Burley's Principle and Moral Integration

Douglas P. McManaman
Date: 6/5/2018
Reproduced with Permission

One of the most important insights central to plausible reasoning concerns the systemic nature of our best estimates about what is true. Truth is systematic; it is a complex whole whose parts are tightly interconnected and interdependent. The limited sets of data through which we formulate our best estimates about particular matters (scientific, economic, political, moral, etc.) is highly information sensitive. These sets of data form a systemic whole in which the parts, i.e., the data or pieces of information, are so interdependent that a change in one part will require a change in another. In other words, new information that is inconsistent with much of the information in our current set of data can do a great deal to upset the neatly stacked applecart of our conceptual framework and cause us to make adjustments, that is, to dismiss information that is inconsistent with the new data. The history of science is an illustration of this process.

This fact underpins a point made by medieval logician Walter Burley (ca. 1275 to ca. 1345) who said: "When a false contingent proposition is posited, one can prove any false proposition that is compatible with it" [1]. As Nicholas Rescher points out: "...Burley's Principle has far-reaching implications. Given the interconnectedness of facts, any and all fact-contradicting assumptions are pervasively destabilizing. As far as the logic of the situation is concerned, you cannot change anything in the domain of fact without endangering everything. Once you embark on a contrary-to-fact assumption, then as far as pure logic is concerned, all the usual bets are off. Changing one fact always requires changing others as well: the fabric of facts is an integral unit, a harmonious system where nothing can be altered without affecting something else" [2].

I believe there is a moral parallel here; what is true in the cognitive domain is true in the moral domain. The human person is a single entity, but a morally complex whole. The human person is a moral system, so to speak. Just as a contrary-to-fact assumption has far reaching implications, that is, as new information inconsistent with our current set of data requires us to readjust that set in order to restore consistency and establish maximal plausibility, so too something similar takes place within the fabric of a person's complex moral nature; certain actions are inconsistent with the overall demands of right reason, and making peace with such actions has far reaching implications.

There are four faculties or powers that belong to the human person that are open to being disposed to a certain course of action; other faculties are not so open. For example, there is nothing I can do about my poor eyesight or poor hearing; no moral choice I make will improve my vision, hearing, or any other sense - all I can do is rely on technology to help improve them. In the same way, there is no moral choice one can make that will increase one's height or fertility, for example. But the human person does have a number of emotions (sensitive appetitive reactions) which can be disposed in a certain way as a result of certain decisions, not to mention the specifically human faculties of intellect and will. Achieving a good human life is principally about disposing these faculties so that they readily conform to the demands of right reason; this is what it means to cultivate the virtues.

There is in everyone a fundamental drive towards self-preservation. I see my life as fundamentally good. However, there is more to human life than mere existence. Human nature is a manifold that embraces a diversity of intelligible and incommensurable goods that are loved for their own sake, and it is the totality of these intelligible human goods that constitute human well-being. I will my own fullness of being necessarily; but I have to choose to will your good as I will my own good. The latter is not natural, but the former is natural. Without choosing to will your good as I will my own good, I cannot achieve the well-being I naturally desire for myself, because a constituent part of that manifold that embraces a diversity of intelligible human goods is benevolent friendship and the common good of the civil community. Hence, we naturally love ourselves, but we do not naturally love ourselves well. To love oneself well is a matter of choosing well, and that is a moral achievement that does not happen overnight.

Returning to the cognitive domain once again, for me to introduce an inconsistency into a consistent set of data is to bring about a host of cognitive repercussions whose reverberations extend out even beyond my ability to understand at the moment. Similarly, for me to choose a course of action that is contrary to virtue, a course of action that is inconsistent with the good of moral integrity (integration), is to initiate a change that will reverberate throughout the moral system that I am. That vice will not be isolated, because the intellect, the will, and the entire network of human emotions - although distinct - are not separate powers, but are interconnected, for they are the emotions of a single unified entity, a human person.

A disordered appetite is fundamentally a disordered love of self, but there are a number of different appetites: the concupiscible (spawning the emotions of love, desire, pleasure, hate, aversion, and sorrow), the irascible (spawning the emotions of hope, despair, fear, daring, and anger), and the rational appetite or will. The defect of temperance, or indulgence, which can be a disordered appetite for the pleasures of food, for example, is fundamentally a disordered love of self; so too is a disordered appetite for drink or the pleasures of sex. But so too is impatience, which is also a disordered love of satisfaction, and so too pusillanimity, which is a defect of magnanimity, rooted as it is in a disordered love of ease. Human beings are differently disposed, that is, they have different temperaments; someone may not have a disordered appetite for food, but a disordered appetite for "peace and quiet", or a disordered appetite for praise, etc. Whatever a person's specific difficulties, at the root of it is disordered self-love. The moral life, from this angle, is about bringing harmony, order, or consistency within a set of elements, so to speak, that is, harmony between the various elements of the self, just as the point of reasoning well is about bringing consistency or systemic coherence to the entire set of data at our disposal, in order to achieve maximal plausibility.

A disordered appetite for food is a vice of the concupiscible appetite, whose perfection is the virtue of temperance, not justice, nor fortitude, nor prudence. But this does not mean that justice, the virtue that perfects the will, is unaffected. A person might be good willed and hate injustice, but love food or sex inordinately. By virtue of the systemic unity of the human person, this vice, which belongs to a particular sensitive appetite, will nevertheless affect the rational appetite (the will), because the decision not to restrain one's love of self on the level of the sensitive appetites is itself an act of the rational appetite. The will permits this disordered love of self. It may take a while for the effects of this vice to seriously affect the will just as a tear in the fabric takes a while to enlarge, or as it often takes a while for the implications of a piece of inconsistent data to be drawn out explicitly, but if a person neglects to address that moral inconsistency, he may find himself making choices that years earlier were unthinkable to him.

Fortitude is the virtue that affects the emotions of the irascible appetite. But it takes fortitude to restrain the concupiscible appetite, specifically the emotions of love, desire, satisfaction as they bear upon the most vehement pleasures. Moreover, it takes a just will, one responsive to the debts owed to others (i.e., the debt to speak the truth, the treat another in a way that respects his/her status as equal in dignity, etc.) if one is to rise above the emotions of fear or sorrow in order to exercise proper restraint over the concupiscible appetite; so the degree of one's sense of justice is the measure of one's fortitude and temperance. Also, fortitude is more than daring - daring can be reckless; hence, true fortitude requires good judgment (prudence). But to carry out a brave action that is truly good requires a love of the good as such, not just one's private or individual good. For example, if I am risking my life to save another, I am both brave and just, but I am also temperate, because that risk to my life is a risk of a serious loss of pleasures - the danger I face might seriously compromise my ability to enjoy the rest of my life, if it does not kill me.

The moral life is a fabric; if I lie to another (a vice contrary to justice) in order to create conditions that are convenient, not only do I lack trust in divine providence, I love my own convenience more than the equal status of the other - for I have violated his right to be treated in a way that respects his status as equal in dignity to me. To lie in order to create conditions conducive to the overall good of an institution or the society at large is also to act without an adequate sense of one's cognitive limitations - likely rooted in a defect of humility, which is a disordered love of one's excellence; for it is impossible to trace all the trajectories that will result from such a lie, but one acts as if one can, or as if there are no repercussions because they are unseen at this time. The thief too is willing to subordinate another's right that others respect his property as well as his status as equal in dignity, all for the sake of the thief's satisfaction of his desire for that property, however small is the amount. All this constitutes a disordered love of self. But what exactly do I love excessively that permits me to violate justice to that extent? At the root of it may be my own piece of mind, or financial gain, or a love of praise, or a love of physical gratification of some kind, etc.

A disordered will also affects the intellect in a number of ways. Excessive passion concentrates the mind, narrowing it on the satisfaction of the passion in question. For example, excessive hunger tends to limit the mind's attention to the alleviation of that hunger so that it becomes very difficult to think of anything else. Fear does the same thing: the mind is concentrated on ways to protect the self from the perceived threat. A life centered around the satisfaction of the passions is cognitively limited in unnatural ways, nor is such a person likely to be open to a life directed to the various kinds of justice, which involves others and a consideration of their rights and my obligations to them. The excessively passionate are relatively indifferent to the common good of the civil community as a whole, but they are not indifferent to whatever has relevance to the self and the satisfaction of the passions. This of course has political implications; for such people are disposed to vote not necessarily for the party that promises to establish conditions that will promote the good of the entire civil community, but the party that best serves their private interests, for it is their private good that has become the narrow focus of their lives.

The intellect is affected by a disordered will in another way: if I love my private good more than the good as such, then my readiness to conform to "what is" (the real) will be compromised - truth is a conformity to the real. What I want to be true takes priority over what actually is true. At this point we begin to erect different confidence thresholds for the truths we want or do not want to believe in. I will not allow myself to see what I do not wish to see, and so I will demand an inordinate amount of evidence before I acknowledge that I have been wrong, or that a certain course of action is the best one. I also establish very low confidence thresholds for what I want to be true, and what I want to be true is that which is most congenial to what it is I want, which is inordinately directed to the self. [3] In this way, character shapes the intellect. It can darken the mind or permit the mind the freedom it needs to pursue what is true.

To sum up my main point, a failure to restrain the emotions of the pleasure appetite, whether that is sexual pleasure, or the pleasure of food and drink, or the pleasures of an easy life, etc., brings about a disorder that extends beyond the concupiscible appetites to include the irascible emotions, the will, as well as the intellect, analogous to Burley's insight that when "a false contingent proposition is posited, one can prove any false proposition that is compatible with it". To introduce vice into one's life, no matter how small, and making peace with that vice, begins a slow process of moral unraveling - other vices consistent with it are gradually spawned. That unraveling can be contained, but it will take some energy to bring that moral unraveling to a halt. The price is an underlying conflict of conscience that one must live with for the rest of one's life - and this can be tiring. The only way out of this is not to make peace with that vice, to renounce it, that is, moral repentance.

Concluding Thoughts

Moral unravelling (dis-integration) has very real social repercussions. Disordered love of self and a limited ability to restrain one's passions will have obvious economic repercussions; it will affect a person's work ethic, his sense of responsibility, his ability to make sacrifices for the sake of the organization for whom he/she works, his or her ability to be trusted by others, not to mention the obvious social consequences, such as the stability of a person's marriage, and the emotional life of the children should that marriage fall apart, which in turn has very costly social and economic consequences impossible to trace in all their details.

That is why belittling the serious treatment of specific areas of ethics, such as sexual ethics - derisively designated as "pelvic morality" by many social justice advocates - is misleading and not true to the facts. There is no doubt that there are more serious and pressing moral matters than certain issues of sexual ethics, and sometimes it is more prudent to focus at the moment on moral battles that can be won and use the time and resources at our disposal to carefully lay down the conditions that will permit a victory in the distant future. And indeed, corruption in high places is very serious, far more serious than a 14 year old adolescent boy tempted to masturbate or two teenagers fornicating in the backseat of a car. There is, however, no such thing as merely "pelvic" immorality. Sexual emotions involve every other faculty of the human person and affect persons as a whole. To be unconcerned with sexual morality for the sake of more important moral issues is to overlook the unified fabric of the human person and the systemic nature of truth, that is, the single and coherent set of cognitive moral data. It is always difficult to provide a sufficient explanation for certain contemporary social phenomena, such as the difficulty entrepreneurs are currently experiencing in filling job openings that demand a rigorous work ethic, reliability, a sense of justice, common sense, and prudence, etc., but it is more difficult to believe that the moral permissiveness of the past 50 years has nothing to do with many of these social difficulties we are facing with our people. The focus of political reform has typically been limited to the level of the political system, but political organizations are made up of individual persons, and evil exists on the level of the system only because evil principally exists on the level of the person, who is a moral system in himself. Genuine political reform cannot neglect this primary level if we expect to make any social progress.