Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Supervenience and natural law

The B-properties supervene on the A-properties provided that any two possible worlds with the same A-properties have the same B-properties.

It is a widely accepted constraint in metaethics that normative properties supervene on non-normative ones. Does natural law meet the contraint?

As I read natural law, the right action is one that goes along with the teleological properties of the will. Teleological properties, in turn, are normative in nature and (sometimes) fundamental. As far as I can see, it is possible to have zombie-like phenomena, where two substances look and behave in exactly the same way but different teleological properties. Thus, one could have animals that are physically indistinguishable from our world’s sheep, and in particularly have four legs, but, unlike the sheep, have the property of being normally six-legged. In other words, they would be all defective, in lacking two of their six legs.

This suggests that natural law theories depend on a metaphysics that rejects the supervenience of the normative. But I think that is too quick. For in an Aristotelian metaphysics, the teleological properties are not purely teleological. A sheep’s being naturally four-legged simultaneously explains the normative fact that a sheep should have four legs and the non-normative statistical fact that most sheep in fact have four legs. For the teleological structures are not just normative but also efficiently causal: they efficiently guide the embryonic development of the sheep, say.

In fact, on the Koons-Pruss reading of teleology, the teleological properties just are causal powers. The causal power to ϕ in circumtances C is teleological and dispositional: it is both a teleological directedness towards ϕing in C and a disposition to ϕ in C. And there is no metaphysical way of separating these aspects, as they are both features of the very same property.

Our naturally-six-but-actually-four-legged quasi-sheep, then, would differ from the actual world’s sheep in not having the same dispositions to develop quadrapedality. This seems to save supervenience, by exhibiting a difference in non-normative properties between the sheep and the quasi-sheep.

But I think it doesn’t actually save it. For the disposition to develop four (or six) legs is the same property as the teleological directedness to quadrapedality in sheep. And this property is a normative property, though not just normative. We might say this: The sheep and the quasi-sheep differ in a non-normative respect but they do not differ in a non-normative property. For the disposition is a normative property.

Perhaps this suggests that the natural lawyer should weaken the supervenience claim and talk of differences in features or respects rather than properties. That would allow one to save a version of supervenience. But notice that if we do that, we preserve supervenience but not the intuition behind it. For the intuition behind the supervenience of the normative on the non-normative is that the normative is explained by the non-normative. But on our Aristotelian metaphysics, it is the teleological properties that explain that actual non-normative behavior of things.

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