Wishful Thinking about Wishful Thinking

Cameron Harwick discusses an apparent relationship between “New Atheism” and group selection:

Richard Dawkins’ best-known scientific achievement is popularizing the theory of gene-level selection in his book The Selfish Gene. Gene-level selection stands apart from both traditional individual-level selection and group-level selection as an explanation for human cooperation. Steven Pinker, similarly, wrote a long article on the “false allure” of group selection and is an outspoken critic of the idea.

Dawkins and Pinker are also both New Atheists, whose characteristic feature is not only a disbelief in religious claims, but an intense hostility to religion in general. Dawkins is even better known for his popular books with titles like The God Delusion, and Pinker is a board member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

By contrast, David Sloan Wilson, a proponent of group selection but also an atheist, is much more conciliatory to the idea of religion: even if its factual claims are false, the institution is probably adaptive and beneficial.

Unrelated as these two questions might seem – the arcane scientific dispute on the validity of group selection, and one’s feelings toward religion – the two actually bear very strongly on one another in practice.

After some discussion of the scientific issue, Harwick explains the relationship he sees between these two questions:

Why would Pinker argue that human self-sacrifice isn’t genuine, contrary to introspection, everyday experience, and the consensus in cognitive science?

To admit group selection, for Pinker, is to admit the genuineness of human altruism. Barring some very strange argument, to admit the genuineness of human altruism is to admit the adaptiveness of genuine altruism and broad self-sacrifice. And to admit the adaptiveness of broad self-sacrifice is to admit the adaptiveness of those human institutions that coordinate and reinforce it – namely, religion!

By denying the conceptual validity of anything but gene-level selection, therefore, Pinker and Dawkins are able to brush aside the evidence on religion’s enabling role in the emergence of large-scale human cooperation, and conceive of it as merely the manipulation of the masses by a disingenuous and power-hungry elite – or, worse, a memetic virus that spreads itself to the detriment of its practicing hosts.

In this sense, the New Atheist’s fundamental axiom is irrepressibly religious: what is true must be useful, and what is false cannot be useful. But why should anyone familiar with evolutionary theory think this is the case?

As another example of the tendency Cameron Harwick is discussing, we can consider this post by Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Perhaps the real reason that evolutionary “just-so stories” got a bad name is that so many attempted stories are prima facie absurdities to serious students of the field.

As an example, consider a hypothesis I’ve heard a few times (though I didn’t manage to dig up an example).  The one says:  Where does religion come from?  It appears to be a human universal, and to have its own emotion backing it – the emotion of religious faith.  Religion often involves costly sacrifices, even in hunter-gatherer tribes – why does it persist?  What selection pressure could there possibly be for religion?

So, the one concludes, religion must have evolved because it bound tribes closer together, and enabled them to defeat other tribes that didn’t have religion.

This, of course, is a group selection argument – an individual sacrifice for a group benefit – and see the referenced posts if you’re not familiar with the math, simulations, and observations which show that group selection arguments are extremely difficult to make work.  For example, a 3% individual fitness sacrifice which doubles the fitness of the tribe will fail to rise to universality, even under unrealistically liberal assumptions, if the tribe size is as large as fifty.  Tribes would need to have no more than 5 members if the individual fitness cost were 10%.  You can see at a glance from the sex ratio in human births that, in humans, individual selection pressures overwhelmingly dominate group selection pressures.  This is an example of what I mean by prima facie absurdity.

It does not take much imagination to see that religion could have “evolved because it bound tribes closer together” without group selection in a technical sense having anything to do with this process. But I will not belabor this point, since Eliezer’s own answer regarding the origin of religion does not exactly keep his own feelings hidden:

So why religion, then?

Well, it might just be a side effect of our ability to do things like model other minds, which enables us to conceive of disembodied minds.  Faith, as an emotion, might just be co-opted hope.

But if faith is a true religious adaptation, I don’t see why it’s even puzzling what the selection pressure could have been.

Heretics were routinely burned alive just a few centuries ago.  Or stoned to death, or executed by whatever method local fashion demands.  Questioning the local gods is the notional crime for which Socrates was made to drink hemlock.

Conversely, Huckabee just won Iowa’s nomination for tribal-chieftain.

Why would you need to go anywhere near the accursèd territory of group selectionism in order to provide an evolutionary explanation for religious faith?  Aren’t the individual selection pressures obvious?

I don’t know whether to suppose that (1) people are mapping the question onto the “clash of civilizations” issue in current affairs, (2) people want to make religion out to have some kind of nicey-nice group benefit (though exterminating other tribes isn’t very nice), or (3) when people get evolutionary hypotheses wrong, they just naturally tend to get it wrong by postulating group selection.

Let me give my own extremely credible just-so story: Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote this not fundamentally to make a point about group selection, but because he hates religion, and cannot stand the idea that it might have some benefits. It is easy to see this from his use of language like “nicey-nice,” and his suggestion that the main selection pressure in favor of religion would be likely to be something like being burned at the stake, or that it might just have been a “side effect,” that is, that there was no advantage to it.

But as St. Paul says, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” Yudkowsky believes that religion is just wishful thinking. But his belief that religion therefore cannot be useful is itself nothing but wishful thinking. In reality religion can be useful just as voluntary beliefs in general can be useful.

Irreversible Change

Many plans for human society may be possible in the way that bringing back last Friday is impossible, and yet not be real human possibilities. It is easy for us to see this in the case of plans that correspond to things that have never existed, as for example the sort of plan proposed by people with socialist tendencies. For example, the Tradinista manifesto states:

8. Livelihood should not depend on the market.

Markets are not unjust in themselves, but they become vehicles of exploitation when people must sell their labor-power on the market in order to survive. So, while citizens should be free to engage in market exchange, the polity should ensure that no basic needs – food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, etc. – go unmet, guaranteeing a livelihood independent of the market.

Consider this as it stands. According to this, markets are “vehicles of exploitation” if I have no way to survive without selling my labor-power, that is, without getting a job. “The polity should ensure” that this does not happen. It must guarantee that if I prefer not to get a job, I do not need to get one, and that there remains a way for me to survive without one.

Let’s suppose we live in such a polity, and I declare that I don’t like jobs, and I have decided that I will not get one. What happens now? How does the polity ensure that I can survive, and that I do not need to get a job?

The tradinista response becomes somewhat confused when confronted directly with this question. They do not clearly state that they favor a Basic Income guarantee, but in fact this would be the only reasonable way to implement their requirement without making people who choose not to work into slaves, which would thereby nullify the idea that people are not obliged to work, as one can see after a little thought. We will look at this more closely below.

The problem with the manifesto is not that it favors a basic income. It might well turn out that the idea is reasonable, and that someday it can be implemented in some society. But there is indeed a problem with the claim that this belongs to the very essence of a just society. There is simply no proof, nor good reasons to believe, that this is workable or conducive to human welfare in the real world and in presently existing societies. Suppose the USA were to adopt the above statement from the tradinista manifesto as a constitutional amendment. If they are right that this belongs to the nature of a just society, such an amendment would be commendable.

First, some people may decide to stop working. I might do so myself, given my preference for the useless. “The polity” would be obliged to support these people. Whether given as money or in other forms, that support would be taken from taxes, which would mean that taxes would rise. This might make working for a living more uncomfortable for some others, and some of these might decide to stop working themselves. And so the process might well repeat until the whole of society is at the level of bare subsistence, and many would die, as a result of their borderline subsistence condition.

Now there is no guarantee that we would get this result. But there is no guarantee that we would not, so the tradinista proposal does not make sense as a condition for a just society, unless they view this consequence as acceptable.

All of this is in fact why St. Paul says, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

The tradinista site responds to this use of St. Paul:

“He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” In using this line against the Manifesto Milco puts himself in the tradition of those many who have imagined an apodictic Apostolic anathematization of Left politics; he also demonstrates how little he understands the philosophy embedded in the Manifesto.

Neither the Tradinista Collective nor any other Leftist thinkers imagine that human welfare might be decoupled from human labor. Indeed, in their relentless emphasis on the importance of the common worker, Leftists tend to emphasize just how essential work is to the maintenance and flourishing of society. Leftists do not differ from apologists of capital by devaluing labor – they differ in their view of how labor should be politically governed.

One of the basic insights of the Left, to which the Manifesto is much indebted, is that the absence or near-invisibility of explicit physical coercion does not therefore make the market an arena of authentic human freedom. The Manifesto’s authors take for granted that in labor relations, in debts, and in interactions with the agents of state power, a liberal illusion of free and equal treatment under the law often hides instances of oppression and corruption – instances which liberals can endorse only because their worldview allows them to be overlooked. Once however they are not overlooked, the formal or legal distinction of free and unfree labor becomes only one important distinction among many. To rely solely on that distinction, to “outsource” decisions about the relations of workers to the market, seems to the authors of the Manifesto to be a kind of ethical abdication – a fine illustration of the weakness of moral philosophy in our times.

This is virtually incoherent. Consider again the statement from the manifesto, that markets “become vehicles of exploitation when people must sell their labor-power on the market in order to survive.” What is the alternative? In the response above, they say in a roundabout way, although with much confusion, “yes, people will still have to work, or they won’t be able to survive.” But then either they are being paid for their work, and thus they are selling their labor, or they are not being paid. The implication of these alternatives is obvious: either you sell your labor for money, or you sell yourself into slavery. Your choice.

Chesterton’s argument is that the above sort of argument should only apply to things that have never existed, such as socialism. It should not apply to arrangements that have actually existed in the real world. Times are all alike, so if something has existed in the past, it can exist again.

The response to this is found in the last post. In many cases, neither the original arrangements nor the new arrangements came about by human planning. So we should not find it surprising if human planning cannot revert things to the original arrangement. In this sense, many changes in human society are in fact humanly irreversible.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
    and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
    and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
    there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
    more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
It has already been,
    in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
    nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
    by those who come after them.

This view is one that maintains neither progress nor regress. While there is change, the change is cyclical, and thus overall things remain the same. This is much like Aristotle’s view of the eternity of the world, although Qoheleth presumably accepts the account of Genesis 1.

Since change implies becoming better or becoming worse, and not all changes are normally undone, it is very hard in practice to maintain such a view. Thus we saw in the post linked above that Aristotle in practice believed not only in the progress of the sciences, but that they had basically reached their perfection.

As a similar example, consider this post by P. Edmund Waldstein:

In his letter to Pliny the Younger on the proper procedure in the persecution of Christians the Emperor Trajan agrees with Pliny that no note is to be taken of libelli containing anonymous denunciations, for, “Nam et pessimi exempli nec nostri saeculi est.” (“They set a bad precedent and are not in the spirit of our age.”) Not of our age! How disappointing that a Roman emperor would sink to the level of that puppet of the contemporary self-congratulatory liberal establishment, the Prime Minister of Canada, who famously justified his cabinet selection with the moronic pseudo-reason “because it’s 2015.” I had thought that this species of idiocy only came into being after Vico, but apparently I was wrong.

If “because it’s 2015” is a “moronic pseudo-reason,” the reason for this would be that time is an accidental feature: 2015 is just one year in history, just like the year 1015, and the year 3015. This suggests a view like that of Qoheleth: times are all alike, not ordered according to better and worse. But like Aristotle, P. Edmund betrays the fact that he does not really accept such a view: “I had thought that this species of idiocy only came into being after Vico, but apparently I was wrong.” If times are all alike, all species of idiocy should exist at all times. The instinct to assume that this is not the case results from the implicit belief that things do indeed change, and indeed become better and worse: it is just that P. Edmund implicitly believes that they become worse, not better, and in this case his implicit belief was not borne out by experience.

Qoheleth in fact knows that many people assume that things are becoming worse, and he rejects this view, precisely because of his position that things are circular.  Thus he says,

Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
    For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

It is not from wisdom to ask this, because the former days were just like these ones. There is nothing new under the sun.

But if this question is not according to wisdom, then just as St. Paul says, “I have been a fool! You forced me to it,” so the present discussion forces us to ask in what way former days were better than these, and why, and in what way worse, and why.

The Good I Do Not Want

St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

This happens because the person is divided. Simply speaking I may believe that the thing that I want to do is right; but in another way, I perceive or suppose that “the evil I do not want” is good.

This sort of division can happen in the opposite way as well, so that a person wills the evil that he takes to be good, but cannot do it, because another part of him perceives that it is evil and to be avoided.

Procrastination can work as an example of both cases. Without a doubt procrastinating is often failing to do the good that one wills; but it is also often refusing to do something that would be mostly pointless, and in this sense, it is refusing to do something bad, and thus one could say that “I do not the evil I want, but the good I do not want is what I do.”


Remarriage and What People Know

Earlier I argued, somewhat in passing, that integralism is false. Responding to the point about the Church’s teaching on marriage, P. Edmund Waldstein responds:

Leaving aside questions of the differences between supernatural faith and natural knowledge of the natural law, I would respond to my anonymous friend by saying that a truth need not be “obvious” in every sense for it to be blameworthy for someone not to know it. Consider St. Paul’s famous words in the Epistle to the Romans:

For from heaven is revealed the anger of God against all the impiety and unrighteousness of people who in their unrighteousness suppress the truth; since what can be known about God is plain to them because God made it plain to them. Since the creation of the world, what is his and invisible, his eternal power and divinity, has been perceived by the mind through what he has made, so that they have no excuse; because, while knowing God, they did not glorify or thank him as God, but they were be­guiled in their reasonings and their uncomprehending hearts were made dark. (Romans 1:18-21)

Now, the existence of God is surely not “obvious” to the gentiles in the sense employed by Entirely Useless. Their minds are darkened by sin, and so it is difficult for them to see the truth. But St. Paul teaches that this darkening by sin is blameworthy, and can be overcome. As I wrote in my letter to Cardinal Schönborn:

It is possible for conscience in the sense of the particular judgment about what is good to be in error. It is even possible to be habitually in error about the moral good. But there is something indelible about conscience in the sense of synderesis, the knowledge of the good that God has inscribed in our hearts. Hence moral error always includes an element of “suppressing the truth” (cf. Romans 1:18) that gives witness against us in the depths of the soul.

This is why, contra Fr. Häring, it is important to insist on the objective norm, which the person is capable of recognizing. One can even exert “pressure,” not to make someone act against their conscience, but rather to correct the judgement of their erring conscience by reminding them of the truth that is engraved by synderesis in the depths of their heart.

The idea is that whatever the status of Catholic doctrine in general, people are blameworthy if they do not believe that divorce and remarriage, while the previous spouse remains alive, is wrong, because this is a matter of the natural law.

Whether this is actually the case is debatable. The supplement to St. Thomas’s Summa states:

I answer that, As stated above (Article 1, Replies to 7 and 8), plurality of wives is said to be against the natural law, not as regards its first precepts, but as regards the secondary precepts, which like conclusions are drawn from its first precepts. Since, however, human acts must needs vary according to the various conditions of persons, times, and other circumstances, the aforesaid conclusions do not proceed from the first precepts of the natural law, so as to be binding in all cases, but only in the majority. for such is the entire matter of Ethics according to the Philosopher (Ethic. i, 3,7). Hence, when they cease to be binding, it is lawful to disregard them. But because it is not easy to determine the above variations, it belongs exclusively to him from whose authority he derives its binding force to permit the non-observance of the law in those cases to which the force of the law ought not to extend, and this permission is called a dispensation. Now the law prescribing the one wife was framed not by man but by God, nor was it ever given by word or in writing, but was imprinted on the heart, like other things belonging in any way to the natural law. Consequently a dispensation in this matter could be granted by God alone through an inward inspiration, vouchsafed originally to the holy patriarchs, and by their example continued to others, at a time when it behooved the aforesaid precept not to be observed, in order to ensure the multiplication of the offspring to be brought up in the worship of God. For the principal end is ever to be borne in mind before the secondary end. Wherefore, since the good of the offspring is the principal end of marriage, it behooved to disregard for a time the impediment that might arise to the secondary ends, when it was necessary for the offspring to be multiplied; because it was for the removal of this impediment that the precept forbidding a plurality of wives was framed, as stated above (Article 1).

Now it is true that the argument here is that such a dispensation was granted through “inward inspiration.” But if someone can believe this without being blameworthy, it is likely that someone can also believe that such a dispensation can be given by those who have care for the common good, namely the state. Furthermore, this concerns polygamy as such, and if it is believable that polygamy can be acceptable by dispensation, much more is it believable that remarriage after divorce can be acceptable by dispensation, since most of the harm that is done by polygamy is not evidently done in this case. And St. Paul in fact grants such a dispensation in some cases.

But let us set this aside. Whether or not something is against the natural law, and in what sense, is a technical question. The question which is actually relevant to our discussion is not technical at all. It is this: can someone believe that such a remarriage, while the previous spouse is alive, is acceptable, without being blinded by sin?

And put in this way, it is evident that some people can and do believe this, without being blinded by sin. For example, to assert that no one can believe this without being blinded by sin, implies that virtually all of the Orthodox are blinded by sin, since most of them believe that remarriage is sometimes acceptable. Now it might be reasonable to say that they are “blinded by sin” in a generic sense, if one meant to say that they are blinded by their religion and culture, and that the defects in these resulted from sin, but it would not reasonable to attribute their error to personal sin.

As another example, we can consider the reaction of the disciples in the Gospels to the teaching of Christ:

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

If someone who is blinded by sin is confronted with their error, anger is a plausible reaction, but the kind of questioning in the passage, as well as the surprise indicated in the response that in this case, “It is better not to marry,” indicates rather an honest belief.

P. Edmund might well respond that the situation of the Orthodox, or of the disciples, is very different from the position of Catholics in the present day Catholic Church. And this is indeed the case, and it is quite plausible that many divorced and remarried Catholics are “blinded by sin,” or in other words, that their belief that their behavior is reasonable is a motivated belief, and more so than other beliefs. This is why I noted that Pope Francis may have chosen a singularly bad case to make his point. Nonetheless, these Catholics also live in a culture that finds remarriage acceptable, and in a Church in which the majority of professing members have significant disagreements with the teaching of that Church. So there is little reason to doubt that there are some who are no more blinded than the Orthodox or than the disciples of Christ.

Even if there were not, however, the larger point in that post about integralism, and about doctrinal disagreement within the Church, would remain.

Political Parody

Mark Shea says that says that Fr. Peter West “has chosen to calumniate me,” and includes a screenshot of a Facebook post by Fr. Peter asserting that Shea supports Planned Parenthood, basically because Shea has argued that it would be better to vote for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. Shea responds:

This is precisely my position.  I *reject* Hillary’s support for abortion.  But since Trump (who holds exactly the same position on abortion that Hillary does) is certain to do much graver evil in addition to support for abortion, I believe that a Catholic can, in good faith, vote for her in order to lessen the evil Trump will do.  I will not, myself, be voting for her since I don’t live in a swing state.  But I have no problem at all defending somebody who lives in a swing state who does vote for her and would, in fact, urge people to do so (bearing in mind that some cannot, in conscience, do so).  The only thing I would argue is that support for Trump simply cannot be squared with the Catholic faith.

The irony of Fr. West’s despicable calumny is that Trump is on record supporting Planned Parenthood.  And therefore it is Fr. West, who is, in fact, supporting Planned Parenthood since his candidate does.

This is the intractable problem the “prolife” Trumpkin faces.  I do not, in fact, support a single evil Hillary supports–including Planned Parenthood.  And I have said so, repeatedly.  Fr. West, very simply, lies when he says I do support Planned Parenthood and should apologize and retract that lie.  I am acting in strict obedience to Benedict’s teaching.

But a Trump supporter like Fr. West really does commit himself to support and defend every evil Trump wills to do, since Trump agrees with Hillary on every evil she support, plus evils she does not advocate such as torture and the deliberate murder of women and children civilians.

As I stated in the comments there, this looks like a parody of political argument. Shea argues that he does not support Planned Parenthood, even if Hillary does, because he would only support voting for her in order to avoid Trump. But this does not prevent him from saying, “And therefore it is Fr. West, who is, in fact, supporting Planned Parenthood since his candidate does.” And likewise he says that Fr. West “support[s] and defend[s] every evil Trump wills to do,” while saying that “I do not, in fact, support a single evil Hillary supports.”

Obviously, Fr. West would be likely to say exactly the same things while changing the names involved. So it is not reasonable for Shea to accuse Fr. West of lies or of calumny, unless he is willing to be accused of these things himself, since as St. Paul says in Romans, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

Some readers pointed out to Shea that the situations are identical, and that he is engaging in exactly the behavior that he condemns here. Shea responds by doubling down on his position:

A reader writes regarding Fr. West’s calumny:

All due respect, sir, but do you not commit the same error as he does by saying that your accuser supports Planned Parenthood, torture, abortion, etc. because his candidate does? In my opinion, you should remove those statements from this column to make yourself unworthy of any blame in this.

No. I don’t. Because our positions are asymmetrical. Trump is, very obviously, the greater evil. He supports all the evils Hillary does and then some. My sole reason for saying it is legitimate to vote for her is to lessen evil and I have *facts* on my side to show that this is case. The “prolife” Trumpkin’s sole reason for backing Trump is that he is a Republican and Republicans are mystically less evil than Democrats Because Abortion (even though Trump’s views of abortion are identical with Hillary’s.) Because of this I am free to reject and denounce every evil thing Hillary supports–and I have done so repeatedly.

The paradox of the “prolife” Trumpkin’s position is that he must, to support this wicked man, remain silent about or defend every evil thing Trump says and does. This is exactly what Fr. West and countless other Trumpkins have done and will keep doing. Beyond a vague “he’s a flawed candidate”, Fr. West has been mum about Trump’s many outrages or has gone to bat for him, posting standard Muslim-hate boilerplate. And, of course, he has lied that I support Planned Parenthood when he knows perfectly well I have denounced PP times without number.

Of course, if Fr. West “has lied that I support Planned Parenthood when he knows perfectly well I have denounced PP times without number,” then Shea has lied that West supports Planned Parenthood when he knows perfectly well that West has denounced Planned Parenthood times without number, which is doubtless just as true; in fact he was denouncing Planned Parenthood in the very act of accusing Shea of supporting it.

“Our positions are asymmetrical,” in the sense that is relevant, is nearly completely false here. Of course West supports some things that Shea does not, and Shea supports some things that West does not. But in every relevant way, they will be prepared to make perfectly symmetrical statements; just as Shea says that “Trump is, very obviously, the greater evil,” West will no doubt say that “Hillary is, very obviously, the greater evil,” and so on.

In the end, Shea’s argument comes down to saying, “The positions are asymmetrical, because I am right and he is wrong.” But this itself is symmetrical, since West no doubt believes that he is right and Shea is wrong.


Beyond Redemption

While discussing the nature of moral obligation, I raised this objection to an Aristotelian account of ethics: if the “obliging” or “ought” part of moral claims simply means that it is necessary to do something for the sake of an end, then someone who does not desire the end does not need the means, or in other words, such people will be exempt from moral obligations.

I would not argue that this argument is completely false. In the last three posts,  I responded to the argument that Aristotelian ethics is too flexible, not by saying that it is not flexible, but by saying that it is right in being flexible. In a similar way, I do not deny that the above argument about means and end follows in some way. But the way in which it follows is not so unfitting as is supposed.

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates argues that all men desire the good, and that no one desires evil:

Soc. Well then, for my own sake as well as for yours, I will do my very best; but I am afraid that I shall not be able to give you very many as good: and now, in your turn, you are to fulfil your promise, and tell me what virtue is in the universal; and do not make a singular into a plural, as the facetious say of those who break a thing, but deliver virtue to me whole and sound, and not broken into a number of pieces: I have given you the pattern.

Men. Well then, Socrates, virtue, as I take it, is when he, who desires the honourable, is able to provide it for himself; so the poet says, and I say too-

Virtue is the desire of things honourable and the power of attaining them.

Soc. And does he who desires the honourable also desire the good?

Men. Certainly.

Soc. Then are there some who desire the evil and others who desire the good? Do not all men, my dear sir, desire good?

Men. I think not.

Soc. There are some who desire evil?

Men. Yes.

Soc. Do you mean that they think the evils which they desire, to be good; or do they know that they are evil and yet desire them?

Men. Both, I think.

Soc. And do you really imagine, Meno, that a man knows evils to be evils and desires them notwithstanding?

Men. Certainly I do.

Soc. And desire is of possession?

Men. Yes, of possession.

Soc. And does he think that the evils will do good to him who possesses them, or does he know that they will do him harm?

Men. There are some who think that the evils will do them good, and others who know that they will do them harm.

Soc. And, in your opinion, do those who think that they will do them good know that they are evils?

Men. Certainly not.

Soc. Is it not obvious that those who are ignorant of their nature do not desire them; but they desire what they suppose to be goods although they are really evils; and if they are mistaken and suppose the evils to be good they really desire goods?

Men. Yes, in that case.

Soc. Well, and do those who, as you say, desire evils, and think that evils are hurtful to the possessor of them, know that they will be hurt by them?

Men. They must know it.

Soc. And must they not suppose that those who are hurt are miserable in proportion to the hurt which is inflicted upon them?

Men. How can it be otherwise?

Soc. But are not the miserable ill-fated?

Men. Yes, indeed.

Soc. And does any one desire to be miserable and ill-fated?

Men. I should say not, Socrates.

Soc. But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no one, Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and possession of evil?

Men. That appears to be the truth, Socrates, and I admit that nobody desires evil.

In a similar way, St. Thomas says that all desire happiness in general, even if not according to its specific account:

I answer that, Happiness can be considered in two ways. First according to the general notion of happiness: and thus, of necessity, every man desires happiness. For the general notion of happiness consists in the perfect good, as stated above (3,4). But since good is the object of the will, the perfect good of a man is that which entirely satisfies his will. Consequently to desire happiness is nothing else than to desire that one’s will be satisfied. And this everyone desires. Secondly we may speak of Happiness according to its specific notion, as to that in which it consists. And thus all do not know Happiness; because they know not in what thing the general notion of happiness is found. And consequently, in this respect, not all desire it.

Of course there is something circular about desiring “that one’s will be satisfied,” because this means that there is something that one already wills. And according to what St. Thomas says here, that thing would be “the good” as the object of the will, and in particular “the perfect good.” So just as Socrates affirms that all desire the good and no one desires evil, so St. Thomas affirms that all desire the perfect good.

In this sense, we could argue that the original argument is moot, because all desire the end. Consequently all must choose the means which are necessary for the sake of the end, and thus no one is exempt from moral obligations.

This response is correct as far as it goes, but it is perhaps not a sufficiently complete account. While discussing expected utility theory, I pointed out that the theory assigns value only to events or situations, and not to actions or choices as such. We looked at this same distinction more directly in the post on doing and making. The fact of this distinction implies that occasionally it can happen that “doing good” and “causing good” can appear to come apart. Thus it might seem to me in a particular case that the world will be better off as a whole if I do something evil.

St. Paul discusses this idea:

But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), “Let us do evil so that good may come”? Their condemnation is deserved!

The idea is that God brings good out of the evil that we do, as for example in this case by manifesting the justice of God. But this suggests that the world is better off on account of the evil that we do. And someone might argue that it follows that we are not doing evil at all. St. Paul’s response is that “their condemnation is deserved.” It is not entirely evident whether he refers to people who do evil so that good may come, or to the people who assert that this is St. Paul’s position.

But either way, one thing is clear. “Doing evil so that good may come” is doing evil, not doing good; that is simply a tautology. And this is true even if good actually comes from it, and even if the world is better off as a whole when someone does evil.

This implies a difficulty for Socrates’s argument that everyone must desire good. For sometimes one good thing comes into conflict with another, so that both good and evil are present. And in that situation, a person may desire something which is evil, knowing it to be evil, but not because it is evil, but on account of the conjoined good. In the case we are considering, that would mean that someone might desire to do evil, not because it is doing evil, but still knowing that it is doing evil, on account of the good that comes from it. And it seems clear that this sometimes happens.

To the extent that someone does this, they will begin to become evil, in the sense and manner that this is possible, because they will begin to have an evil will. Of course, their will never becomes perfectly evil, because they only wish to do evil for the sake of good, not for the sake of evil, and presumably without that motivation they would still prefer to do good. Nonetheless, just as in other matters, a person can become accustomed to seeking one kind of good and neglecting another, and in this matter, the person becomes accustomed to seeking some good in the world, while neglecting his own good as a person.

Pope Benedict XVI, quoted in the linked post of the goodness of the will, speaks of the limit of such a process:

There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.

It is likely an exaggeration to suggest that a person can become so evil, in this sense, that it is literally impossible for them to return to goodness, so that “the destruction of good would be irrevocable.” Bad habits are acquired by individual actions, and it is presumably possible in principle for a person to acquire the opposite habits by an opposite series of actions. But it might be the case that for a few people, such a return is only a theoretical possibility, and not a reasonable possibility in practice.

But let us assume a case where it is entirely impossible. Pope Benedict points to the Catholic doctrine of hell as illustrating this case. Satan and the damned, in this sense, would be understood to be irrevocably evil. There is no way for them to return to the good.

And this is the case that we need to consider in order to consider the force of the original objection. Are Satan and the damned thought to be exempt from moral obligation? In a significant sense, they are. No one would bother himself about the fact that Satan is not repenting and doing good; the horror is precisely that this is impossible. Satan does not choose the means, a life of virtue, precisely because he is no longer interested in the end, at least not in any relevant sense.

The very extremity of this example shows that the objection is not so problematic after all. It would not apply to a real person unless they had already descended to a condition far below the human one. Real people continue to maintain some interest in good, and in doing good, no matter how much evil they do, and thus morality is relevant to them. Thus for example even serial killers sometimes express a certain amount of remorse, and show that they wish they could have had other desires and lived better lives.

Finally, even for someone unchangeably evil, doing evil remains doing evil, since the notion of the good comes before the notion of moral obligation.  But it is true that obligations as such would become irrelevant to them.