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Some Thoughts on Jonathan Pearce’s Unsound Arguments on the Perverted Faculty Argument




Timothy Hsiao has taken much time to defend what is famously called the perverted faculty argument. In its basic form the argument claims that using a faculty not for its natural end is immoral. Aquinas endorsed a version of it, as did Augustine. Jonathan Pearce has undertaken to offer some criticisms of Hsiao’s rendition of the argument. Let us investigate here to see whether any of his criticisms are sound. I will limit myself in this post to his blog post “Some Thoughts Hsiao’s Perverted Faculty Argument.”


Pearce’s Criticisms


In reply to his short post (thank God!), I will largely repeat what Pearce says here and then give a brief reply to each point in the text:


1. Pearce: “One organ can be an instrument for more than one faculty….[The PFA] assumes that every use of our naughty bits is an actualization of the faculty of reproduction. I don’t think he’s given reason to accept this. It’s not obvious that, say, a woman stroking her clitoris and experiencing pleasure and relaxation is directing her faculty of reproduction at all.


Did Pearce ever read what a natural law theorist had to say about Aristotle’s account of faculties in relation to the perverted faculty argument? Apparently not, because if he did he would have found that Skalko in his book Disordered Actions very clearly shows how an organ can be the instrument of various powers and how this doesn’t in the least bit mitigate from the core of the argument. The penis has two underlying faculties, namely, the nutritive power (take this in the broad Aristotelian sense as ordered towards bodily health so in this manner urination gets rid of excess waste and so maintains the body’s health), as well as the reproductive power. When used for urinating there is no engagement of the reproductive power. So, this isn’t a case of engaging a faculty not for its natural end. Pearce here is really attacking a premise that these natural law theorists don’t hold.


His example of a woman stroking her clitoris for pleasure misses the point: the clitoris is part of the reproductive power. So, using it in such a manner is immoral.


2. Pearce claims that “Our higher natural faculties, spirit/emotion and intellect, as Hsiao acknowledges, can override lower ones in directing use of organs: e.g. your hands instead of your mouth when you are speaking American Sign Language. You use your hands for an end toward which they are not intended (speech) and restrain your mouth from serving one of its natural faculties to achieve a natural end for humans (speech).”


Okay, so what? How does this show any of the premises of the PFA are false? Presumably Pearce thinks that the natural end of the hands doesn’t include speech. This, however, is mistaken. The hands are part of the basic ability to move. Using them in the case of making hand signals via ASL still involves moving the hands. There is no perversion of a faculty there. Restraining your mouth from speaking never occurs because the mouth is ruled despotically by the will. What this means is that the mouth cannot rebel against an act of the will to move it; the penis by contrast sometimes rises against or without an act of the will. To say the mouth is restrained then is really to speak abusively. What really occurs is the person chooses not to move the mouth, even though perhaps his irascible appetite desires it. The conflict then is between the will and the person’s emotion of anger, not between the mouth and the will. Once again not choosing to move the mouth isn’t an act of engaging a faculty not for its natural end. Not choosing to move the mouth or even choosing not to move it is rather a case of not engaging or choosing not to engage the power of movement.


3. Pearce claims, “[Hsiao] doesn’t consider activities that are ends in themselves vs those that serve ends, and higher ends of higher parts of soul trumping lower ones, e.g. intercourse to serve a relationship of love AND done so as to achieve the natural end (cf. Politics VIII.5-6) of limiting family size together trump the end of pumping out another kid.”


Again, how does this show any of the premises of Hsiao’s PFA are false? It doesn’t. All it shows is that there is a hierarchy of ends, which of course all defenders of the PFA acknowledge. But this doesn’t mean you can use a power not for its proximate natural end, otherwise we can tell lies, sodomize, or even intentionally kill the innocent for the sake of the common good, etc. The lower powers are indeed ordered to the sake of the higher, but this doesn’t entail that we can use them in a manner contrary to what their natural end is. Sure the nutritive power is ordered to bodily health which in turn is for the sake of virtue but this doesn’t entail that one can intentionally use the nutritive for consuming poison for the sake of virtue. Then again maybe Pearce is a consequentialist and doesn’t care?


4. Pearce: Hsiao equivocates between moral and teleological oughts.


Pray do tell Mr. Pearce, what is the difference between these two types of oughts when it comes to human beings! Give me one case of a teleological ought that isn’t a moral ought or vice-versa when applied to the realm of human action. There is no such distinction.


You may say a ship-captain ought to guide his boat to safety qua ship captain, but this isn’t a moral ought. Well, Aquinas would disagree. All human actions are moral actions so the human action of guiding the boat to safety is still a moral action and something that ought to be done qua ship captain, otherwise he is shirking his duty and acting contrary to virtue (e.g. his promise he made to deliver the cargo, etc.).


Say for the sake of argument all of Hsiao’s oughts are teleological (and not moral). But then his conclusion would still entail that human beings ought to do actions that fulfill their faculties and not do actions that use their faculties not for their natural ends. This would still entail you ought not to engage in contraceptive or same-sex sexual activity.


5. Pearce via Ficino: “[Hsiao] tries to stitch deontology into his eudaimonistic ethics, e.g. p. 213 “There is a difference between failing to realize a goal toward which you are already aiming, and failing to aim toward a goal that you should be attempting to pursue,.” or p. 214 “It is wrong to misuse our faculties.” Eudaimonistic ethics would come at an issue from whether you harm or care for your soul, rather than from what rule you are obligated to follow. Hsiao’s analysis seems to blend these in a confused and perhaps sophistical way.


How does Hsiao’s quoted distinction between failed actions and failing to aim confuse Kantian and Aristotelian ethics? Even Aristotle and Aquinas would have realized such a distinction between a man who fails to successfully pay his debts due to being robbed enroute versus a man who fails to even to aim at paying his debts due to being too greedy or unjust. Eudaimonia ethics has moral oughts (or even teleological oughts if there is such a thing), but that doesn’t mean all statements about eudaimonia are deontological; otherwise, Aristotle would be Kant prior to Kant. Ficino’s statement is anachronistic.


Aristotle cared much about harming your soul, but the harm to the soul comes about by using the faculties of the soul improperly. Pearce and Ficino’s reading of eudaimonia ethics is much like the 'Christian' Nazi who says “But I was just trying to preserve my soul by ignoring the plight of the Jews!”

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