A few weeks ago, Paul sent me to a lengthy TCS article by philosopher Edward Feser on “The Metaphysics of Conservatism.” The article consists of some downright disturbing discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of the various forms of modern conservatism. Feser clearly grounds the core of conservatism in Plato’s mystical metaphysics and intrinisicist epistemology. Since I’ve heard the critiques of neo-conservatism from Objectivist scholars like Yaron Brook and John Lewis, that’s not news to me. Still, I was pleased to hear those ideas from the horse’s mouth.
After some lengthy discussion of philosophy, the author distinguishes between three kinds of modern conservatism: Realist Conservatism, Reductionist Conservatism, and Anti-Realist Conservatism.
“Realist Conservatism” … affirms the existence of an objective order of forms or universals that define the natures of things, including human nature, and what it seeks to conserve are just those institutions reflecting a recognition and respect for this objective order. Since human nature is, on this view, objective and universal, long-standing moral and cultural traditions are bound to reflect it and thus have a presumption in their favor.
Reductionist Conservatism … might be defined as a variety of conservatism that agrees with Realist Conservatism in affirming that there is such a thing as human nature and that it is more or less fixed, but which would ground this affirmation, not in anything like an eternal realm of Forms, but rather in, say, certain contingent facts about human biology, or perhaps in the laws of economics or in a theory of cultural evolution. The Reductionist Conservative is, accordingly, more likely to look to empirical science for inspiration than to philosophy or theology. He is also bound to see grey in at least some areas where the Realist Conservative sees black and white, since facts about economics, human biology, and the like, while very stable, are not quite as fixed or implacable as the Forms. But he is less likely to see grey than is the Anti-Realist Conservative…
[The Anti-Realist Conservative] might be characterized as someone doubtful that any relatively fixed moral or political principles can be read off even from scientific or economic facts about the human condition. Whereas Realist and Reductionist Conservatives value tradition because there is at least a presumption that it reflects human nature, the Anti-Realist Conservative values it merely because it provides for stability and order.
As you might have noticed, this division of conservatives is itself highly Platonic, in that these three types of conservatism are defined in terms of Humean deviation from Platonism. Absolutism varies inversely with empiricism. Still, the categories do seem to capture the varieties of intrinsicism and subjectivism found in modern conservatism. Although I’m no expert on such matters, it does correspond to much of what I’ve seen from conservative intellectuals over the years.
As for the substance of his argument that modern conservatism is rooted in ancient thought, let me indicate just some of the mental gymnastics required to make that case.
For example, the article basically ignores the quasi-communist totalitarian dictatorship of The Republic, even though Plato regarded that state as the natural outgrowth of his mystical metaphysics and intuitionist epistemology — and rightly so. As otherworldly entities, the Forms will be distant from the thoughts of most people. Lacking the special training of philosophy, ordinary people are easily deceived by the imperfect, changing, and sordid appearances of this world — not to mention led astray by their passions. So a good society would have to be rule paternalistically by a special caste of those truly in touch with the Forms — conservative intellectuals, no doubt. Although the details of Plato’s ideal state — such as women, children, and property in common — would be rejected by modern conservatives, the basic ideal of a rigidly paternalistic state flows directly from Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology. Feser ignores that rather large element of Plato’s philosophy, perhaps unwilling to admit just how paternalistic his conservative ideal would be.
Even worse, Feser grossly misrepresents Aristotle’s philosophy so as to claim him as a source for modern theocratic politics. For example, he attempts to use Aristotle’s hylomorphism (i.e. the idea that substances are unions of form and matter) to justify a total ban on abortion, euthanasia, and the like. When he makes this argument, he’s already mentioned that “Aristotle also emphasized the idea that a substance — a statue, a tree, a human being — is a composite of matter and form… And the soul, on Aristotle’s view, is simply the form of a living body. A human person, therefore, is on his view a composite of soul (or form) and body (or living matter).” That’s accurate. Yet consider what he does with those ideas:
… a person, being on the view in question a composite of soul (or form) and body (or matter), cannot be identified with either his psychological characteristics alone or his bodily characteristics alone. Moreover, since the soul is just the form of a living human body, for a living human body to exist at all is for it to have a soul, so that there can be no such thing as a living human body — whether that of a fetus, an infant, a normal human adult or a severely brain damaged adult — which does not have a soul, and which does not count as a person. For while even a human being who is damaged or not fully formed might not perfectly exhibit the form of the human body (any more than a hastily drawn triangle perfectly manifests the form of triangularity), he nevertheless does exhibit it, otherwise his body wouldn’t count as a living human body at all (just as a hastily drawn triangle is still a triangle, however imperfect). One corollary of this is that every single living human body, within the womb or without, severely damaged or not, counts as the body of a person and as a being having all the rights of a person, including the right to life.
The first sentence and a half of that quote is accurate. The rest is a logical leap to Platonic and Christian garbage. Perhaps most obviously, the claims about damaged or immature humans “not perfectly exhibit[ing] the form of the human body” is a highly Platonic analysis — and quite inconsistent with Aristotle’s approach. Also, Aristotle would not even recognize all the talk about a fetus as a “person” with “all the rights of a person, including the right to life,” since he had no concept of “rights.” Yet even if we make some allowances on those scores, nothing in Aristotle’s views about the metaphysical nature of the human organism supports the notion that abortion and/or euthanasia are morally wrong. If anything, Aristotle’s discussions of these matters in De Anima (DA) or Generation of Animals (GA) suggests precisely the opposite view.
As already mentioned, Aristotle does regard the soul as the form of a living human body. Yet souls are not limited to human beings, as in Christian dogma and as implied in the above passage. Rather, the soul is the form of any living body, whether human, animal, or even plant. Different kinds of living organisms have different kinds of souls, differentiated by natural capacities. So plants have a “nutritive soul” of growth and reproduction. Animals have a “sensitive soul” also capable of perception and locomotion. Humans have even more, namely the “rational soul” required for abstract thought. (See DA 2:3)
Since souls are not uniquely human, the mere possession of a soul cannot confer any special moral standing upon all and only humans, as Feser implies. Moreover, nor can the rational soul possessed by only humans do so, since not all humans have the capacity to reason. Some humans will only have a sensitive soul. Others are limited to a nutritive soul. As pertains to abortion, Aristotle explicitly says the soul of a human must develop from nutritive to sensitive to rational, albeit with some subtleties about actual versus potential. (See GA 2:1.) As for euthanasia, clearly a person suffering from degenerative brain disease may regress from a rational to sensitive to nutritive soul. That’s why they’re called “vegetables”!
Given Aristotle’s analysis of the metaphysical nature of organisms, it’s hardly surprising that he was no opponent of abortion, but rather allowed it in the early stages of pregnancy due to his metaphysical views. In his discussion of the best state in the Politics, he writes:
As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live, but that on the ground of an excess in the number of children, if the established customs of the state forbid this (for in our state population has a limit), no child is to be exposed, but when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation. (Politics 7:16, emphasis added)
In contrast, Aristotle is opposed to suicide, but for reasons which have nothing to do with the nature of the human soul. (For more details on Aristotle on both abortion and euthanasia, including detailed textual references, see this helpful paper.)
In short, by leaping from hylomorphism about humans to moral and legal opposition to abortion and euthanasia, Edward Feser is engaged in that all-too-common practice in philosophy of “making stuff up.” (Yes, that’s technical terminology.) Even worse, he’s obviously relying upon the ignorance of his audience to do so: Although his claims about Aristotle are little more than logical leaps based upon gross misinterpretations, few of his readers are likely to know those technical details of Aristotle’s philosophy. Thus Edward Feser, like the philosopher-kings of Plato’s paternalistic totalitarianism, is perfectly willing to engage in whatever deceptions necessary to induce the rest of us lower beings to accept the rule of conservative intellectuals.