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Why Critics of the PFA Need to Actually Read What NL Theorists Wrote



Ink can be spilled without giving any good to reason to believe an argument is false. Such is the case with a recent attack on Timothy Hsiao’s Perverted Faculty Argument (PFA) by Jonathan Pearce. Hsiao states the PFA as follows:


(1) For any x that is a K, if x is good, then x is a good K.

(2) If x is a good K, then x is good by being as Ks ought to be.

(3) Therefore, if x is a good human action, then x is good by being as human actions ought to be (From 1-2)

(4) Human actions ought to be aimed at human goods proper to them.

(5) Human goods are that which fulfills human faculties.

(6) Therefore, human actions ought to be aimed at that which fulfills the human faculties that are proper to them (From 4, 5).

(7) Therefore, if x is a good human action, then x is good by aiming at that which fulfills the human faculties that are proper to it. (From 3-6).


How might we understand Hsiao’s argument? Let’s use an example for the first premises: for any individual that is a human being, if that individual is good, then that individual is a good human being. What Hsiao means is that if some individual like Socrates is a human being and also good (in the complete sense as possessing no evil), then Socrates is also a good human being. In other words, Socrates possesses all those features that make him a good member of the species called human being. So, whatever makes all human beings good will also be found in Socrates. Thus, if justice, prudence, temperance, etc. are what makes all humans good, then Socrates will be just, prudent, temperant, etc.


The second premise entails that if Socrates is a good human, then he is good by being as humans ought to be. Likewise, if Fido is a good dog, then he is good by being as dogs ought to be (e.g. not missing any legs, exercises his cognitive abilities properly, doesn’t have memory lapses, etc.).


All of this should be very straightforward for those familiar with the work of Philippa Foot in her book Natural Goodness, published by Oxford University Press. It appears Jonathan Pearce never read this work.


Johnathan Pearce in his post, “Hsiao’s Perverted Faculty Argument and Moral Oughts” over at Patheos denies the second premise of Hsiao’s argument: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/tippling/2019/08/29/hsiaos-perverted-faculty-argument-and-moral-oughts/.


What reasons does Pearce give for denying the second premise? First, he mentions Hsiao’s support for the second premise, and then he critiques this support.


Hsiao’s support is: “We cannot saying that something is good or bad unless we first know what its function is. To borrow an example from Geach, I cannot know that a good hygrometer is if I do not know what hygrometers are for. Ascriptions of goodness and badness only make sense when considered in relation to how something ought to be by nature.”


Pearce critiques that reasoning in just two sentences: “This looks to be a case of seeing humans in this truly functional and arguably instrumental manner. Things are only good for that which they are used for.”


But it appears (once again) that Pearce has not read Hsiao nor any other natural law theorist that carefully on this matter. Natural law (NL) theory does not claim that things are only good for what they are used for. There are other senses of goodness such as the way in which good is convertible with being (what we might call the basic ontological sense, the way in which good is a transcendental). If things were only good for what they are used for, then everything that’s used would be morally good in all cases whatsoever. In other words, if the will, the intellect, the hands, and an axe were used for murder, then because they are good for whatever they are used for, then such use would be morally good. But practically no NL theorist has ever claimed such a stupid view. Pearce would do well to actually pick up some natural law theorist’s book and read what he/she wrote, until then his blog looks much like an undergrad spouting off dumb stuff on an exam. If NL theorists understood the function of things as simply whatever they are used for, then this would be a huge problem for a natural law. But NL philosophers, of course, such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Feser, et al. have a much more nuanced account of teleology than the caricature Pearce mentions.


The second reason Pearce gives to question the second premise is that Pearce notices that this sense of goodness has a type of relativity to it. In other words, what’s good for one type of being might be bad for another. A good bomb may have good features that are bad for human beings in other ways. What’s good for a tiger (that it eats a deer) is bad for the deer. This is true, but the point is that for morality what really counts is what’s good for human beings, not what’s good for bombs, tigers, or deer as such.


Pearce raises many questions, which are easily answered:

“Was the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima definitely bad, end of?” My reply: Yes, if it was used to intentionally kill the innocent, it was murder as Elizabeth Anscombe has pointed out. It was bad for human beings, even those who dropped it (if it was murder), because they participated in an act of injustice (for the record: I am agnostic on this point as perhaps it could be justified under double effect and it really depends upon whether a military site was targeted there or also the civilian population; I have read conflicting reports; but the point is if it was used to intentionally justify civilians, it was murder). Maybe in some other sense it’s good for someone, but the question is whether it’s really good for humans, not deer, and not just the Americans, but for human beings who in order to be good need to be just.


Pearce also asks: “could you employ this multiplicity of goods in terms of humans – a male homosexual male may be frustrating reproductive ends, but he could be ‘good for one kind of thing’ even if he ‘may be bad for another kind of thing’!” To which I answer: yes. In some respect such an action might be good, say it helps his physical fitness. But if it is bad in some other sense, as being against right use of the reproductive powers, then it is still bad. All it that is necessary for evil is some defect, whereas for good it must be complete.


Pearce and my readers would do well to read this article by Catherine Peters which addresses this topic in more detail: “The Objective Relativity of Goodness” (https://www.academia.edu/37636998/_The_Objective_Relativity_of_Goodness_a_rapprochement_between_Peter_Geach_and_Thomas_Aquinas_). Pearce seems completely unaware that serious NL thinkers have actually thought about this question.


So far Pearce has just attacked Hsiao’s support by either offering a strawman of his position or by merely asking questions that don’t really entail much of any problem for Hsiao. Does Pearce’s article contain any serious objections? Not really. He only really makes two more points: hey, guys look oughts are disguised conditionals!!! OMG!!! Second, he briefly mentions the naturalistic fallacy, but without realizing both that the fallacy doesn’t apply to NL reasoning and that natural law theorists don’t mean nature in some popular sense as people do when they say “this food is natural” or “AC is unnatural” or “this is natural because it’s doing what it does at evolved to do.” Those senses of natural mean (a) what’s not genetically modified, (b) what’s not made by human artifice, and (c) what’s acting according to how it evolved. NL doesn’t really hold any of those views. There are many senses of nature which even the great natural law theorist Aquinas takes note of. Further, Skalko in his article “Is Sodomy Against Nature? A Thomistic Appraisal” gives a detailed analysis of the different senses of nature. Anyway, note that the relevant sense of nature for NL is both the sense of nature as essence and as function, that for which a thing is. The relevant account of teleology isn’t the evolutionary one. It’s rather known from observation of what happens for the most part, and abstracting what the relevant function is. Aristotle did this quite well in his De Anima (although not in all cases in his biological works). To claim that the function of something is what it evolved for is problematic for at least two reasons. One, that would entail we cannot know a thing’s function is without knowing it’s evolutionary history. Two, that would entail that any organism that came into existence ex nihilo couldn’t have any function for any of its body parts or powers even if it was practically identical to what others human beings look like (these objections are borrowed from Feser).


At the end of the day, Pearce just hasn’t read much of the relevant literature or philosophy. So, when he claims that the second premise “hides an awful lot of meta-ethical assumptions” he’s right, but really just needs to do the meta-ethics or read what NL has said about the topic.

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