1) any action not ordered to its natural end is a disordered action. Notice that Clement’s argument doesn’t endorse that major premise. Clement’s argument, by contrast, relies upon the dubious and implicit third premise, which isn’t stated explicitly in the original text. Further, his third premise is false. You can rightly destroy Nazi or Communist flags, which are symbols of bad nations. You can rightly destroy bank symbols (in some cases), or symbols for eagles, etc. So why can’t you destroy symbols or natural signs for man? The third premise of Clement’s argument is false and it’s hard to see how it strictly qualifies as a perverted faculty argument.

Someone may claim really what the argument is saying is this:

1. God gave man beards to be used only to show that you’re a man.

2. Using something for what God didn’t intend it to be used is immoral.

3. Thus, using beards not for such ends is immoral.

The first premise is dubious and neither Feser, nor Hsiao, nor Skalko would endorse it.

What about other versions of the perverted faculty argument? Pearce claims there are two: (1) blocking any natural function is immoral, and (2) diverting a faculty away from its natural function is immoral. The first version of the PFA Pearce rightly points out is unsound. Using anti-perspirants to prevent the sweat glands from sweating is perfectly okay, as is using earplugs to prevent hearing from occurring. The second version of the argument, however, is perfectly sound provided that it be interpreted properly. In other words, there are no good counterexamples to the claim that “using any faculty in any manner that isn’t ordered towards its natural end is immoral.” To quote from Skalko’s book:

Engaging in an action not ordered towards its natural end is not the same as preventing a natural process from happening. In using earplugs one is not engaging the action of hearing and then also failing to order this act of hearing to its natural end. Rather, in using earplugs one is simply preventing the activity of hearing from occurring….Likewise, in shaving one’s head, one is not engaging in the action of growing hair and also failing to order growing hair to its natural end (Disordered Actions, 225-226).

Pearce also seems to think that chewing gum is a problem for PFA version (2). He’s wrong. To quote again from Skalko’s book:

Further, even if the nutritive faculty is engaged [by someone chewing sugarless gum he] would still be acting for its proper end insofar as even sugarless chewing gum technically has some nutritional value, albeit minimal (such as a few grams of carbohydrates; cf. Elizabeth Wolfenden, “Nutrition Information on Extra Sugar Free Gum,”….). Generally, it is not considered healthy to swallow the gum base, although the body will merely pass it through (Ibid., 316).

There are no good counterexamples against the perverted faculty argument as stated. Neither shaving one’s beard, nor chewing sugarless gum are a problem for the defender of the PFA. It’s time to give the argument an honest, open-minded look and consider that it might just be sound.

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