On metaethics: a reply to Dan Fincke

I have recently been reading Dan Fincke’s erudite series of posts on metaethics, in which he defends his own version of moral realism. Today I plan to begin the Herculean task of offering a personal reflection on Fincke’s views. I am merely an armchair philosopher, not a professional, and I apologize for any misreadings or misunderstandings which arise. This will probably be the first in a series of posts, since the topic is a vast one, and Fincke’s writings on the topic are fittingly extensive.

Fincke is a moral realist. Moral realism in this sense is defined as “the view that moral duties and values have an objective reality that does not depend on any person’s or group of persons’ opinions or beliefs about them.” Fincke rejects the commonly-held view that facts and values are categorically different things, and that one can never derive an “is” from an “ought”. He argues instead that questions of values are questions of fact, and that the question of what is good, in a moral sense, is ultimately a factual question: thus an action can be objectively good or bad, and to say that something is good or bad is an empirically verifiable and testable claim.

He explains the basics of his theory thus:

The most factual sense of the word “good” we have is the sense of effectiveness. Effectiveness is a matter of straightforward fact. My heart right now is effective at pumping blood. Many rivers have been effective at carving valleys. The sun is effective in innumerable ways at sustaining life on Earth.

To say that x is good at y is to make a verifiable or falsifiable fact claim that x is effective at y-ing.

To say that x is good for y is to make a verifiable or falsifiable fact claim that y is able to do what it does more effectively when x contributes in some specifiable way to y‘s activity.  Sometimes this means that y‘s effective performance is, as a matter of fact, enhanced in a particular way by x. Sometimes it could mean that y‘s existence is in some or all instances, as a matter of fact, preconditioned by x, such that y only happens in some or all instances if x is present.

Fincke is obviously right to say that in one sense of the word “good”, “goodness” does indeed mean “effectiveness”: to say that x is good at y is to say that x is effective at y-ing. In that sense “goodness” is a factual matter which is empirically measurable: a person can be, in relative terms, objectively “good” or “bad” at running, for instance, or at mental arithmetic. It is objectively true that Usain Bolt is a better sprinter than I am. In this sense “goodness” is indeed a factual matter, and to say that someone or something is “good at x” is an empirically verifiable or falsifiable fact-claim.

But of course there is an obvious objection. Defining “goodness” in this way leaves open the question of what one ought to be good at. Whether or not someone is effective at achieving a particular goal is a question of fact, but this does not tell us whether, or why, it is morally desirable to achieve that particular goal. In the sense in which Fincke is using the term “goodness” – goodness qua effectiveness – a person could be said, without contradiction, to be “good at killing”. But that doesn’t in itself establish that killing is a morally good thing. This is an objection which Fincke recognizes, and goes on to address.

Given the nature of being as functionality, there are two basic kinds of effectiveness.  The first kind of effectiveness is the successful functioning of a function itself.  A function exists through its functioning effectively.  There is no function apart from the act of functioning.  Ceasing to function makes a function cease to be.  Since a being is a function, a being’s ceasing to function entails necessarily its ceasing to be.

So any being’s intrinsic good is to function effectively according to that function that the being is.  Of course, as has already been described, each being is composed of many parts, each of which itself is a function composed of further parts.  This means that increasingly complex beings are composed of increasingly numerous functions on increasingly numerous levels.

So for every being to do well as the being that it is, it must function according to its characteristic activity well, i.e., effectively.  What each function is can be characterized in objective terms as a description of its essential functions and therefore its objective good, its effective functioning, can be described in terms of the conditions by which it functions well as the function it is.

Let me stop to stress that functions are not defined by consciously given purposes. A river is a river because it functions in a river way, not because any intelligent being purposed it to act in that way.  A heart is a heart because it functions in a heart way, not because any intelligent being decided it should act in that way.

If I understand Fincke correctly, here, he is saying that a “good” being is one which functions effectively according to its characteristic activity. A heart is a “good” heart if it functions effectively in a heart way, which is presumably to say that it pumps blood effectively around the body. (For that matter, presumably, an Ebola virus is a “good” Ebola virus if it functions effectively in an Ebola virus way, invading cells and reproducing itself.)

So, presumably, a human is a “good” human if they function effectively in a human way. But what does it mean to function effectively in a human way? What is the “function” of a human being? This is far from obvious. As Fincke concedes, we are not the products of an intentional design: we do not have an inbuilt teleological purpose. Like other animals, we certainly have innate biological impulses: to survive, to propagate, and to seek pleasure, for instance. But we would not generally say that a “good person”, in the moral sense, is one who is effective at surviving and propagating and pleasure-seeking. Indeed, we would normally condemn it as a morally bad action to prioritize one’s own survival, propagation or pleasure at the expense of others: those whom we praise as virtuous are those who sacrifice their own lives or interests for the good of others. Few people would argue that all natural behaviours are morally good behaviours. In fact, what we commonly call morality frequently requires us to restrain our own impulses and sacrifice our own interests in order to avoid doing harm to others.

Fincke goes on to explain his position further in another post.

Put more simply, any time we say something is good, i.e., that something is effective, we have to specify what it is good at, i.e., what it is effectively doing, contributing to, or bringing forth through its activity.

So no functioning is good in an unqualified way. An apple is good, i.e., effectively an apple, when all its component molecules are functioning in the ways that make an apple happen. And the apple is only good as an apple, i.e., as doing apple things. It is not good as a chair for allowing humans to sit upright. It serves various nutritional and pleasure-giving functions for humans so we take an interest in these various functions of the apple since they contribute to our goals in these ways. The apple has other things it functionally does that may have no interest to us. Just because certain of its functions contribute to some of our own goods (by providing nutrition and pleasure) does not mean that all the effective functions of an apple are exhausted by these functions.  It has others.

Thus far I agree with Fincke. If we define goodness as effectiveness, it makes no sense to define a thing as good without specifying what it is good at,  and from what perspective.

Human actions can be called good relative (a) to their intrinsic functional effectiveness, (b) to their contribution to larger, more powerfully functioning actions, and (c) to their abilities to bring about external goods.

For examples:

(a) I stomp my foot intrinsically well if my attempts to bend my knee and raise my foot and then to slam it to the floor are all successful.  This is an effective stomping of my foot, which is equivalent to saying it is a good stomping of my foot.

(b) When I stomp my foot as part of a dance, in addition to stomping my foot well for its own sake, I aim to have this foot stomping contribute to an overall activity of dancing well. Perhaps I stomp my foot too hard for the requirements of the dance. In this case, even though I stomped my foot well, I therein performed less well at the more complex activity I was carrying out.  If being able to dance is to be judged a more valuable task than simple stomping is—either intrinsically, because it is a more complex and powerful kind of functioning, or extrinsically because I have set it as my purpose at the moment—then my relatively good foot stomping is simultaneously relatively bad dancing. And if, on the other hand, I not only foot stomp effectively but do so in a way that constitutes dancing effectively, then I have done both the lesser and the greater functions well.

(c) When I stomp my foot in order to squash a bug, then aside from the effectiveness of controlling my leg to stomp in the desired way, I also aim at something outside of foot stomping—bug killing.  If the effect is that the bug is dead, then my good (effective) foot stomping is also a good (effective) bug killing. And, if I fail to kill the bug, I may still have done a good foot-stomping but it would not have been a good bug-killing.

But again, there is something missing from this argument. Fincke is surely right that it is possible for an act of foot-stomping to be more or less “good” – that is, effective – judged according to the vigour of the stomping itself, or according to how well it fits within a dance routine, or according to how well it kills bugs, and that these different criteria may lead us to different appraisals of the same foot-stomp. But this does not tell us whether foot-stomping, dancing, or bug-killing are themselves good things which, morally speaking, he ought to be doing. Fincke is right to say that his relatively good foot-stomping may be relatively bad dancing, but this does not tell us whether dancing is a more or less valuable activity than foot-stomping, or why it is more or less valuable, or how we know. He suggests that dancing may be “intrinsically” more valuable than foot-stomping because it is “a more complex and powerful kind of functioning”, but why is it that more complex and powerful kinds of functioning are more valuable? What does he mean in this context by “powerful”, or by “valuable”?

Similarly, Fincke is quite right to say that the “goodness” of his foot-stomping can be measured by its effectiveness in achieving an external “good” – in his example, bug-killing – but this analysis does not tell us whether bug-killing is itself a good. It might be so from the perspective of some humans, though a vegan might beg to differ; it certainly is not so from the perspective of the bug. What would it mean, then, to say that bug-killing is objectively good or objectively bad?

My point here is that Fincke’s analysis of metaethics, while repeatedly pointing out (correctly) that x may be objectively more or less good at y-ing, and that “goodness” in this sense is synonymous with effectiveness, fails to explain how we know whether y-ing is itself a good thing which x ought to do. The means may be objectively more or less good at achieving the ends, but this does not tell us whether, or why, the ends are themselves objectively good.

To apply this to an example some want to use against my account, we can say that an effective murderer is a “good” murderer since she accomplishes the goal of making people die. This does not at all mean that since murder is an instance of effectiveness that murder is at all good in any unqualified sense. It does not mean that it is good for humans to be murderers. It is indeed good for people to have the cleverness, the manual dexterity, the boldness, the planning skills, etc. that may go into being a good murderer. These traits may even be admired by those who nonetheless are rightly repulsed by the murderer’s murders.

Here we get to the crux of my difficulty with Fincke’s argument. Fincke has already said that no functioning is good in an unqualified way, that to say that something is good we must specify what it is good at. Yet here, he makes clear that he thinks murder is not good – indeed, that it is evil – in an unqualified sense, and that it is not good for humans to be murderers. Let us explore how he justifies this conclusion:

The reason why murdering is evil is because it is the kind of effective functioning that destroys better, more complex functioning both in the murderer himself and, of course, in the one he murders. The highest, most complex, and most powerful functioning we can have is the kind by which we master ourselves completely so we can maximally well function according to our powers and so that, through this, we can maximally increase the powers of others.

When we so empower others, they become functions of our power in the sense that whenever they function powerfully in the ways we have aided them to function, we are partially responsible for this and so effective and powerful through them. When I teach you an idea and it increases your rational ability to understand the world, henceforth I am always powerful in you when you have and use that understanding. If I teach you a skill, I am powerful in your skillful exercise. If I write a law that that removes a barrier to your performing some flourishing activity then I am powerful when you now can flourish. If I entertain you, I am powerful not only for affecting you and getting the response I want from you (the feeling of being entertained) but I am contributing to your overall mental well being for making you pleased, helping your relax and recharge for future exercises of power, etc. If I install your pipes, I am powerful in the effective plumbing in your house. If I build your house, I am powerful everyday it keeps you comfortable and does not collapse upon you and kill you.

When one murder another he effectively remove an entire powerful functioning from the world. He is responsible for much less functioning, much less effectiveness, much less goodness. This is a net loss of his own power since all that lost goodness is on the ledger for him. He is responsible for all that does not happen comparable to the way that when we personally fail in exercising a power we are responsible for the goods we were trying to create not being there when the world would have been better if they were there (and we would have been more powerful for having created them). Except this case goes well beyond failing to exercise power in some specific case, now there is all this powerful functioning of another person that will cease entirely. All this good the murderer cannot replace. The murder also harms the psyches of those who love the victim, threatening to be counter-productive to their own flourishing. Murders also threaten the effective functioning of the social order. Violent, hostile, mistrustful social arrangements are counter-productive to maximum flourishing of the maximum number of individuals and counter-productive to total prosperity.

Fincke is evidently using “powerful” here as a term of art: to him, to do things which empower others is to be powerful, and a more powerful action is more effective and hence more good. He defends altruism, therefore, on the ground that altruistic actions are powerful ones, because empowering others makes them “functions of our power” and we become “effective and powerful through them”. But it is hard to see how he arrives at this conclusion.

Fincke has already told us that, according to his metaethics, “a being’s intrinsic good is to function effectively according to that function which the being is.”  He tells us later that “each thing’s naturalend”, that towards which it tends and in which it fulfills the kind of being it is, is to function as the thing it is,” and that “goodness is simply a word for how well they fulfill this tendency and each particular being’s intrinsic goodness–i.e., it’s intrinsic effectiveness–refers to the functionality which is its natural tendency.” Does he then say that it is the “natural tendency” of a human being to become more “powerful”, in the Finckean sense, by acting to empower others? Upon what does he base this conclusion? It is certainly hard to derive any such principle from nature: we certainly see cooperation in human nature (and in that of our nearest animal relatives), but we also see selfishness and violence and cruelty, and these behaviours are no less natural to us than is altruism.

As a tangential point, Fincke also seems to be resurrecting a rather Aristotelian conception of virtue in which to achieve, to be an effective scholar or teacher or athlete or builder or thinker, is morally virtuous in itself. After all, relying on Fincke’s own examples, someone whose talents, skills and education equip them to build a good house is more “powerful” in the Finckean sense, and hence a better person, than someone who can only build a poor one. That, of course, does not make him wrong. But it does diverge somewhat from our usual understanding of what morality is. We would in ordinary discourse distinguish ability from virtue: we would not normally say that a person of greater ability or capacity is a better person, in the ethical sense, than a person of less ability or capacity.

My central objection to Fincke’s argument is not a new one. Fincke has responded, in a subsequent post, to a blogger named Keenan Steel who raises much the same objection. Here, Fincke explains in clearer terms the core of his argument.

The nature of any being is to exist as it does.  Every being results from sub-components functioning at every moment in a certain way.  Every being grows insofar as its components grow in specific ways with respect to their powers, strengths, and complexities of organization.  Every being effectively occurs in reality when the components of which it is composed function well for the kind of being it is.

Naturally, each thing’s natural “end”, that towards which it tends and in which it fulfills the kind of being it is, is to function as the thing it is.  Natural beings, including we humans, do not have any sort of God-given natural goal.  Entities just function as they do and either function more enduringly and powerfully in the ways they do or not.  They do not intend to be the beings they are (unless they are conscious beings) but they nonetheless tend towards being what they are.  And goodness is simply a word for how well they fulfill this tendency and each particular being’s intrinsic goodness–i.e., it’s intrinsic effectiveness–refers to the functionality which is its natural tendency.

Unfortunately, the difficulties with Fincke’s reasoning which I have already expressed continue to arise in this passage. He argues that each thing’s natural tendency is to function as the thing it is, and that “goodness” simply means how effectively it fulfils this natural tendency. But what makes him think that our “natural tendencies” actually comport with his understanding of moral goodness? Is he asserting that humans are naturally predisposed to be altruistic above all, a claim which seems clearly wrong? Or is he using “natural tendency” as a philosophical term of art? If the latter, what does he mean by it, and in what sense is it “natural”? It strikes me that Fincke, although a vocal atheist, is really resurrecting a theistic and teleological account of “natural” morality, and one which I cannot fit coherently into a non-theistic worldview.

I remain unconvinced that there are such things as objective moral truths. In my view it is not meaningful to speak of something being objectively good or bad. In that sense I am a type of moral relativist, although it is worth noting that the term “moral relativism” can have multiple meanings in ethics, and that I use it here in a descriptive rather than a normative sense.

My argument certainly does not imply that morality itself is meaningless, nor does it imply anything in particular about the substance of what is moral or immoral: indeed, I suspect that Fincke and I would agree in practice on the great majority of our moral principles. Nor does my argument imply that rational debate about morality is impossible. It is not. Firstly, many moral debates actually have their root in factual disagreements: two people may very well agree that poverty is bad but disagree on which economic policies are most effective in fighting poverty, for example, or indeed on which of the many definitions of “poverty” is most relevant to human wellbeing. These, being fundamentally factual disputes rather than moral ones, can be settled with reference to empirical evidence. Secondly, one can also make a reasoned moral argument by reasoning from first principles accepted by all participants in the debate. For instance, if we take it as axiomatic – as many people do – that inequalities of status on the basis of birth and heredity are wrong in principle, then a reasoned argument can be made to illustrate that restrictions on immigration fall foul of this principle. In neither of these cases have we resorted to claiming that there is some objective moral truth which all rational people are obligated to accept. Rather, we have started from the assumption that we share some moral inclinations and intuitions about how the world ought to be, and developed a reasoned argument from our common starting-point.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On metaethics: a reply to Dan Fincke

  1. johnvmarsch says:

    Good post.

    You make it clear that any belief in objective moral truths has to involve a rejection of the fact/value distinction from the start as it plunges the entire category of the ethical into a realm of pure subjectivity. The very word value immediately insinuates this determining subjectivity — what value do I or you or he or she assign to this cluster of facts?

    If I’ve understood the trajectory of your thought to date, you have accepted this moral subjectivism, if perhaps somewhat fretfully. You acknowledge that neither your ethical opinions nor those of someone radically opposed to all you stand for are in any meaningful sense ‘true’ or ‘false’ — your values are valid for you because they are yours, which is to say they elicit a favourable emotional response from yourself. A defence of your values in the face of opposing values thus amounts to “don’t try to force your morality on me“.

    As a corollary, you accept (again perhaps reluctantly) that rational debate about ethics is only possible between those with ‘shared values’, a debate about means rather than ends: “We agree that hereditary inequality is bad — that is to say, it evokes similar hostile sentiments in us. Therefore let us debate how we can best work to end this privilege.” With those who do not hold it to be “axiomatic … that inequalities of status on the basis of birth and heredity are wrong in principle”, there can be no rational debate, only more or less polite warfare.

    When we last discussed these matters on ACAK I suggested a deity (in the classical theistic sense) would be a supernatural source of moral realism, imposing an objective ethic on the world of brute mute facts. But on reflection, even this crumbles before the corrosive power of the fact/value distinction: a deity and his injunctions would just be one more order of facts to which I could assign whatever value I saw fit. “Thou believest that there is one God. Thou dost well: the devils also believe and tremble.”

    Fincke’s attempt to short-circuit the ethics of subjectivity by a wholesale rejection of the fact/value distinction has a pleasingly radical quality to it. After all, why not? Why not cheerily dismiss Hume’s puzzling dichotomy as arbitrary and say morality just is our telos? The problem, as you point out, is knowing what our telos could be if we don’t think there’s a deity to provide one. Fincke’s left-Nietzschean version of the will to power (“empower yourself by empowering others”) is certainly one understanding of what constitutes natural human flourishing, but there are others … including some right-Nietzschean versions of the will to power, whose exponents would argue that well-meaning attempts to achieve the “maximum flourishing of the maximum number of individuals” inevitably hamper the maximum flourishing of the minority of individuals who matter.

    The headaches for atheistic teleology multiply. Why should the propagation of human genetic material be considered less integral to proper human functioning than, say, the exercise of the rational intellect or artistic creation or expressions of human love or the alleviation of human suffering? The plant and animal kingdoms don’t seem to suffer self-doubt or feel the need to discuss things, they just do what they do, not having been afflicted with the evolutionary byproduct of self-consciousness. Perhaps we should aspire to their condition. (Or maybe that’s too much to hope for.)

    • Sorry for the long delay in replying. I have attempted to reply twice in the last few days, and on both occasions WordPress has eaten my comments. :/

      If I’ve understood the trajectory of your thought to date, you have accepted this moral subjectivism, if perhaps somewhat fretfully. You acknowledge that neither your ethical opinions nor those of someone radically opposed to all you stand for are in any meaningful sense ‘true’ or ‘false’ — your values are valid for you because they are yours, which is to say they elicit a favourable emotional response from yourself.

      More or less, yes. Which I suppose is close to emotivism. Though I don’t say that I have a fully-thought-out descriptive account of how moral thinking functions in practice.

      As a corollary, you accept (again perhaps reluctantly) that rational debate about ethics is only possible between those with ‘shared values’, a debate about means rather than ends: “We agree that hereditary inequality is bad — that is to say, it evokes similar hostile sentiments in us. Therefore let us debate how we can best work to end this privilege.” With those who do not hold it to be “axiomatic … that inequalities of status on the basis of birth and heredity are wrong in principle”, there can be no rational debate, only more or less polite warfare.

      That’s true beyond a certain point. But I maintain that rational debate about morality often is possible in practice, because most people do share certain very basic assumptions about what is good and what is bad. My example was perhaps ill-chosen: to have an argument about immigration restrictions, one doesn’t need to rely on a moral principle as controversial as “distinctions of status based on birth and heredity are wrong in principle”. Rather, one could start from a far more widely-accepted principle like “human suffering is bad”, and could seek to argue that the existence of immigration restrictions increases the net amount of human suffering in the world, in comparison with the alternative. (Which is at least in principle an argument about facts, rather than values, although there are admittedly difficulties in coming up with a non-contentious working definition of human suffering.)

      Of course it is true to say that if someone explicitly rejected the idea that human suffering is bad – or, more plausibly, held other values which they prioritized more highly than reducing human suffering – then such an argument would hold no force for them, and any reasoned debate about morality would rapidly break down. And, as you point out, my metaethical position necessarily means that I could not characterize their view as “wrong”, or my own as “right”, in any objective sense. I would be forced to admit that we simply had different and irreconcilable value-systems.

      When we last discussed these matters on ACAK I suggested a deity (in the classical theistic sense) would be a supernatural source of moral realism, imposing an objective ethic on the world of brute mute facts. But on reflection, even this crumbles before the corrosive power of the fact/value distinction: a deity and his injunctions would just be one more order of facts to which I could assign whatever value I saw fit. “Thou believest that there is one God. Thou dost well: the devils also believe and tremble.”

      Quite so. The mere existence of a deity who gives commandments does not itself have any self-evident moral implications, given that an “is” never implies an “ought”. Although an unusual position, it would not actually be incoherent or self-contradictory for someone to say, for instance, “God exists, but he is an evil tyrant whom it is morally right to defy.”

      That said, Fincke’s crypto-teleological view of morality, with all this talk of “ends” and “functions” and “natural tendencies”, would make a great deal more sense to me if he were a theist who believed in a beneficent creator. It seems to me particularly hard to shoehorn it into an atheist worldview, in which there are no designs or purposes in nature, and no particularly obvious reason to think that what is natural is morally good. And so I am put in the odd position of agreeing with most of Fincke’s ethics but disagreeing vehemently with his metaethics.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, wow. This is a word game with the English meanings of the words good and bad. It isn’t a discussion of morals at all!

    And Fincke didn’t even notice!

    I’m impressed. He’s the Second Coming of Anselm of Canterbury.

  3. Pingback: Answering some common objections to ethical vegetarianism | Shining Artifact Of The Past

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s