Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Francis Canavan, S.J.





My letter to Francis Canavan, S.J., in reply to this. His reply to me is here.

Anthony Flood

August 3, 2011


March 22, 1994

Dear Father Canavan:

Sister Susan handed me your essay, “Knowing What Is Good,” more than a month ago [February 3, 1994], but I have not been able to compose a response until now.  Thank you for answering my question at such length!  Perhaps our letters can be the forum that the Q&A period could not have been.  The numbers refer to your paragraphs.

1. As I turned forty last year, I cannot remember the last time someone referred to me as “a young man.”  I doubt there will be a next time.

2. You employ “good” as (i) a substantive (“human goods,” “derived goods,” “basic goods”); (ii) an adjective, (“they are good”), which implies a grading standard; and (iii) a transcendental, which enters our mind as a first principle.  My question was unfortunately as undifferentiated as your answer.  “Do we know what is good by intuition?” should be met by, “What do you mean by ‘good’?” and “What do you mean by ‘intuition’?”

3. My original question intended more than it expressed, namely: do we intuit the good the way Etienne Gilson said we intuit being?  That is, can we “see” the good (with that remarkable organ, “the mind’s eye”) just as we can (allegedly) “see” being?  Following Bernard Lonergan contra Gilson, I hold that we do not intuit either being or the good in that sense.  Rather, being is what is sensibly given, intelligently grasped, and reasonably affirmed. Similarly, the good is what is experienced as the satisfaction of desire; intelligently understood as the order that makes regular satisfaction possible; and reasonably affirmed when one prefers the good of order to a satisfaction that competes with it.  The good is being as “appetible”: if there were no desire, nothing would be good.

4.  Your understatement (“‘the good’ . . . undoubtedly has feelings associated with it”) reflects an understandable aversion to subjectivism.  Its objectivistic rival, however, does not anchor its conception of the good in desire and so is equally deficient.  Putting the definiendum in the definiens (i.e, the good is the object of intellect recognizing what is good) renders the latter somewhat vacuous.

5. Apart from appetite, eating is but a condition or function of the continuing existence of matter in the form of an organism.  Why is such continuance “good”?  The parts of my body do not care whether they are organically related or not, but I do.  This life-or-death alternative has meaning for me.  But I see no warrant for calling “good” the merely factual state of affairs that fulfills conditions if one does not also take into account the satisfaction that a sentient being can take in it.

6. The passive voice (“are organized for”) obscures agency, and the occurrence of four cognate terms (“organisms,” “organized,” “organic,” “organs”) is about as helpful as defining “good” in terms of “good.”  If the organizing agency is deaf, dumb, and blind Nature, then the fulfillment of the conditions of organic life is but a sequence of events.  If conditions are fulfilled or unfulfilled, so what? Your metaphor of parts “serving” wholes is no more than that.

7. It is trivially true that if “an organism isn’t alive, it isn’t an organism.”  From this truism you move to a metaphysical truth: bonum et ens convertuntur.  But quod gratis asseritur gratis negatur.  To move from “x is alive” to “It is good that x is alive,” one needs more premises than you have provided.

8. What does “all things that are . . . tend to be rather than not to be” mean?  What already exists can tend to be thus-and-so, but not “tend to exist” simpliciter.  What does not exist at all cannot “tend” at all, for tendency presupposes existence.  Then you leap to: “That is why the universe continues to exist.”  Are you trading on a notion of “metaphysical inertia”?  If so, what is the argument?

Only God exists by nature; without Him the universe would not continue to exist. (Temporal continuance is a contingency that invites inference to His existence.)  The beings that comprise the universe do not continue to exist “by nature”: their natures are the sets of powers they exercise.  If that exercise presupposes continuance, and I believe it does, it cannot account for their continuance. (If A presupposes B, A cannot explain B.)  Your conclusion (“therefore”) is a non seguitur.  Only if things exist can they express their tendencies.  The meaning of “natural tendency to exist” eludes me.

9. You describe the organic nature of a tree, “all of whose functions serve its life,” but why callest thou that “good”? Both the decay and flourishing of a tree are but natural events that may be good or bad for a sentient being who has desires a tree’s wood can satisfy.  We impute the goodness of the anticipated satisfaction to a factor of its production, in this case, the tree.  Apart from any such anticipation, however, I see neither warrant nor point in ascribing goodness to a tree that “has no subjective urges.”

10. A tree is the result of some natural processes and a component of others.  So are the chemical, atomic, and subatomic entities comprising the tree’s matter.  Why are any of these good?  I understand how a person might have the planting of a tree as a goal, but not how a tree can have a goal, and even less how something can have as its goal what it already has (i.e., life).  If you mean by “goal” something other than “conscious aim,” e.g., any passively achieved result of a natural process, then you have evacuated the word of moral interest.

11. The reason we “cannot say” that is that it makes no sense to ascribe “indifference” to entities that cannot care.  If we allow such usage, however, then we might say not only that trees are “indifferent” to life and death, but also that all physical things, qua physical, are “indifferent” to the universal entropy you allude to.  (If, as you say, a “unifying thrust to live” drives organic things, does a “unifying conatus to cohere” energize nonorganic matter?)

12. The alternative you suggest is false: besides the fact of the tree’s life and “the way we feel about it,” there is its possible utility.  A tree is neither good nor bad unless it provides or impedes some satisfaction.  The same is true of the micro-organisms gorging themselves on the tree.  (If a tree is “diseased,” is that not just the self-assertion of some bacterium’s “unifying thrust to live”?)

13.  I see little continuity between this paragraph and its predecessors.  A good of the mind, e.g., knowledge, can flow into the good of order, and the good of order can ground schedules of satisfaction of desire.  But what is the moral relevance of your organic functionalism to either level of good?  The self-refutation of skepticism is not a theory of knowledge.

14. One who argues for the centrality of desire to the good has no need of such sophistry.

15. The terms “human nature” and “our nature’s true goods” do have real reference.  If the following propositions are unintelligible, as I think they are, they cannot be true: (a) things “tend to be” rather than not be, (b) this “tending” is their natural good, (c) organic things express this tendency via a “thrust to live,” and (d) this ontology can ground human, i.e., moral, goods.  Yet they are apparently at the heart of your position.

Thanks again for thinking enough of my question to essay an answer to it.  I trust nothing I have written here causes you to regret having done so.  I welcome any reply may wish to give it.

Very truly yours,

Anthony Flood

Canavan Page