Thursday, January 27, 2022

More on artifacts and intentions

Yesterday, I showed that an artifact’s function wasn’t defined by the maker’s intention that it be used for that function. For instance, a historical weapons recreationist might make a halberd without intending that it kill anyone, even though killing is the function of the halberd, and we might make a nuclear weapon without intending that it kill, but only for deterrent—and yet, once again, killing is the function of the weapon.

Here is an account that occurred to me this morning:

  1. An artifact x has a function F iff x was intentionally made or designed in order to be capable of fulfilling F, and the maker and designer were sufficiently successful.

This takes care of my two above examples. The recreated halberd and the deterrent weapon are both made not to kill, but to be capable of killing.

There is a lot of vagueness in the “sufficiently successful”, and it’s meant to match the vagueness of our usage of artifactual vocabulary. There really is vagueness in how sharp something made to serve the functions of a knife has to be to be a knife. If it’s too far from sharpness, it’s at best a knife blank.

Here is my best attempt at a counterexample to (1). You hire a blacksmith to make a letter opener, but you ask for it to be sharp enough that it could be used as a scalpel (bad idea!). The resulting letter opener is made to be capable of the functions of a scalpel, but perhaps it isn’t a scalpel. Here I don’t know what to say. I think the defender of (1) could bite the bullet and say that you hired a blacksmith to make a dual function letter-opener / scalpel.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Artifacts and intentions

Artifacts have defining functions. It is tempting to think of these functions as coming from their maker’s intention that they be used for those functions. But that is actually incorrect. Modern-day blacksmiths routinely make weapons of war such as swords and halberds (cf. the Forged with Fire TV show), with no intention that the weapons ever be used against anyone. Yet these are real weapons, not mere props. Similarly, it is quite possible to make a nuclear bomb with the intention that it deter war and never explode.

Maybe we could say this: There are two ways in which an artifact can be connected with its function F:

  1. By being made to fulfill F

  2. By being made to be physically just like something that is would be made to fulfill F.

But that’s not correct. Suppose that upon looking at a fork, I come to realize that something physically indistinguishable from it would make a great backscratcher. I then go to a forge and make a backscratcher that is just like the fork. What I made isn’t a fork but a backscratcher, even though I made it to be physically just like something that would be made to fulfill the functions of a fork.

One can try various other similar definitions. Maybe an artifact with function F is something made such that it could be used for F? But that fails, too. I could order a fork from a blacksmith and explain the desired shape of fork I want by saying that it could be comfortably used as a backscratcher—but it’ll still be a fork.

It now seems very appealing to say:

  1. A smith makes a fork if and only if the smith makes something with the intention that it be a fork and is sufficiently successful in the design and execution.

But of course this can’t define what a fork is: there is too much circularity here.

I also find it appealing to say that really there are no forks, just particles arranged forkwise. But that doesn’t solve the problem. For we still want to know what it is for the particles to be arranged forkwise rather than backscratcherwise, and this seems to depend on something about how the item is thought of or what it is intended for. Maybe it makes the problem seem less urgent, though?

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

A problem for non-command divine command theories

Some divine “command” theories do not ground obligations in commands as such, but in divine mental states, such as his willings, intentions or desires. It’s occurred to me that there is a down-side to such theories. Independently of accepting a divine command theory of any sort, I think the following is plausible (pace Murphy):

  1. All humans have a duty to obey any commands from God.

But if obligations are grounded in divine mental states, there is the following possibility: God commands one to ϕ even though God does not will, intend or desire that one ϕ, and so I am not obligated to ϕ. The actuality of this possibility would not fit with (1). In fact, the case of the Sacrifice of Isaac appears precisely such: God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but did not will, intend or desire for Abraham to do so. God only willed, intended and desired for Abraham to prepare to sacrifice Isaac.

In my previous post, I was happy with the corollary of the divine intention account of duty that Abraham did not have a duty to sacrifice Isaac. But given the plausibility of (1), I should not have been happy with that.

The command version of divine command theory obviously verifies (1). So do natural law theories on which obedience to God is a part of our nature (either explicitly or as a consequence of some more general duty).

A divine intentional promotion account of duty

In my previous post, I argued against divine desire versions of divine command theory. Reflecting on that post, I saw that there is a simple variant of divine desire that helps with some of the problems in that post. Instead of saying that we ought to do what God desires us to do, the divine command theorist can say that:

  1. We have a duty to ϕ (respectively, not to ϕ) if and only if God is intentionally trying to get us to ϕ (respectively, not to ϕ).

On this picture, God doesn’t just “sit around” and wish for our actions: God intentionally promotes some of our actions and obstructs others. He does this in a multitude of ways: by commanding, by creating us with a human nature that inclines us towards some actions and against others, by inspiring us with his grace, and more generally by intentionally putting us in an environment that encourage or discourages certain actions. An advantage of this view is that it allows for divine commands to be constituted by a plausibly broad variety of divine actions.

One of the problems I raised in the previous post for divine desire theories of duty was the problem of conflicting divine desires. Even a perfectly rational being can have conflicting desires. It is perfectly rational to desire a medical procedure one knows to be painful while desiring not to have pain. Thus there is a serious possibility of conflicting desires on the part of God. This possibility is raised to the level of likelihood when we reflect on the fact that God is said to bring greater goods out of the evils we do, which makes for a likely conflict between God’s desire for these goods and God’s desire that we not perform the evils.

But while a perfectly rational being can have conflicting desires, it is plausible that a perfectly rational being does not have conflicting intentions. A perfectly rational being may desire A and not-A, but he won’t be intentionally promoting both. (Of course, a perfectly rational being may intentionally promote both A and B despite the fact that promoting A makes B less likely. But that doesn’t seem to raise particular difficulties for the intentional promotion account of duty, though I could be missing something.)

My second worry about divine desire theories was cases where our action goes against God’s desires but leads to God’s desires being on the whole better satisfied, such as when our succumbing to temptation keeps a large number of people untempted. I suggested that it is a loving thing to go against someone’s desires when doing so better promotes their desires on the whole. Here, I think there are subtle and difficult issues, but I think the same worry does not apply to the intentional promotion view. Suppose that Bob is intentionally trying to produce A and B. Alice, however, correctly judges that B is more important than A to Bob, and that intentionally acting directly against A will better get Bob what she wants. So she opposes Bob with respect to A in order to produce B. There are cases where this is perfectly appropriate. But I think these are all cases where Alice has a certain kind of superiority to Bob, say because she is Bob’s parent and hence has authority over him, or because she is much smarter than Bob. When Alice and Bob are equals, for Alice to intentionally act against A is not a proper act of love. It is either an act of enmity or at best an act of improper paternalism. (One might think something similar is true in the case of desires, but I doubt it. See the gift example in my previous post.) And this is much more so the case when Bob is Alice’s superior, as God is ours in every respect.

Love seeks union. To oppose oneself to one’s beloved’s intentions is innately contrary to that union. Sometimes love will make such opposition appropriate when the person we love is confused in some way (while love seeks union, union is only one of multiple aspects of love, and sometimes the other aspects may take precedence). But God is superior to us in every respect. Thus it seems plausible that love for God will never require us to oppose God’s intentions. But it may well require us to oppose some of God’s desires, because God’s desires themselves oppose one another, since an all-good being desires all goods, and the goods conflict (thus, God’s desire to exhibit forgiveness to creatures conflicts with God’s desire that creatures not do anything that needs to be forgiven).

Indeed, I think if we have a divine intentional promotion account of duty, there is hope that we may be able to ground moral duty in something virtue-theoretic, like Evans’ account that the virtue of gratitude calls on us to obey God—for it is fairly plausible that gratitude to a being superior in all respects calls on us to further that being’s intentions—or a love account.

Here are some interesting and nice corollaries of the view:

  1. There are no true moral dilemmas, because God’s intentions do not conflict.

  2. If to tempt someone is to try to get them to do the wrong thing, then God cannot tempt anyone (James 1:13), since if God were to try to get someone to do something, that would ipso facto be the right thing to do.

  3. God cannot intentionally unconditionally predestine anyone to damnation. For he who intends the end intends the means, and the means to damnation is sin, and God cannot intend sin.

  4. Abraham did not have a duty to sacrifice Isaac, but only a duty to prepare to sacrifice Isaac. For God has no intention that he sacrifice Isaac.

On the other hand, here is an uncomfortable consequence:

  1. God cannot intentionally promote a supererogatory action. For any action intentionally promoted by God becomes not supererogatory but a duty.

Perhaps we can say that sometimes God’s promotion of an action doesn’t come with the intention that one do the action but that one be more likely to do it, and that’s what happens in the case of supererogation? If that subtle distinction works, then we can turn a disadvantage of the theory into a significant advantage—for being able to account for supererogation is a serious challenge to many theories of morality.

Finally what about God’s duties? We have two options. First, we could say that (1) is limited to creatures, and God has no duties. Second, we could say that (1) applies to God as well. In that case, every time God intentionally does anything, God is fulfilling his duty, since if God intentionally ϕs, God is thereby intentionally (and in a very strong way) promoting his ϕing. Neither option is appealing. Perhaps the first one is better. In any case, questions about divine duties are always going to be tricky for a divine command theory.

All that said, I don’t endorse the theory. I much prefer a love theory or a natural law theory.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Against divine desire theories of duty

On the divine desire version of divine command theory, the right thing to do is what God wants us to do.

But what if God’s desires conflict? God does’t want us to commit murder. But suppose a truthful evildoer tells me that if I don’t murder one innocent person, then a thousand persons will be given a choice to murder an innocent person or die. Knowing humanity, I can be quite confident that of that thousand people, a significant number, maybe as much as a fifty or more, will opt to murder rather than be murdered. Thus, if I commit murder, God’s desire that there be no murder will be violated by one murder. If I don’t commit murder, God’s desire that there be no murder will be violated by about fifty or more murders. It seems that in this case murder fulfills God’s desires better. And yet murder is wrong.

(Some Christians these days have consequentialist inclinations and may want to accept the conclusion that in this case murder is acceptable. I will assume in this post that they are wrong.)

Perhaps we can say this: Desires should be divided into instrumental and non-instrumental ones, and it is only non-instrumental divine desires that define moral obligations. The fact that by murdering an innocent person I prevent fifty or so murders only gives God an instrumental desire for me to murder that innocent.

But this line of thought is risky. For suppose that God’s reasons for wanting the Israelites to refrain from pork were instrumental. What God really wanted was for the Israelites to have a cultural distinctiveness from other peoples, and refraining from pork served to produce that. On the view that instrumental desires do not produce obligations, it follows that the Israelites had no obligation to refrain from pork, which is wrong.

Perhaps, though, another move is possible. Maybe we should say that in the scenario I gave earlier God knows that his desires will be better served by my committing murder, but he does not want me to do so, whether instrumentally or not. For we need not suppose that whenever a rational being desires y and sees that x is instrumental to y then the rational being desires x. This does indeed get us out of the initial problem.

But we still have a bit of a puzzle. For suppose that someone you love has multiple desires and they cannot all be satisfied. Among that person’s desires, there will be desires concerning what you do and desires concerning other matters. Is it the case that in your love for them, their desires concerning what you do should automatically take precedence over their other desires? No! Suppose Alice and Bob love each other. Now imagine that Bob would really like a certain expensive item that he cannot afford to buy for himself, but that Alice, who is wealthier, can buy for him with only a minor hardship to her. We can now imagine that Bob’s desire that Alice spend no money is weaker than his desire for the expensive item. In that case, surely, given her love for Bob, Alice has good reason to buy the gift for Bob, and it is false that Bob’s desire concerning what Alice does (namely, his desire that she not spend money) take precedence over Bob’s stronger desire concerning other matters (namely, his desire for the item). It would be a loving thing for Alice, thus, to transgress Bob’s desire that she not spend money.

But presumably God’s desire that I not commit murder is weaker than God’s desire that fifty other people not commit murder. Thus, it seems that committing the murder would exhibit love of God—assuming that God’s desires is all that is at issue, and there are no moral obligations independent of God’s desires. Hence, there is a tension between love for God and obedience to God on the divine desire version of divine command theory. And that’s a tension we should avoid.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Of cats and humans

We acquired a cat around Christmas. Never having had a pet before in my life (except for a puppy for a few days decades ago), what have I learned philosophically? Maybe this:

All cats by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight they take in their senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when they are not going to do anything, they prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes one know and brings to light many differences between things.

This is, of course, what Aristotle says in the first paragraph of the Metaphysics, except he says it about humans. We tend to think of the pleasures of the mind as distinctively human. But a focus on pleasures of the mind is not distinctively human. Observing and exploring are our cat’s most driving pleasures.

The difference between humans and other animals may lie in the type of intellectual pleasure. Aquinas distinguishes the rightly ordered pursuit of understanding from the vice of curiositas. The main difference is that in the virtuous pursuit, one seeks an understanding of how the world explanatorily fits together, rather than a mere listing of facts of the sort one gets from mere seeing (here’s a tree, here’s a squirrel, etc.).

An argument for the unity of the virtues

Alice and Bob are friends, but Carl is a friend of neither. Carl pays Bob to betray Alice in some nasty way, and Bob being greedy does so. What Carl has done is as bad as what Bob has done. However, Bob was disloyal whereas Carl’s action was not a failure of loyalty. We might say this: Carl’s action offended against the value of loyalty without being disloyal.

Here’s perhaps a starker example. The virtue of chastity does not apply to immaterial beings: they can’t be either chaste or unchaste. If an immaterial tempter, however, persuades someone to be unchaste, the tempter offends against the value of chastity without being at all unchaste.

There is thus more than one way to offend against a virtue. One very special way of offending against a virtue is to act in a way contrary to it. But that is not the only way. Carl offends against loyalty without acting contrary to loyalty and the immaterial tempter offends against chastity without acting contrary to chastity.

Once we see this, we can also see that there is a multitude of ways of acting (or just being) in for or against a virtue that need not fall under or be contrary to the virtue. Encouraging someone else to be courageous is a way of acting in favor of courage, but need not show any courage. Typically, encouraging oneself to be courageous does exhibit some courage, because one is apt to know that if one becomes courageous, one is more likely to be in danger in the future. But we can imagine someone who hasn’t thought through the logical consequences and doesn’t realize that training oneself to courage is itself dangerous.

If all good action falls under a virtue and all bad action is contrary to a virtue, the above considerations suggest that there must be a meta-virtue M such that acting for any first-order virtue falls under M and acting against any first-order virtue is contrary to M. Now, since one common way of acting for a first-order virtue is to exhibit that first-order virtue in one’s actions, and one common way of acting against a first-order virtue is to act contrary to it, it follows that every action that is for a first-order virtue V falls under M insofar as it is an action for V, and every action that is against V is contrary to M insofar as it is against V. Moreover, just as acting for first-order virtues is virtuous, acting for higher-order virtues is also virtuous. To avoid a regress of meta-virtues, we should suppose that M is actually a virtue exhibited by acting for any virtue, including M itself, and opposed by acting against any virtue, including again M.

This yields something very much like a unity of virtues thesis: There is a virtue M such that any virtuous action whatsoever falls under M and any vicious action whatsoever is contrary to M.

What is this virtue? In the end, I suspect it’s love.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Normal parental effort and abortion

We owe our children at least a normal degree of effor for their welfare. For instance, we owe it to them to provide food, water, education and affection in normal circumstances by the normal means of doing so. It is plausible that what we owe our children goes significantly beyond the provision of a normal degree of effort for their welfare. Maybe working 6-10 hours a day at a job to provide for one’s family is a normal degree of effort, but if the only way to keep one’s children from starving is to work 11 hours a day, that’s surely one’s duty. But when the effort would go far enough beyond what is normal, duty is replaced by supererogatory heroism.

Now, it is far from clear what degree of effort does or does not exceed what is normal. However, the following seems clear:

  1. An effort that was practically necessary for the survival of virtually every single child in human history, and was typically expended by a parent, does not exceed normal parental effort.

For instance, physically putting food in the mouth of an infant was practically necessary for the survival of virtually every single child in human history, and probably every single such child, unless some myth like that of Romulus and Remus turns out to reflect a real case, and was typically expended by a parent. Thus, the effort of putting food in infants’ mouths is normal, and hence owed.


  1. Pregnancy was practically necessary for the survival of every single child in human history, and was typically engaged in by a parent.

Hence, wherever the required effort line lies, it does not lie below the level of pregnancy as such. In particular, it follows that Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist argument cannot apply to every pregnancy. In fact, I think it is plausible that a typical pregnancy constitutes a normal degree of parental effort, and hence her argument does not apply to a typical pregnancy either.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

More on Newtonian velocity

Here is a big picture story about Newtonian mechanics: The state of the system at all times t > t0 is explained by the initial conditions of the system at t0 and the prevalent forces.

But what are the initial conditions? They include position and velocity. But now here is a problem. The standard definition of velocity is that it is the time-derivative of position. But the time-derivative of position at t0 logically depends not just on the position at t0 but also on the position at nearby times earlier and later than t0. That means that the evolution of the system at times t > t0 is explained by data that includes information on the state of the system at times later than t0. This seems explanatorily circular and unacceptable.

There is an easy mathematical fix for this. Instead of defining the velocity as the time-derivative position, we define the velocity as the left time-derivative of position: v(t)=limh → 0−(x(t + h)−x(t))/h. Now the initial conditions at t0 logically depend only on what happens at t0 and at earlier times.

This fixed Newtonian story still has a serious problem. Suppose that the system is created at time t0 so there are no earlier times. The time-derivative at t0 is then undefined, there is no velocity at t0, and Newtonian evolution cannot be explained any more.

Here’s another, more abstruse, problem with the fixed Newtonian story. Suppose I am in a region of space with no forces, and I have been sitting for an hour preceding noon in the same place. Then at noon God teleports me two meters to the right along the x-axis, so that at all times before noon my position is x0 and at noon it is x0 + 2. Suppose, further, that the teleportation is the only miracle God does. God doesn’t change any other properties of me besides position, and God lets nature take over at all times after noon.

What will happen to me after noon? Well, on the fixed Newtonian story, my velocity at noon is the left-derivative of position, i.e., limh → 0−(2 − 0)/(0 − h)= + ∞. Since there are no prevailing forces, my acceleration is zero, and so my velocity stays unchanged. Hence, at all times after noon, I have infinite velocity along the x-axis, and so at all times after noon I end up at distance infinity from where I was—which seems to make no sense at all!

So the left-derivative fix of the Newtonian story doesn’t seem right, either, at least in this miracle case.

My preference to both the original Newtonian story and the fixed story is to take velocity (or perhaps momentum) to be a fundamental physical quantity that is not defined as the derivative, or even left derivative, of position.

The rest is technicalities. Maybe we could now take Newton’s Second Law to be:

  1. t+v(t)=F/m,

where ∂t+ is the right (!) time-derivative, and add two new laws of nature:

  1. t+x(t)=v(t), and

  2. x(t) and v(t) are both left (!) continuous.

Now, (2) is an explicit law of nature about the interaction of velocity and position rather than a definition of velocity. On this picture, here’s what happens in the teleportation case. Before noon, my velocity is zero and my position is x0. Because I supposed that the only thing that God miraculously affects is my position, my velocity is still zero at noon, even though my position is now x0 + 2. And I think (by the answer to this), laws (1), (2) and (3) ensure that if there are no further miracles, I remain at x0 + 2 in the absence of external forces. The miraculous teleportation violates (2) and (3) at noon and at no other times.

But of course this is all on the false premise of Newtonian mechanics.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

A physicalist argument for proper functions in biology

  1. We have beliefs.

  2. A belief is a mental state with the proper function of reflecting reality.

  3. Our mental states are biological states. (Follows from standard physicalism)

  4. So, some biological states have a proper function.

Monday, January 10, 2022

A horizontal aspect to transsubstantiation

The Eucharist has the vertical dimension of our union with Christ and a horizontal dimension of our union with our fellow Christians. The doctrine of transsubstantiation ensures the vertical dimension in an obvious way. But yesterday, while at a Thomistic Institute retreat on the Eucharist, I was struck by the way that transsubstantiation also deeply enhances the horizontal dimension of the Eucharist as a common meal.

Normally, in a common meal we eat together. Sometimes we eat portions cut from one loaf or carved from one animal, and that makes the meal even more unifying. But according to transsubstantiation, in the Eucharist we have a common meal where miraculously we each eat not just a portion of the same food, but the numerically very same portion: the whole of Christ. That is as deep a unity as we can have in eating.

Consider how there is less unity on the main alternatives to transsubstantiation:

  • On symbolic views, we eat and drink different portions of bread and wine with the same symbolism.

  • On consubstantiation, we eat the same Christ along with different portions of bread and wine.

  • On Leibnizian views (where the bread and wine becomes a part of Christ), we eat different parts of the same Christ.

The transsubstantiation view has as much substantial unity in what is eaten as is logically possible. (Though there is some accidental disunity, in that the accidents—shape, color, position—are different for different communicants.)