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July 04, 2009


Joyless Moralist

There is an extensive body of literature in a natural law sort of vein on the nature of marriage, all of which could be classified as broadly Aristotelian in its approach. I've always liked the comment made by Professor Dimble on the subject of polygamy in CS Lewis' *That Hideous Strength* -- "It wasn't wrong for Abraham, but one can't help feeling that he missed something." (Something to that effect; I don't have a copy of the book on hand.)

Biologically, a man can be seen as flourishing when he spreads his seed as widely as possible. But if we think that *marriage* per se is a good for human beings, we need to consider what that good is, and how it is best realized. Marriage is more than simply a means of perpetuating one's genes. Of course, looked at in the scope of history, marriage has not necessarily implied monogamy; King David married all his women (well, eventually). But in the Christian era, Christ declared this to be the higher way, and the Greeks and Romans, as you pointed out, seem to have come to the same realization on their own. Quite aside from the scarcity considerations (not that those don't have some value too), a man himself, to say nothing of his wife, can gain more from a monogamous marriage than from multiple simultaneous marriages.

I've lived in societies that tolerate polygyny a couple of times (in Palestine and in Uzbekistan.) As your quote mentioned, the actual number of plural marriages in many such societies is fairly low; demographics tend to ensure this, unless strong pressures of other kinds upset that natural balance. That was the case in both Uzbekistan and Palestine (though one of my host fathers -- quite a rich man -- did in fact have a second wife in a second household.) What really struck me about both these societies was that, despite the relative rarity of actual plural marriages, the *tolerance* for them changed significantly the relationship of men and women. This was brought home to me most forcefully by a little incident during my summer in Gaza. A few Palestinian friends had brought me and my teaching partner to the wedding of a friend of theirs, and a week or so later, this same friend joined us for an outing somewhere. And was flirting with me relentlessly. I was rather shocked by this, and, when he was out of the room briefly, asked his buddies, "Can't you get him to stop this? It's shameful. He JUST GOT MARRIED for goodness' sake!"

They shrugged. "Men can marry again here," they pointed out. "Why should a married man stop flirting? He's just on the lookout for his next wife."

In a society that condones polygyny, men are effectively released from expectations to fidelity; or at any rate, fidelity implies considerably less for them than it does for their wives. And this, I would contend, diminishes what those relationships can be. On a deep level, marriage is a exploration of the complimentarity of the masculine and the feminine, and a reflection of that truth so simply and beautifully expressed in Genesis, "Men and women, He created them." Men and women are not precisely equal in every sense (insofar as equal means "the same") but their love flourishes best when their contributions to the union are equally valued, and their commitments equally binding. Monogamy -- and ideally not just de facto monogamy, but monogamy deliberately chosen and embraced -- is the best recipe for this. Thus, it does best fulfill our telos, and that for me is the most significant argument in its favor.

Joyless Moralist

Just to make the difference a little more clear -- a Kantian can give us a justification for egalitarianism, but it is based solely on the consideration that men and women are both rational agents. This is true as far as it goes, but ideally we should say more than this. They are both rational agents, but not precisely the same; they are *made for one another*, and made to compliment and support one another. It is this blending of similarity and difference that makes erotic love so beautiful and so mysterious. Only an Aristotelian (or a Christian), with his attentiveness to natures, can really explore this. It relates as well to why, for Christians, marriage is not just a contract (as it is for Kant) but a *sacrament* -- in the joining of a man and a woman, something deep and true about the nature of the universe is mirrored and affirmed. Here Mother Earth meets Father Sky, and Christ is united to His Bride; the marriage ceremony should help the couple to perceive, even in a dim way, that they are being made part of something much larger than themselves.

This, incidentally, gives some clues to the deeper underlying reasons why Christians can never condone same-sex "marriage" -- two people of the same sex don't have this kind of complimentarity, and so simply are not candidates for marriage properly understood. Though Kant himself would not have condoned same-sex marriage (and also tried desperately -- and not very successfully, I think -- to explain how marriage, as he understood it, could be distinguished from prostitution), I don't think a Kantian can actually come up with very firm grounds for opposing it.

Kantians and utilitarians may be able to say some useful things about the benefits of monogamy, but it takes a Christian (with a telos-oriented way of regarding the question) to really explain on a deeper level why monogamy is the most sublime model for human union.


If you are the only man in a tribe of 50, then polygamy is almost a necessity. If you are the only woman in a tribe of 50, then civil war is almost a necessity. The fact that a woman can only bear a single man's child every 9 months makes the ratio of genders fairly important (unless homosexuality is accepted). After a war in which a significant percentage of able-bodied men are killed, I would imagine polygamy to be quite a natural phenomenon, though that's not to say that monogamy might not still be the ideal metaphysically.


One need only look at the bible (say, Numbers 31) to understand why the practice of warfare encouraged polygyny, and neither is it difficult to understand how useful it would be to political leaders to have a large coterie of frustrated young men whose only hope of a mate is success in battle.

Joyless Moralist

I'm using "natural" here in a philosophically weighty, Aristotelian sort of way, so it denotes something like, "in keeping with man's perfected nature and conducive to his greatest flourishing." In other words, monogamy is ideal, but certainly there is a sense in which polygyny can be "natural" in the sense of being an understandable response to common human needs and desires, and thus something likely to arise under certain circumstances. I don't regard polygyny as being utterly *contrary* to nature (as homoeroticism is), so much as just less than ideal. It can bring certain goods, and has rightly been endorsed under some circumstances, but monogamy is better.

Nathan Smith

re: "a Kantian can give us a justification for egalitarianism, but it is based solely on the consideration that men and women are both rational agents. This is true as far as it goes, but ideally we should say more than this. They are both rational agents, but not precisely the same; they are *made for one another*, and made to compliment and support one another. It is this blending of similarity and difference that makes erotic love so beautiful and so mysterious. Only an Aristotelian (or a Christian), with his attentiveness to natures, can really explore this."

It's not quite true to say that a Kantian's justification is based solely on the position that people are rational agents. Some attention to nature is necessary if we are to recognize that what a woman wants from marriage is in important ways similar to what a man wants a marriage, with the same motive for exclusiveness, even if the sexual needs are somewhat different. If we focused strictly on the biological aspect, we might conclude that as a man's need for exclusiveness is solely to assure himself about the paternity of any offspring he might be raising. In that case, to observe that men want their wives to be faithful and to derive from that the proposition that men ought to be faithful to their wives would be as invalid as to say that because butchers want people to buy meat from them, they must buy meat from others.

It is true, however, that a Kantian does not need to explore the nature of marriage very thoroughly in order to come to ethical conclusions about polygyny. Once we say that marriage is a certain kind of especially intimate and lasting friendship, and that the appropriate universalization of a man's desire that his wife be faithful therefore *is* "You should not marry more than one *person*," then we can conclude that polygyny is ethically wrong. I'm not saying, necessarily, that this is the only possible conclusion from a Kantian meta-ethics; and if one were to dispute it, one would attack precisely the question of the nature of marriage. For example, consider the following question: Would a man be entitled to object if a woman had a passionate online romance with a man on the opposite side of the world-- destroying the exclusive emotional bond with her husband, but giving him no grounds for doubting his paternity of his children? "No" seems an implausible answer, but if one were to answer that, one might be in a position to plausibly argue for polygyny.

Having established an ethical proposition based on a rather slight characterization of the relevant aspects of human nature, there is nothing at all to prevent the Kantian from going on to explore the nature of marriage further. There is nothing at all to prevent him from waxing eloquent and comparing marriage to Mother Earth meeting Father Sky, to the Church and Christ, etc. But he doesn't need all this in order to adjudicate the question of polygyny. And surely that's a good thing! For all these eloquent descriptions will bring in no end of vagueness and disagreement.

Joyless Moralist

You still don't seem to understand. Exploration of natures isn't just *unnecessary* for a Kantian; it is forbidden. That is to say, empirical observation must play no part at all in the formulation of ethical maxims.

The whole magic and downfall of the Kantian system is that it must be *entirely* based on a priori reasoning. Once you start bringing in empirical observations, you're not a Kantian anymore. So yes, the observation that men and women are both rational agents really is the *only* thing that you can use to establish egalitarianism, and you may not make adjustments to the contract based on observations of empirical differences in what men and women actually want out of the relationship -- that would be contaminating the reasoning process with irrelevancies. Also, you may *not* expand your discussion of marriage to include explorations of the deeper metaphysical nature of the joining. That kind of information, even if true, would be both inaccessible and irrelevant. Kant defines marriage as a contract between rational agents (for the exclusive mutual use of one another's genital organs), because, for a Kantian, a contract is literally *all* marriage can ever be. That's as full a definition as you can get based on the only facts that Kant will admit as relevant, namely, the rationality of the involved agents. Even your "particularly intimate friendship" description would be a superfluous irrelevancy; it takes empirical observation of human nature to see that men and women tend to form such friendships, and in any case, even I don't regard intimacy as either a necessary or a sufficient condition for establishing a marriage. (I do, of course, think it a *desirable* element of marriage, but to explain why that is, I would need to start talking about natures.)

I don't see how marriage could ever possibly be a sacrament for a Kantian, and, as I've said, he may be able to reject polygyny, but I don't think see how he could reasonably object to homosexuality. (Or even, for that matter, to bestiality, if we were to find any species of beasts that were rational.) All these elements of the Christian tradition require an attentiveness to natures, which Kant categorically rejects. Any two rational agents who are capable of entering into an exclusive contract can be married.

It's important to understand that the complete rejection of natures, and a posteriori reasoning generally, is not just some secondary feature of Kantian theory that you can relax as convenient. This is absolutely at the core of Kant's methodology. Any epistemic superiority that Kant might have to offer over Aristotelianism derives from that requirement. But you don't actually want to go that far (with good reason, I might say!) so what you're offering here is more like a kind of half-hearted Aristotelianism that arbitrarily limits what facts you're willing to consider as relevant, and on that basis wants to boast a firmer epistemic grounding than what a Christian account of marriage could offer. I just don't think it gets you anywhere. As long as you're willing to open the door to Aristotelian-type considerations, you might as well go whole hog, and enjoy all the metaphysical richness that that approach can offer.

Nathan Smith

I don't see how it makes any sense even to talk about people being rational agents while attempting to prohibit all discussion of natures. After all, to say that man is a rational agent *is* to assert something about his nature, albeit something rather narrow. If Kant thought that he could avoid discussing natures even to that extent, he was mistaken, but we don't have to make the same mistakes. Some inquiry into natures is needed even for a maxim to be meaningful; we might on that ground say that some view of human nature must be implicit in Kant's system whether he acknowledged it or not. Alternatively, we might say that Kant's system needs to be supplemented with some inquiry into natures to be tenable, and that this enterprise is worth engaging in, since the requirement of universalizability does seem to illuminate much of what we know about ethics.

I suppose it's semantic whether we accept the labeling of all inquiries into natures as "Aristotelian-type considerations," though it seems a little odd, since man surely must have been inquiring into his own nature since the beginning of time, and can hardly help doing so. But the invitation to "enjoy all the metaphysical richness that [the Aristotelian] approach can offer" is not an enticing one if one wishes to find a way to reason about ethics without first imposing on one's interlocutors a highly specific view of human nature that hardly anyone today fully accepts. I want to enlarge the potential audience of my ethical reasoning by making my premises as *parsimonious* (not "rich") as possible. This does not at all impede the exploration of richer conceptions of human nature, but it does mean that one's ethics need not be contingent on success in establishing agreement about those richer conceptions of human nature.

I am not here concerned with bestiality, homosexuality, or homoeroticism, but with polygyny. Whether Kantian or utilitarian type arguments could be made there I haven't thought through.

To the extent that Kantian and utilitarian meta-ethics, fall short, I think I can see a couple of other alternatives besides Aristotelianism. (a) One I might call *conscience fideism*: "We all have a conscience which tells us right from wrong, and we must obey it." (b) Another would be reliance on revelation: God has revealed right and wrong to us, through the Scriptures, the dogmas and teachings and ministry of the Church, and sometimes through personal revelations. Some of JM's argument seems to be a variation of (b). I find (a) problematic, but more appealing than what I understand of Aristotelianism, since it's much easier for me to understand how we could perceive right and wrong directly than how we could figure out what our *telos* is and derive right and wrong from that.

When I think about MacIntyre's argument in *After Virtue*, it occurs to me that one of the reasons I welcomed it may have been that in demolishing the Enlightenment project to establish a rational basis for morality, it might lead readers to draw the conclusion that *one simply has to return to Christian revelation.* That's not MacIntyre's conclusion, of course, but it seems that a reader might embrace that. Of course, that may seem an odd conclusion for me to welcome, it being open to the obvious objection: How is one to know that Christian revelation is true, as opposed to Muslim revelation, or Mormonism, or any wacky cult that might come along? That would lead into a long discussion; a cryptic clue to what I would argue is that there is a difference between the domain of reason and the domain of intersubjectivity. In any case, it seems possible to say that the Kantian and utilitarian meta-ethics, though powerful and practical ways to understand ethics over a wide range of human behavior, are ultimately *not enough*, and at the same time to think that Aristotle's notion of *telos* lumps together many incommensurable things and should be either rejected or spliced into separate concepts, and that to properly understand human *telos* one must create such a wide gulf between man's spiritual and supernatural ends and all merely biological factors that to call oneself Aristotelian would be merely misleading.

Joyless Moralist

Kant wouldn't regard the fact that humans are rational agents as an observation about human nature per se. Or, to put the point another way, the fact that the rational agents in question are *human* has nothing to do with anything. His first ethical premise is that "the only good thing is a good will," which is to say, a will that is entirely rationally consistent, such that it dictates actions only and entirely in keeping with the demands of rational consistency. It just so happens, incidentally, that all the rational agents we encounter in the world are human beings, but that's just a contingent fact. What matters to Kant is that they're rational, not that they're human.

While one does indeed need some level of empirical observation in order to determine which ethical maxims apply to action at a particular time, it remains that the whole point of the system is that it is *entirely* formal. It should be possible to determine the maxims without any familiarity whatsoever with the actual facts of the world, and if we were to find an alien world with rational agents who were nonetheless dramatically different from us and living under radically different circumstances, the maxims would cross-apply. (So, for example, it might be on this alien planet that rational agents didn't form intimate friendships with their mates. This should in no way affect our understanding of marriage.) There is no normativity to nature, and trying to *use* nature as a source of normativity is a mistake, bound to detract from our efforts to be moral.

This is the point I keep trying to make. Kantian ethics are indeed more metaphysically parsimonious than the Aristotelian approach (and btw, I agree that the basis of the idea isn't radically unique to Aristotle and to a large degree is commonsensical, but we just need some kind of label for the purposes of discussion), and that might seem to make it easier to come to an agreement. But once you've milked Kantian rational consistency for everything it's worth, you really are stuck at that point. As soon as you open the door to the more detailed exploration of natures, you lose whatever you may have gained from the metaphysical parsimony. Any epistemic advantage the Kantian may have over the Aristotelian derives entirely from the strict exclusivity of his metaphysical premises. If you reject that narrower metaphysical outlook, you're simply not a Kantian, and have no reason to find Kantian-type arguments particularly compelling, or even compelling at all.

So, actually, for someone like me, the Kantian argument *isn't* going to command agreement. Even when I do agree with the conclusions, I reject the premises. The Kantian may say certain true things about marriage, but he doesn't understand why they're true.

Ultimately, at least with respect to issues like marriage, I don't endorse either of your other alternatives. I endorse a model that also involves rationality, but a somewhat expanded sort of rationality. It needn't be limited to a priori reasoning in order to be authentic or pure. But also, we don't just have a cacophony of otherwise unmotivated urgings of conscience that we must unquestioningly follow, and we aren't (at least with issues like marriage) strictly reliant on revelation (which isn't to say it can't be useful sometimes for clarifying.) We have some ability to figure out what things (including people) are, and what place they occupy within the created order. Perceiving that, we can then draw ethical conclusions about how we should behave within that created order.

Nathan Smith

re: "Kantian ethics are indeed more metaphysically parsimonious than the Aristotelian approach (and btw, I agree that the basis of the idea isn't radically unique to Aristotle and to a large degree is commonsensical, but we just need some kind of label for the purposes of discussion), and that might seem to make it easier to come to an agreement. But once you've milked Kantian rational consistency for everything it's worth, you really are stuck at that point. As soon as you open the door to the more detailed exploration of natures, you lose whatever you may have gained from the metaphysical parsimony."

This seems like an exaggeration. Suppose I can use uncontroversial premise A to prove B, C, and D, but to prove E I need to use controversial premise F as well. If, having proved B, C, and D, I want to extend my argument to show E, at the expense of having to assume F, it does not follow that someone who disbelieves F must reject my entire argument. They ought rather to say (provided the logic of my proofs is acceptable) that I am right about B, C, and D, but that I have failed to persuade them of E, since they doubt if F is true. Likewise, the conclusions of an ethics with more parsimonious epistomological foundations should, if they are valid at all, continue to be valid if someone wishes to derive more extensive ethical conclusions from richer (but more vulnerable) premises.

re: "We have some ability to figure out what things (including people) are, and what place they occupy within the created order. Perceiving that, we can then draw ethical conclusions about how we should behave within that created order."

But to the extent that I have some ability to figure out what people are/ought to be, that depends (it seems to me) on the "otherwise unmotivated urgings of conscience" which clue me in to the existence of right and wrong, of a distinction between is and ought, and of the peculiar property of humans that they are bound by this law yet often fail to practice it. If this claim is accepted, JM's argument becomes either backwards or circular: through ethics we perceive human nature, and from human nature we derive ethics. If this claim is rejected, then JM's claim is opaque to me. It just doesn't seem to me plausible that we have an ability to perceive a human nature without the aid of ethics and then derive ethics from it. I don't really even know what that could mean.

One does wish to have something to adjudicate among and guide the urgings of conscience, which are not independent of, even if they are not reducible to, social conditioning, and which sometimes seem to be unclear or to conflict with each other. Perhaps this is the function of meta-ethics: to guide, interpret, and train the urgings of conscience. In this the Kantian and utilitarian meta-ethics seem to be of considerable use. It might be helpful to derive from conscience a conception of a normative human nature, either in general or for one's own particular case (might the *telos* of a priest be different from the *telos* of a fireman or a soldier?), and then to work backwards from that to accept and reinforce some of the urgings of conscience and (perhaps, and at some risk) to override others-- an Aristotelian project?

One difference between Kant's and Aristotle's starting-places seems to be that Aristotle thinks ethics is a property of human nature, Kant, of rational beings. I'd give the advantage to Kant here. After all, one may intelligibly attribute moral attributes to non-human creatures, saying that a dog is loyal or that God is wise and merciful. Humans are the only rational, incarnate beings we encounter in everyday life; certainly the only fallen ones in the theological sense, capable of what conscience tells us is sin. So they do indeed have special properties, but if there were another planet with another rational but fallen race, would our ethics generally cross-apply? Perhaps there is something inappropriate even in posing the hypothetical... but I'd be inclined to think it would.

Joyless Moralist

"Suppose I can use uncontroversial premise A to prove B, C, and D, but to prove E I need to use controversial premise F as well. If, having proved B, C, and D, I want to extend my argument to show E, at the expense of having to assume F, it does not follow that someone who disbelieves F must reject my entire argument."

But that's not analogous to the case here. The first premise for a Kantian is "the only good thing is a good will." I reject that. And that is the whole key to the metaphysical parsimony that is the main appealing feature of Kant. The controversial premise doesn't come in at F, but rather at A.


If Kant's 'A' premise is not true, then a good will is not the only good. There are only two other premises that might be true: either a good will is actually bad, which is nonsensical, or there are other things besides a good will which are also good. What might those things be? If something does not have a will, in what sense can we say that it is morally good? Certainly, things can be "good" for something, meaning that they have a utility or perhaps a "nature". But morality inherently deals with the normative interactions between agents, which presupposes a will. If the interactions are to be normative at all, then the wills involved must be good axiomatically (or by definition). What do you gain by rejecting this premise?

Joyless Moralist

I don't know exactly what is marked out by your specification "morally good." I want to say that there are things that are intrinsically good other than a good will. Kant would deny this; for him intrinsic goodness can only reside in the good will. Other things may be instrumentally useful to good wills, but they can't be good per se. The tree in the middle of the forest isn't good, unless some rational agent finds it and uses it for something good.

Again, this gets back to Kant's extreme trumping of rationality (or at least, his somewhat limited notion of rationality.) Rationality is the only thing that can have intrinsic value; things that aren't rational can't be good.


What does it mean to be "intrinsically good"? I think, judging by your previous statements in other threads, that what you mean is that the "nature" of a thing is intrinsically good, and by nature you mean telos or metaphysical (Platonic) form. In other words, God's designed purpose for a thing is intrinsically good. Here we must take care to not conflate different notions of "good". The notion of good outlined above is very Kantian in a sense, that a thing is justified by its own existence, which we might characterize as "good". But there is no moral content to that notion of good. The goodness of morality presupposes the goodness of wills, and that is the point Kant is making. The point you would like to make is that the definition of good is more broad than that, but that is a trivial complaint, I think.

Joyless Moralist

What is "moral" content? It seems to me that you're basically making Kant's statement into a tautology -- the only thing that is (morally) good is a good will, when moral goodness simply means... pertaining to wills. Obviously, if it's tautological, then it's true and there's no point in denying it. But there's also no point in saying it. I'm pretty sure Kant thought he was establishing something significant when he started out his meta-ethics with that claim.

And no, Kant really doesn't think that anything other than a will can have value, except instrumentally to things that do have wills. You can get at this sometimes in, say, environmental ethics -- if an animal/species/planet/whatever is of no use to humans, does it matter at all if we destroy it? I think Kant would say that it doesn't matter; if you were the last member of the human race, it would be absolutely of no importance if you wanted to set a hundred nukes to go off and destroy the rest of the planet an hour after your death.


It doesn't matter what Kant thought, we're only talking about one premise. For any statement to be fundamental, it has to amount to a tautology, doesn't it? "God is Good" is a tautology.

Kant's premise is a moral claim, not a value or worth claim, otherwise he wouldn't have put it in his "Metaphysics of Morality". Of course, one could make the point that "value" and "worth" are meaningless outside the context of a will needed to provide them. That's beside the point. Morality only applies to wills, and good morals are only manifest in a good will. I don't see how that can be refuted, or what one would gain by denying it.

Joyless Moralist

But the question regards this totally distinct category you want to create of MORAL goodness. I've said that it's artificial and not tracking anything significant about the Groundwork, and you've never really responded to that claim. Look, the bottom line is that, for both the Christian and the Kantian, their theory of value is importantly connected to their metaphysics. In the Christian metaphysics, being is goodness, and the more being something has, the more good it is. There are some questions that have relevance mainly for rational beings, but in more general terms what makes a person good is the same as what makes a tree good or a dog good -- it fulfills its nature and thus has more being.

A Kantian metaphysics doesn't even assign any objective reality to anything but minds. Anything outside the rational mind is part of the nouminal world -- about which we can know nothing at all. So his theory of value has to be built on the only worthwhile thing that we can even really know exists, namely our own rationality. The bottom line is that it IS a consequence of this philosophy that non-rational things have no value (or at least no value that we can know about, or about which we need to concern ourselves), and unless they have instrumental value to rational beings, it doesn't matter what we do with them. There's nothing wrong with torturing and killing your dog, unless it bothers you, and as I already mentioned, if I'm the last person on earth and about to die anyway, I'm perfectly free (from a Kantian perspective) to take the whole natural world down with me. No moral implications to that action at all.

If you reject this, you can't get the Kantian arguments off the ground in the first place. The whole idea, in a nutshell, is that, if rationality is the only thing that matters, then anything that's rationally consistent must be good. For a Kantian there's no other standard to apply. It does rather limit the field of ethics in a way that can seem appealing. On the other hand, if there are other sources of value worth caring about, this strategy won't necessarily work; there might be things that are rationally consistent in an internal sense, but not consistent with empirical facts about the outside world, and therefore not good.

Nathan Smith

I still don't see why you can't take the positive in Kant-- the demand for universalizable maxims-- and apply it without accepting all the negatives. Also, I'm doubly uncomfortable with this:

"In the Christian metaphysics, being is goodness, and the more being something has, the more good it is."

First, because it seems to be using the word "being" with a very odd and rather inscrutable meaning, second, because not all Christians would accept this, and it certainly doesn't have a sufficient pedigree in Scripture or tradition to justify calling it (and, presumably, nothing else) *the* Christian metaphysics. Maybe it's just a problem of lacking good words to use, but I'd be careful with that.

If being, in the sense, used here, is goodness, why not just call the thing you're talking about goodness? In commonsense language, both evil and good exist, and being is more of an on/off thing-- something exists, or it doesn't-- so that to speak of something "having" more "being" seems nonsensical.

Joyless Moralist

A demand for universalizable maxims could, I suppose, be adopted independently of a specifically Kantian ethics, but taken in purely formal terms it doesn't really get you much. I mean, Aristotle and St. Thomas and just about everyone we're concerned with would agree on some level that we ought to be rationally consistent; the difference is that they wouldn't think (as Kant does) that rational consistency is *sufficient* to identify moral laws. You also have to consider whether the proposed maxim is consistent with empirical observations about the world. And that's going to get you into exactly the sort of discussions that I was touching on above -- considering what marriage really is, what it's for, and how the relevant goods of marriage can best be achieved.

As for my reference to "Christian" metaphysics -- what's the problem, really? I regard this as the sort of metaphysics that a Christian worldview demands. And certainly this sort of view has, at the very least, been an influential part of the Christian intellectual tradition for a long time. I don't know what pedigree you would acknowledge to be "sufficient", but it's got a pretty good one. If other Christian groups want to dismiss it, I think they're wrong, which isn't to say that they can't be Christian in any way, but I don't think I have to get universal consensus on every part of the Christian tradition before referring to it as such. I also wouldn't normally hesitate, for example, to refer to marriage, confession (and absolution), etc as "Christian Sacraments" even though I'm aware that the Protestants don't think they are. Probably I would modify my language if I were talking to Protestants and the Sacraments were the specific issue under discussion -- otherwise it would seem like I was trying to win the debate by fiat, which would be both irritating and potentially confusing -- but in other contexts, calling them "Christian" sacraments would seem very natural to me. In this case, I was addressing to Tom, who (unless I'm much mistaken) doesn't regard himself as a Christian, and so presumably isn't that interested in disputing which is the *real and correct* Christian metaphysics. So I wrote the way I think.

Joyless Moralist

Also, just to add... universalizability alone gets you practically nothing since almost any maxim, or at least a very large number of abhorrent maxims, *could* be universalized. It might get you slightly more when coupled with the premise that the only good thing is a good will, which is why that is the very first thing Kant establishes in the Groundwork. But that, of course, is one that I find problematic.

Nathan Smith

But that brings us back to the starting point. If your measure of value is "flourishing," well, polygyny would *prime facie* represent a form of flourishing, and while you could make a plausible case why it isn't, that case is far from compelling. But polygyny is probably not universalizable, since there (generally) aren't enough women for all men to practice it.

More generally, Aristotle's ethics fail the universalizability test, since his "magnanimous man" seems to be a rich and high-status person of whom there cannot be very many in a community. "Be Aristotle's magnanimous man" is not a universalizable maxim.

I would regard the Creeds as containing the bulk of what one could legitimately regard as *the* Christian view in an argument. The ideas of being described make Christianity unduly wedded to the philosophical language of a particular time. Would you break communion with someone because they thought that being is an on/off thing and that the idea of something having "more" being than something else is unintelligible? Surely not! This may be a Thomist or Augustinian view; it's not *the* Christian view.

Joyless Moralist

Whoa, whoa... we need to distinguish what's meant by "universalizability" here. When I said that pretty much everyone (that we care about) can endorse some principle of universalizability, I was thinking of it merely as a principle of rational consistency. It's entirely possible to create a logically consistent maxim that condones polygamy, or Aristotle's magnanimous man, provided your maxim specifies adequately which men should get wives and how they are to be distinguished, or why only certain people can/should be magnanimous. Even "I shall be queen of the world, and all shall bow to me," is perfectly universalizable in this sense -- there's no logical inconsistency in enforcing this maxim worldwide.

But now you're bringing in more Kantian premises, and suggesting that making a maxim universalizable means making it equally applicable to all people. Or something like that. We're not allowed to distinguish between people when it comes to moral maxims, because so long as they're rational agents, nothing else about them matters. So, "blue-eyed men get multiple wives, while the rest have to go without" doesn't cut it, because it makes distinctions on the basis of something other than rationality, which is the only really relevant thing. With that kind of framework, you might be able to get your anti-polygany argument off the ground (and condemn various parts of Aristotle's ethics as non-universalizable) but I think this is going to have to derive in some way from the "only good thing is a good will" premise that I've already rejected. In short, most anything we might want to borrow from Kant is either vacuous, or wrong.

Aristotelian ethics works off a principle that is perfectly intuitive, sensible, and logically consistent. Relevantly similar things should be treated the same, and relevantly different things, differently. He just wouldn't agree with Kant that rationality (and a fairly impoverished notion of it at that) is the only thing that's relevant to ethics.

"Would you break communion with someone because they thought that being is an on/off thing and that the idea of something having "more" being than something else is unintelligible?"

If they called the notion unintelligible, I'd mainly be inclined to think that they were just confused and/or ignorant of the tradition. If a person *rejected* the idea that evil is a privation of good (and that goodness likewise equates to having more being), in a conscious, deliberate sort of way... then yes. I mean, *I* don't break communion with anybody; I just stay in communion with Rome and others can enter or leave that communion as they will. But I do think such a person would place himself outside the circle of Christian orthodoxy (sort of de facto excommunicate himself.)

Mind you, I wouldn't be quite as confident to say that about the "Being is Goodness" claim. There has been something of an east/west split over that one, with the eastern tradition following a more Platonic line, thinking of God as Goodness but *not* Being (Goodness here is somehow prior to Being), and all being (which is to say, creation) emanating forth from Him. The Pseudo-Dionysius pursued that sort of line, and it's kind of a topic of debate among Catholic theologians the degree to which he strayed into (material) heresy. (The worry, basically, is that in this sort of view, God becomes too much of an impersonal force, and then we move almost into the direction of a sort of pantheism, as Spinoza did.) The First Vatican Council had some things to say about the emanation views, and I believe certain of Pseudo-Dionysius' ideas have been condemned, but I don't have all the details sorted out. Whether the Council's position amounts to a full institutional endorsement of the "Being is Goodness" claim, such that all other metaphysical positions would be tantamount to heresy, I'm not qualified to say. And I have no idea what is currently said about this issue in Orthodox circles.

However, the idea that evil is a privation of good extends across both types of view. It is not limited to the Augustinian or Thomist lines. Origen and Gregory of Nyssa certainly articulated it, and the Pseudo-Dionysius clearly held the same position. But beyond listings of specific names, it's worth noting that opposition to evil/good dualism, in the form of Gnosticism and Manichaeism, was one of the major battles of the early Church. That's a battle that well predates Augustine (the great Gnostic schisms arose in the second century, Manichaeism in the third, all well before Augustine), and was fought by people respected as much in the eastern Churches as in the West -- St. Justin Martyr, St. Ephraem, Irenaeus, and many others. It's a major foundational piece of the Christian theological tradition, and much blood, sweat and tears were shed in the early centuries to get it established in orthodoxy, so yes, I think it's fair to regard anyone who denies it as a heretic. And I don't feel bashful referring to such a view simply as "Christian."


I'm no Christian, but it seems to me that the term originally meant "follower of Christ". To the extent that a belief doesn't follow Christ's teachings, you cannot call that belief Christian. Is that not the main reason why the Protestant sects were founded, because Catholicism veered from the gospels?

Nathan Smith

re: "If they called the notion unintelligible, I'd mainly be inclined to think that they were just confused and/or ignorant of the tradition."

And the class of people who would be confused in this way includes virtually everyone who calls themselves Christian. You basically have to be a professional philosopher to understand it. That's not the way these words are used today. Nor does anything in the ordinary devotional life of a Christian bring you into contact with it, as the Creeds bring you into contact with the Virgin Birth or the Trinity. Nor is it in the Gospels. I find the claim that "being is goodness" rather opaque, although some of C.S. Lewis does perhaps shed light on it, and the claim that "evil is a privation of goodness" I wouldn't reject, but I have trouble understanding how it's compatible with, say, the proposition that Hitler was a real person, or that the Holocaust was an action that really took place. Generally, though, I think one should use language in a way that doesn't make these philosophical attainments seem like a prerequisite for being a Christian, or that suggests such a large gulf between Christianity and commonsense.

Yes, it's true that to develop an ethics based on universalizability requires some kind of prior notion of man as a moral agent. I think this is one of those "meta-beliefs," like the belief in order, that are ubiquitous and yet unprovable. The solipsist, or psychopath, is someone who, in practice, does not acknowledge the moral nature of other people, accepting no obligations vis-a-vis others. I think "rational" seems a poor word choice to describe the property of people that makes them proper subjects and objects of moral reasoning. In our day, in particular, computers exhibit many properties we identify with rationality, e.g., the ability to calculate or even to analyze the grammar of sentences. And people can act irrationally without ceasing to be moral subjects. If you say, "All people (not necessarily only people) are moral subjects, and ethics requires that one act according to maxims which one could will that all people live by," this still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But it gives a quite direct reason not to practice polygyny, which an Aristotelian can arrive at much less directly if at all.

re: "Aristotelian ethics works off a principle that is perfectly intuitive, sensible, and logically consistent. Relevantly similar things should be treated the same, and relevantly different things, differently."

But this is completely vacuous and question-begging. One hasn't said anything until one says what is relevantly similar and relevantly different. The problem is that Aristotle goes on to identify ethics with "flourishing." But it seems to me like the paradigm cases of moral behavior tend to be precisely where one sacrifices one's own flourishing for the sake of someone or something else. That's why I think he misses the point, though when his ideas are sublimated by St. Thomas they make come much closer to the truth. In particular, Aristotle's idea that a man's moral *telos* has anything to do with the biological *telos* (really just Darwinian fitness) of animals and plants, seems to be a false step.

One more thing: if one were to deny that evil is a privation of good, does that make one a Manichean. One if one were to adopt a "commonsense" view that evil is a real, positive thing, but far less strong, important, and permanent than goodness. Would one be a heretic in that case, and if so, surely one would at least not be a Manichean?

Joyless Moralist

All men are moral agents. This is something that I would certainly agree to, Aristotle would probably agree to, and St. Thomas and the other medievals certainly would agree to. But that doesn't justify an imperative like: "act only according to maxims which one could will that all people live by." (Note that I inserted the "only", which you would need if this is to do any serious work for you. If you think that there are a few maxims that all people should live by, but lots that apply only to certain segments of the population, then you're not going to be able to get your arguments against polygyny off the ground.) All people are moral agents, but that isn't ALL that they are. They're also men and women, adults and children, strong and weak, intelligent and slow, educated and unlearned, married, consecrated and single. And, to our normal way of thinking, these differences might sometimes matter in the ethical prescriptions that we want to make. Of course, you ought to try to give explanations *why* a particular difference warrants different ethical advice. But still, it would seem quite natural to expect that ethics would include some prescriptions that have application to everyone (e.g. "Love one another") and others that are tailored to particular groups. (For example, "Children, be respectful and obedient towards your parents. Parents, love and support your children. Etc.)

But that all gets very complicated and requires lots of detailed observation and (oh no!) a posteriori analysis. Kant wanted to make ethics into a pure science, based on reason alone, and not this messy creature requiring endless observation and debate. So he stipulated that rationality was the only thing that mattered, and that it was thus the only thing relevant when drawing up moral maxims. Which does, in a way, make things much simpler, but at the cost of not really mapping onto reality. Because all these other differences between people *do* matter, and do have moral significance, and insofar as that's the case, it isn't necessarily bad to have certain ethical maxims that apply only to some. The only way to get to the bottom of it is to do all the work of figuring out what people are really like.

So when you say, "I think "rational" seems a poor word choice to describe the property of people that makes them proper subjects and objects of moral reasoning," in a way I couldn't agree more. But it's not a question of my word choice; I'm just describing Kant, and describing in particular the part of Kant that you seem to be relying on for the notion of universalizability that's grounding your argument. If you agree with me that man's moral consciousness involves much more than just this fairly bare, almost machine-like sort of rationality, then the only thing to do is to scrap Kant entirely and pursue a more laborious road (but one with bigger payoffs!)

"But this is completely vacuous and question-begging."

It isn't either of those things. It does, of course, call for lots more development. And that development has followed in a now millennia-long conversation that I obviously can't summarize in a com box. Though I do find your suggestion that our moral and biological ends ought to be totally separate to be slightly incredible. Surely they intersect all the time? Most obviously in sexual ethics, and (bringing this back to the original topic of the post) marriage, where physical and spiritual realities intersect in important ways.

"And the class of people who would be confused in this way includes virtually everyone who calls themselves Christian. You basically have to be a professional philosopher to understand it."

I'd say that's a bit of an exaggeration -- I've taken or TAed for a number of undergraduate classes that I think got the idea across quite nicely. And I also think that it's possible to have internalized the spirit of the idea without necessarily being able to describe the metaphysical principles in rigorous philosophical language. I've certainly known some devout Catholics who were like that -- not philosophers per se, but they had the right sorts of intuitions. Still, you're right that the number of people who would be confused about this is large. But so what? I've already indicated that I wouldn't regard them as heretics insofar as they're just honestly confused. It's only the person who understands the principles and and their significance, and then consciously rejects them, who would exclude himself from the Christian community. But the fact that this sort of view involves some philosophical sophistication doesn't seem to me like a point against it. Must Christian theology tether herself to a primary-school level of philosophical development, just because the majority of the faithful will never get much beyond that level? We certainly don't hold any other major branch of learning to that standard. It doesn't seem reasonable to encourage scientists and humanists to delve as deeply as they may into complex worlds beyond the understanding of the rest of us... but then to demand that the theologians never say anything that isn't immediately transparent to the casual reader.

Metaphysical principles like this are not exactly equivalent to theological truths like, say, those contained in the Nicene Creed. They aren't themselves the products of revelation (as everything in the Creed is); they are underlying philosophical principles that centuries' worth of Christian thinkers have deemed are needed if one is to support the theological truths of the Creeds in a systematic way. Unlike, say, "By the power of the Holy Spirit He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man," one need not have an explicit understanding of them in order to be a Christian. They become really necessary only insofar as one is actively interested in the questions that they address. And even then, one of the main reasons why they're needed is because they can ward you away from various grave errors into which you might otherwise stray. Studying theology is a way of avoiding the constant reinvention of the wheel. Intelligent and holy men spent centuries grappling with some of these questions, and the verdicts they reached can generally be trusted not to steer you wrong.

In the case of denying that evil is a privation of the good. I don't think I'd ever seriously call anyone a Manichaean, since it was a specific movement that's now long dead, but yes, I do think that route will necessarily lead you to something like a Gnostic or Manichaean heresy. The central problem is that if evil is an affirmative force of some kind, and not just a privation of good, then it seems there are forces not created by God, or not under God's control. Even if they're weaker or less permanent than the good forces, that still seems like a clear contradiction of the clause in the Creed that God created "all that is seen and unseen." Or, I guess you could try to say that God did create the evil forces... but that's obviously a huge problem, since God is entirely good. Hence the necessity of the privation theory.

As to Tom's question... the Christian tradition is rooted in the teachings of Christ. But Christ didn't end his life by saying, "Okay, I've said everything that needs saying, so just stick with this book and don't trust anybody else!" In fact, there wasn't even a book at that point, but only a collection of people, through whom he founded a Church, and commanded that it should teach the people and spread the Gospel throughout the world. The Church has been inseparable from Christianity from the very beginning; even the decision of which books should be regarded as canonical and included in the Bible, was made by the body of the Church. (This is one of the silly things about Protestants and their "sola scriptura" claims. The very *existence* of "scriptura" required another pre-existing authority, namely the Church.) So, while you're quite right that the Protestant sects are often motivated by a desire to go back to the beginning, I would contend that this project makes no sense. Christianity will always necessarily involve a Church, which certainly should "follow" Christ's teachings, but in a way that promulgates them, interprets them, and applies them to new questions or situations that may arise. Insofar as the hierarchy does sometimes lose sight of this central mission, the solution should be renewal from within (which has happened periodically throughout Christian history) and not from schism. And something that has been a significant part of the Christian tradition from early days can rightly be called "Christian" even if there is no explicit formulation of it in the Gospels.

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