My Systematic, Naturalistic Empowerment Ethics, With Applications to Tyrants, the Differently Abled, and LGBT People

If you only ever read one thing I write about ethics. Let it be this.

This is a long, comprehensive, systematic defense of a naturalistic atheistic ethics, grounded in an attempt to be rationally coherent, consistent, and developed based on objective, factual premises that should not be very controversial in themselves.

This post also features an explanation of how we can say ethics is rooted in nature without coming to anti-LGBT conclusions that Catholics claim “natural law” would dictate. It also includes an explanation about how we can talk about power as a good thing (contra-Christian messaging) without endorsing abuses of power. And it has an explanation of how we can talk aspirationally about an ethics of maximizing human greatness without being ableists who throw the “disabled” under the bus in the process.

This is one of the longest posts of my original writing I have ever put up. I think it’s worth it though. It unites what could have been 8 separate posts together for the sake of putting my arguments about crucial applied topics in a relatively full context.

Nature

As a naturalist, I seek to understand the essence of ethical thinking in general and the sources of rational justification behind particular moralities and particular moral judgments in natural terms. Everything that is, it seems to me, must be, in some fundamental sense natural. Every kind of complex being that can possibly emerge is a possible configuration within nature. It manifests within itself rationally explicable, sometimes even to one extent or another mathematizable, order.

And its internal order slots into a mind bogglingly amazing greater order of regular patterning that we can call nature itself. The universe or multiverse or whatever the great totality of all Nature is can be conceived of as in some very real sense rational. It is rational at least insofar as it can be at least partially understood and powerfully engaged with using our minds’ intuitive rational categories for things like thinking about being and non-being. And some patterns of configuration of complex beings recur throughout reality. And it is the job of philosophers, natural scientists, social scientists, and laypeople alike to distinguish and detail most effectively each of these different patterns.

These recurring patterns are what philosophers have called universals, or forms, or essences. There is always a great deal of philosophical consternation over whether nature really has such universals within it or the human mind just thinks in terms of patterns but the patterns are not “mind-independently real”. Regardless of their ultimate ontological status though, humans will inevitably be engaged in the process of sifting these patterns. The vast majority of our words are words for some recurring pattern of thing or some recurring pattern of interactions among things, or properties of things, etc., etc.

And philosophy, natural science, and social science are principally engaged with coming up with the most rigorously logical, comprehensive, consistent, coherent, elegant, and pragmatically powerful accounts of the major overarching patterns and all the sub-patterns at work within them. When I think about the foundations of ethics, I remain a naturalist. I want to understand what kinds of patterns in the world the word “good” generally (and not just in moral philosophy) aims at understanding. In that context I try to understand, in a general sense beyond just morality, what kinds of things might be generally good for humans and what kind of a hierarchies of priorities we might be able to establish for best assessing competing human goods.

Then within that context, I try to understand (logically, psychologically, sociologically, anthropologically, historically, and culturally) what kinds of goods people generally use distinctively “moral” language to try to identify and to try to create. Then I try to figure out what kinds of moral thinking would best align with actually achieving the greatest human good and argue that that’s the kind of moral thinking we should be engaged in. From there I apply those sorts of moral categories and priorities in order to make particular moral judgments.

In this post will overview what that reasoning process looks like in substance and what my overall naturalistic ethics looks like. Then I will deal head on with what I think is a mistaken objection to naturalistic ethics–the familiar accusation ethical naturalism is prejudicial against gays because of the unexamined assumption (and the long established bigoted and profoundly harmful messaging) that gay love is “unnatural” or that gay sex involves a “crime against nature”. Along the way, I will also deal with common objections that a naturalistic, perfectionist ethics like mine might encourage tyrants, or lead to prejudices against disabled people or transgender people.

Objective, Natural Goodness

The best account I can figure out of goodness is naturalistic and the best account of moral justification I have figured out is naturalistic in key ways. And, in comprehensive summary form, my thinking goes as follows.

All complex beings in reality are what they are because their component parts are functioning together to make them those beings. To be any kind of being at all is to have the requisite parts functioning in the requisite way to make for that kind of being. The naturalistically clarifiable objective meaning of the word good is effectiveness relationships discoverable in reality.

First, when we say, for example, x is good at bringing about y, we are not expressing subjective feelings but referring to an objective fact, a fact about an effectiveness relationship.

It is also about effectiveness when we say x and y function together, either as constituent parts or interacting factors, to make z. When we say x and y are good for z in this sense, we are saying something objectively true that we could express in completely naturalistic terms. We are saying, in essence, without x and y, there effectively would be no z. z cannot effectively exist apart from x’s and y’s effectively functioning together in the prerequisite way for z to exist.

Thirdly, with beings that can manifest the characteristic pattern of their being to greater and lesser extents, we can say that a given z is more or less of a z to the extent it more or less realizes its potential as a z. So a given z could be a better z (in the strict sense of a more effective realization of the characteristic z pattern in nature) to the greater extent that it functions in the ways characteristic of a z. And that’s at its core what goodness refers to naturalistically. A being’s effective functioning according to its characteristic patterns. Badness relative to those patterns is erosion of those functions or only relatively weak fulfillment of them.

At this point the word “good” is much broader than just moral goods, which are only very particular types of goods. All of this is just descriptive of the implications of the concept of goodness/effectiveness and the recognition that possible functional pattern types make up beings and can either more effectively or less effectively be realized case by case. And that in this context we can say, quite objectively, that’s a good x and mean that is an x that is effective realizing the patterns that make up x’s.

And just so we’re completely clear, these function patterns do not in any way imply an intelligent function giver behind all nature. Such seems bizarre to posit as such an intelligent function giver would have had to get its own functional power of function giving from some further source in an infinite regress. It seems simpler to say that all things just have some kind of rational order to them, from which functional differentiations arise and we call those different regular functional patterns different kinds of beings. Positing a God always implies a rational nature to that God. By this I mean, it would have to be either omnipotent or not omnipotent, either omniscient or not omniscient, etc., so it, as much as anything else would have to be a being that obeyed some basic rational necessities for itself, just like every being observed in nature seems to.

Also I am not saying that any given functional pattern of being can only, itself, perform just one function rather than many as part of doing what it characteristically does. A mouth is functionally a mouth if its parts are working together to create any of the range of mouth functions (even if those parts vary widely in morphology and some components species to species, for example). But functional mouths can do more of the things that mouths are capable of, or less. Ideally, as mouths, they would do all mouths could possibly do and fully realize mouth potential. But for the organisms that have them, it is better for their overall good that they restrain their mouth functions to what best benefits them as total organisms. But I get ahead of myself. More on that later.

Human Good

Now, when we get to defining “the human being”, we are dealing with a real pattern in nature but one with a great deal more variation than much simpler and more rigid patterns that admit of extraordinary sameness. The genuinely recurring and meaningful pattern “human being” can have an extraordinary range of variations that each successfully embody and fulfill it. This does not mean that just anything can be a human. Relative to all possible and actual beings, the number that are human is infinitesimally small. To talk of human beings is to get at a real set of distinct beings, bound by a lot in common. What characteristically makes us human, beyond a certain basic physiological morphology that has a great deal of variation within it, is an intricately interlocking set of constitutive powers.

By a power I mean an effectual functionality. Our powers range in scale from the most minimal and simplest functional operation to the most maximally integrated and complex functionality that incorporates numerous sub-functionalities into a powerful super-functionality. I tend to orient myself by focusing on a few basic categories of powers, each comprised of numerous sub-powers and contributing to greater complexes of powers.

The basic categories I come back to frequently are rational powers, emotional powers, social powers, technological powers, artistic powers, physical powers, and sexual powers. Each of these categories of powers is made up of subpowers and distinguishable sets of powers. Each of these kinds of powers involves aid from the other kinds of powers to function. And integrating different types of powers in numerous combinations leads to greater and more sophisticated power types.

Humans don’t just have these powers but we are these powers. That’s not to say that people who suffer brain damage and can no longer process emotions are not at all human. Or that asexual people who experience little to no sex drive or engage in no sexual expression aren’t human. But it is to say that were we to strip away enough of these sets of powers humanity is increasingly stripped away. This is why people who have irrecoverably lost all their powers but the “vegetative” physical ones are considered good as dead by us. Functionally, effectively, they’re not human.

Now it is crucial at this stage to note that no humans maximally realize every one of their powers to the fullest extent of human potential. While ideally, being maximally effective across the board and maximally integrating each of our powers into greater and greater combinations so they each are maximally effective and good at being what they are, is the ultimate good (i.e., the ultimate functional effectiveness of our very characteristic pattern), none of us are going to pull that off. Inevitably, we will each have to make tradeoffs about being this or that kind of effectively realized and flourishing human being.

There are many ways to effectively realize the powers that constitute us. Closing down some avenues is not inherently a problem for us so long as we find ways to increase others in the trade off. The effective aim (i.e., the good) that justifies our having moralities is maximizing, as much as we can, the maximal amount of effective human realizations of potential human powers. As humans our inherent, natural, definitional good is in our powerful functioning according to the patterns of powers that are available to us and constitutive to us.

Objective Moralities

Within an understanding of human goods in general, non-specifically morally concerned terms, we can look at what moralities are and how they are situated within the larger framework of the pursuit of maximal flourishing. Moralities are patterns of thinking, valuing, and rule-making for ordering our social life and our personal lives so that we can stay on target of maximizing our flourishing. It is too easy for us to act shortsightedly or to prioritize microlevel benefits at the expense of macro level ones or to have a myopic kind of selfishness or hedonism that would distract us from our potential to be more powerfully effectual in the long run and on the macrolevel. So we need some formally consistent rules and duties to help habituate us into the fairness that makes the social contract work because the social contract is in the long run and on the macrolevel better on average for each of us individually to have a shot at flourishing the most.

Our brains also have strong, rational concerns for practical consistency whereby we both logically and emotionally are prone to reject unfairness, double standards, hypocrisies, and other forms of practical contradictions in a way comparable to how we reject flat out logical contradictions in the realm of beliefs. It is valuable (i.e., objectively effective) to our goal of flourishing (i.e., realizing our constitutive human powers to their maximum) that we use these distinctively “moral” categories for thinking in a way that conduces to both personal and social empowerment.

The conditions in which humans live can vary greatly from culture to culture and era to era. While what is going to lead to any one given people to maximize its powers either in the short or the long run can be objectively true culture to culture or era to era, it is the case that what is objectively determinable to be the morally best for can each vary to one extent or another with changes in conditions. The objectively best moralities can vary place to place. But still they are not necessarily identical with what a given people thinks morality is or most wants it to be. Each objectively ideal morality, culture by culture, what would be what was most likely lead to the maximal flourishing of all affected by it–regardless of that culture’s current opinions on the matter.

It is also worth making explicit that just because our maximal good (our maximal effectiveness which constitutes our very being maximally) involves realizing our individual powers, that does not mean that just any choice to develop or exert any given power is as good as any other choice. If exercising one of our powers in a certain way diminishes our other powers or our overall power or our future powerful prospects, then it is detrimental rather than good.

Pro-Empowerment, Anti- Domination

We are most powerful not when we exercise power in the form of domination that destroys others’ powers but when we actually empower them. Any constriction of others’ powers we do must be justifiable on a scale of greater overall empowerment and be done within the bounds of rationally defensible moral rules. I can impose a discipline on you only if you choose it (or if it would be wholly irrational for you to refuse it) and if it ultimately empowers you. I can use physically coercive force or other forms of autonomy-undermining coercion only to stop you from harming others’ abilities to exercise their own powers. We can have agreed upon competitions, of course, where such lead to mutual empowerment and the overall empowerment within society (or humanity at large).

But capricious restriction or destruction of others’ powers is bad, and not just for those we thereby harm but for ourselves. The reason is that our powers are only magnified when we empower others because our powers are themselves functionalities and their ability to function well in others is our abilities to be powerful in others.

When my writing educates you or gives you a chance to exercise your own rational powers, etc., and you become more powerful, I am more effectual in the world. When the architects and engineers and construction workers, et al. combine their powers to create effective buildings, everyone who uses those buildings is empowered by that and those creators are powerful (i.e., effectively functioning) through the effectiveness of the building and all the effective activities of those people using the resource of a building to effectively function themselves. Doctors are effectively powerful through the bodies and minds they save or restore to power. Cooks are powerful in the people they nourish. Every human art is most powerful as an empowering art that enables a human being to effectively function powerfully in others’ effectively functioning powers.

We are power generators, to do this is to realize our greatest potential power, the kind that can magnify far beyond the meager limits of our own mortal bodies even. Domination that destroys the power of others is fundamentally irrational because of this. It is formally effective, of course, but not in a way that maximizes the effective functioning owed to the dominator but one that creates a negative net balance of effectiveness attributable to the dominator. On the tyrant’s “ledger” is all the lost art, the lost scientific achievements, the lost powerful rational, emotional, and social flourishing of potentially magnificent creatures. Tyrants destroy out of irrational psychosis, fear, and/or confusion of “getting one’s way” and “having influence” for actually being excellently powerful.

Just as anyone can destroy a computer but it requires incalculably greater powers within oneself to invent one, so destroying social cohesion, terrorizing people, eroding trust, creating inefficiencies, and making people crueler, less educated, less healthy, less satisfied, etc., is all, in the main quite easier and less a realization of any kind of power than the challenge of empowering the maximum number of individuals and the total sum of humanity to the maximal extents. The tyrant is pathetic at the very task of ruling to the only outcome that justifies there being rulers and the only good that is objectively worth being a ruler to accomplish.

Put as a simple thought experiment, who could rationally choose to rule a graveyard and some psychologically crushed and inept dependent and fearful people when they could rule a happy society renowned for its accomplishments across the board of human achievement which endures and prospers for millennia, and all due in some vital ways to the effective choices they made as a ruler? I think it is objectively clear when just seen out to the extremes which is objectively more powerful and effectual and rationally desirable for any person. Of course some choose this anyway but that alone does not make it rational.

And while only an infinitesimally small fraction of us perform actions on that scale of power impact, the same basic principles of where realization of power is greater or less scales to our ordinary lives. The greater we can not only develop and maximize our internal functional effective abilities but through empowering uses of them make others around us increase in their powers through our powers, the truly greater and more realized in our potential we can be. The more functioning of others that we stifle on net the more malfunctioning we are–even if some of that malfunctioning involves a couple powers realizing themselves greatly effectively. If the balance of how they realize themselves is to destroy the larger power complexes they could contribute to in the self and/or in society, they are overall malfunctioning, functioning to the cross purposes of their own potential effectiveness, despite looking powerful to the myopic who don’t see the bigger picture.

The Differently Abled

Many resist what are known as naturalist, perfectionist frameworks like I have been laying out here because they rightly hate and mistrust the evils done in the past in the name of eugenics. They rightly reject perfectionist standards which have been conceived such as to demand morally that everyone be the same, or which have served to deny the dignity, value, and rights of those perceived as weaker in one respect or another than others. They have, rightly, resisted accounts of human nature that have been essentialistic in ways that deny the diversity of humanity in ways false, unethical, and tangibly destructive. I think what people want to reject were badly thought out inferences and I reject them too, but in ways consistent with what I take to be the compelling perfectionist, and naturalist truths I’ve been laying out so far.

Saying the good of each human is to maximize the powers that constitute their being is not to say that there is anything culpable or despisable about the fact that some people do not have the powers others have to the same degree. We are all limited in some powers and greater in others. The “disabled” are formally, just like the rest of us, essentially differently abled than others and, like the rest of us, have to work within their actual possibilities to be as powerful as they can. They just have some physical or neurological determinants that constrain some of their choices of which powers they can maximally realize or through what channels they can best actualize them in their case. It is flat out irrational to negatively judge people for not being able to do what is constitutionally impossible for them and which violates no fair and worthwhile moral norms.

Everyone can maximize their own powers available to them and those limited in some powers, even to the point of disability, can still strive as much as anyone to maximize their flourishing in what is available to them. While usually having more powers to choose to develop is prima facie desirable and opens up some greater goods for those who have that greater range of options, nonetheless in any number of cases, despite having a diminished power or several, the differently abled can still outstrip in total power other people who have greater quantities of less developed powers.

And we rightly and rationally not only admire people in terms of how much overall power they manage to create in themselves but we also, when we’re thinking right, calibrate our standards of assessment to understand just how much is accomplished relative to just what kind of resistance was faced and flatly admire any number of people for what they manage within their unique range of obstacles and resources, as evidencing any amount of internal fortitude, creativity, strength, and compensatory skill in the process.

The greatest power humans have is in their abilities to empower others beyond themselves. While objectively, in many cases, having more powers might make that easier and might be intrinsically good for someone to get to be powerful along more axes, it is sheer prejudice to assume those more severely limited than most in some given power cannot strive for and achieve all sorts of accomplishments of both internal human excellence and empowerment beyond themselves. And everyone should be encouraged to work from where they are to maximize their own flourishing without irrationally assessing themselves by standards which have nothing to do with their particular capabilities for flourishing.

And the most decisive character trait any of us can have is the resilient will to grow and develop in our powers by embracing challenges with resolve. That perpetual will to overcome resistances and perpetually grow is what I understand the “will to power” to be, and where it is strong it is equally admirable, regardless of how any particular person’s challenges and resources happen to be shuffled.

Finally, from a moral perspective, the moral and political social contracts are only enhanced the more we support each of us, rather than develop cruelties, indifferences, and deprivations of rights. The attitude that starts picking out which people are worth empowering and which to destroy is only going to sow disempowerment rather than empowerment. That is a pretty well established lesson from history. We are all more empowered the more we find ways to empower, rather than destroy, as many of us as much as we possibly can. A great deal of human ingenuity and technical and social progress has been and can be spurred in the pursuit of creating the physical tools and the social development to empower a greater number of people beyond their physiological provisions. Humanity has become, and will continue to become, more empowered overall through those scientific, technical, and philosophical efforts than through efforts to marginalize and destroy everyone different.

Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgender People

Finally, many people worry that a naturalist ethics somehow would inevitably prejudice against gay people embracing homosexual love or trangender people living according to the gender that feels psychologically most amenable to them. But this seems to me a really shallow and confused way of thinking and rather ill fit with the categories I have laid out.

While it is true that among human genitals’ functional effectiveness possibilities is their ability to sometimes lead to procreation, they are part of far more sophisticated functional complexes called human beings and the function of such unthinking genitals should not come at the expense of the overall powerful flourishing of those human beings taken as a totality. If a human being can integrate their sexual powers with their reason, their emotions, their social powers, and, really, any other powers, that is the creation of greater realized human functional effectiveness. Since gay people are far more likely to have maximally enriching and empowering romantic/sexual relationships with members of their same sex, given their proclivities ( however such were created), than in relationships where they are less capable of fulfilling emotional, social, romantic, and sexual love because it runs contrary to their orientation, clearly gay people are going to flourish more in gay love and sex relationships and should be not only morally not condemned but outright encouraged to go do so.

Wherever someone is most likely to be capable of exercising their emotions in powerfully constructive relational ways that empower themselves and others that’s their good . There is nothing “unnatural” about doing what, within the nature of their minds, however those minds came to be that way, leads to the intrinsic excellence of emotional flourishing that happens in positive romantic relationships.

Gays can still have the enriching experience (and opportunity to grow in their excellences) that come through parenthood if they wish. They can use surrogates, in vitro fertilization, adoption, etc. So even in this way, they can fulfill their genitals’ capacities to contribute towards procreation and miss out on almost nothing of the available goods of human flourishing. The one good some may want but (at least for now) find impossible to have would be to have a child of mixed DNA with their same sex partner. That’s a good they’ll miss. But what’s the other option? Have kids with someone they don’t romantically love? How’s that any better? Or for a monogamous bisexual who happens to fall in love with a same-sex person, what is the point of not being with that person they are most fulfilled with but instead having to find someone else just so they can share DNA in parentage of their kids? With gay love and sexual relationships, gays can fulfill themselves all around, they just can’t merge the procreative act with the love-bonding act with their monogamous same sex partner.

And for some reason this inability to do every good of the genitals together at the same time should, according to Catholic ethicists, trump all the other goods for gays (and for their genitals). This is as absurd as if they required people never eat without talking or talk without eating because the mouth can only flourish in its functions if it always flourished in all ways it could simultaneously. The anti-gay, anti-contraception interpretation of functional fulfillment of the genitals is that silly. Especially since it is detrimental to overall flourishing for humans to breed every possible time. As modernization advances and deaths from childhood diseases mercifully go down, birth rates must (and thankfully dogo down for the good of parents, children, and society alike.

The Human Good (Including for Gays) is to Maximize Our Powers and Empower the Species, Not Merely to Reproduce

Is gay sex itself going to preserve the species? No (at least not yet). But why should we assess our good by preservation of the species? The species is growing at a fine rate (in fact too fine a rate). There’s no shortage of people happily flourishing having heterosexual sex. This is one of the biggest frustrations I have in many many contexts (not just this one): people conflating an organism’s flourishing with “preservation” and “survival”. This is wrongheaded for (at least) two reasons.

First, our flourishing individually and collectively is orthogonal to the issue of how the species evolved to be what it is. “Survival” and “preservation” in a natural selection context refers to genes. Individuals don’t “survive” or “preserve”. We die. The genes go on. Not us. Their good is not the same thing as our good. They are effective when they build organisms. They are maximally effective when they build organisms that are successful at making copies of themselves. In terms of their good, we, as the machines they lead to, are either effective or ineffective insofar as we successfully get them replicated or not. That’s how we can be assessed in terms of them and their good. But that’s quite often totally different from us and what constitutes our good. We are, emphatically, not our genes . Our good is not to serve them.

When we understand what natural selection advantage any of our traits had in favoring the genes that keep it regularly in the species, this does not tell us the good for that trait. It tells us the functional advantage the genes found for it. But the trait itself is a functionally effective type of power in the world in its own right and it has its own good relative to the kind of power it is.

So it does not matter what (fairly limited) math purposes our minds needed that bred basic mathematical categories of thought into our minds, what it means to be powerful at mathematical thinking has its own sets of standards. Many of which may, incidentally, be put to the purpose of having the species survive. But there can be excellent exercise of mathematical powers quite indifferent to that. Those powers realize their own intrinsic good of effectively functioning as what they are quite independent of such external concerns.

And, similarly, our sexual powers can also flourish in their possible functionalities for bringing pleasures, for bonding people emotionally, for being opportunities to exercise our reason, etc., in all sorts of varied and creative ways well beyond the ways they can serve the interests of our genes (regardless of the especially tight evolutionary connection between the propagation of genes and the origin of most humans’ intense interests in sex). Where things come from is by no means the limitation of what can be made of them and where they can go.

The only place we should be alert to what functions our powers served for advancing our genes is where if we ignore a particular function possible for us we could harm ourselves or the species. So, in those dangerous psychological cases that people start becoming averse to food our genes and our personal flourishing both are interested in us fixing that. Were the species to stop reproducing or reproducing at a healthy rate for long term survival prospects, we should probably take an interest in fixing that. But even then, given our technology or possibilities for different social arrangements, we needn’t force gays and lesbians into marriages with people of the sex they’re not attracted to. We can work out many work arounds in such an emergency. And we are nowhere near such an emergency. But for an existing surplus of children without parents, there is an immediate crisis that stable, loving gay couples can help with through adoption, with the effect of greater flourishing in the aggregate that way too.

So concerns about preservation and survival are completely uncompelling reasons to force gays into celibacy or marriages with people they are incapable of flourishing to their full potential with. Similarly there is no reason to force transgender people into social and psychological categories that they find painful. If someone experiences gender dysphoria then it is not “unnatural” for them to start living as the opposite of their assigned gender or, if they feel more comfortable that way, to change the nature of their sex organs.

The only applicable test of “nature” here is “Given the nature of this particular person’s mind, regardless of how it became the way it is; what is going to contribute most to their maximizing their general powers for rationality, emotional strength, social skills, etc., etc?” We do not even have to establish gay people were born that way. It shouldn’t matter. If they are so constituted that participating in gay love and sex relationships are going to make them flourish overall in their powers more than abstaining from them will, then that’s what’s good for them, no matter how they came to be so constituted.

Arising right here in the very real psychologies of individual people, in the natural world (i.e., the only world know of), are propensities for homosexuality and gender dysphoria and no one is going to be made to flourish more by demanding that gays or transgender people be forced to live in ways that are counter-productive to their mental well-being and, so, detrimental to their being most effective in their total powers.

The infuriating irony in all of this is that religious people are the ones most likely to be found fetishizing the genitals and their possible functionality of procreation and on that account demanding that gays and transgender people live renouncing their homosexuality or trying to live with a gender that causes them immense frustration. What makes this ironic is that these same people are precisely those regularly denouncing sexual autonomy as the supposedly carnal and “animalistic” debasement of humanity by which we humans supposedly become slaves to our lusts and merely animal sides. These are the people though who want to determine the good of the total human life in terms of service to their genitals getting to do their possible function at the expense of their own, more “spiritually” human functions. They are so invested in your sex organs being all that they can be that they will encourage you to be in romantic sexual love relationships where you are disinclined to love in the spiritually, emotionally, socially, and rationally most maximal way.

In fact, given how often they advise celibacy to gays (and others!) they evince that they would rather people even fail to fulfill the wonderful physical and emotional pleasures that the genitals can functionally fulfill themselves through rather than let gay people love as they are inclined to. They will even induce people to choose to fail to procreate by remaining celibate, rather than let gay people love as they are inclined to. Think about that. They are so adamant about genitals always being used to procreate (as though having a functional possibility means having to exercise it always that way and never in others that don’t include it), and yet they are so uninterested in those same genitals fulfilling their intense abilities for aiding physical pleasure and the social and emotional wonders of love that they advise celibacy to gays (and others!).

Unbelievable. Such views are absurd.

They insist they are “following nature” when they are incompetent at assessing what are actually the most excellent and powerful parts of human nature and how to make simple priority trade offs between the goods of those parts of our nature and our unconscious organs’ goods. It would be funny were it not so devastating and destructive to so many people and for so long.

But. Just because religious people routinely make bad function arguments, outdated by centuries, to justify an ethics that prioritizes the goods of genitals over the total goods of total human beings, we should not hastily overcorrect and abandon the kind of naturalistic and functionalistic ethical framework I have laid out here and which I think makes the most, naturalistically defensible, sense of both objective goodness in general and moral goodness in particular, without needing to invoke anything weird and ill-fit to a naturalistic worldview.

Your Thoughts?

For more posts fleshing out my views on the foundations of a rational ethics, see my regularly updated tab on morality’s validity.

Word cloud of this post for the tl;dr crowd:

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Palindrome

    Great article, Dan!

    I have a few questions, though, if you don’t mind. You seem to be saying that encouraging and empowering others can actually be empowering (and I agree), but how should people encourage altruistic behavior in people who don’t have much of an interest in other people’s flourishing? If a callous sociopath were to ask why he should care if other people flourish as long as his needs and wants were met, what should be said in response?

    Also, do you think it’s ever morally legitimate for someone to choose short-term gains or pleasures even if there are risks of long-term disadvantages or harms? For example, say it were determined in the future that having gay sex could cause some health disadvantages. A lot of people would rather have love and fulfilling sex in their lives than have longer and healthier lives that could also possibly be lonelier. I guess what I’m getting at is, can there be a degree of subjectivity in how people prioritize the goods in their lives?

    One more question (sorry!): do you think it’d ever be morally legitimate for governments to ban harmful behaviors such as smoking? Some would argue that smoking could have detrimental effects on society by, say, driving health care costs up, and that smoking should therefore be made illegal. But at the same time, who would want to live under such a paternalistic, controlling government?

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Thanks so much for reading through, Palindrome!

      As I tried to argue, I don’t think that our good is ultimately subjectively determined so I see sociopaths as suffering essentially a disability in terms of their ability to recognize their own good. As far as I understand them, at the extreme, they think purely in domination terms rather than appreciate for the most part how much more objectively powerful it is to be powerful through others rather than over others.

      They can still flourish if they can be enticed to be genuine creators of good by appeals to their self-interest and if they can be corralled through fear into obeying moral strictures even when inconvenient. And, there are those who argue that in some circumstances their sociopathic inability to feel empathy might help them do some good things too unpleasant for empaths with less qualms. There are ways to work with what they do have available to them to live flourishing lives but I don’t take their non-perception of the good of empowering others to be a refutation of my arguments logically.

      As to your second question, yes, I do think that sometimes it can be valuable to choose short term goods over long term ones. I wrote an article on this called “Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers”

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2011/10/some-people-live-better-as-short-lived-football-or-boxing-stars-than-as-long-lived-philosophers/

      My standard here (obviously) is what’s going to be a maximally flourishing life. If you will really flourish more total in your ability to develop and express your powers and to empower others by prioritizing the near and the short term and accepting a come-down on the other end of the rainbow, then there’s something to that.

      Where to fit the value of subjective preferences into the account is difficult. Obviously, our subjective experience is important to us. Mostly I think it’s worth making rich because of the positive feedback loop it has to motivating us to be objectively better. At least when I’m thinking in objective metaphysical and ethical terms.

      As to smoking… Legally I am a bit torn. I tend to think that a greater deal of autonomy is better for the overall flourishing of people rather than less. For one thing, autonomy is inherently an excellent power and it’s only worth sacrificing for major compensatory gains in other powers. As bad as people are at making their own choices in lifestyle matters, centralized decision making through governments can be even worse. People’s particular conditions of life and personal psychology vary so much that really knowing what’s best for a given individual requires a great deal of knowledge and one size fits all laws are often detrimental to that. So, I err on the side of letting people have their own private judgment about the good life, legally. Then I just think we need a robust moral dialogue culturally where we try to persuade each other through the non-coercive force of reason, rather than law.

      So, this is a long way of saying I tend to lean very libertarian on social issues legally. Then I want vigorous debate about ethics and general patterns good or bad for people, socially. Then on an individual level, I think it’s important to be very careful about judging people. So, in that context, while I want as a non-smoker to be shielded from the stuff and might be able to hear out arguments that kids deserve to be protected from it, I think making cigarettes would be about as disastrously counter-productive and authoritarian as the drug war has been and as prohibition was once upon a time.

      For more on situational ethics, see this post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2013/08/the-jt-and-bria-conflict-and-why-i-usually-dont-talk-about-interpersonal-conflicts/

      For my guidelines on how to blame people by paying attention to the particularities of their specific circumstances, see this post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2011/11/why-bother-blaming-people-at-all-isnt-that-just-judgmental/

      Thanks again for reading the post!

    • Palindrome

      Great response. Thanks!

      You wrote: “And, there are those who argue that in some circumstances their sociopathic inability to feel empathy might help them do some good things too unpleasant for empaths with less qualms.”

      That’s a pretty good point.

  • http://rationaloutlook.wordpress.com/ rationaloutlook

    The problems that I see with the account:

    1. The powers that you mentioned seem to be arbitrarily selected and open to rational disagreement: “rational powers, emotional powers, social powers, technological powers, artistic powers, physical powers, and sexual powers.”

    2. Maximizing flourishing in terms of achieving maximum effectiveness seems arbitrary too because of the powers you selected. The system of morality would be different with some powers added or removed.

    3. Last, you seem to be excluding non-humans from consideration. If I were to select a system of morality based on its practical robustness, I would very much prefer Sam Harris’ system as it gives consideration to every sentient being in proportion to its sentience.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      The powers can be diced up differently, but it would be hard for me to see how they could come out wildly different in substance. Can you give me an idea of alternative schema that might be fundamentally incompatible with mine?

      Animals also are functional beings with powers that define their excellences. The question of how far our moral concern with them rationally should stretch is a difficult one, but no particular position is ruled out by anything I said.

    • http://rationaloutlook.wordpress.com/ rationaloutlook

      The enumeration of powers seems to be an exercise in finding patterns. The powers that you mentioned simply come up because those words are familiar e.g. art and technology. A person can simply look at the totality of human civilization without noticing these patterns and instead noticing others. There are too many such patterns to select just a few of them. And whether some of those patterns can be represented by just one power alone e.g. “art” is debatable. [Though, I'm finding it hard though to state my position accurately.]

      And I don’t think the burden I’m assuming is to come up with something “fundamentally incompatible.” What I’m trying to show is that there is room for rational disagreement.

    • Guest

      Frankly, what I was interested to find in your post was how you take that leap from “is” to “ought,” which in principle isn’t possible with deductive arguments.

      What you did was define powers, then what effectiveness in those powers means and then defined “good” as achieving maximum effectiveness. The leap here is the redefinition (or definition) of good. What good means in a system of objective morality is what one person “ought” to do. So, there is no reason I see that one person “ought to” work towards achieving maximum effectiveness of powers you selected.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers
    • http://rationaloutlook.wordpress.com/ rationaloutlook

      Frankly, what I was interested to find in your post was how you take that leap from “is” to “ought,” which in principle isn’t possible with deductive arguments.

      What you did was define powers, then what effectiveness in those powers means and then defined “good” as achieving maximum effectiveness. The leap here is the redefinition (or definition) of good. There is no reason that one person “ought to” work towards achieving maximum effectiveness of powers you selected.

  • John Kruger

    I find myself having a lot of trouble with the description of objective goodness. I suspect the variables are throwing me off and I don’t quite understand as the presentation as it was intended, but I’ll take a swing at what I think the problem is and see where I stand.

    It seems like “function” is determined by labeling, which in turn allows us to judge “goodness” on the basis of such function. This seems like a bit of a stretch. I would argue that a function requires intention, or purpose. Quite often labels entail function, “mouth” was a decent example. Yet, sometimes, labels do not imply function. “Rock” for example, would not really work in the formula presented, because as a label it does not imply any purpose or intention.

    To illustrate:

    “We can say that a given ROCK is more or less of a ROCK to the extent it more or less realizes its potential as a ROCK. So a given ROCK could be a better ROCK (in the strict sense of a more effective realization of the characteristic ROCK pattern in nature) to the greater extent that it functions in the ways characteristic of a ROCK.”

    We could arbitrarily assign a function to the rock with a different label, say “paperweight” or “doorstop”, or even explicitly state a function (using a rock as a hammer), but without purpose or intention the formula does not work. People decide function, and such decisions are not absolute, so we cannot simply rely on labeling to decide function. Intention motivates labels, not the other way around.

    So in the same way, it seems we have jumped to function in human beings. I could label a particular human being as a thief (and what is to deter me from such a label?), but that would not really make that human’s purpose to steal things, even if we could discuss the attributes or methods that make that human a better or more functional thief.

    So in that labels are more or less as arbitrary as the purpose given in the labeling, it does not seem like goodness can really be absolute in the sense discussed (note that I do not think a god exists as an objective “purpose giver”). It begs the question, what are the functions of a human being? How can we be justified in labeling various lifeforms as human by specifics, and in turn discuss them in terms of function?

    I otherwise find the rest of the discussion very convincing. The inherent self interest in not being a tyrant I found particularly good. Even if the overarching philosophy seems to have a somewhat shaky starting point to me, the rest of it seems quite sound. I am not particularly troubled by simply asserting values like fairness or equality as axioms, so there is quite a bit worth reading even if I could not get behind the justification for it being truly objective.

    I am more than a little worried that I have made a tedious argument against a misconception, and I am by no means a professionally trained philosopher. Indulge my questions only so long as you find them compelling, I do not feel entitled to any answers.

  • Eli Horowitz

    “Humans don’t just have these powers but we are these powers. That’s not to say that people who suffer brain damage and can no longer process emotions are not at all human.”

    No, but you do have to say that they’re WORSE humans: “with beings that can manifest the characteristic pattern of their being to greater and lesser extents…a given z could be a better z (in the strict sense of a more effective realization of the characteristic z pattern in nature) to the greater extent that it functions in the ways characteristic of a z.” Which is a slightly disconcerting thing to say.

    • Slow Learner

      Just because it is disconcerting does not necessarily make it wrong.
      While I am not necessarily typical, I consider the version of myself which is blind to be a “worse” version of myself. Not less human, and in fact more deserving of consideration from others, but less capable in many situations.
      If this is true for the hypothetical version of myself affected by a disability, why is it less true for people in general?

    • Eli Horowitz

      Well, sure YOU might, but you’re a sample size of one, my friend. Not everybody in a similar situation is ready to dismiss or belittle themselves so quickly (perhaps because other people’s situations aren’t hypothetical??). Here’s a place where you might want to start doing some real research, as opposed to just introspecting a little bit and playing pretend: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deaf_culture

      What’s particularly galling about this is that Fincke is offering his morality SPECIFICALLY as a way of speaking to “differently abled people.” Yes, he goes to great lengths to talk around the fact that he’s substituting his perspective for theirs in a way that’s blatantly paternalistic, but the fact remains that his theory leaves no option but to say that (e.g.) Deaf people are worse humans than hearing people are.

      Now, maybe you’re comfortable with that sort of paternalism. In this context, at least, I rather doubt that I’ll be able to talk you out of such a thing, so if you are then we might as well just take it as a given. But if you aren’t – if, say, you’re attracted to this idea of morality because you think that it provides a robust way of justifying an anti-ableist perspective – well, then you’re entirely wrong.

    • Slow Learner

      Ok, let’s take the human baseline out of this.
      Consider a future where there are prosthetics and augmentations which can add significantly to baseline human abilities. Now add in the postulate that the augmentations aren’t physically disfiguring, so someone augmented can still pass as un-augmented in general society.
      One can’t say that augmented people are “better” humans than the un-augmented, because their augmentations (like seeing infra-red, built-in radio-wave communications, etc) are not abilities that humans typically possess. Having the augmentations makes one neither more nor less human.
      They do however make one a more capable and powerful being, and thus under Dan’s philosophy as-best-I-understand-it one should desire to be augmented; and one should desire for all humanity to be augmented.
      And yet there is no justification that I saw in the post above for compelling others to undergo augmentation or for treating the augmented as more valuable or worthwhile members of society.
      The approximate equivalent of Deaf culture in this instance would be a minority of people who refused augmentation and held on to their pre-augmentation culture.
      Here again, I see no conflict with the ethics laid out in the post above – it may well be the case that the preservation of that culture leads to greater flourishing for its participants than accepting augmentation would, and they are the only ones who can appropriately make that decision.

      Perhaps you would still object to my terming a hypothetical augmented version of myself as more powerful and capable than the current version of myself (and thus a more desirable version-of-me to become, and thus, colloquially, “better”). If so, I admire your self-consistency, but I don’t see how you can justify that view.

    • Eli Horowitz

      Yeah, you didn’t read that link, did you. Cause if you did, you entirely missed the point. Which, granted, seems to be a talent of yours – who’s talking about “compelling” anything? why would disfigurement matter? (who’s defining “disfigurement,” anyway?) – but it’s not a talent you should flaunt quite this eagerly.

    • Slow Learner

      I was prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt, but it seems you are more interested in snark than positive engagement of any form.
      Goodbye

    • Eli Horowitz

      I told you once already, this isn’t the format for real education. If you wanted to learn, you wouldn’t be here. I just wanted to see how deep your particular rabbit hole went. Turns out it was pretty shallow, in the end.

  • Joseph O Polanco

    On the topic of Nature, regardless of efforts to the contrary, all life suffers and ends. Therefore, a case could be made that maximizing one’s pleasure should be the absolute moral touchstone by which to adjudicate moral values. As a famous adherent of this philosophy candidly expressed, “The greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others’? Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me—after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.”” -Ted Bundy

    Since this equally persuasive opinion conflicts with yours, how would you show it to be objectively false and yours objectively true? That is to say, which of the two reflects reality?


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