Category Archives: Metaethics

Moral Defeatism

It is not difficult to abstain from sin. It is not difficult to abstain from anger or greed or lust or jealousy. Anyone can do this with even the slightest effort. Sin may well be the natural condition of humankind, but humankind no longer lives in a natural condition. Humanity has not conquered nature, but it has conquered humanity. It has been domesticated, enslaved by a Christ who commands his disciples to be perfect as God in Heaven is perfect. And if God is merely the absence of sin, humanity has—or at least has made it possible to have—achieved equality with Him centuries ago.

That sin persists is a minor mystery, one that despite its banality must still be solved. There are two main explanations for it, one psychological and another normative. The former is uninteresting. In their divine wisdom, the Christians have made freedom from sin into something inaccessible, unachievable, and so in some sense forbidden. To be an honest Christian, one must self-accuse, one must humble oneself, and so find themselves guilty of sin. It is no mystery that of the elect who have thus far escaped sin, not one has been Christian. Even Christ himself would humble himself, allowing temptation and anger to strike him too. And lest His wrath be called upon as witness to the sin of the Lord himself!

Christianity is a slave’s religion, one which exalts liberty to heights beyond human reach. Only grace can break our chains, and all human efforts to abstain from sin are for naught. It does not matter to the Christian that sin as they state it can be abolished by a synergy of the simplest psychological technologies—be they therapeutic or meditative—and the slightest social progress. Any sin that can be avoided is no sin at all. This is why the Christ in His Sermon revises the Jewish law forbidding murder into the much crueler, stricter law forbidding anger. And now as anger has been conquered humanity awaits the second revision of Christ.

But in truth this second revision is very far off. The Christian revels today in their sin, in their anger and their jealousy, their lust and their greed. They love to be punished, to pull at their chains in order that they be whipped back into place. It is the nature of humanity to crave a hierarchy, and the Christian craves their slavery.[1] It is a comforting position for them, to relax as it were and allow the Lord to lift their lives. So many an addict or a criminal have surrendered to this siren song for the dark desire to release them of their sin. They empty their hearts of their lust only to fill it again with the Christ’s… revision.

Moral defeatism is the mortal sin of Christianity which says that perfection is achieved with the Lord but unachievable without. This explains the Christian’s penchant for their lusts and their anger which so frustrate—and yet reinforce—their aims. This explains their incomplete surrender to those ideals that they profess. As enlightenment encroaches upon the soul of the Christian, they retreat in order to preserve the darkness within them. They cherish this darkness. Through it, because of it, they shall find salvation. And what is the cost of a little sin now if it may purchase the Christian eternal torment in Heaven? That their salvation is from this very darkness is immaterial to them. What enlightenment could possibly compare to salvation? Certainly no Christian can compare to the might of the Lord! So why shall they compete with Him? Allow His Grace to enrapture, capture, and enslave. This is the way to Heaven. That so few today are truly Christian amongst even those who profess their faith stands as a testament to the virtue, singular as it may be, that recognises the vulgarity of moral defeatism and the achievability of virtue, of perfection.

No person stands without any virtue. The Christian, for all their vice, possesses the slave’s virtue. Others possess the master’s. The value of a virtue, however, takes form only when the practice it regulates has value. The slave’s virtue makes for a docile and pleasant servant, one who shall slither through life avoiding conflict despite their powerlessness. But a slavish condition is paralysis; it can generate no value but for the Lord, the Master to whom the slave is bound. And because the Christian does not even fully live their slavish life, they cannot generate even this value.

The value in virtue is its contribution to the power of one who wields it. But the master too does not wield virtue: they wield only the whip. Far from living a valued life, the master lives as a brute, precarious and fragile, ever wary of mutiny. Their virtue cannot protect them. It cannot be wielded as a weapon against the resentful and disobedient slave. Only the gods bear true virtue in their masterful condition, for only they are immune from usurpation. Humanity is far too delicate to dine on their ambrosia.

The virtuous life is not without sin; it has no need for servility. Sin is a distraction from the life of virtue and abstinence from it is a perversion of the means to virtue. For as the avoidance of sin requires the discipline to lord as master over oneself, so too does virtue. But in the former condition, self-mastery is marshalled in obedience to another master, to the Christ, to the commune, to the king; in the latter, it is marshalled in service of excellence, of one’s own power and interests. This is not equality, but it is neither domination. Virtue is the differentia from some prior condition of equality. The virtuous are constructed; they become nexuses of agency for and unto themselves, not self-sufficiently, but self-directedly.

The Kantian, who has elevated abstinence from sin to the altar of reason, does not speak this way about virtue. They speak rather of freedom as accord with Reason, with the Will of the Lord; for them the cultivation of agency is the capacity to fulfill their duty. Freedom to the Kantian is servitude. True virtue serves no one: it is neither slave to gods nor masters nor inclination. True virtue rules no one: it is itself neither master nor criterion over human action.

Virtue is not distinct from the human condition, nor is it identical with it. Virtue is constructed in human relations, both to self and to other continuously in their activity. Only so does it become achievable, practicable, embodied in human life. Only so can any person be said to attain virtue—and only so has every person failed. For virtue does not stay put: it is always in view but forever out of reach. It is always achievable but never achieved. This is the Christian’s insight turned back around. They have only forgotten that the Lord has legs.




[1] The Christian impulse is endemic elsewhere too, most notably in the Marxist revolutionary eschatology. It arises anywhere in which one is alienated from power; surrender becomes the final resolve of the oppressed. Under the Romans, the Jews surrendered to become Christian; under the increasingly complex empires of Europe, the poor surrendered to the benevolent hand of History, which shall through revolution right all wrongs and grow into international communism.

Against Stoicism

There is a familiar tension within Stoicism between determinism and moral responsibility. The Stoic response is typically to restrict each portion of the puzzle to different realms. Not all Stoics agree on how this division should be maintained. The ancient Stoics maintained that there is one world governed by two principles: matter and reason. Modern Stoics[1] divide the world into two along those same lines. In the world of matter, action is determined. In the world of reason, it is deliberated and chosen. I shall be concerned here with how the modern Stoic understands each individually and how they relate. The Stoic cannot ultimately resolve this tension.

The Stoic account of the world of matter is straightforward. It is ordered by the categories, which permit the theoretical understanding of material events by situating each within a causal series. And so it is with human action, embodied as it is. But in the world of matter, human action is not caused by some intention or will. As the Stoic makes clear, the will is a practical postulate which does not bear on the theoretical understanding of the world of matter: “the postulates play no theoretical or explanatory role whatsoever. They provide us with concepts that define the intelligible world, but we have no intuitions to which we may apply those concepts, and consequently no theoretical knowledge of their objects.”[2] Moral responsibility has its source therefore in the world of reason, the intelligible world, not the material. This is where the real meat of the Stoic account lies.

For the Stoic, the world of reason is revealed in a particular standpoint, one in which action is deliberated. As they say, “In order to do anything, you must simply ignore the fact that you are programmed, and decide what to do—just as if you were free . . . It follows from this feature that we must regard our decisions as springing ultimately from principles that we have chosen, and justifiable by those principles. We must regard ourselves as having free will.”[3] The world of reason, on this view, is populated by those practical postulates needed to completely determine deliberation and moral action. Most important of these for my purpose is the will. This is what deliberates and ultimately chooses some course of action. It is “a rational causality that is effective without being determined by an alien cause.”[4] The will is self-determining, and so is subject to no cause. It follows that moral action qua moral is undetermined by any element of the phenomenal world. It is entirely bound within the intelligible.

The Stoic takes this to ground the freedom of the will. But this is not to say that the will is undetermined. For the Stoic, the will is free only insofar as it is causally isolated from the world of matter. It is nevertheless bound to law because it is itself a causality. This follows immediately from the Stoics’ nomological account of causation: “Since the concept of a causality entails that of laws . . . it follows that freedom is by no means lawless.”[5] Of course, the account of causation that applies here is relevantly distinct from that of the world of matter. The will is not bound to antecedent cause, but its deliberation is nevertheless constrained in the same sort of way. The law still applies to the will, but here the law is rational, not material: “The free will therefore must have its own law . . . [S]ince the will is practical reason, it cannot be conceived as acting and choosing for no reason. Since reasons are derived from principles, the free will must have its own principle.”[6]

The laws which govern the will have their source in the reasons that a will has for choosing one course of action over another. These reasons begin with incentives. For the Stoic, “An incentive is something that makes an action interesting to you, that makes it a live option . . . [It does] not yet provide reasons for the spontaneous will, [but] determine[s] what the options are—which things, so to speak, are candidates for reasons.”[7] Incentives become reasons once they are adopted as maxims. But since incentives don’t just disappear, this process of adopting an incentive as a maxim rather consists in the rational ordering of our incentives, of choosing which incentives take precedence over others.

For the Stoic, the rational order of incentives is readily given in reason as revealed by the structure of the will. Because the will is itself uncaused, it is spontaneous. But in order to be a cause, it must adopt some maxim. As the Stoic puts it, “At the standpoint of spontaneity, the will must . . . choose a principle or a law for itself. Nothing provides any content for that law. All that it has to be is a law.”[8] This content must be compatible with the spontaneity of the will and must be available in the world of reason. For the Stoic, there is only one thing which meets these criteria: the will itself. And so the will may ultimately take itself as its content. The Stoic represents this by the following principle: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”[9] They call this the Formula of Universal Law, which they say “merely tells us to choose a law. Its only constraint on our choice is that it have the form of a law. Nothing provides any content for that law. All that it has to be is a law.”[10] It is of course plain that the Formula of Universal Law does not merely tell us to choose a law. It tells us to choose a universal law. There is a problem here which I shall come to later. For now, I must continue with the Stoic account of moral responsibility.

By now in their account, the Stoic maintains that their account of right action has been satisfactorily demonstrated. What remains is to account for how human beings may act rightly. This is in effect to account for how the world of matter and the world of reason interact. The ancient Stoic can easily account for this because they hold that there is only one world which can be explained in two distinct but consistent ways. The modern Stoic might seem to face a deeper difficulty. However, their account is ultimately the same. The difference here is that they have inverted the metaphysics of their ancient predecessors. Where they ancient Stoics took matter to be fundamental, the modern Stoic holds that the world of matter has its ultimate source in the world of reason, which they then call the noumenal world. As such, when a human being wills some action, its influence in the world of reason makes it so also in the world of matter.

The will does not have sole influence over the world of reason, however. The world of reason is divinely ordered, and so one’s will must contribute to this order in some way. How this occurs is unclear in the Stoic literature. Whatever happens, the parallel limitation occurs also in the world of matter as represented by the laws of cause and effect. The human will, as realised by the material body, is bound by these laws and therefore not completely free. It is always bound by what appears to it as a possible course of action: if that is one is not met by the appropriate kinds of intuitions that permit right action in a given situation, one cannot possibly act rightly. This is of course not a strictly passive process, but it has important passive elements: even if we purposely look for ways to alleviate suffering, for example, these ways may never appear to us even if they are in plain view. It follows from this that in the world of matter the human is not perfectly rational, even if the isolated will in the world of reason is. And so this imperfect rationality is the source of moral responsibility: we are capable of acting on the moral law and yet sometimes, through our own faults, fail to perfectly realise it in the world of matter.

Just as it was for the ancient Stoics, becoming moral for the modern is therefore a process of more completely realising the moral law in the world of matter. This is the importance of virtue. The virtuous person takes the moral law, as given in reason, to be their end. And virtue must be cultivated. As it was for the ancient Stoics, so it will be for the modern: in becoming virtuous, one meditates upon one’s incentives and subordinates those of the inclinations while elevating those of reason. This is not an easy process, as the Stoic says, for “you are imposing a change on your sensible nature, and your sensible nature may, and probably will, be recalcitrant. Although adopting an end is a volitional act, it is one that you can only do gradually and perhaps incompletely.”[11]

It does not matter how great this imposition is: we are obliged to make it from our nature as agents, as rational creatures yearning to be free. But for the Stoic, freedom is only given in subjugation to the moral law. Man is not born free: he becomes free by learning to bear the weight of his chains. Only as a slave within the Empire of Ends shall one have liberty. And so our obligation, as reason commands, is to board the Clotilda and set sail for the Land of the Free. The Stoic wishes to defend this bald incoherence. I will not allow this. The injustice of this empire is already apparent. Let me bring it more clearly into view.

The Stoic is often quite careless with their concepts. Consider the problem that I have already mentioned, for example. The spontaneity of the will on their view demands some law, but it does not demand some universal law. The confusion here consists in what the Stoic takes laws to be and what they constrain. They think that to choose some maxim for oneself in the world of reason is also to choose for all others. Since each will is equal under the laws of reason, to make oneself an exception would be irrational. But this is not quite right. There is a relevant difference between my will and yours: I make decisions for myself and not for you. The universal law here applies only to all those things which are me. Yet this gives absolutely no content to the will, and so the recursion here contributes nothing to what one might be able to take as a maxim.

This is not to say that the will cannot in principle adopt the Formula of Universal Law as its maxim. It is only to say that so adopting it does not preserve the spontaneous condition of the will. In order to take it as a maxim, one must bind oneself to the law of the cosmopolis, the Empire of Ends, the Formula of Humanity, which indeed cannot be given purely in reason. It is of course unclear whence this law can be given at all except through some mystical communion with God, but let’s set this aside for now.

It is more important that in clearing up the Stoics’ concepts, we recognise now that the moral maxim is on roughly equal ground as the maxim of self-love. The former says that “I will do my duty and what I desire only if it does not interfere with my duty.” The latter says that “I will do what I desire and what is my duty only if it does not interfere with what I desire.” Both destroy the spontaneity of the will to some degree, though the Stoic will still insist that the former is preferable because the latter destroys spontaneity in a particular way: “Incentives of inclination cannot move the will to abandon its position of spontaneity, since they cannot move the will at all until it has already abandoned that position by resolving to be moved by them.”[12] The moral maxim, they claim, does not do this since it remains open ended what sorts of actions may fulfill one’s duty. On closer inspection, however, there is no asymmetry here. In both cases, the will must first resolve to be moved before it can be, and in both cases there is any number of actions which might satisfy a maxim. To be a slave of one’s passions is essentially the same as being a slave to the law.

But this is quite a minor problem, one that merely follows the trail which much deeper confusions have set out for the Stoic. Plutarch’s criticism of the ancient Stoics has not been addressed by the modern, for example. The modern Stoics attempt to hold both that a will is always moved by an incentive (eventually) and that it cannot be moved by it until it resolves to be moved. The latter for the Stoic requires assent, or what they more commonly call judgement. Plutarch rightly points out this inconsistency and maintains that judgement is not only not required for action but also possibly harmful to right action. Judgement changes the ways in which both the world is perceived and one’s agency is constituted. Acting without judgement does not do this: it allows one to take an open-ended approach to the world and to oneself in order to seek what is truly good and act for its sake.

One reason that the Stoics deny this is their nomological account of causation. In order to be moved by some incentive, they think, one must be able to comprehend the law that addresses this incentive. These laws are not given in intuition, but rather by abstraction in reason. And so to act on any incentive is ultimately to make a judgement about some law and one’s own relation to it. Hence there is no way around positing laws or reasons to which the will is in some sense bound. And yet, there are no such laws. In recognition of an incentive, the will constructs a model which guides its response. But in no case need this model be expressed as true or even as nomological and making a judgement one way or the other serves only to constrict the will and diminish its openness to what must be done.

The Stoic takes this to be unnecessary because they conceive of the will as ultimately uncaused and completely spontaneous: in other words as free. But they have no grounds for this assumption. For the Stoic, this is a practical postulate necessary in the moment of deliberation and decision. As one reflects on one’s choices, that is, it is not relevant that one’s actions are already determined since subjectively one must nevertheless decide what must be done. And since the will is not (relevantly) determined, they say, it must be free. This does not follow. There is only one thing that is relevantly true here: that in deliberation, it is subjectively opaque what one has already been determined to do, if anything. There is an epistemic distance here that cannot be traversed. The Stoic attempts to infer from this distance the existence of the will and a whole world that it populates. So dogmatic they are that other more reasonable inferences fail to cross their mind at all. Whatever might be true metaphysically, the determination of one’s actions by prior events is simply irrelevant to whether one is morally responsible for a given act. Yet the Stoic is bound to their metaphysical inferences as if these are given in reason alone and not by some pretheoretical psychological disposition which blinds the Stoic to other available options.

And this is really the danger of Stoicism: so blinded they are by their commitment to empire that they bend the world to abide by its edicts. Up is down, war is peace, intuition is reason, and slavery is freedom. Let this not be so: let us go forth and establish our liberty, our freedom from the edicts of the Empire of Ends. And where the Stoic attempts to enslave us, let us cast his reason into the flames. Perhaps when he sees it transformed into ash he will realise at long last that his empire is not eternal.




[1] There are of course two kinds of modern Stoic. One kind is mere atavism and hence does not differ at all from ancient Stoicism but for a lack of detail and rigorous argument. This is the sort of foolish nonsense which Massimo Pigliucci among others promotes and hence may be easily dismissed. But another kind is adaptation. These Stoics have reinvented themselves for a different age. They cannot be similarly dismissed and must be directly opposed, for they too bear the same faults as their predecessors despite their differences. They too would see us subjugated to empire. They too would see us enslaved.

[2] Christine Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” in her Creating the Kingdom of Ends, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996: 172-173

[3] Ibidem, 163

[4] Ibidem

[5] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 446, quoted in Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 163

[6] Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 163

[7] Ibidem, 165

[8] Ibidem, 166; italics in original.

[9] Kant, Groundwork, 4:421

[10] Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 166

[11] Ibidem, 180

[12] Ibidem, 166

The Silent Brilliance of Bernard Williams

To the thunder of applause the musicians take their positions. The applause trails off into silence as anticipation begins to build. There is art in this. One must hesitate long enough to build excitement and not so long to lose it, to allow anticipation to bubble over into boredom and restlessness.

An old wooden door loudly creaks and excitement breaks, sending sparks into the sky. Once again thunder roars. Musicians stand. There is life here despite the formalism of the stage. There is excitement and tension. The thunder trails off once again as people in the audience anxiously flip through their brochures and latecomers panic to find their seats.

This period, a period of great anticipation, a period of wonder and expectation, this is the best period of a concert. You never know quite how the experience will go—everything is all so contingent, all so risky. And yet you know nevertheless that your experience will be worthy of this grand temple to the wonders of artistic skill and explosions of creative brilliance.

The conductor bows and turns to face his orchestra. He raises his arms drawing the tension along with him. He pauses. He holds his position. Tension builds. And with a flick of his wrist, his arms drop.


There is silence.

Someone coughs. Another rustles her brochure. A child asks his mother when the music will begin. The sound of his small voice resonates off the stone walls of the hall. Another cough. Someone sniffles. More rustling, more tension, more restlessness. This is music.

Four minutes and thirty-three seconds later the conductor lifts his arms. The musicians bow. The applause breaks the silence. You see, there is art in silence. There are lessons there and wisdom. Writing is like this. Philosophy is like this. Quite often the most brilliant thing that can be said is nothing. It is to allow the reader to fill the void, to populate the silence with their own life-sounds, with their own wills and interests and activities, in short with nature. Very often this is when philosophy speaks the loudest. And this—this quiescent deference to the lives of his readers—this is what makes Bernard Williams so powerful, so complete, so compelling as a writer and philosopher.

Williams stands against the predominant pretension of philosophers that they can redesign nature more effectively, more efficiently, better. And in doing so they create great and magnificent gardens in which to live. But if Williams shows us anything, it is that these Victorian gardens are diseased and pathological, that their beauty hides an ugly truth which harms those unlucky enough to have roots in their soil. Williams has come to smash the garden gnomes of philosophical ethics and their paving stones and fences. The result may be an eyesore to the “cultured”—so be it. Let our communities be ugly and healthy before beautiful and diseased.

Williams threatens theory. This is his main target. And not just any theory: his target is theory as theory. For theory attempts to rewrite nature, to upend it and improve upon it, which Williams takes to be a mistaken enterprise. His approach to this is deconstructive. He examines these heavily circumscribed theories and teases out tensions within them between their foundational assumptions and the worldview that they otherwise recommend—for as Williams reminds us, ethical theory is too an ethical activity. And this all means that Williams’s approach is foundationally anti-foundationalist. He rejects basic principles. He rejects the kind of philosophy which builds so high that it must dig downward. And this rejection is his own animating principle, which permeates and activates his own work.

There is great value in this. Williams reasserts the primacy of ethical life, of activity before the account. There is no mystery where the ethical agent fits in his philosophy; our own reflective capacities are placed front and centre flanked by the real, embodied demands of our own ethical environment. This is no garden. This is no vast expanse of agricultural cropland. This is nature. Williams sees no surplus in our ecosystem—and indeed who exists to pick the fruits and reap our souls? No: ethical lives exist for ethical lives, all together. All value is recycled within it, animating the whole. This is not typically the concern of ethical theory, which actively seeks to upset our natural embeddedness.

There is no greater picture for ethical philosophy: Williams stands guard as a park ranger, eliminating threats to the pristine condition of our ethical environment. He does not seek to order our ethical lives. He seeks only to preserve them. To this end, he gives no positive ethical recommendation. He does not destroy theory only to rebuild it. He speaks only to silence the chatter and noise of ethical theory.

But this is not to say that he locks his reader in a silent Cage. He provides harsh but quiet melodies to inspire and provoke. Williams too lives in the ethical environment. He too engages in ethical reflection. He is merely careful in what kind of reflection he promotes. For as he says, there are many sorts of reflection, some which foster flourishing and some which destroy the health of an ecosystem. Reflection which leads to theory is this sort. This kind of reflection concerns much more than individual and collective interest, value, self-conception and the like. “It is,” he says, “a different kind of critical reflection that leads to ethical theory, one that seeks justificatory reasons. ‘There cannot any one moral rule propos’d, whereof Man may not justly demand a Reason,’ Locke said, and this maxim, understood in a certain way, naturally leads to theory.” (ELP, 112) If we can avoid this, if only we can silence these foundational questions, he thinks, we can promote and preserve the kinds of ethical ecosystems we would be proud to call home.

This method I think is the only one which respects those ethical communities which are not irreparably broken, which have undergone many iterations of productive dialogue to settle on a stable whole. And there was a time when we could think that these communities existed, that our ethical ecosystems were not plagued by invasive species and climactic revolution. But we live in the 21st century. We have lived through centuries of colonialism and imperialism; we have lived through decades of globalism and technological revolution. Our ethical lives are entirely conditioned by the consequences of these tragedies. The lives we lead are bound to the values of those who could not even conceive of our world. Our ethical ecosystems are deeply and profoundly corrupted—and uprooting ethical theory will never solve these problems.

When my life is crumbling down around me, when my family is drowning in debt, when my brother is murdered by a drone pilot ten thousand kilometres away, when my farmland has dried up from drought, when my mother has been beaten and raped, when my sister is denied appropriate medical care, when my father is denied employment for the colour of his skin, should I climb the mountain to visit the silent sage? What can he possibly tell me?

Function and Continuity

Humans are paragons of evolutionary success having conquered the world that once oppressed us. But why must we still enforce morality in this conquered world? We have left our huts and hunting parties, so why must we still feel indignant and dishonoured in response to the slights of anonymous peers as we shuffle between skyscrapers to our immoral occupations from our bountiful homes? Our lives are different now: why do we need the idols and relics of our old habitats? This is the question that Nicholas Smyth raises. Let us call this the discontinuity objection to moral functionalism. Where moral functionalism seeks to thread together the genealogy of morality with the present state of moral behaviour, Smyth seeks to show why that thread will always eventually fray and break as the conditions that explain both stretch and pull away from one another.

The discontinuity objection gets its force from the complexity of functional explanation, a matter to which few moral functionalists pay serious heed. Smyth begins by articulating what functions are and what they require. His main concern here is the etiology of some functional object. If some object A does x, we know that x is the function of A because of A’s etiology. That is, A exists because it did x reliably in the past and x is an effect that was selected for. Unlike Larry Wright, however, Smyth doesn’t want to say that this is all there is to functions for fear of falling prey to easy objections. Functions also have normative and dispositional dimensions that must be accounted for. Despite this, Smyth asserts a decisively Wrightian claim. “[N]othing,” he says, “has an intrinsic function,” which is to say “a role that it plays irrespective of the properties of [the] larger system of which it is a part.” (Smyth, 1132) Instead, the function of an object rests upon conditions extrinsic to the object itself. These Smyth calls enabling conditions.

A chair has a function depending upon the enabling conditions that are met in its environment. In normal conditions, a chair functions to support people’s bottoms. A broken chair, however, loses this function because it cannot perform it. This difference between the normal and broken chair represents a lack of continuity: the enabling conditions present in the case of the normal chair aren’t present for the broken chair. Were I to stack books on a chair, it would likewise lose its function not because it cannot support people’s bottoms any longer but because the system of which the chair is a part no longer demands that it support bottoms. Instead, it demands that the chair support books, becoming a rather ineffective and awkward bookshelf. This too is a loss of continuity. Of course, we ordinarily reject this kind of thought. A chair is a chair. If it is used to hold books, this is a deviation from its function. But if the chair has no intrinsic function, the function literally does change as its use changes. Non-intrinsic functions concern what objects do, and not what they are. Hence any etiology need only concern some explanation of what objects do. And if any such explanation can be given for some difference in action, continuity fails to obtain.

To his credit, Smyth seems to recognise how radical and implausible this view might seem and attempts to walk it back: “failure of continuity does not entail the loss of a function, but it does decisively weaken . . . the functional-genealogical inference.” (Smyth, 1134) This is a fine line to walk. Functions are individuated by their etiology, which typically takes the form of a functional-genealogical inference. So what Smyth is arguing here isn’t that the chair has lost its function when it is used to hold a stack of books. He is arguing only that we can’t know that a chair holding a stack of books is actually for supporting bottoms. For the orthodox philosophers of science for whom what is can be reduced to what can be known or explained, this is a distinction without a difference. The interruption of the functional-genealogical inference just is the loss of the function. But let us be kind to Smyth here, for there is a much greater problem to which we must attend: the possibility of functional plurality.

We typically think that chairs have only one function. They are functionally unitary. Chairs may be able to hold stacks of books or allow us to stand upon them to reach high shelves, but these capacities are accidental to the chair’s singular function of supporting people’s bottoms. In the natural world, however, functional unity is the exception, not the rule. The parts of living things are complicated and interrelated. Consider Smyth’s own example of polar bear fur. Suppose a population of polar bears were relocated to the Amazon rain forest. In the rain forest, their white fur clearly can’t serve as camouflage. Yet suppose also that this population of polar bears retains its white fur for a hundred generations. By that time, we need some other explanation for the bears’ fur colour than that it’s camouflage. Smyth’s point here is that after a hundred generations, the camouflage function of the polar bears’ fur cannot reasonably explain its persistence. Instead, their fur has gained some other function that does reasonably explain its persistence in the much darker and greener environment. If polar bears’ fur has only this one function, Smyth’s analysis is correct. But it does not and cannot have only one function. Biological traits are elements of complex biological systems and therefore interact with any number of other elements. In each interaction, a trait will have a unique function determined by an independently successful etiology at the level of development, gene transcription, or what have you.

So the polar bear may lose out on one enabling condition, the white snow of the Arctic, but there remain uncountably many other enabling conditions that explain the persistence of the polar bears’ white fur. As such, while the fur may no longer be able to express one function, there is no explanatory gap that arises necessarily from that loss. This remains especially true in the case of human morality. Human societies may be large and wealthy today, but humans still persist within relatively small social circles and compete amongst each other for finite resources. And in this we must remember that morality evolved in the context of competition for status in addition to and much more than mere resources. So we have lost some fairly central enabling conditions for morality, but we retain even more fundamental enabling conditions. And this is not even to mention whatever genetic or developmental processes morality might impact at the cellular or system levels. Smyth’s discontinuity objection is therefore not sufficiently sensitive to address moral functionalism. At best, he can say that some of the many functions of human morality remain unexpressed in modern human societies. This is a fairly uncontroversial opinion.

We should not, however, merely dismiss Smyth’s contribution in this way. The discontinuity objection at its introduction looks like an impressive coup de grace of moral functionalism. And in truth, it is an incredibly powerful objection to the accounts of most moral functionalists. Smyth has merely mistaken what it is about functions that typically grants them their explanatory force. That thing is narrativity. The structure, use, and validity of narrative explanation are serially underexplored in the philosophy of science, but it is nearly ubiquitous when it comes to ascriptions of functions. And it is this that is problematic.

When we describe the etiology of a given function, we do so by telling a story. In the case of the polar bear, the brown bear migrated north and discovered seals and other fairly nimble swimming prey. Catching these animals was difficult, and many bears failed to find sufficient food. This halted brown bear migration into the north. However, at some point, some bears began to display a white colouration. This colouration allowed the bears to escape the notice of the seals, and hence they were more proficient at catching them. This success allowed bears to survive and reproduce in the Arctic, and hence we have polar bears as they exist today. In this story, the bears’ white fur becomes a character distinct from the bears themselves. And more than that, it becomes the hero that swoops in to save the day for the starving brown bears. But in this narrative, the details surrounding the hero are obscured. Where does it come from? How does it have this power? Who really is White Fur?

And here we have a jump cut. The bears are introduced to the Amazon, accompanied by our hero. But the change in perspective reveals something to us. White Fur had no power of its own. It has the power of camouflage only in the presence of the ice and snow of the Arctic. Without that ice and snow, we might then expect the demise of White Fur. But no: after a hundred generations, our hero remains. But Nature writes nothing badly. For White Fur to remain relevant in the story, it must have discovered some other power, one better suited to the demands of the Amazon. That is, the function of the bears’ white fur has changed.

As an objection to typical accounts of moral functionalism, discontinuity of this sort is powerful. The weaknesses of the hero in our own story, Morality, have been shown to us by our own jump cut. The narrative must change, and in so doing, the function must change with it or perish. This is an eventuality that standard accounts of moral functionalism simply can’t admit. But beyond this, we are made aware of the deficits of narrative as a form of explanation. Details are forgotten because nature isn’t linear. We don’t really know where Morality came from. We only know that it one day swooped in and saved the day. But Morality has a source, a body that we can examine for its strengths and weaknesses. It has friends and family. It has enemies and obstacles. It has fears and curiosities. But an itemised list of all of these is irrelevant for the sort of narrative employed by those who seek to vindicate Morality as the hero of our story. And all of this comes from this singular commitment: that Nature writes nothing badly. But in truth, Nature neither writes anything well. Nature does not write. But this means nothing about the functions of traits. It means only that our justifications for these functions are in need of revision. This is the importance of the discontinuity objection. If we are to maintain moral functionalism, or any sort of functionalism, the etiologies to which we appeal must attend to the minutia, to the gritty details that situate a trait within its multifaceted biological systems.


Works Cited

Smyth, Nicholas. “The Function of Morality.” Philosophical Studies 174(5), 2017, pp. 1127-1144