Jonathan MS Pearce: My Atheistic Moral Philosophy

I want to briefly comment on Jonathan MS Pearce’s post My Atheistic Moral Philosophy; Objective, Subjective and Theistic Morality. Recently, in a comment thread on his site, I made the comment that many atheists do not have beliefs that can provide a foundation for objective morality. A group of atheists responded by saying I was ignorant and/or evil for saying such a thing. What is ironic is that in the linked post the very host of the site indicates he is just such an atheist who does not have beliefs that can provide a foundation for objective morality.

What follows is not a refutation of his beliefs nor a defense of my beliefs. It is a contrast of two belief systems illustrating that denying the existence of God often has other correlates we do not think about regularly.

Concerning abstract ideas, Pearce says he is a conceptual nominalist while I consider myself an Aristotelian realist. Pearce does not believe each individual human shares humanity with every other human because humanity is only in the mind. I believe humanity exists both in each human being as its essence and in the mind of God. This difference between us plays out in, for example, discussions of abortion. Pearce will try to construct an idea of personhood and say it does not apply to the fetus. I will try to discover the essence of the fetus and determine that it is as human as you or I. He’s pro-choice and I’m pro-life. Pearce’s position does not provide an extra-mental reality to discover when deciding what things are while mine does.

Pearce believes reason can help us determine the best course of action to achieve a particular goal. However, the goal we try to achieve is, he says, subjective not objective. Apparently he believes there is no objective reason to choose one goal over another. I believe the prescribed ends for each person are instilled into our very nature. Our mind is for knowing, our eyes are for seeing, our ears are for hearing, etc. We can consider two possible goals: (1) getting glasses to restore our sight or (2) gouging our eyes out because we want to be blind. Since the natural end of the eye is sight the first option is the objectively good action to take. Note how our different positions will not effect only morality. It will effect things like health and well-being. The idea of an organ functioning properly relies on an idea of what its proper function is.

Near the end his post Pearce writes: “I am not a subjectivist but more of an ideal observer theory adherent: the view that what is right is determined by the attitudes that a hypothetical ideal observer (a being who is perfectly rational, imaginative and informed) would have.” He does not want to be called a subjectivist but the problem with the ideal observer theory he summarizes is that there is no ideal goal. It is this element of his belief system that appears subjective even if he thinks there are objectively better ways to achieve some goal. But when I think of objective morality I think of objectively good goals/ends, not just objectively better ways to achieve subjective ends.

Added 2018-09-29

Pearce: Human Rights Don’t Exist until We Construct and Codify Them

Human rights don’t exist. By this, I mean, as I so often state, they do not have ontic existence – they do not exist outside of our minds. Like all abstract ideas, for a conceptual nominalist like myself, the existence of such mental entities (labels, morality and so on) is entirely in our minds. . . .

I, and most other humans, often talk about human rights as if they exist as objective entities. However, this is lazy language. They, like any aspect of language itself, are arrived at by consensus. When we agree on the meaning of any word, we codify that by putting it in a dictionary. . . .

Human rights, therefore, are the philosophical underpinnings of moral thought that form the foundations to law. As we grow into a global society, the term “human right” takes on a more transcendent quality that dismisses borders in favour of the human race: it becomes a universal term.

Keep in mind when reading that last paragraph that humanity has no ontic existence. Who is or is not a member of the human race is not something to be discovered but to be constructed. Rights also have no ontic existence. So, on Pearce’s view, the foundations of the law have no ontic existence and exist entirely in our minds.

The law works to enable an entity within its jurisdiction the capacity to do, have or be something. Without that, you just have one person or people making moral claims to another person or people. Law makes these things binding.

But isn’t the law then just one people (political majority or strongest side) making rules for another people (political minority or weakest side)?

The reality will be that we arrive at these agreements by consensus. Hopefully, the consensus utilises the tools of logic and reason, observation and data analysis.

“Hopefully” is right because, according to Pearce, not even seeking the truth is an objective good.

14 thoughts on “Jonathan MS Pearce: My Atheistic Moral Philosophy

  1. How does the idea of essentialism / natural ends / proper function apply to the variation and change we observe? What is the demarcation between something that is out of line with the ideal, and something that is just different? Taking the example of the eye, at what point is a collection of photosensitive cells serving the proper function? What was happening in terms of natural ends as the Mexican cave fish adapted to lose its sight?

  2. Good questions, Travis. There are no quick and easy answers.

    How does the idea of essentialism / natural ends / proper function apply to the variation and change we observe?

    There is no apparent difficulty in the possibility that an ancestor and a descendant have different essences or different natural ends. This would simply be another example of substantial change in a world full of substantial change. In fact, even when a descendant is an exact duplicate of its ancestor there is still substantial change occurring when the new organism comes into existence.

    The difficult part of your question, in my opinion, is concerning proper function. This is what I understand you to be driving at with your next question.

    What is the demarcation between something that is out of line with the ideal, and something that is just different?

    Keeping in mind that I’m not a biologist, it seems to me the two basic ends of life are an individual organism staying alive and that individual organism creating new organisms. With that in mind, something “out of line with the ideal” is something that inhibits the ability of the organism to stay alive or something that inhibits the ability of the organism to create new organisms. Something that is “just different” is something that does not effect these two ends.

    Taking the example of the eye, at what point is a collection of photosensitive cells serving the proper function?

    At one level we can ask whether the eye can see at all. If it can, I would say it’s at least partially functioning. But when is it functioning properly? That’s very hard to say but I think it needs to be linked to the two ends noted above.

    What was happening in terms of natural ends as the Mexican cave fish adapted to lose its sight?

    It would appear successive generations lost the natural end of sight.

  3. Thanks. I have trouble with the notion that “things” can have an inherent end or function when their utility is context dependent, subject to seemingly arbitrary change and demarcation, and is only defined in retrospect – above and beyond the difficulty of splitting the world up into discrete entities that come in and out of existence. I think your answer may suggest that I am overlooking a more fluid and continuous take on the essentialist paradigm, but I still find it easier to conceive that the categories, essences, ends and functions we assign are best explained as projections of our tendency to simplify the world at large by creating groups according to observed similarities and correlations. What might be a reason to believe that the essentialist perspective is a more accurate description of reality?

  4. I think we need to distinguish between inherent ends and proper function.

    In the broadest sense, final causes (inherent ends) explain why things change in this way as opposed to that way (e.g., why striking a match produces a flame instead of a burst of water). In other words, final causes provide a metaphysical explanation for the regularity we observe in the world. Final causes apply just as much to the inorganic world as they do to the organic world. To truly deny their existence would require denying the existence of change of any kind.

    What you’re questioning is the existence of proper function. You make the good point that proper function appears to depend on the environment the organism lives in. If this is unacceptable to you, then it would appear you have two routes open to you. The first route is rejecting the existence of proper function completely. The second route is saying I get to decide when I’m functioning properly or not. So, if I want to be blind I could say my unseeing eye is functioning properly while someone else who does not want to be blind could say his unseeing eye is not functioning properly. This route might get very tricky when it comes to mental illness.

    You say you “find it easier to conceive that the categories, essences, ends and functions we assign are best explained as projections of our tendency to simplify the world at large by creating groups according to observed similarities and correlations.” I would ask you how you can observe real similarities or correlations without being a metaphysical realist. Doesn’t there need to be real similarity somewhere in the world for you to identify it? Also, how can you speak of our tendencies unless we have final causes of some kind?

    This ties in to your final question, “What might be a reason to believe that the essentialist perspective is a more accurate description of reality?” There are two basic answers I can think of off the top of my head. First, it explains how there can be more than one of a particular kind of thing. For instance, consider two hydrogen atoms. Metaphysically, how do you explain both the similarities between the two atoms and the fact that there are two of them? An Aristotelian answer is that the two atoms share an essence and are individuated by matter. Second, essentialism explains identity through time. Consider your own existence. You continue to exist despite continually undergoing changes. Metaphysically, how is this possible? An Aristotelian answer is that your essence persists through time and the changes you undergo are accidental changes (as opposed to substantial changes).

    I have no idea how much of this jargon makes sense to you. As a starting point, I would suggest reading The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics by W. Norris Clarke. A work that focuses primarily on essentialism, is Real Essentialism by David Oderberg. Oderberg’s book does cover biology. It is a more difficult read, in my opinion, than Clarke’s book.

    Finally, I want to point out that if we become convinced that no two organisms truly share the same essence, that does not mean we should reject essentialism entirely. As I said earlier, essentialism is not merely an explanation for biological species. What we would believe is that each organism has a unique essence. We would still believe that, for example, two hydrogen atoms share an essence. And we would still believe that we can answer the question, “What is it?”, which is the basic question essentialism is trying to answer. In other words, a thing’s essence is what it is.

  5. Thanks. If you don’t mind I would be interested in taking this opportunity to see if I can get a better handle on the viability of this framework before deciding whether it’s worth digging into the kinds of resources you recommended.

    I’m interpreting your definition of final causes \ inherent ends as being analogous to the outcome of the application of natural laws, assuming we have all necessary information and the ideals assumed by those laws. Is that a fair analogy? I feel like that isn’t quite right because it is excluding commonality – I perceive essentialism as saying that two entities given the same classification (i.e., same essence) can have the same inherent end despite having different atomic structures, but my analogy wouldn’t allow that at full precision unless they were atomically identical. Is essentialism only applicable at low resolution? If so, how should we interpret that constraint on the paradigm – what are the implications and explanations for that constraint?

    I would ask you how you can observe real similarities or correlations without being a metaphysical realist

    I would say that the similarities and correlations are subjective constructions of our experience of the actual entity. If two objects are red, it means that their reflection of light is dominant within a certain range of frequencies, not that they share the property of ‘redness’. The property of redness is the classification we assign to the similar experience.

    consider two hydrogen atoms. Metaphysically, how do you explain both the similarities between the two atoms and the fact that there are two of them?

    I think my answer above equally applies here, but let me know if you think that there’s some nuance I’m overlooking.

    You continue to exist despite continually undergoing changes. Metaphysically, how is this possible?

    Because my identity is not temporally constrained. My identity spans both space and time, and subsumes the changes that occur over time.

  6. I’m interpreting your definition of final causes \ inherent ends as being analogous to the outcome of the application of natural laws, assuming we have all necessary information and the ideals assumed by those laws. Is that a fair analogy?

    W. N. Clarke defines final cause as: “that for the sake of which something is made or done. It is the goal, purpose, or end-tended-towards of the efficient cause itself, residing within it and guiding its action. It answers the question, Why was this made or done?”

    It isn’t simply what actually happens, but what can potentially happen. A substance can have multiple final causes. For example, liquid water could turn into ice or into gas.

    I feel like that isn’t quite right because it is excluding commonality – I perceive essentialism as saying that two entities given the same classification (i.e., same essence) can have the same inherent end despite having different atomic structures…

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here. I would agree that two substances that share an essence will share final causes despite having different atomic structures. If we were to drill down to the exact atomic structure of your eye and my eye I assume they would be different despite both of our eyes being able to see.

    Is essentialism only applicable at low resolution?

    Only substances are said to have essences. A substance needs to be distinguished from an accident, an artifact, and an aggregate. Substances would include atoms, chemicals, and organisms. I don’t think essentialism applies to only given resolutions, by which I understand you to be speaking of something like human-sized objects as opposed to atomic and sub-atomic particles.

    If two objects are red, it means that their reflection of light is dominant within a certain range of frequencies, not that they share the property of ‘redness’.

    I have no issue with you looking beyond our perception of red to the reflection of light. However, that implies there is still something that exists outside our minds. The object still has a nature of its own we could, in theory at least, discover. Do you believe there is a reality outside your mind? Do believe science ever discovers any facts at all about extra-mental reality?

    I think my answer above equally applies here, but let me know if you think that there’s some nuance I’m overlooking.

    If I was trying to discover the essence of hydrogen I might say it is an element with atomic number 1. Is it not true that both hydrogen atoms I’m observing have one proton? Is that not a true similarity out in reality, not just in my mind?

    Because my identity is not temporally constrained. My identity spans both space and time, and subsumes the changes that occur over time.

    OK. How is that different than saying you’re a substance and you have an essence?

    W. N. Clarke defines essence as “that which makes a being to be what it is, i.e., this particular being distinct from every other.” He goes on to define substance as “the same essence considered as that which renders a being apt to exist in itself and not in another — i.e., not as a part of any other being — and which therefore functions as the principle of unity holding together all its various accidental attributes and the abiding principle of its self-identity down through all its accidental changes across time.”

  7. A substance can have multiple final causes. For example, liquid water could turn into ice or into gas.

    I find myself coming back to the question of demarcation. To say that liquid water could turn into ice or into gas is to generalize – a particular instance of liquid water is entirely dependent on outside factors (heat transfer) to become a solid or gas. It seems to me that it is nearly always true that the ‘potential’ actually requires a larger system that is beyond whatever discrete entity we’re attributing a final cause to.

    Only substances are said to have essences … Substances would include atoms, chemicals, and organisms

    Thanks. That is a helpful distinction that I wasn’t aware of.

    Do you believe there is a reality outside your mind?

    Yes

    Do believe science ever discovers any facts at all about extra-mental reality?

    Yes, but I’m inclined toward pragmatism, so that will help inform my perspective on what a ‘fact’ is.

    Is it not true that both hydrogen atoms I’m observing have one proton? Is that not a true similarity out in reality, not just in my mind?

    My understanding is that the question at hand is the ontological status of the similarity. I would say that the similarity is constructed from the information we have about two independent entities, without positing that the similarity is itself some ontic feature of reality that is shared by the two entities.

    OK. How is that different than saying you’re a substance and you have an essence?

    I’m not sure that the view I offered is inconsistent with the definitions of essence and substance that you give from Clarke, but now I feel like there’s some discontinuity with my previous understanding, and with the way ‘essence’ was used in the original post. You suggested that there is a shared humanity in the essence of each human – how is it shared if it is defined as the thing which makes us distinct? If the idea is that we, as members of a species, share in the essence of that species (separate from our individual essence as unique persons), then I’m again back at the demarcation problem.

  8. I believe the potential of a substance inheres in the substance. But I also believe that an efficient cause is required to make the potential actual. In other words, the potential in a material substance does not rely on the existence of any other material substances in order to be a potential. But the substance usually does require an external efficient cause to make its potential a reality. Perhaps this understanding makes things less surprising to you since I assume you believe we live a world of cause and effect.

    You are correct that the issue at hand is the ontological status of the similarity. You say that you believe we can discover facts about extra-mental reality but seem hesitant to grant that we know hydrogen is an element with atomic number one. I think that, unless you are going to push skepticism as far as it can go, you will have to posit that two substances of the same kind really do share something like an essence. I leave it to you to work out if and when that will occur.

    Finally, when I say that each individual human shares in humanity I mean that each individual human is an instantiation of humanity. As an analogy, think about multiple cookies shaped by the same cookie cutter. There are ten, say, instantiations of the cookie cutter shape and thus ten different cookies, each with its own identity.

    Some kind of demarcation problem probably affects more fields than just metaphysics. In practice, I rely on intuition or common sense to distinguish one substance from another. I can’t tell you exactly why my shoe is not part of my body, say, but it is obvious to me nonetheless.

  9. I started several drafts of a response comment, each time intending to propose that maybe I was starting to understand substances and final causes, but then I would try to put down an explanation of my new understanding and it would seem to fall apart. And usually this falling apart would relate to some sort of demarcation problem. In short, I could get to a framework without a demarcation problem by assuming that reality is discretized, wherein each fundamental entity, and unique configuration of fundamental entities, is a substance. I can then conceive of each substance having a final cause that equates to all the potential changes that could arise from all possible interactions (which is an impractically huge set). But then:
    a) I don’t know what a substance is. Is it only the different states of a fundamental entity, or is it all unique combinations of fundamental entities and their states (which would seem to make almost everything a substance), or something in the middle (which would seem closer to the traditional view).
    b) This view of substances and final causes looks to be enormously out-of-step with the traditional conception because it excludes generalizations – classes of things that are not identical in their fundamental details. I’m still not clear on how to bring these conceptions together.
    c) This relies on there being fundamental entities with finite, unambiguous states. Perhaps our understanding of this could change over time, but in our current state, what do we make of wavefunctions? I’m sure somebody has already come up with explanations for how those would fit into the paradigm, but it again seems forced.

    when I say that each individual human shares in humanity I mean that each individual human is an instantiation of humanity

    My interpretation here is that humanity is the formal cause for the human substance, and is ontologically independent (i.e., humans exist because of humanity, but humanity does not exist because of humans). Is this correct? If so, why prefer that direction of explanation (humanity => humans) versus the other direction (humans => humanity)? It is very easy for me to understand the construction of categories (humanity) as the learned synthesis of our experience of similar entities (humans), and I don’t appreciate why I should reinterpret this to assign the category it’s own ontological status, and then restrict that methodology to substances, however we decide to define a substance. It seems much more parsimonious to just acknowledge the general process of learning and categorization, which can be usefully applied to anything.

    Some kind of demarcation problem probably affects more fields than just metaphysics

    Yes. Anything which aims to categorize faces the problem of demarcation, but that is especially poignant for a metaphysical theory that, in my current understanding, fundamentally relies on there being clear distinctions between types of entities.

  10. @Travis

    I have only read up to your second comment, but I think this piece might be of interest to you as it is exactly what you seem to be getting at:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tippling/2017/01/07/species-not-exist-evolution-sand-dunes-sorites-paradox/

    I think there is one element to discuss that could be pertinent here: axioms. If they are self-evident truths, could they be defined as objective, in some way?

    The problem comes in defining “truth”. I see truth as unobtainable, past the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, for the human mind. We may be able to make a truthful claim, we just can’t know it. Indubitably. So truth and knowledge are inextricably linked and need very careful defining. This, then, has ramifications within areas like morality.

  11. Travis, unfortunately, a comment section is not the way to learn about such matters. Some day (year) I would like to have posts on such topics but until then you have my recommendations above. In addition to those, you may want search through the IEP and SEP for relevant articles about the metaphysics of Aristotle and Aquinas:

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/
    http://plato.stanford.edu/

    I gave Clarke’s definition of substance earlier: “the same essence considered as that which renders a being apt to exist in itself and not in another — i.e., not as a part of any other being — and which therefore functions as the principle of unity holding together all its various accidental attributes and the abiding principle of its self-identity down through all its accidental changes across time.”

    Regarding final causes, you need not think of them as all potential states. Think of them as the tendency of a thing to bring about certain potential states. For example, think of gravitational pull as a final cause of substances with mass. This gravitational pull is one explanation for why objects move this way instead of that way.

    You are correct that I’m saying humanity is the formal cause of human beings. I’ve been nudging you to consider that if you want to believe we know things scientifically you’ll have to adopt some form of metaphysical realism to provide a foundation for real knowledge. Going further down that road, you should consider whether you need to be a realist concerning abstract objects as well. Assuming the correspondence theory of truth, what is it in your mind that corresponds to the external world when you gain knowledge of the external world? Consider that it might be the form of the entity that is both in your mind and is part of the entity under consideration.

  12. Thanks Jonathan. I do see that Sorites paradox is relevant to the question of essence / nature / formal causes, and I’m still struggling to grasp how proponents of that view resolve that tension – it almost seems to be a matter of learning to be content with the ambiguity. Your subsequent question of truth seems to be the direction that jayman is going in the next comment.

  13. unfortunately, a comment section is not the way to learn about such matters

    Fair enough. I’ve had a passing familiarity with Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, but it has never quite made sense and I’ve never really tried to figure out whether my misgivings were unfounded. I was hoping for some flash of insight here. I’ll do some more independent homework on the basic definitions and concepts, but perhaps your next line of questioning will do something to illuminate…

    what is it in your mind that corresponds to the external world when you gain knowledge of the external world?

    The world in my mind is the set of patterns evoked by my sense experience of the world (along with any internal feedback that occurs between those patterns). The end result will be different for each person, due to different experiences and dispositions, but there is enough similarity that we are able to use language to make connections.

    Consider that it might be the form of the entity that is both in your mind and is part of the entity under consideration.

    I don’t see how that consideration helps with anything, but it does raise a bunch of questions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.