Forthcoming in Colin Marshall (ed.), Comparative Metaethics: Neglected Perspectives on the Foundations of Morality, Routledge. Please cite final published version.
Species and the Good in Anne Conway’s Metaethics
John Grey Michigan State University
Many Neoplatonist thinkers hold that moral facts are, in the first instance, evaluative facts about states of being rather than deontic facts about actions. At least for a human, being wise is good; being “thoroughly mixed with the body” is bad (Enneads I.2, 135); being rational is better than being irrational; and so on. As these examples indicate, such evaluations are most easily construed in relation to a particular kind or species. What is a defect in a human may not be a defect in another sort of being. As Plotinus observes,
“living” means different things in different contexts; it is used in one way of plants, in another of irrational animals, in various ways by things distinguished from each other by the clarity or dimness of their life; so obviously the same applies to “living well.”
(Plotinus, Enneads I.4, 181)
This suggests an account of an important set of evaluative facts, namely those regarding what states are good or bad (or better or worse) relative to a given species. It is worse for a human to be blind than to be sighted, but the same does not hold for a deep-sea lobster. Why? Being sighted is in the nature of human life and not in the nature of deep-sea lobster life. Moreover, an account along these lines has the advantage of being connected to ordinary experience. We derive our knowledge of the nature of a species or kind by observing lots of individual members of that species or kind. Insofar as the facts about what states are good or bad for an individual follow from what kind of thing it is, our knowledge of these evaluative facts does not require any special form of perception or intuition.1 It is not all smooth sailing. Neoplatonist authors typically endorse some version of the “great chain of being,” and on such a picture at least some evaluative facts about states of being are not merely relative to the kind or species of thing that has that state.2 Being
1 Over and above the basic questions about what these evaluative facts are and how we learn of them, a contemporary metaethicist might also ask what reason there is to think that such evaluative facts are prior to other sorts of moral facts, such as facts about how we ought to act. Authors such as Conway do not directly address this question, as far as I can see, so I pass over it. For an overview of the metaethical issues involved in the relationship between the evaluative and the deontic, see Michael Smith 2005, 10-21. 2 A clear example of this sort of picture can be found in, e.g., Book III of Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology; see Ficino 2001.
human is better than being a deep-sea lobster—full stop. Two metaethical difficulties are posed by such absolute evaluative facts about states of being. Prima facie, such facts cannot be grounded in the natures of the individuals possessing or lacking those states, since the individuals could hardly have had a different (better!) nature. Nor can we learn about such things by observing what is normal or natural for the individual or for its species. On the face of it, it is entirely normal and natural for a lobster not to be a human. Why then is this state worse for it than being human would be? What sense can be made of such a claim, and by what mode of inquiry could we come to learn whether it is true or false? Here I examine the way that these questions arise for Anne Conway, an early modern philosopher heavily influenced by Neoplatonism. Her strategy for addressing these issues is noteworthy because it is derived from a sophisticated theory of essence.3 Conway recognizes that in order to make sense of species-independent facts about which states of being are better or worse than others, she must deal with the modal issues that are involved in making sense of statements such as, “It would be better for this deep-sea lobster to be a human.” I will argue that Conway rejects essentialism about species membership primarily because it would entail that “no creature could attain further perfection and greater participation in the divine goodness” (CC 32) than the limits of their species permitted.4 As a consequence, the essence of a particular human being does not include her humanity. And once essentialism about species membership is off the table, there is no problem with taking species-independent facts about an individual’s good to be grounded in that individual’s nature after all. Concerns such as these may seem quite distant from current metaethical interests, and in many ways they are. Nevertheless, I will conclude by arguing that Conway’s work bears on a prominent family of contemporary views about an individual’s good that draw on the notion of an ideally rational, ideally informed version of that individual. As I shall argue, the construction of such an ideal counterpart typically involves essentialist presuppositions similar to those that Conway identifies and rejects in her investigations into species and the good. 2. Background: Conway’s Metaphysics Since Anne Conway has not (yet) been widely included as part of the canon of early modern European philosophers, a brief overview of her biography and philosophical system will be helpful.5
Conway, née Anne Finch, was born in 1631 to Sir Heneage Finch and Elizabeth Cradock. Heneage Finch was the Recorder of the City of London—a senior judge and high- level government functionary—as well as Speaker of the House of Commons. We know
3 See Peter Loptson 1982 for extensive discussion of Conway’s peculiar form of essentialism; I focus in what follows only on those aspects of Conway’s view that pertain to the metaethical issues raised above. 4 Citations of Allison P. Coudert and Taylor Course’s translation of Conway’s Principles are to Conway 1996, hereafter ‘CC’. Where the Latin translation of the lost original manuscript is consulted, citations are also provided to Peter Loptson’s edition, Conway 1982, hereafter ‘L’. 5 For more detailed discussion of Conway’s life and her interactions with other philosophers and figures of interest, see Loptson 1982 and Sarah Hutton 2004. Useful discussions of Conway’s shifting intellectual relationship with More over the years may be found in Allison Coudert 1975 and Jasper Reid 2012, 255-278.
little of Conway’s education, but based on the testimony of those familiar with her, she was fluent in Latin and had at least some knowledge of Greek. Her education took a distinctively philosophical turn in 1650, when—at the age of nineteen—she began a correspondence with Henry More. Although Henry More is little studied today, he was the most prolific of the Cambridge Platonists; indeed, some scholars have made the case that More was the most influential living philosopher in the latter half of the seventeenth century (read: after Descartes’s death).6 Under More’s tutelage, Conway studied the works of Plato and Plotinus, and is thanked in More’s own works as having provided constructive but penetrating criticism of his arguments. She also learned the intricacies of Cartesian philosophy, though she did not herself become a Cartesian. Her correspondence with More indicates that she frequently raised objections to both Morean and Cartesian philosophy. In the earliest biography of Henry More, the author recalls More describing Conway as “one, that would not give up her Judgement entirely unto any” (cited in the appendix to L 237). In spite of the fact that she was often critical of More’s views, the two remained close friends for almost Conway’s entire life. After her death in 1679, More and another of Conway’s close friends, Francis Mercury van Helmont, worked to have her philosophical notebook translated into Latin and published. This was finally accomplished in 1690, when the translated contents of the notebook were published as the Principles of Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy.
The work is short—the Latin text runs 82 pages with modern typesetting—but extremely dense. Here I will not canvass the whole of her Principles, though I might note by way of advertisement that, among other points of interest, she provides a number of striking objections to both substance dualism and property dualism, and anticipates a version of Leibniz’s argument against absolute space and time. My focus here will be on the root structure that feeds into Conway’s metaethics.
Conway’s system presupposes a form of Christian Theism, although her Christianity is an unorthodox fusion of Platonism, Kabbalism, and early Quakerism.7 Much of her metaphysics aims at drawing out the consequences of her conception of God and God’s relationship to creation. On the view she develops, God is a unique, purely spiritual substance with a number of fairly traditional divine attributes: “God is spirit, light, and life, infinitely wise, good, just, strong, all-knowing, all-present, all-powerful, the creator and maker of all things” (CC 9). No attempt is made in the Principles to justify or argue for the claim that God exists; no attempt is made to show that God is unique; and no attempt is made to show that God has this particular list of attributes. This conception of God is a foundational element of Conway’s system. It is important for us because, as the list of God’s attributes reveals, God has a number of paradigmatically moral properties.
Conway also holds that God is really distinct from, but intimately connected to, creation:
[God] is also in a true and real sense an essence or substance distinct from his creatures, although not divided or separate from them but present in everything most intimately in the highest degree. (CC 9)
6 Reid 2012, 1. 7 On Conway’s Platonism, see Hutton 2018, 242-246; on her kabbalism, see Coudert 1975; on her Quakerism, see Hutton 2004, ch. 9.
Both the real distinction of God from creation and God’s intimate presence in creation are important foundational elements of her system. The fact that God is really distinct from any created substance serves to distance Conway from substance monists such as Spinoza, who “confuse God with his creatures” (CC 31). Yet the intimate presence of the divine in all creatures is also crucial for Conway’s picture. It leads her to the view that all things must inherit certain of God’s attributes, at least in some degree.
This point is of particular importance for Conway’s metaethics. She holds that in any act of creation, there are certain attributes that the created thing can inherit from the creator (or “communicable” attributes), and others that cannot be so inherited (or “incommunicable” attributes). Her examples of incommunicable attributes include the attribute of being a self-subsisting entity or “ens per se subsistens,” being immutable, and being most perfect (CC 45; L 108). By contrast, “The communicable attributes are that God is spirit, light, life, that he is good, holy, just, wise” (CC 45), and so on. Notably, although God has numerous attributes that creatures do not—and cannot—inherit, these are in the first instance purely metaphysical features of God. The attributes that creatures can and at least to some degree do inherit from God include his moral properties: being good and being just. Thus, as Sarah Hutton (2018) has recently argued, there is a sense in which Conway construes properties such as goodness and justice as specific forms of Godlikeness.8 Perhaps the most distinctive element of Conway’s system, however, is her monistic view of the created world. She reasons on the basis of the fact that God’s immutability is not communicable to creatures that there can be at most “three kinds of being [Triplex…Entium classis]” (CC 24, L 82):
The first is altogether immutable. The second can only change toward the good, so that which is good by its very nature can become better. The third kind is that which, although it was good by its very nature, is nevertheless able to change from good to good as well as from good to evil. (CC 24)
Conway’s inference to this tripartite ontology presupposes, first, that although God has many attributes, immutability with respect to the good is the attribute that defines the kind of being he is. She also presupposes that there are only two ways for a being to be changeable or mutable with respect to the good. Either (i) it has the potential to change only for the better, or (ii) it has the potential to change both for better and for worse. (The possibility of a being that can change only for the worse, only becoming less perfect ad infinitum, she rules out as
8 Notably, Hutton holds that, “Conway’s conception of goodness is primarily metaphysical rather than moral” (230). Her main argument for this claim is that Conway’s account of the good focuses so much on its ontological or metaphysical side that it is not usefully action- guiding; it “brings us no nearer to knowing what kind of conduct incurs punishment” (241). This highlights a genuine difficulty in understanding Conway’s treatment of the good and somewhat undermines my proposal to examine her as a metaethical thinker. However, I suspect that this also overstates the problem a bit; given Conway’s lengthy list of God’s attributes, it seems possible to make reasonable inferences about how an individual ought to strive to emulate the divine in at least some cases. For example, in virtue of the fact that God is life, we might expect Conway to see the promotion of life, whether one’s own or another’s, as good. Acts of violence and self-harm, on such a view, would qualify as sinful and worthy of punishment.
incompatible with the premise that all creatures inherit some degree of God’s goodness.) Given these presuppositions, however, we arrive at Conway’s tripartite ontology. She interprets this ontology as describing the following situation. There is a divine substance, God, which produces “by generation or emanation [generatio vel emanatio]” (CC 25, L 84) a mediating substance, a being mutable in the sense that it can always become better or more godlike.9 The divine substance then works through the mediating substance to produce created substances—including ourselves and other finite individuals—which are mutable in the sense that they can always become better or worse, more or less godlike.
The most significant consequence of this ontology is that all created individuals are of the same kind. As many scholars have observed, this is the central part of Conway’s case against the various forms of mind-body dualism that she considers and rejects in the course of her Principles.10 The dualism of Descartes fails, for example, because the distinction between thought and extension does not mark an ontological difference; both spirits and bodies are created substances, and any further differences among them are mere a matter of modes or properties, rather than of substance.11 And the fact that a substance bears some extended modes does not entail that it bears no modes of thought. Thus:
[C]reation is one entity or substance in respect to its nature or essence, as demonstrated above, so that it only varies according to its modes of existence, one of which is corporeality. There are many degrees of this so that any thing can approach or recede more or less from the condition of a body or spirit. Moreover, because spirit is the more excellent of the two in the true and natural order of things, the more spiritual a certain body becomes…the closer it comes to God… (CC 42)
Conway is thus an essence monist: she holds that all created individuals have the same nature or essence.12 She relies upon this point throughout the remainder of the Principles to undermine
9 The mediating substance she usually calls “Christ,” and not merely as a metaphor. She takes the mediating substance to be the historical Jesus; see CC Chapter 5. However, this fact does not seem to play much role in the development of her system, which relies more on a priori argument than appeal to biblical authority. 10 Some valuable discussions of the connection between Conway’s ontology and her philosophy of mind appear in Jane Duran 1996, Jennifer McRobert 2000, and Julia Borcherding forthcoming. 11 I develop one of Conway’s versions of this argument at length in John Grey 2017. 12 There are stronger and weaker readings of Conway’s claim that creatures do not differ in their “substance or essence.” On one reading—endorsed primarily by Hutton 2004 and Christia Mercer 2012 and 2015—Conway is committing herself to a form of existence monism about created substance. On another reading, endorsed by Loptson 1982, Duran 1989, Jacqueline Broad 2002, Marcy Lascano 2013, and Grey 2017, Conway merely intends to claim that creatures are not individuated from one another by their essential features (since their essence is to be created individual), leaving open the possibility that individual creatures are individual substances. For an alternative to these two readings, see Jessica Gordon-Roth 2018. This disagreement may be relevant insofar as Conway’s metaethics is founded upon her metaphysics of essence; however, I aim to sidestep this issue as much as possible.
a variety of different forms of dualism or materialism.13 Conway wields this monistic conception of the created world in surprising and powerful ways, and it is without a doubt one of the most interesting parts of her metaphysics.
Strangely, though, she does not appeal to monism when she makes her case against essentialism about species membership. There, as I will argue, she relies upon metaethical considerations instead. 3. The Participation Argument
Conway describes her target as the view that we must assign “specific entities…their own distinct essences and attributes [specificas rerum Entitates in distinctis suis Essentiis & Essentialibus attributis]” (CC 32; L 92). She says little more than this to characterize the view she has in mind, but it is clear from her examples—which range from humans and horses to ice and stones—that the species in question need not be biological. We might more broadly understand her concern to be with natural kinds, or sortal properties that carve the created world into two or more nonempty classes.14 With this caveat in place, the view at issue can be called
Essentialism about species membership: The essence of a created individual includes
that individual’s species. Now, one very straightforward reason Conway has for rejecting this view is that, as
we have seen, she is an essence monist: she believes all creatures share the same essence. Insofar as she allows for the existence of more than one species, she has reason to reject the claim that the essence of a created thing refers to any species more fine-grained than being a created thing. The interpretation of Conway’s monism has been the subject of much recent debate, but all parties to the debate concur on this point.15
I agree that Conway’s ontology gives her reason to reject essentialism about species membership. Strikingly, though, the passage in which Conway actually does reject that thesis explicitly appeals only to the fact that it would place limits on creatures’ “participation in divine goodness” (CC 32), which Conway regards as potentially “infinite” or unlimited. That is, although Conway has ontological resources to reject essentialism about species membership, the argument she actually uses is one that provides metaethical reasons for rejecting that view instead.
13 Notably, Conway also recognizes that some forms of materialism are consonant with the rejection of species essentialism; see her comparison of her view to Hobbes’ materialism at CC 65. 14 The interpretation of ‘species’ in this context as referring to natural kinds is shared by Lascano. Her 2013, 335 n. 10, develops the reading as clearly as I have seen. Loptson suggests in his Introduction to the Principles that we should understand Conway’s view as the thesis that there are no natural kinds; see his 1982, 17. However, he takes this to require Conway to accept a haecceitistic theory of individuation and identity. The rejection of species essentialism as defined here does not in fact force Conway to accept haecceities, and I want to be clear that I am not attributing such a view to her. Emily Thomas 2018 develops a persuasive alternative to Loptson’s haecceitistic interpretation. 15 See note 12 above.
To understand these reasons, it will be helpful to examine more closely her conception of the good. On Conway’s view, strongly influenced by her studies of Plato and Plotinus, all creatures participate to some extent in divine goodness.16 For all creatures are created by one and the same divine substance, and as we have seen, Conway takes this to imply that all creatures inherit that divine substance’s communicable attributes in a limited degree—including, among other things, goodness and justice. Now, the manner in which any individual creature participates in these divine attributes at any time during its existence will be contingent upon its species. For instance, Conway writes that a horse is “a creature endowed by its creator with different degrees of perfection, such as not only bodily strength but also certain notions, so to speak, of how to serve his master” (CC 32).17 Presumably a good human life will involve activities quite different from those involved in a good horse life. But both forms of life are ways of participating in the good.
Taken on its own, this is not a particularly novel view. It recalls Plotinus’ conclusion at Enneads I.4, already quoted, that “‘living’…is used in one way of plants, in another of irrational animals, in various ways by things distinguished from each other by the clarity or dimness of their life; so obviously the same applies to ‘living well’” (181). However, Conway holds not only that all creatures participate in divine goodness, but that all creatures have an unlimited potential to increase their degree of participation in the good. It is this view, I argue, that motivates her to reject essentialism about species membership.
The explicit rationale that Conway provides for rejecting essentialism about species membership is, as I noted already, that it places limits on a creature’s potential to participate in divine goodness. As she sees it, carving up the created world as the species essentialist does “obscures the glory of the divine attributes so that it cannot shine with its due splendor in creatures” (ibid.) Her argument runs as follows:
For if a creature were entirely limited by its own individuality and totally constrained and confined within the very narrow boundaries of its own species to the point that there was no mediator through which one creature could change into another, then no creature could attain further perfection and greater participation in divine goodness [nec ulla ad ulteriorem perfectionem, majoremque divinae bonitatis participationem evehi], nor could creatures act and react upon each other in different ways. (CC 32)
I take it that in this passage Conway is offering us a modus tollens with an implicit premise:
1. If the essence of a creature includes its species, then its species would place limits on its potential to “attain further perfection and greater participation in divine goodness” (CC 32).
2. There are no limits to a creature’s potential to attain further perfection and a greater degree of participation in divine goodness.
3. So, the essence of a creature does not include its species.
16 In his Preface to the Principles, CC 4, Henry More writes of “her persuing…of both Plato and Plotinus” in Latin translation. 17 At CC 32, Conway attributes a variety of paradigmatically human mental states and cognitive abilities to nonhuman animals: “In addition, a horse exhibits anger, fear, love, memory, and various other qualities which are in human beings.”
The thought seems to be that if the species of a creature were essential to it, this would impose a fixed limit on that creature’s degree of participation in the good. But this would be in some sense to limit “the glory of the divine attributes” insofar as they are manifest in creation, or so Conway seems to think. Call this the Participation Argument against essentialism about species membership.
The justification for the first premise in the Participation Argument is straightforward enough. Even the best and noblest horse remains stymied by principled moral reasoning, or for that matter by the use of a doorknob. The form of a horse, the shape of its body, the structure of its brain: all of these characteristics serve both to define and to constrain its potential to participate in the good. Thus, if the essence of a particular creature includes being a horse, inscribed within its very nature are certain limits on the degree to which that creature can participate in the good.
This thought is clearly connected to the problem I described at the outset. What Conway has recognized is that if essentialism about species membership is true, there could be no genuine facts about whether an individual would be better off if it were in a state that is incompatible with its species.18 A frustrated pet owner, after her dog steals a chocolate bar from the table, says, “If only I could make you understand that chocolate will hurt your stomach! It would be so much better for you to be able to talk.” The owner is imagining a world in which her dog is able to understand her warning about the deleterious effects of chocolate. Yet the dog’s inability to understand such things is part and parcel of his canine nature. The species essentialist concludes that the owner is imagining an impossible world. For the dog to understand his owner’s warning, he would have to be something different from what he is and must be: a dog.
However, where many today might be inclined to accept the antecedent and infer the consequent—concluding, among other things, that the highest good of a horse is essentially different from the highest good of a human—Conway runs the argument in a different direction. She holds that a creature’s potential for participation in the good must be unlimited. A fortiori, a creature’s potential must not be limited by constraints imposed by its species. If the highest good of the horse is not constrained by its horseness, it must be capable of transcending its species. Or, again, to make sense of the fact that the dog would really be better off with a degree of understanding that surpasses what any dog is capable of, we must deny that he is essentially a dog.
That is the logic of Conway’s argument. Still, we might reasonably wonder why a creature’s potential for goodness is supposed to be unlimited in this way. What justifies this claim? I can find little in the text to motivate this premise besides a piece of text that Conway includes in the section immediately following the presentation of the Participation Argument. There, she writes,
[S]ince the divine power, goodness, and wisdom has created good creatures so that they may continually and infinitely move towards the good through their own mutability, the glory of their attributes shines more and more. And this is the nature of all creatures, namely that they be in continual motion or operation, which most certainly strives for their further good (just as for the reward and fruit of their own
18 Strictly speaking, all such conditionals would be vacuously true, since their antecedents would be necessarily false—hence my use of the weaselly “genuine” in describing the problem.
labor), unless they resist that good by a willful transgression and abuse of the impartial will created in them by God. (CC 32)