Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Limits of Goodness As Effectiveness

The recent advent of Free Thought Blogs has brought the writings of Daniel Fincke (proprietor of Camels With Hammers) to my attention. I find him to be particularly interesting because he believes that philosophy is important and is actively grappling with the metaphysical implications of atheism, topics which are generally ignored by many of the luminaries in the atheist movement. More intriguing still, he's a recovering relativist who claims to have identified a source of objective moral value which is compatible with the premises of atheism/methodological naturalism. Given the undeniable nihilistic streak in my own writing I'm attracted to such assertions like a moth to a flame.

At this point I've been reading Fincke's back archive for awhile. Dude's got graphomania; he's written a tremendous amount of material on a wide array of subjects so it's hard to know exactly where to start. After tracing my way back through various conversations it seems that "On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness" provides a definitive statement of the basis for his theory of value and, as such, represents a good starting point for evaluating what he has to say. So let's start there are see what happens. Fincke leads off with this assertion:

Existing is, in the first place, the most foundational good. It is the good in which all other goods can even occur. All actual good things are existent things and we can only enjoy them if they exist and if we exist.

True enough. But it seems to me that the following statement is equally true:

Existing is, in the first place, the most foundational !good. It is the !good in which all other !goods can even occur. All actual !good things are existent things and we can only suffer them if they exist and if we exist.

All the goods in the world may stem from existence but, assuming I'm not missing something subtle, all the evils1 do as well, which would seem to imply that existence is a value-neutral proposition. This brings to mind Nishida Kitaro's philosophy as described in The Nothingness Beyond God: existence is the basho in which both good and !good take place and is thus logically prior to either. However, it is by no means apparent that this realization is fatal to Fincke's theory of value, so let's continue, shall we?

A little later on Fincke says

Every ”form” is a way to exist and, therefore, if what I said at the beginning is correct, a possible way to be good. Now a given being may or may not completely fulfill its formal possibility for existing excellently according to its kind. Every being, essentially, might more or less fully realize the potential which its nature gives it. It may become a more or less excellent instance of its kind. The more that a thing fulfills its potential, the more it actualizes its nature, and the more it becomes that thing.


The more a thing does the characteristic things of its kind, the more it becomes in actuality, and not just potentially, a thing of that kind. The more excellently you do those characteristic things which are fit for your kind of being, the more closely, ideally, and powerfully you embody its formal ideal. And, in some significant sense, this makes you more that sort of thing.

I've a great many objections to the above which I'll get to in a moment but first let me say that I do, to some extent, agree with the core of Fincke's argument. Part of me says that the purpose of life, to the extent that it's meaningful to talk about such an animal at all, is to become a self-actualized being. Then my inner nihilist retorts that I'm merely trying to comfort myself by ignoring the fundamental absurdity of existence and that the pursuit of self-actualization is nothing more than a way to district myself while I wait to die. But, as Austin Powers would say, that's my hang-up and not directly relevant to the task at hand.

As for my objections, I'd like to start by examining some of the phrases he uses and then move on to what I see as some logical problems with his theory of value. Fincke believes that goodness is equivalent to effectiveness, and slightly further on uses the example of a heart to illustrate that point: A heart is designed2 to pump blood; the more effective it is at doing so the better it expresses its fundamental nature as a heart. I'll totally buy that; a heart which doesn't pump blood is a !good heart. But the example of a heart is clear cut; a heart has an unambiguous function defined by its physical form and location within the circulatory system of the human body. How are we to interpret "the characteristic things of its kind" in the context of a human being?

It seems to me that there are a couple of ways to go on this front. One approach is purely materialistic: we can extend Fincke's analysis of the heart to the entire human body and ask "What is the purpose of the collection of systems which we call 'a human being'?". I actually think that's a pretty easy question to answer: humans, like all other life forms, are designed for the propagation of the species. To assess the "goodness" of a human being we need only find some way to measure its reproductive fitness. This approach, of course, totally ignores a large swath of human activity; I can already hear the peanut gallery yelling "But what about art?". If'n you believe in natural selection (as Fincke does) then abstract reasoning and all that goes with it (art, music, literature, math, etc.) is either an adaptive trait or a spandrel i.e. it either supports the organisms primary purpose (reproduction) or is incidental to it. In neither case does this change the fact that the primary purpose of the organism, from a purely materialistic perspective, is reproduction. There's really no room for anything we recognize as a moral system under this interpretation.

Fincke obviously doesn't share my conclusion, but it seems to flow naturally from "goodness is effectiveness" and his example about the heart by way of an extended series of simple steps:

  • A heart is good if it pumps blood.
  • A cardiovascular system is good if it conveys blood about in an appropriate manner.
  • A cardiopulmonary system is good if it conveys oxygen and blood about in an appropriate manner.
  • ...
  • A human is good according to its reproductive fitness.

I can keep aggregating physical systems until I get a complete human being; at what point should I start worrying about art?

Let's set aside the materialistic approach for a second and concede, for the sake of argument, that humans are more than just reproducing machines and that the byproducts of abstract thought should received equal or greater billing. Given the vast diversity of human activities what can be considered "characteristic" of the species as a whole is rather nebulous. Fincke seems to implicitly recognize this difficulty, saying

The more we actualize our potentials the more we fully realize our human nature by more closely approaching an ideal of human perfection and existing more fully as human.

In light of this comment it would seem that an (the?) important characteristic of the human specifies is the "fulfillment of potential". Which raises an interesting question: Can we objectively determine a thing's/person's potential ahead of time, or is it necessarily a post-hoc judgement? This question seems strikingly important if we're looking to develop a comprehensive meta-ethical framework. How do I determine what is best for myself? Is such self-knowledge even possible? Moreover, how am I to treat my fellow human beings? If I cannot know ahead of time how my actions will likely affect their flourishing it becomes impossible for me to know that I'm behaving ethically.

But perhaps I'm setting the bar too high at this juncture. An objective source of moral value, even one that isn't available prospectively, would be awesome (I don't want to be a sociopath either). So how do we objectively assess the goodness/value of something like a musical performance after the fact?

So, we fulfill a potential to do something not only by doing the formal motions involved in doing that thing but, more importantly, by doing that thing in ideal ways. We actualize ourselves as musicians not just by plucking on strings or blowing into horns but by effectively expressing musical skills and by effectively creating instances of music which excellently do whatever music characteristically does.

<sigh> ... "effectively creating instances of music which excellently do whatever music characteristically does". Tell me, objectively, who's a better musician, Mozart or John Cage? Especially given that the latter's most famous piece is a conscious exercise in not playing anything at all.

That's enough for the moment on definitional issues, let's move on (ever so briefly, because I have a plane to catch) to a problem inherent in the definition of goodness as effectiveness. What if I'm congenitally-inclined (i.e. it's characteristic of my kind) to be a rapist? Am I expressing the good by being a superlative one? Or, to be slightly more abstract, is it the case that all forms of being are equally valid and what really matters is how excellently we embody them?

In conclusion, it seems to me that there are a few fundamental problems with the system of value which Fincke is proposing:

  • Being != Goodness: Fincke claims that existence is intrinsically good by virtue of the fact that all goods are dependent on existence. But the same can be said for all !goods, which indicates to me that existence itself is a morally neutral proposition.
  • Determining the characteristic function of an entity seems to be a subjective exercise, at least when dealing with complex organisms like human beings.
  • It's difficult to see how his objective evaluations of physical systems (like the heart) can be extended to immaterial/aesthetic experiences such as music.
  • The implications of "goodness as effectiveness" ("be the best rapist you can be") seem questionable from a moral standpoint.

I'm not the least bit convinced that I'm right on any of the above. As I noted earlier, Fincke has written a tremendous amount of material and it's entirely possible that he's addressed my objections somewhere. Mr. Fincke, if you happen to be out there I'd love to hear what you have to say regarding what I've written above.

1 Where "evil" is to be read purely metaphorically.
2 Again, in the metaphorical sense of the word "designed".


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