John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright

On Means and Ends in Nature -- or, Why Neo Fights

In a recent discussion in this space, I made the statement that a sexual perversion was when the sexual appetite was not rightly ordered, in much the same way that the appetite for food is not rightly ordered when it takes as its object of appetite something that is nothing like food, a venom or an excrement. The degree and the nature of the deviation would make it not a mere disagreement of taste—preferring venom to mother’s milk is not like preferring pie to cake. Pie and cake share the same essential nature, and differ only in accidental features; venom and milk differ as to their nature. There is something objectively & demonstrably wrong with my tastebuds if noxious substances taste sweet to me, and if my preference for them drives out my taste for normal food.

The clamor of objection was both (1) that I had used a term that was politically incorrect (albeit arguably factually correct -- perversion merely means deviation from a norm) and (2) that there was no such thing as rightly or wrongly ordered in reference to appetites and desires. The first objection merits no reply—we can substitute a different term if this one has too many negative implications in the mind of the reader, until such time as that new term takes on the implications of the old, as the euphemism ‘deviant’ already has done.

The second objection, however, is serious. I had never encountered the argument that the consent of the perpetrators and that alone made the appetite rightly ordered--up until now, I thought that the modern, libertine, libertarian position merely held that it did not matter whether one's appetites were rightly ordered or not, since appetites were held to no standard: their mere existence was sufficient warrant for their legitimacy. It did not matter either because it could not be determined or because it was too fraught with peril for abuse to determine. I had not heard until now it seriously proposed that rightly ordering the passions and appetites does not exist at all or (which amounts to the same thing) the rightness is merely an expression of the willpower as in “these things are rightly-ordered because I say so.” Both formulations simply deny that ends exist in nature.

I confess this argument takes me by surprise. I hope no one is arguing that reality itself changes as our appetites and passions change. I thought the argument was only that reality can be safely ignored when our emotions and passions are disordered: that no harm flows from this, and that harm or the lack of harm is the only standard of legitimacy.

Instead, this argument seems to propose that there is no such thing as an organ or an appetite or a passion being directed to a purpose, end or goal: that nothing is “for” anything else except insofar as the subjective and all-sovereign will of the individual says it is. If so, then the eye is not “for” seeing, because it is not an organ organized with the end-goal of gathering light for sight. If so, then the difference between food and poison is not because food is “for” nutriment and health, and poison for unhealth, but only because harmful consequences may issue from consuming poison: venom serves the same purpose as food, and is defined as food, according to this argument, provided only the eater has built up an immunity, taken the antidote, or vomits up the substance before it produces its effect, or in some other way mitigates, escapes, or consents to the harm. The fact that no nutrition can be derived from swallowing poison is dismissed as irrelevant: the low of nutritional value of ice cream and pastry is used to argue that un-nutritional foods (like pastry) are one and the same as un-nutritional substances (like poison). Because some foods are eaten for pleasure rather than nutrition, ergo Food is the same as non-Food, and no inquiry can be made into whether the pleasure is rightly ordered.

To use a less emotional example: if a man wanted to be a glutton, and eat nothing but pie breakfast, lunch and dinner with a smaller pie at tea-time, I had thought the libertarine or libertarian argument was not that this was a correctly-ordered appetite, but merely that no one else had such an overriding interest in that man’s appetite to criticize or correct his appetite. But no: the argument seems to be that there is no such thing as any purpose or end appetite is meant to serve; that appetites exist for their own sake, and need produce no warrant for their justification; and therefore no such thing as gluttony versus moderation, and therefore to call someone who eats nothing but pie morning, noon, and night “a glutton”, far from being an observation of fact, would be a deadly insult.

This proposition seems to argue that the rule of logic evidently can apply to statements which can reflect reality, but cannot apply to appetites and passions, whose relationship to reality is optional.

As best I can tell, the argument here is sort of a reverse anthropomorphism: the opinion that if nature has no human shape, it must not have any human properties, including human logic and human categories of end-and-means, what Aristotle called “Final Cause”. This argument is actually not an argument, but an assumption. It is merely the assumption that purposes do not exist in nature, but only in the willpower of rational actors. In effect, it says there is no such thing as purpose, merely the arbitrary objects of the willpower. If you do act A in order to achieve result B, the connection between A and B exists only in your mind, and only for so long as you so wish: A cannot be said (in this world view) to be ordered or directed toward B. There may be a time-correlation or cause-and-effect relation between A and B, but not a relation of ends-and-means.

I emphasize that this assumption is not proposing a norm, usually mislabeled ‘tolerance’ but rather is proposing a studied agnosticism towards norms. The philosophy of the paramount sovereignty of the appetites—called Hedonism—is one which can be adopted, but not one which can be taught. By that I mean: a grown man can watch his neighbor eating pies in lieu of other food, and being free and equal with him, can have no authority to curtail the gluttony by law, and the delicacy of the social mores may make it impolite for him to criticize the fault even informally. But a mother watching his child eating pies in lieu of other foods has a duty to educate the child to order its appetites rightly. Likewise again, if our neighbor, who is free and equal, suffers inordinate anger, it may be no business of ours to correct our neighbor; but any mother who sees this flaw growing in her child who does not upbraid, instruct, and correct the child is a negligent mother, for she has not raised him to avoid falling into wrath. Hence, the agnosticism toward the value of an appetite, the unwillingness to make a judgment about its fitness and propriety, is a rule of limited application. I note that both school officials and public magistrates who enforce speech codes or punish hate speech adopt the position of the mother, on the grounds that certain speech will provoke inordinate anger or offense, and therefore the speaker must rightly order his appetite lest he fall into wrath, or tempt his listeners to wrath. Such laws and codes make a value judgment about the merit of an passion (in this case, a passion toward anger): I note that a consistent libertarian must condemn them as violating the agnosticism toward valuations of the passions and appetites which forms the core of their doctrine, since by their own admission, libertarians are concerned only with harm or the lack of harm, not with virtue and the lack of virtue.

I emphasize most strongly that recognizing ends in nature does not, in and of itself, impose a moral duty, any more than recognizing cause and effect imposes moral duties. If gluttony is gluttony because it is an objectively disordered appetite toward food, this does not by itself impose a duty to moderation. Some other principle is needed as a minor term in the moral syllogism: a hedonist will say that overeating causes long-term displeasure, for example; or a Stoic will say it offends the duty men have to live according to nature and govern their appetites; or a Utilitarian say it serves not the best interests of all parties involved; or an Objectivist will say it does not confirm to the proper standard of rational, productive, heroic man; or a Christian will say it indulges a deadly sin we are obligated to avoid: and other moral theories would have other principles to consult to determine whether gluttony were a moral breach, and of what magnitude. But whether gluttony is a disordered appetite or not is a fact; the question of whether or what moral rules it breaks is a conclusion of moral reasoning. At the moment, we are discussing the question of fact, not any conclusion of moral reasoning.

Unfortunately for the argument against final cause, the category of ends-and-means is universal and inescapable. In even the most careful and radical of empirical observations, such as when physicists observe particles following the path of least resistance, the description of the behavior implies a final cause: this particle moves along that path “because” this is the path of least energy—the “because” in that sentence is a statement of final cause. The cannon ball (or, if you prefer, the nature governing the ball) seeks the path of least energy. The motion of the ball cannot be understood without understanding the principle of least energy.

Let us carefully distinguish between final causes and human free will. We would not say that the cannon ball decided or determined to fall to Earth in a parabola because heights made it uncomfortable, and the ball pondered its various path options and selected a parabolic path because this was most cost-effective for it, and yearned nostalgically for the embrace of Mother Earth. No, that would be anthropomorphism indeed, and the theory of ballistics does not require a speculation about such things. But a statement about ends-and-means is not one and the same as a statement about free will, pondering between options, anticipating outcomes, ranking priorities, selecting ends fitted to means, or making decisions.

Likewise, cause and effect exists outside the human mind: we take cause and effect into account when we plan even a simple act, and we do act A in order to get result B. You might, like Hume, want to say or write that since cause and effect have no empirical properties, ergo they do not exist. Unfortunately, even the act of saying or writing such a sentence presupposes cause and effect and cannot exist without that presupposition. You would not take up your pen and draw the ink across the page unless you assume the act A (drawing the point of the pen across the page) would result in end B (leaving writing in its trail).

The matter becomes more obvious when speaking of animate nature. Without reference to ends and means, the behavior of organisms, the shapes of parts of animals, cannot be contemplated or understood. It is no remarkable statement to say the instinct of nest-building is “for” bearing the young, or to say the shape of the wing of a bird is “for” flying, indeed, even for flightless birds—because without an understanding of this end, the particular shape makes no sense. Why are bird wings not square or circular or doughnut-shaped? Why do the wings of Ostriches and Penguins have the distinctive tapered streamline of a limb designed to produce lift in an atmosphere? While it might possible, through an elaborate circumlocution, to describe the shape of a bird’s wing without reference to it function or purpose, such a description would leave out something vital to our understanding—the reason why it is the way it is and not some other way. The real reason why birds do not have doughnut-shaped wings is the doughnut-shapes do not efficiently provide lift: the means of the shape does not serve the ends of flight.

I emphasize that to speak of ends and means is merely to speak of facts, something the reason apprehends, not necessarily something the willpower invents (albeit, as human beings, we do obviously have the power to ponder alternative means to reach a goal, and, in many areas, to select our goals or set other goals aside. We can make judgments about the worthiness of the goals and also about the efficiency and morality and elegance of the means used to achieve them).

There is, of course, an intermediate condition between the ends of nature (which we do not select) and the ends of individuals (which we do select, or, at least, permit). These are those cases where an institution or group of actions serves a long-term or overarching end, which is the aggregation of all actions in the institution as a whole is directed to that end, but which is not necessarily the end any individual has in view.

One of the main sources of confusion in the political theories of the Twentieth Century was due to an inability to recognize this other condition. I refer to the ends and means of economic market operations, and of men acting as a mass. We speak of the “will of the people” and we speak of the “decisions of the marketplace” using an analogy to the will and the decisions of an individual. This is a sloppy and misleading way to speak, albeit I cannot offer a clearer way except by way of overly-nice circumlocutions I will not here repeat.

The market does not decide things like the price of hamburgers the way a man decides things like what to have for lunch: the legislators of some law of supply and demand do not sit in mysterious conclave like illuminati in Aghartha and decree hamburgers shall be a dollar and cheeseburgers a dollar ten cents, and then send secret messages to various burger kings and burger clowns by way of black and nocturnal carrier pigeons, and the clowns and kings quake in their shoes and scurry to obey. No; all that happens is that your customers have an incentive to go elsewhere if your price is above the market rate, and employees and investor have an incentive to go elsewhere if your price (ergo your profit) is below the market rate. Each individual customer decides what to have for lunch; but the market as a whole “decides” (if we may use that word for a non-deliberate aggregation of deliberate decisions) that a cheeseburger costs a buck and dime.

The particular and unique paranoia of modern politics can be understood as an outgrowth of this confusion: it either assumed that self-organizing processes were chaotic and random, or it assumed that a secret cabal influenced or instructed the market in its decisions. Even such brilliant men as G.K. Chesterton thought the economic forces acting on the market were the result of a conspiracy of millionaires and Jewish international banks. Even among economists, few recognized the sovereignty of the customers as the ultimate final cause of market determinations. And among those, some economists fell into the opposite error of assuming the market was “wise” because of its self-correcting and efficiency-seeking behavior: a peculiar example of the same error as above is to assume that merely because the mass of people want something, that their wants are legitimate. Merely because the market places a certain price value on Playboy magazines, or on magazines of Teflon coated-bullets, does not imply that no value judgment can or should be made regardless of market value.

One of the main sources of confusion in evolutionary theories was like unto this. One cannot understand the process of evolution without reference to the ends being served. In the Darwianian theory and his epigones, the end served is success as a reproductive strategy, what might be called “fitness to survive.” Now, no biologist speculates that the individual animals each itself has this end in mind: the whales and owls and microbes are merely stirred by drives and appetites each to its particular behavior. But the natural selection in weeding out the unfit produces an overall or overarching end of fitting each part of the ecology efficiently into every other part, and making continual adjustments for changes in conditions.

Without offering my own opinion on the merits of the arguments, I note here that both those who argue for and against the “Selfish Gene” theory of evolutionary final causes when not careful will make the same mistake: conflating a final cause (the end for the sake of which the means are fitted) with a decision or determination (as when an individual ponders various alternate means to serve a desired end and selects between them). Both pro and con seem to argue as if the Gene is making a deliberate decision to replicate itself—but this is merely an unfortunate side effect of limitations of vocabulary.

We do not have a separate set of words for non-deliberate pursuit of ends, even though the leitmotif of the Twentieth Century, its main intellectual effort, was investigation of non-deliberate pursuit of ends. Even something as simple as “the Peter Principle” which says hierarchy tend to promote staff to the level at which they are no longer competent, or something as complex as an environmental debate, are all investigations of the outcomes of non-deliberate final causes.

The blame for all this confusion, it should come as no surprise, comes from the staggering success of the scientific revolution, which, according to its own mythology at least, derived its power from the careful agnosticism toward metaphysics and final causes. The Empiricist said he would not investigate the ultimate causes of nature, merely the behaviors of nature, and would make no predictions not open to disproof by some observation or experiment. Well, from Copernicus to Newton to Einstein, the results were unparalleled: Empiricism earned unparalleled praise for its unparalleled success.

But this led to unparalleled intellectual confusion that shows no signs of ending. The confusion is simple enough: modern thinkers of many schools of thought seem unable or unwilling to draw a distinction between empiricism being silent on an issue outside its jurisdiction, and empiricism being condemnatory of an issue within its jurisdiction. They think that if science cannot prove or disprove that Marc Anthony or Hamlet or even Mrs. Muir saw a ghost, that ergo science proves beyond doubt that ghosts do not exist.

But the silence of Empiricism is overwhelming. The assumptions or axioms upon which the theory of Empiricism rest are not themselves open to empirical proof. The rules of logic and of metaphysics are rational rather than empirical, deductions from first principles, and not open to confirmation or denial by experiment or observation. Ethics is likewise not open to empirical confirmation. The nature of man we know by internal observation, not by perception but by apperception: it is by looking into our own minds that we know we have consciousness and free will, and the attempt to explain the behavior of other human souls on Earth without likewise holding that they are conscious and rational beings leads immediately to paradox and nonsense.

The moderns, helpless to draw a distinction between the silence of science and the condemnation of science, assume that science has found or discovered or proved that free will does not exist, found or discovered or proved ethics are an arbitrary secretion of the glands, found or discovered or proved logic is an arbitrary game with arbitrary rules like Chess, and found or discovered or proved that the theory of Empiricism is merely a convenience programmed into our brains by an ideological superstructure of class interests or somesuch blither.

It is all nonsense, of course. Empirical science has done no such thing and can do no such thing, any more than a court of law sitting in Peoria can make binding decisions on the inhibiters of Pluto. These are all questions outside of its competence.

Indeed, the defects of modern philosophy, materialism and historicism, Marxism and Social Darwinism and radical subjectivism and multiculturalism and all forms of polylogism, irrationalism, existentialism, are best understood as a psychopathology of Empiricism, and stand in the same relation to Empiricism as cancer stands to healthy cell replication.

The ordinary and healthy intellectual inquiry into the nature of man and his role in society, the nature of ethics and logic and their roles in thought and action turns into a philosophical cancer the moment the investigator decides to investigate mankind as if man were a dumb animal or a machine made of meat. Empiricism, you understand, cannot see, weigh, or measure the things that make living organisms different from machines, and cannot see, weigh, or measure the things that make man unique among other living organisms.

Modern philosophies seem to suffer the same few simple errors over and over, including errors a schoolboy could see through in five minutes of serious thought: the man making the statement about mankind, if counted as a member of mankind, could not be making the statement he proposes: the determinist who says that he has decided that no men make decisions; the materialist who reports that the brain-matter in his skull has been programmed to repeat the idea that all men are merely matter, and therefore thinks that that thoughts do not exist, and concludes conclusions have no meaning; the subjectivist who announces as an absolute truth that no truth exists and there are no absolutes; the Marxist whose economic theory is that all economic theories are mere bogus rationalizations of selfish class interests; the historicist whose historical theory is that says all historical theories are merely parochial bias; the Hegelian whose current theory is that all current theories must and will be superseded by superior and later theories; the Nietzschean whose moral standard is that all moral standards must yield to the will of the superman; the logical positivist whose metaphysical statement is that all metaphysical statements are meaningless; the Humean whose proposition that only empirical statements are true is itself backed by no empirical evidence whatsoever, nor can be.

In ethics, the end result of this rejection of all non-phenomenal reality, the rejection of logic and reason and ideas and ideals, has the odd effect of encouraging radical subjectivism of the will. Whatever the willpower wills is the good, and it is the good because the willpower wills it.

As a science-fictional aside, let me mention that in the third MATRIX movie (I forget the name. MATRIX REHASHED? MATRIX REVISITED? MATRIX RETARDED? Something like that) when our hero, Neo, the thinly-disguised messianic figure in shades and black leather is facing the Evil Secret Agent of Evil (who is dressed like a Republican, I suppose) the Evil Guy of Evil sneeringly demands that Neo justify why he fights?

Neo, being a hepcat postmodern figure, cannot say he fight for truth, justice and the American Way, as the superheroes of an earlier and healthier period could say (despite that Neo is quite obviously fighting for these things); he cannot say he is fighting for the woman he loves (despite that he obviously is, both during her life and in her memory); he cannot say, like an earlier Messiah, but one who did not use so much slick wirework Kung Fu, that he is fighting to bring the bread of heaven to men, to free the captive, to heal the sick and restore the dead to life (even though Neo has been freeing, healing and resurrecting like gangbusters during all three movies). No, his only answer, his sad and pathetic only answer is to announce (amid a flourish of trumpets meant to sound inspiring) “BECAUSE I CHOOSE TO!” It is enough to make you spit your popcorn onto the floor in a flood of salty, butter-substitute dripping laughter.

I offer a pop culture reference because pop culture can represent the spirit of the times with undisguised clarity. I submit Neo starred in such a popular movie because he represents a popular spirit of the times. As such, the postmodern figure can give no empirical, scientific account of right and wrong, just or unjust, and he cannot even make an assessment as to whether his impulses are rational, fit, wholesome, appropriate, or praiseworthy: because that implies a standard of ideas, and ideas (according to the idea of empiricism) have no empirical weight. The only thing he can say of an appetite is that it exists: judgments of final cause or moral worth are unscientific and therefore beyond the reach of his amputated arms.

The postmodern messiah does not even make for good drama. I assure you that if Neo had said he were fighting for the truth, to break the world-illusions of the empire of lies, and if the end of the film we had had been the freedom and release of all mankind from their metallic dream-coffins, with a short scene (as at the end of WALL-E) showing man replanting and replenishing the barren earth, then I assure you, I assure you in my authority and expertise as a writer of hack pulp sciffy, the third movie would have sucked less hard. Someone who fights for truth against deception we know to be a hero of the stature of Socrates. Someone who fights because he chooses to, and nothing in the choice is significant aside from the fact that it is a choice, is merely a mercenary. He is a rather small version of Achilles, but one who might just as easily sulk in his tent when Patrocles is slain, or rushing roaring in glory against the foe when Chrysies is taken from him, because neither wrath nor honor nor anything else adorns the banner under which he fights: merely his ego. He is Narcissus in shades.

This may be a pop culture example, but the examples from modern literature could be multiplied likewise. The image of helpless man confronting an irrational and meaningless universe, attempting to impose sense by his own inner strength, is not one the ancient pagans in their worldly sorrows would have understood, nor the Christians in their unworldly joy. But the post-Christian writers (with remarkably few exceptions) has abandoned not just the Christian heritage, but the earlier pagan heritage as well. The faith, hope and charity of the Christian virtue is gone, but so is the fortitude, moderation, temperance and justice of the pagan virtues. What is left is raw willpower: a sad little man I the drenching rain shouting “BECAUSE I CHOOSE TO!” to an indifferent machine in an indifferent universe—the bitter philosophy of a Thrasymachus —I say that justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.

Of course, what happens if you ask Neo the Messiah WHY he chooses what he chooses, according to what axioms, what standards, what principles, what moral code, is that he cannot really answer. If you ask Thrasymachus what justice is when he is in the weak position, all he can do is fight you tooth and nail, with no scruples and no rules and no justice, to return to the strong position. These are merely answers that undercut themselves. It is a self-defeating pose.

The leitmotif, endlessly repeated, of (nearly) all modern philosophy is the image of a man sawing off the branch of the tree on which he himself sits. It is baffling and astonishing that such a stupid idea could be repeated again and again, not by fools, but by the most accomplished and celebrated men of letters the modern times have produced.

But the stupid idea has a profound, even sublime, root to it: seeing the success of empiricism, thinkers great and small wanted to see if man could be investigated empirically also. In terms of the studies of physicians and anthropologists and historian and economists, the matter was well meant and productive of real knowledge. But the metaphysical assumption of empiricism is agnosticism toward subjective reality, value judgments, ethics, and final causes. All those questions fall outside the scope of empirical observation of inanimate matter in motion. So the idolaters of science (not real and honest scientists themselves, mind you) when they bowed to their idols of stone and steel, fell into the error of assuming that man, to be studied empirically, must have no reality to him aside from the particles of matter in motion of which his physical body is composed.

They assumed, in other words, that silence is condemnation. Because science had nothing to say about ethics or final causes or free will, ergo all ethics are merely programmed reflexes or hidden power mechanisms, free will is an illusion, final causes a nonsense phrase. This despite that empiricism itself has a final cause, which is to study visible phenomena, and that it cannot serve the final cause of rationalism, which is to study such noumenal reality as forms, abstractions, ideas and deductions from first principles.

Science has not even proved that there is no such thing as ghosts. Everyone seems to assume seeing a ghost or believing you’ve seen a ghost is unscientific, but real science, and I mean the empirical investigation of phenomena, says nothing one way or the other about ghosts, unless, perhaps, it is the reluctant admission that science has neither the tools nor the body of observation needed to definitively confirm or deny such sightings. It is not their field.

Because of this psychopathology of modern philosophy, it is almost impossible to bridge the chasm between a philosophy like that of Stoicism, which explicitly seeks to order the passions and appetites rightly according to their nature, that is to say, according to the final causes to which they are fitted, and a philosophy like that of radically subjectivist materialist hedonism, which implicitly seeks to disorder the reason so that the conscience will be silent during the pursuit of the passions and appetites, whose right to exist and to be satisfied is held up as sacrosanct, intensely personal, and not to be questioned or made to answer in any place. A materialist hedonist cannot even ask the question whether his passions and appetites are rightly ordered, since there is no order in his universe aside from what his willpower imposes, and no final causes aside from the ones he himself selects and serves.

He cannot raise his children with this philosophy, of course, so all he does is teach the little ones and unspoken code of final causes, with horrific and illogical effect: the unspoken lesson is that all matter and energy in the universe has the final cause of service and subservience to your willpower, and that authenticity rather than honesty confers legitimacy. Authenticity is judged by the shrillness and overemotionalism of the passions, and ergo calm deliberation, judgment, scruples, are dismissed as inauthentic, as hypocrisy, or classes as sinister power-games meant to disenfranchise the oppressed. The final causes of all human institutions, as with Thrasymachus, are seen as power struggles, with blind might, rather than blind justice, being the arbiter. The child is taught the conscience is not a faculty for perceiving right and wrong, but a neurosis created by conflicts with authentic desires, and therefore to be silenced. The child is taught that the paramount good is toleration, but the form of toleration is merely intolerance into any investigations into questions of right and wrong. The effect of this radical abandonment of logic and reason is simply crippling.

It is also blinding. A sentence like, “the eye is an organ of sight” or “the sexual organs are organs of sexual reproduction” or “gluttony is a disorder of the appetite for food and drink” or “evolution seeks the survival of the fittest” or “prices are set by the law of supply and demand” are meaningless in a philosophy which does not recognize that final causes exist objectively.

How can someone who does not recognize the existence of final cause come to change his mind on the topic? To me it seems a matter of recognition, not rational debate: it is like trying to talk Hume into believing that cause and effect exist, or a solipsist into noticing that he can and does and must act as if other people are real people and not cunning wax automatons. The argument does not proceed by showing someone an observation or experiment. One cannot observe ends and means any more than one can observe cause and effect.

The only way to argue this is to point out to your candid listener that his own thoughts do not make sense if they do not categorize things according to means and ends: it is a categorical assumption one must make before the question “why so?” can be answered or even addressed.

Here above I have given several reasons, by no means an exhaustive list, of why and how a disbelief in the final causes of nature leads to an incomplete, false or insane world view. The intellectual bankruptcy of modern philosophy is the star witness.
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