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The Perverted Faculty Argument (PFA) is a strand of Thomistic (Thomas Aquinas) thinking that is intertwined with Natural Law Theory (NLT)  of which I have been blogging lately. I was challenged by Vincent Torley recently to, if I was going to attack the PFA (as I have done here and here), attack the best form of the argument. The claim was that Timothy Hsiao’s defence was the best. It can be found here.

I also recently posted a piece concerning Hsiao’s formulation of the Perverted Faculty Argument (PFA). I initially posted Ficino’s notes on this and he did a great job at showing some pretty terminal weaknesses with it. My first post on this formulation was only be concerned with Premise (1) and found it to be wanting. This post looks at Premise (2).

Here is his version of the PFA:

(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 that are 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)

Let’s quickly concentrate on the opening brace of premises:

(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.

Hsiao’s Defence

Hsiao spends some short time defending premises (1) and (2), including:

All examples of goodness follow this basic model. We cannot say that something is good or bad unless we first know what its function is. To borrow an example from Geach, I cannot know what 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. As Geach puts it, there is “no such thing as being just good or bad, there is only being a good or bad so-and-so.”7 When we say that something is good, what we are really saying is that it is a good member of some kind K with function F.

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. He continues:

Some have objected to this by pointing out that something that is a good member of its essential kind can nevertheless still be bad. For example, a bomb that kills thousands of people may be good as far as bombs are concerned, but surely it is still bad, even if properly fulfills its function as a bomb. Hence, goodness cannot be defined in terms of proper functioning. But this objection, far from undermining the Aristotelian conception of goodness, actually affirms it. Since goodness is relative to a particular kind or function, something that is good for one kind of thing may be bad for another kind of thing. Indeed, the very reason why we say that a bomb is bad is because it is bad for the kind “human being.” But something that is bad for us—say, a lack of oxygen—may be good for something else (for example, certain kinds of bacteria). So long as we keep this crucial point in mind, there is no difficulty in saying that one and the same thing can be both good and bad when considered under different descriptions. In this way, the Aristotelian conception of goodness aligns nicely with our intuitions.

This is really interesting because it opens up a whole can of worms in terms of natural law. Indeed, it looks to show it meaningful goodness has some kind of evaluative hierarchy. If you can say a bomb is a good bomb is bad for human being, then this hides an awful lot of moral philosophising. Was the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima definitely bad, end of? Could you not employ some kind of moral consequentialism, as was, in order to argue that a greater good came from it (or any other bomb ever used, ironically using Just War Theory – justified by Aquinas himself). Things get complex here. And you could employ this multiplicity of goods in terms of humans – a 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”! How do these pluralistic goods get evaluated comparatively?

This “crucial point” to which he refers is woefully under-explained and -justified.

Conditionals and Hypotheticals

Here we have a moral ought. But, and I have argued this for years, oughts are thoroughly problematic. Oughts depend on complete conditional sentences – those with a protasis and an apodosis. These are if…then clauses. A statement like “I ought to put oil in my car engine” appears to make sense because it hides an unspoken protasis: “If I want my engine to run well [, then…]”. However, we can change this up by stating, “If I am testing to see how engines fail without oil…” then I might have an antithetical apodosis of “…then I ought not put oil in my car engine.”

In other words, oughts are entirely contextual and depend on the conceived function in the mind of the agent making the claim (in the shape of the protasis (if clause). This links back to issues with the first premise in the sense of being mind-dependent.

I can use a pencil or chair to do whatever I want it to. I might also want my chair to do certain things: have a drinks holder, be uncomfortable to my enemy, allow me to sit with my arm around my partner, and so on. These functions are subjective, agent-dependent. Yes, we might agree on certain basic functions as a group of people for pragmatic, communicative reasons. But these might also change over time, geography and culture or people. A chair could be:

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…and so on.

Naturalistic Fallacy

A squirrel ought not be a certain way, and its only “functional” aspects (if you really want to argue about function) should really be seen in terms of evolution – for survival to reproductive age, and for reproduction. But this ends up looking like the naturalistic fallacy – things are good because nature has made them this way. Ducks “rape”, and this makes evolutionary sense in their context. Does it make it good?

In the same way, a high-status male human, such as a king, with a huge harem of concubines, makes sense in evolutionary terms (the selfish gene etc.) but is difficult to argue for under ordinary morality and, one would assume, natural law.

But even were a squirrel or human to have intrinsic prescribed oughts, then how do we know what these oughts were? And would they not actually be extrinsically defined and derived anyway? Do we look at evolution and guess as to what the functional aspects of humans and squirrels are and then define the oughts from these natural phenomena (thus guessing God’s intentions in designing it so)? Or do we look at the Bible or some other revelation and then interpret that in terms of some kind of natural paradigm? In which case, the Bible appears to be where the morality is defined or derived and the natural law aspect is somewhat post hoc rationalised.

There is also the idea, as seen often within moral philosophy, as to the meta-ethical question as from whence morality comes – is it found in an agent in terms of their chracteristics, or in an action, such as with consequentialism? Deontology has morality arguably housed in the mora rule, but this can also be seen in the action to adhere to the moral rule. Or intention. O so on and so forth. The point is that “If x is a good K, then x is good by being as Ks ought to be.” hides an awful lot of meta-ethical assumptions.

Where we saw Premise (1) as thoroughly problematic, we can see that Premise (2) fares no better at all.



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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...