The Unnecessary Science (Chapter 4)

Last time, I looked at Chapter 3, which is the one that had the most overlap with my own analysis.  This time I’m looking at Chapter 4, which takes a tack that is much less interesting and, ultimately, one that I have repeatedly argued in the past is actually a very weak form of philosophical argument.  In response to Feser’s claims that modern morality is deficient, Laird is going to argue that Feser’s natural law ethics is at least as deficient if not more so.

Let me start with the reasons why this is not a very strong argument.  The problem is that there are far too many ways to avoid such arguments.  The first broad category is that the moral system is being misinterpreted, either by the person criticizing it or by the people who decided to use it justify what we think are horrible things.  The other broad category is to essentially bite the bullet and admit that it does justify those things that we think are horrible but ultimately those things really are correct.  The only time, then, that such arguments can really work is when you take something that the person advocating for the theory would find acceptable and show that the view instead actually supports it, and so argue that that person should reject their own theory.  But that’s a personal appeal, not a universal philosophical one.  More importantly, it doesn’t actually prove the theory wrong, and so the theory could still be right.  When you make such an appeal, you would need to appeal to a universal wrong that everyone accepts, and even then biting the bullet would blunt that attack.

Laird relies on two main attacks:  arguing that certain philosophical systems that Feser would not approve of — Nazism and Communism in particular — have links to his natural law theory, meaning here Plato and Aristotle specifically, and also arguing that Aristotle explicitly justifies slavery.  However, to make this entire point pointless, at the end Laird has to admit that all of his arguments are historical and that Feser would not be amiss in demanding that Laird give philosophical arguments to show that the system is indeed false.  Since this is in line with my argument above, it makes the entire chapter pretty much pointless.  Laird says that he will try to give those philosophical arguments in the next chapter, meaning that this one isn’t doing anything other than associating the view with slavery, Nazis and Communism, which is pretty much an argument ad hominem, unless his historical arguments actually work.  So let me take a quick look at them.

The link to Nazis and Communism is pretty much the first sort:  Laird notes that the Nazis used Plato explicitly and that Marx didn’t repudiate Aristolean ideas, but these arguments are pretty weak.  That Marx didn’t explicitly repudiate it doesn’t mean that he used it either, and so it’s hard to see the direct link that Laird would need from Aristotle to Marx, so that we can see that Aristotle when interpreted properly will lead to Communism.  And while he can show the Nazis using Plato directly, it’s way, way too easy to argue that they misinterpreted it and so that, again, Plato properly understood does not allow for their interpretation and so doesn’t justify their philosophical ideas.  The most he can and has made in the chapter is that the ideas could lead to those interpretations, but no one with any philosophical experience at all denies this, especially if we allow for people to misinterpret the ideas as Laird needs to here to make his point.  So he doesn’t make the direct link he needs for this to even work as a historical argument, let alone one we should take seriously philosophically.  And his link from Thomism to similar issues is even weaker, since all he has there is a supposition that it could be used that way, which is far too weak to support any real counter to Feser at all.  He would have been better served, I think, to spend the time he spent on these arguments to showing how the negatives Feser points to are not objectively negatives — ie that Feser calls things negative only because he thinks they’re negative and not because they actually are — or that the negatives that he and Feser agree on are misinterpretations of his preferred moral system.  That would provide a philosophically interesting discussion, which these arguments don’t really manage (admittedly, by Laird’s own admission).

There is one philosophically interesting argument here, which is the argument that Aristotle directly supported slavery.  Unfortunately, Laird’s take on it ends up seeming shallow when he talks about Aristotle’s actual philosophical justification for that stance.  It becomes obvious that Laird pulls that out because he believes that such a thing is so obviously and clearly objectively wrong that any moral system that could possibly allow for it must be wrong.  However, Aristotle’s view didn’t justify slavery in and of itself, but instead justified slavery for those whose natures were such that they had to be slaves by nature.  The first reason this blunts Laird’s argument here is that Aristotleans can argue that the view only justifies slavery if it is true that people can have a nature that demands that they be slaves, and no such people exist, so it’s an irrelevant argument.  It would be like Aristotle’s view advocates that if people can fly by their own power they must follow the same rules for ships for when they are flying.  No matter what you think of such a moral position, it’s irrelevant since no one can do it.

But it’s the second reason that’s more philosophically interesting, because we can ask if the idea that if there were people who had a nature such that slavery was demanded would it be morally wrong in that case?  The example I was pondering was that of the Atans in David Eddings’ ‘The Tamuli”.  These were a race whose sexual selection ended up selecting for maximum strength, size and aggression.  However, the problem with that was that the aggression ended up being completely out of control, and so if left to their own devices they were constantly fighting with each other, in a way that risked wiping out the race.  So one of their kings, seeing the problem, decided to sell the entire race into slavery to the not-very-aggressive Tamuls, who turned them into an army but, more importantly, curbed their aggressive tendencies by, well, not giving them the permission to indulge them in harmful ways, which the book credits with saving their race from extinction.

Let’s put aside for the moment that idea that there might well have been other solutions that would have worked and simply assume here that that king was right and at that point the Atans had the nature of slaves, and the only options for them were to become slaves or be wiped out.  Could we really say that it would be necessarily immoral to treat them as slaves and, in fact, to enslave them?  Given most of the moral systems out there, about the only one that could out-and-out reject it is Kant’s deontological view, and even in his view it isn’t clear that it would be wrong, since it wouldn’t necessarily be people treated anyone else or themselves merely as means and not as ends in themselves (after all, they are taking their nature into account) and the idea that people should be enslaved if their nature dictates that and at no other time and for no other reason actually is universalizable.  To use my own preferred Stoic model, it’s hard to argue that it is vicious to treat someone in line with their actual nature, even if that nature is for them to be a slave.  So while creating people who have slavery as their nature may be immoral, treating such people according to their nature and enslaving them isn’t clearly immoral.  And so that Aristotle’s moral system could come to this conclusion doesn’t actually count against it, and in fact his view seems to handle this sort of situation in a reasonable way and provides a better justification for what we might all agree is the moral move than the others might.

From these two arguments, the charge of justifying slavery against Aristotle has no teeth.  For all practical purposes, it doesn’t, and in the only case where it does it really looks like he might have a point.

This chapter is one that I don’t really think serves much purpose.  If Laird has philosophical arguments and not historical ones against natural law theory, he would have been better off to simply go straight to them and not bother with this as a lead-in, especially since philosophically the most philosophical of his arguments falls completely flat.  But next time we’ll actually look at the more philosophical arguments expressed in Chapter 5.


8 Responses to “The Unnecessary Science (Chapter 4)”

  1. Tom Says:

    Interesting that he brings up Marx, because Feser actually tackles Marx on his blog, as part of his ‘Adventures in the Old Atheism’ series.

    With regard to the slavery issue: I’m not actually familiar with the details of the pro-slavery versus abolition debates back in the nineteenth century, but I vaguely remember some of its features. It’s difficult for me to see how someone would mount an argument AGAINST slavery without making something like a natural law argument.

    • Gunther Laird Says:

      Hi Tom,

      I actually specifically cite that blog entry of Feser’s, and address it at some length, in the this chapter of *The Unnecessary Science* 🙂

      Now, to answer your (good) question, I think it depends on how loosely you use the term “natural law.” I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but from what I recall, drawing primary from David Brion Davis’s work, the sorts of arguments abolitionists most often used were:

      1: Christianity. Now, most American abolitionists weren’t Catholic, IIRC, so they didn’t quote a whole lot of Aquinas or other Catholic natural law thinkers, but they did argue against slavery based on the fact that it made it harder to proselytize, encouraged non-Christian vices like cruelty, greed, etc. and so on.

      2: Morality more generally. Even on a purely secular level, people in the 19th century were concerned about the stability of the family and upholding the role of the father in the household. Slavery was seen to do this both for blacks *and* whites, the former for obvious reasons (you can’t be a good husband if your master sells you to the other side of the country as your family), the latter because notorious sexual exploitation of black women by white owners made a mockery of marriage and thus weakened the bonds between white husbands and wives.

      3: Practical economics. Even whites who didn’t like blacks at all, and in some cases hated them, opposed slavery because of its denuding effects on free labor and the costs it imposed on society in terms of security (threat of slave rebellions), class conflict (large slaveowners monopolized the best land), and so on.

      Hope this helps!

      • Tom Says:

        Hi, Gunther! Thanks for responding.

        I wasn’t so much wanting to delve into the history of the abolitionist debates–although the subject is interesting. The pro-slavery advocate George Fitzhugh did get into the subject of Aristotle, if I recall rightly, though I don’t remember the details.

        As far as the arguments you list: I think 2 and 3 could be thought of as variations of natural law. The first is obviously a sectarian thing.

        However, what I was getting at was the underlying philosophy. In the modern world, we’re so used to thinking of slavery as so self-evidently and obviously wrong that I’m not sure if many of us actually put much thought into how we’d argue against it. And it’s hard for me to see how I’d argue without a natural law perspective: since the discussion in America was race-based, I’d point out that blacks and whites have a common nature, both possessing powers of reason with the superficial difference of skin color. This is obvious given the fact that laws were passed banning the teaching of reading and writing to slaves, which is not (to put it mildly) typically something done with beasts of burden.

      • Andrew Says:

        Very interesting background – thanks, Gunther.

        What strikes me as notable about those arguments is that they are all (for want of a better term) “cultural engineering”.

        Science (at least as traditionally understood) is about getting “best model for now” (until we discover more information).

        Engineering is about “what works best” given some sort of constraints.

        Culture for the most part works similarly – it’s not necessarily grounded in absolutes, just what helps a particular society function. And culture can reinforce some behaviours and mark others as “just not done”.

        I find a lot of recent thinking is very sloppy about making a clear distinction between cultural & absolute thinking. Using a contentious example because it’s already raised: “We don’t do slavery” which becomes “Slavery is immoral” which leads us to judge ancients who argued for its morality as obviously corrupted thinkers. This is a very common & appealing mode of argument to people, but it’s philosophically crap.

        That acknowledged great thinkers of the past came to different conclusions should cause us to carefully consider whether the topic under question is “absolute” or just “works for us”, and if we want to conclude that their conclusions are broken we need to do a deep dive into their arguments, not just infer brokenness from an unpalatable (to us) conclusion.

        Or we just declare that the so-called great thinkers weren’t actually great after all, but that just adds arrogance and hubris on top of poor philosophy. They might have been poor thinkers, but we need to put in some serious heavy lifting to prove that – that their conclusions breach our cherished cultural mores should lead us first to question the universality of our mores and then engage deeply with competing arguments.

  2. Gunther Laird Says:

    Hi VS,

    Yeah, I can understand why you didn’t like this chapter. It is a departure from the other ones, but I included it for 2 reasons:

    1: Like I mentioned in the introduction, The Unnecessary Science isn’t aimed only at philosophers but laymen in general, and as I was writing it a lot of my non-philosopher friends were interested in some of the historical background behind some of the asides Feser made in *The Last Superstition.* Thus, I thought this chapter would appeal to laymen who might have wanted some concrete examples of philosophers being used (or, in the cases I describe, misused) in history.

    2: On that note, this chapter was intended as a riposte to a couple of Feser’s statements, particularly, to paraphrase from *The Last Superstition,* “abandoning Aristotelianism is implicated in the 20th century’s worst atrocities.” As you imply in this post, it’s hard to draw a straight line from Aristotle and Plato to Nazism or Communism or slavery, as you note, it’s possible to make an Aristotelian argument against slavery based on nobody actually having the “nature” of a slave. I do acknowledge this in the text, as I state on page 181, “Feser could take some vindication in the knowledge that pro-Nazi
    classicists often misread the philosopher in important ways,” and go on to quote Wolin and Chapoutot. But as I also note, Nazis, Communists, slavers, etc. may have misinterpreted the classical tradition, but they didn’t “abandon” it, at least as I understand Feser’s quote from TLS. And that’s all I set out to prove there.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Thus, I thought this chapter would appeal to laymen who might have wanted some concrete examples of philosophers being used (or, in the cases I describe, misused) in history.

      The problem is that as it is in a work that is at least ostensibly claiming to be taking on and refuting Feser, these sorts of arguments come across as a kind of ad hominem, which a layperson is not really going to be able to recognize, and so they are most likely to come away from the chapter actually thinking that Feser’s views supported the Nazis. You DO bring that up and point out that it isn’t necessarily so, but then for me I still would have rathered you did other things than take up the time with this chapter, from a strictly argumentative standpoint.

      But as I also note, Nazis, Communists, slavers, etc. may have misinterpreted the classical tradition, but they didn’t “abandon” it, at least as I understand Feser’s quote from TLS. And that’s all I set out to prove there.

      The problem here is that for Feser “abandoning Aristotle” meant less repudiating it and more ignoring what it taught or really meant, until the more modern days where it’s explicitly repudiated. So here you would be attempting to counter his rhetoric but not the argumentative basis for this rhetoric.

      • Gunther Laird Says:

        >these sorts of arguments come across as a kind of ad hominem, which a layperson is not really going to be able to recognize, and so they are most likely to come away from the chapter actually thinking that Feser’s views supported the Nazis.

        Well, in philosophical terms, while you can just dive right into chapter 5 on its own, I do adumbrate some of the more philosophical arguments of that chapter in this one; the descriptions of how the Nazis and the Communists–at least some of them–used teleological and/or essentialist thinking foreshadows some of the problems I highlight with that thinking in chapter 5.

        >The problem here is that for Feser “abandoning Aristotle” meant less repudiating it and more ignoring what it taught or really meant, until the more modern days where it’s explicitly repudiated.

        Well, from my understanding, and also going from the quotes of his I took from *The Last Superstition,* it seems to me that what Feser meant by “abandoning Aristotle” is rejecting Forms and final causality (teleology), and the point I was making in this chapter was that slaveowners, Nazis, communists, etc. didn’t really reject Forms and teleology–and again, this ties in with my criticism of those concepts, or at least Feser’s spin on them, in the next chapter.

  3. The Unnecessary Science (Chapter 5) | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Continuing on from last time, in Chapter 5 Laird is going to look in more detail at Feser’s idea of good and how it relates to moral good.  Essentially, Feser defines moral good as aligning with what is naturally good, in the sense that it best aligns with the Form of the thing and strives for its ideal  Laird’s first argument, as my notes have it, is to challenge and dismiss that definition, but we do have a sense of good and bad as relating to an ideal.  Laird then does say that that sense is a different sense than the moral sense, but Feser actually argues for why natural good aligns to and links to moral good in at least moral agents, and can use design and God’s will to make the full argument.  You could accuse Feser of equivocation in using “good for the individual” as being the same thing as “morally good” and so using the motivation we get from striving for our ideal to motivate us to act morally, but for humans as moral beings we have to include acting ideally morally as part of our true and full form.  In a sense, then, Feser has a better argument for why we, as humans, must be moral than most, since his notion of Forms can easily argue that morality is part of who we are, something that most other moral systems cannot actually do.  Laird also takes on examples of toys and Nazis to try to show weakness or conflict with good as defined by Forms.  He argues that a toy in the shape of a triangle that does not have perfect sides would seem to not be a good triangle, and so would be better if it was more like a triangle even if that would make it a worse toy (by being more dangerous to children playing with it).  He also notes that a Nazi who acts more like a Nazi is a better Nazi and so would be more good, despite being morally inferior.  However, as even Laird admits much of this can be handled by appealing to the specific properties and Form that the thing is trying to achieve, and for Nazis in particular we can easily appeal to humans as moral agents to note that a Nazi, if inherently immoral, is an inferior human being precisely because adopting that stance makes them worse at achieving and respecting the moral being that is part and parcel of them. […]

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