Thursday, January 7, 2016

The needs of the human community

Andrea Dworkin argued that sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is always wrong because it involves a violation of the woman's bodily integrity. She concluded that until recent advances in medical technology, it was impossible for humans to permissibly reproduce. The antinatalists, on the other hand, continue to hold that it is impossible for humans to permissible reproduce. Such views lead to an incredulous stare. It is very tempting to levy against them an argument like this:

  1. Coital reproduction is necessary for the minimal flourishing of the human community under normal conditions.
  2. Whatever is necessary for the minimal flourishing of the human community under normal conditions is sometimes permissible.
  3. Coital reproduction is sometimes permissible.
The condition "under normal conditions" is needed for (2) to be plausible. We can, after all, easily imagine science-fictional scenarios where something immoral would need to be done to ensure the minimal flourishing of the human community.

Reproduction is not the only case where issues like this come up. For instance, the destruction of non-human organisms, say plants, seems necessary for our flourishing. And I suspect that under normal conditions the killing of non-human animals is necessary, too (if only as a side-effect of plowing fields, say). Taxation may be another interesting example.

I have heard it argued that (2) is in itself a basic moral principle, so that killing non-human animals as a side-effect of vegan farming is permissible because it is permissible to ensure minimal human flourishing. But that seems mistaken. Rather, while (2) is true, it is not a moral principle, but a consequence of a correlation between (a) fundamental facts about what moral duties there are actually are and (b) facts about what is actually needed for minimal human flourishing under normal conditions.

This leads to an interesting and I think somewhat underexplored question: Why are the moral facts and the facts about actual human needs so correlated as to make (2) true?

Theists have an elegant answer to this question: God had very strong moral reason to make humans in such a way that, at least normally, minimal flourishing of the community doesn't require wrong action. Non-theists have other stories to tell. These stories, however, are likely to be piecemeal. For instance, one will give one evolutionary story about why we and our ecosystem evolved in such a way that eating persons wasn't needed for our species' survival, and another about why we evolved in such a way that morally non-degrading sex sufficed for reproduction. But a unified answer is to be preferred over piecemeal answers, especially when the unified answer is compatible with the piecemeal ones and capable of integrating them into a single story. We do, thus, get some evidence for theism here.


entirelyuseless said...

If eating persons was necessary for the survival of the species and always had been, "Eating persons is always morally wrong" would receive an incredulous stare. In that sense, you may think that (2) is not a fundamental principle, but it is fundamental in the sense that a real human race that managed to continue existing could not disagree with it.

On a similar vein, I don't even know what you mean by "morally non-degrading sex". If I simply consulted my feelings, all sex would be degrading, even when I find it attractive. If some other kind of sex were necessary for reproduction and always had been, we would surely consider it moral.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Sure, the people might then have the intuition that it's OK to eat persons. But they'd be wrong.

Rape is a paradigmatic example of degrading sex (or sex-like activity, if it's not exactly sex). There may be other examples. Again, the fact that we would consider it moral doesn't entail that it would be moral.

I am not looking for an explanation of why we agree with (2), but why (2) is true.

steve said...

"Andrea Dworkin argued that sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is always wrong because it involves a violation of the woman's bodily integrity."

Generates a possible conundrum. Suppose we say that's consistent feminism. Suppose we say all philosophers should be consistent feminists. Indeed, all people should be consistent feminists.

In the short term, more people (i.e. everyone) would share that philosophy, but in the long term, fewer people (i.e. no one) would share that philosophy inasmuch as it would lead to the extinction of the human race.

So should more people agree or fewer? Is it a duty to agree with that?

(Considering the position on its own grounds.)

steve said...

Does Andrea Dworkin explain why consensual sexual penetration violates a woman's bodily integrity but eating and breathing does not? In fact, there's a sense in which eating and breathing is more coercive or involuntary.

entirelyuseless said...

Ok, thinking about this a bit more, I agree with the position that (2) is a basic principle (and disagree with your position.) First, in Aristotelian ethics virtuous behavior just IS the behavior that leads to human flourishing under normal conditions. So someone who agrees with an Aristotelian version of ethics (which I do), must say that (2) is a basic principle.

Second, even a deontological theories have the problem of determining a moral object. We can say that murder is always wrong, but which actions are murder? You discussed a situation where an action definitely leads to the death of an innocent man but saves the lives of 9,999 innocent people. If the correct moral description of this action is "killing an innocent person, together with saving the lives of 9,999", then it will be morally wrong. But if the correct moral description is "saving the lives of 9,999, but unfortunately also inevitably causing the death of an innocent person", then it will be morally right.

Both descriptions are true, as physical descriptions. But what matters is the reasonable way to consider the action in order to achieve the good, and in this way the second description is a good description and the first one is a bad description. This is why it is ok to give the order, even with deontological ethics.

Now suppose something that is now wrong were necessary for human flourishing under normal conditions. If we described it in a way that implied it would be wrong (like "killing an innocent person etc."), the human race would be obliged to go extinct. This is not a reasonable way to achieve the good, and so it would not be a reasonable moral way to describe the actions in question. Instead, they would have some other description, which would point out the good intended, and at most advert to the evil as an unfortunate side effect.

Consider your example. It is probably impossible, given rational beings, that rape (even in a physical sense) would be necessary under normal conditions to preserve the species. However, if it were necessary (in the physical sense), it would be wrong to call the action rape in a moral sense. It would be correct to call it "marital intercourse, under the unfortunate but necessary condition that one of the partners is unwilling".

This account implies that there may be some things in the real world where satisfying some human needs normally involves something somewhat morally questionable, although not technically wrong, just as in the "rape" case above. I suggest that this is so. Some examples:

1) Breastfeeding tends to space births by preventing conception. But there is some evidence that occasionally it can prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, thereby causing an abortion. Now some people argue that this definitely cannot happen, using an argument much like your argument about morals and human needs: "God would definitely not allow such a thing, so it cannot happen." But as far as I can determine from the actual evidence, most likely it can happen at least occasionally. Even if it turned out to happen very frequently indeed, however, I would not say that breastfeeding is wrong.

2) The headship of the man in a family is arguably necessary for human flourishing, but the resulting subjection of the woman is at least morally "questionable" in the way that I am talking about, even though (by my own argument) not wicked. A sign that it is questionable is the fact that people very frequently question it, and not only liberals: Genesis itself indicates that something is not quite right there, by making it a consequence of original sin.

3) Religion is arguably necessary for human flourishing. But there is no true religion which is universally available to the human race, e.g. 20,000 years ago, there was no true religion available to the Australians. This combination of need and availability means that the vast majority of the human race believes in false religions. Holding such false beliefs is at least morally questionable.

Heath White said...

I agree with entirelyuseless's first point: the explanation of (2) is close to analytic. From a virtue standpoint, what is moral just is what contributes to human flourishing. (Usually construed as individual flourishing, but...) People are social beings, so the flourishing of individuals requires at least the minimal flourishing of their communities.

There is, in this line of thought (but also in theism), a refusal to believe in fundamentally competitive or zero-sum goods of flourishing. That is, it just can't be that, say, my (community's) flourishing requires the enslavement of you or your community. Gimlet-eyed economists, people who spend a lot of time on lifeboats, and some others are going to disagree.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Minimal flourishing of the individual includes more than the life of virtue. For instance, it includes minimal health. And the human community's minimal flourishing requires a way for the community to survive to future generations. One can, I think, easily imagine rational beings whose normal environment is such that the only way to survive is to eat other intelligent beings. For instance, evolutionary history could go in such a way that all intelligent beings had carnivore nutritional needs, but all animals were intelligent. Or sexual competition could have gone in such a way that reproduction was incompatible with consent. These scenarios are unlikely, but they are surely possible.

It's not quite right to say on a virtue ethics view that what is moral is what contributes to human flourishing. One can easily come up with scenarios where vicious activity contributes to flourishing--even to the virtue component of flourishing. You live in a corrupt polis where by far and away the best hope for becoming virtuous is to sign up for Mark Murphy's ethics classes. But you'll only get into Georgetown if you cheat on the SAT. That's vicious. But it could be that Murphy's ethics classes are so much better than the competition that cheating on SAT plus Murphy's classes still result in your being more virtuous than you would be if you didn't cheat and took ethics classes at a less competitive school.

One may do better to say that what is moral is what *normally* contributes to human flourishing. But the fact that virtuous activity normally contributes to human flourishing does not imply that it normally ensures minimal human flourishing. The normal environment could be so harsh that virtuous activity couldn't secure minimal human flourishing. And it could be that while virtuous activity tends to contribute to one part of human flourishing -- let's say, the properly human part -- it could also rule out another part of human flourishing -- say, the animal part.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think central for Dworkin's view is that there is an invasion of the woman's body by the body part of another. Her argument, I think, also rules out many forms of surgery, as well as ordinary gynecological care, though I don't think she has noticed this. She also has a secondary argument that as a contingent matter of fact, human society has attached a meaning to coitus that degrades women. But the secondary argument isn't relevant to my post (since one could hold that this meaning isn't *normal*).

Alexander R Pruss said...


The suggestion you're making is that if certain actions were normally necessary for the minimal flourishing, they would automatically then acquire a description that makes them right.

I think there are counterexamples. For instance, suppose that A and B were species of equally intelligent beings that so evolved that an A could only survive by eating two non-consenting Bs each day in a way that inflicted horrendous pain on the Bs. Barring special theological circumstances (maybe there is a God who sends the eaten Bs to paradise, and commands them to be eaten), surely in that case the right thing for an A to say would be: "The cost of my survival is too high. I must stop eating, and accept death."

entirelyuseless said...

I am not convinced by your counterexample, for several reasons. First, the only way that could be the "normal" situation is if the B's are far larger in number and reproduce far more quickly than the A's. This suggests that the "economic" value of the A's is higher, which might justify a double effect reading of that situation as well. Related to this, real people would not do what you say is right in that situation: if we found out that every time we take a step, this kills hundreds of tiny rational creatures (kind of like in "Horton hears a Who"), extremely few humans would stop walking around.

Second, human flourishing should probably be understood as the flourishing of rational creatures, in which case even if your example is correct, it does not disprove my position, since it would simply mean that some rational creatures should sacrifice themselves for others.

Regarding the "special theological circumstances", if such a situation had evolved in the real world, the A's would almost certainly hold a religious belief saying that it is right for them to eat the B's, sort of like Israel is commanded to commit genocide on the other nations in the Old Testament. And my first argument suggests that they might even be right.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe the Bs are much smaller than the As, but just as smart. So two Bs are needed to preserve an A for a day. I agree that the As would take it for granted that they may eat Bs, but they'd be wrong about it, against absent special theological circumstances.

As for the religious belief, that belief would arguably only be true IF there is in fact a God who has the right kind of authority over all life, etc.