The Quality of Anti-Realism

A Reply to White Tom

The YouTuber/Blogger White Tom has responded to a previous article I wrote in defense of qualitative realism, the view that goodness and beauty are real entities rather than useful fictions. It’s a serious article that demands a response. Before I begin, I must thank him for responding in a timely manner. Tom is a polite, modest, and informed critic of the views presented on Applied Virtue. For this, I thank him and humbly invite him to come on another live stream with me in the future. He’s free to contact my Telegram any time for this.

This essay is a pretty long one, so I ended up having to leave out some ideas that might have fleshed out its thesis. I have in the works essays on traditionalism and on the ontology of goodness and beauty, and I also plan on writing an essay on human flourishing. All of these topics will be touched on briefly in this essay, but I could not give them the detailed analysis they deserve because I had to keep this essay from becoming book-length. This essay’s purpose is to rebut Tom’s arguments and defend the ‘no miracles’ argument for qualitative realism I made in my earlier post. I kept this essay within those bounds.

Recall that I argued for the objectivity of qualitative theories (that is, theories about the goodness and beauty of things), claiming that the achievement of human flourishing by those who act on the knowledge these theories provide is evidence that the goodness and beauty these theories presuppose are real entities as opposed to useful fictions. I compared this to the ‘no miracles’ argument posited by philosophers of science such as Hilary Putnam. That argument states that the instrumental success enjoyed by science would be inexplicable if the theoretical scientific entities presented by successful scientific theories weren’t real. The purpose of my essay was to highlight the double standard that many moderns, including many neo-reactionaries, hold. The person who is both a scientific realist and a qualitative anti-realist is inconsistent because the very arguments he uses against qualitative realism can be applied to scientific realism just as easily.

Tom’s essay focuses on reiterating many of the standard anti-realist arguments: that there is a diversity of moral beliefs throughout all of human history, that the instrumental success of qualitative theories is better explained by Darwinian natural selection, and so on. His arguments are not only unsuccessful at disproving qualitative realism but also undermine the neo-reactionary position he’s defended in that article and elsewhere.

Begging the question?

Tom argues for a relativistic, subjectivist approach to qualitative theory – that goodness and beauty are mere psychic projections onto the physical world and are not real entities. For qualitative realism to be true, there must be an objective criterion for the success of qualitative theories, just as there is for the success of scientific theories. Successful scientific theories make good predictions and lead to technological improvements while successful qualitative theories make good predictions and lead to improvements in the quality of human life altogether.

Tom argues that there is no such thing as a successful or unsuccessful qualitative theory because human flourishing itself is a mere matter of perception. Unlike science, where the criterion of success is independent of the theory proposed, it seems that the criterion of success of qualitative theories is dependent on the theory itself, for each qualitative theory tends to have a different idea of human flourishing. This would make each qualitative theory right by definition. Tom explains that:

When someone perceives a process in the natural world, they might attempt to describe it. Using the scientific method, they enquire ‘is the explanation that I have given true?’. As in, is this at all connected to the actual machinations of this process, or is it all in my head? It seems as though successful theories are true representations of natural laws, because they have powerful predicting power which would be miraculous otherwise. However, when it comes to morality and human flourishing, this process is meaningfully different. When one posits a scientific law, one can ask: ‘does my explanation have any relevance to the actual mechanics of this process?’ But when one appreciates The Good, they can only ask ‘does this have any relevance to my perception of this concept?’ When comparing the use of any moral framework, it is necessarily linked back to the personal sense of human flourishing. There is no necessary connection to any form of exterior quality, which humans merely discover. When a moral theory says ‘if you do ethical action x, you will appreciate value judgement y, which will lead to human flourishing’, it does not prove innateness of the value judgement, but only the reality of human flourishing, which has nothing to do with any natural, external properties. It is even possible to conceive of inducing a state of human flourishing by placing someone in virtual reality. With science, it truly would be a miracle if the scientific rules only applied to one’s perception of reality, and were not universal. Human flourishing is necessarily based upon individual perception.

I do not regard the 'no miracles' argument as convincing when it is applied to morality. It seems to beg the question - it prescribes ethical behaviour necessary for human flourishing, and yet the definition of human flourishing is ultimately arbitrary; both are defined by the moral realist who is making the claim. They have the burden of proof that these concepts are legitimate and innate to certain forms of society and physical objects. When a society sees a physical process occurring that they do not understand, they are able to acknowledge it. But when people appreciate art, it is impossible to discern any specific natural law that indicates a deviation from ‘true’ beauty, or identify any universal, innate flaw in a painting that makes it unable to capture ‘true’ beauty. Let alone a flaw that could be accounted for by a more rigorously moral mindset. We can compare different society's levels of scientific understanding by how much they are able to frame these processes and predict outcomes from different causes, but we can’t do the same for the statues of Ancient Greece and the paintings of the Hudson River School. It is up to the appreciator to appreciate.

End quote. Now, while Tom is correct that I didn’t define human flourishing, it was not because there are no non-question-begging criteria for it. It was simply that I had underestimated how far he’d go to reject realism. My reading of Lovecraft’s atheistic traditionalism led me to believe that he considered human flourishing a real condition achievable through civilization. Relativizing it seems to defeat the purpose of traditionalism.

Atheistic traditionalists hold that to achieve human flourishing, a society must “capture Gnon” (in Tom’s words) by turning tradition into a localized pseudo-standard for goodness and beauty (in Lovecraft’s words). This position presupposes that the localized pseudo-standard is necessary for human flourishing. If human flourishing is a subjective concept, relative to each individual, then there is no fact of the matter as to how I can flourish. Tom hammers this point home when he asserts that human flourishing could happen even in virtual reality. If human flourishing is relative, this means that I could ignore Gnon like a liberal or follow its will blindly like Anton Chigurh and still flourish. After all, “it is up to the appreciator to appreciate,” right? This is why I emphasized in my piece that Lovecraft – and White Tom too, if he accepts Lovecraft’s argument – is committed to an objective view of human flourishing no less than the moral realist.

Ultimately, Tom’s subjectivism proves too much. It doesn’t simply undermine the objectivity of qualitative theories, but their usefulness as well. Nothing more can be said about morality or aesthetics except whatever our preferences happen to be. From there, there are only two options for how you can run society: either you can mold the preferences of the masses according to the equally-arbitrary preferences of the elite or you can set up a social order designed to fulfill the preferences of the masses, whatever they happen to be. In other words, either managerial technocracy or radical libertarianism. Which flavor of liberalism would Tom prefer? I’d like to know.

The inherent flaws of subjectivism aside, the real problem with Tom’s position is that it undermines his case for “capturing Gnon.” If there are no matters of fact about human flourishing, then no case can be made against Anton Chigurh or even the liberal who thinks we can somehow ignore Gnon because of “progress.” The strongest portions of Tom’s original video point out how a society full of Chigurh-like psychopaths would be less human. Humanity might survive in such a state, but they wouldn’t want to survive. But without an objective idea of what a human is and under what conditions humans flourish, this argument would go up in smoke.

Flourishing in non-human species

Pace Tom, human flourishing is not an esoteric idea known only to moral theorists. We can see this when we compare humans to other organisms. Everyone knows that, by nature, grass requires water, sunlight, and not too much heat. For that reason, it is good for grass to be watered and well-lit and bad for it to lack water and sunlight or to be exposed to great heat. Everyone knows that, by nature, a squirrel needs to gather nuts and the like and to dart about in a way that will make it difficult for predators to catch it. Thus, it is good for it to do these things and bad for it if, for whatever reason, it fails to do them. The natures of these organisms entail certain ends the realization of which constitutes their flourishing as the kinds of things they are.

Nobody would say that the flourishing of grass is relative to each blade of grass, or that the flourishing of a squirrel is relative to each squirrel, and while the different kinds of grass and squirrels may differ slightly in the precise conditions of their flourishing according to biological makeup or environmental factors, there are going to be many more similarities in how they flourish than not given their shared nature as grass or as squirrels. You’re not going to find a species of squirrel that flourishes by eating toothpaste and laying around waiting for predators to come and eat them. Such organisms, if they did exist, would not be squirrels at all.

Now, there’s no reason to suppose that human flourishing is any less objective than squirrel flourishing or grass flourishing. The only difference between humans and other animals is our capacity for abstract thought – traditionally called reason. Rational creatures like ourselves are capable of learning what is good for us and acting on this knowledge. This gives human flourishing a moral dimension, insofar as we can choose to do good, unlike other animals who pursue their flourishing instinctually. Morally good action thus involves doing what is good for us given our nature, while morally bad action involves doing what is bad for us given our nature. And to the extent that the intellect knows what is good for us, we are obliged to do and pursue what is good and avoid what is evil.

Tom might respond that perhaps it is in our ability to choose that human flourishing becomes inherently subjective. However, this won’t work at all. If a squirrel were rational, it would still follow from his nature as a squirrel that it’d be good for him to escape predators and to gather nuts for the winter and bad for him to offer himself up to predators and to eat only toothpaste or stones. The latter would be bad for him no matter why he did them – brain damage, genetic anomalies giving rise to odd desires, bad squirrel upbringing, squirrel peer pressure, the influence of squirrel pop culture, arguments from squirrel liberals, or whatever. These actions would be bad for him however strongly he wanted to eat toothpaste and offer himself to predators, and even if he found the idea of eating nuts and fleeing from predators repulsive. The fact that this squirrel can choose does not make his flourishing a matter of perception. A rational creature might pursue his good out of obligation as opposed to instinct, and his flourishing may be more complex than that of a lower beast, but his flourishing is no more based on his perception than a squirrel’s need to escape from predators or gather nuts is based on its perception.

Qualitative Theories are Scientific Theories

As stated above, what separates human morality from a non-human organism’s pursuit of its flourishing is that human morality is first and foremost a rational exercise. To act morally requires knowledge of what is good for a thing, which in turn requires an intellect capable of grasping the essences of things and abstracting them as something held in common by many. This process involves reaching new insights through the classification, generalization, and combination of concepts, and then the ability to act upon this knowledge as opposed to mere instinct. For all we know, this is not a capacity enjoyed by any animal but humans.

As Michael Cronin pointed out on pages 427 to 430 of the first volume of The Science of Ethics, an examination of the nature of moral beliefs shows that they are derived primarily from reasoning. Our consciousness tells us that we accept moral propositions for reasons that any educated man is capable of explaining or reflecting on. Human history shows that there was never a time when the spirit of inquiry was wholly absent, and, in general, human traditions around the world have given their adherents reasons for why some practices are good and others are not. And, as the ‘no miracles’ argument shows, these moral theories would not be useful at achieving human flourishing if they didn’t have some validity.

The claim that ethics and aesthetics do not aim at the truth but merely express preference is also grammatically incorrect, as Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out in After Virtue. Arguing against emotivism, “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character” (pg. 11-12), MacIntyre argues that emotivism fails as a theory of the meaning of a certain type of sentence for three reasons:

The first is that, if the theory is to elucidate the meaning of a certain class of sentences by referring to their function, when uttered, of expressing feelings or attitudes, an essential part of the theory will have to consist in an identification and characterization of the feelings or attitudes in question. On this subject proponents of the emotive theory are in general silent, and perhaps wisely. For all attempts so far to identify the relevant types of feelings or attitudes have found it impossible to avoid an empty circularity. 'Moral judgments express feelings or attitudes,' it is said. 'What kind of feelings or attitudes?' we ask. 'Feelings or attitudes of approval: is the reply. 'What kind of approval?' we ask, perhaps remarking that approval is of many kinds. It is in answer to this question that every version of emotivism either remains silent or, by identifying the relevant kind of approval as moral approval- that is, the type of approval expressed by a specifically moral judgment- becomes vacuously circular.

It becomes easy to understand why the theory is vulnerable to this first type of criticism, if we consider two other reasons for rejecting it. One is that emotivism, as a theory of the meaning of a certain type of sentence, is engaged in an impossible task from the beginning, because it is dedicated to characterizing as equivalent in meaning two kinds of expression which, as we have already seen derive their distinctive function in our language in key part from the contrast and difference between them. I have already suggested that there are good reasons for distinguishing between what I called expressions of personal preference and evaluative (including moral) expressions, citing the way in which utterances of the first kind depend upon who utters them to whom for any reason-giving force that they may have, while utterances of the second kind are not similarly dependent for their reason-giving force on the context of utterance. This seems sufficient to show that there is some large difference in meaning between members of the two classes; yet the emotive theory wishes to make them equivalent in meaning. This is not just a mistake; it is a mistake that demands explanation. A sign of where explanation should be sought is found in a third defect of the emotive theory, considered as a theory of meaning.

The emotive theory, as we have seen, purports to be a theory about the meaning of sentences; but the expression of feeling or attitude is characteristically a function not of the meaning of sentences, but of their use on particular occasions. The angry schoolmaster, to use one of Gilbert Ryle's examples, may vent his feelings by shouting at the small boy who has just made an arithmetical mistake, 'Seven times seven equals forty-nine!' But the use of this sentence to express feelings or attitudes has nothing whatsoever to do with its meaning. This suggests that we should not simply rely on these objections to reject the emotive theory, but that we should rather consider whether it ought not to have been proposed as a theory about the use - understood as purpose or function - of members of a certain class of expressions rather than about their meaning- understood as including all that Frege intended by 'sense' and 'reference'.

(p. 12-13)

End quote. MacIntyre then goes on to demonstrate that our inability to come to a rational consensus on moral questions is not universal, but something peculiar to the particular social context we inhabit. This thesis, while interesting, is not relevant to the subject of this essay except to point out that those who would dogmatically classify ethics as mere expressions of preference do so despite all evidence to the contrary.

The judgment of beauty, too, is a rational exercise. As St. Thomas once said, beauty “relates to the cognitive faculty; for beautiful things are those which please when seen. Hence beauty consists in due proportion; for the senses delight in things duly proportioned, as in what is after their own kind—because even sense is a sort of reason, just as is every cognitive faculty. Now since knowledge is by assimilation, and similarity relates to form, beauty properly belongs to the nature of a formal cause.” A lower animal can take pleasure in something, but it takes intelligence to recognize the beautiful as beautiful. Knowing what is beautiful requires knowing how a thing can be brighter, better proportioned, etc. through the knowledge of the natures of things.

Because qualitative judgment is a rational exercise, it follows that ethics and aesthetics are sciences, at least in the broad, Aristotelian sense of being bodies of objective knowledge. Human beings possess the faculty of reason, and with reason, they can examine truths. Unlike the estimative powers of animals, the scope of human reason is universal, so it is capable of discovering the essences of things and, through these essences, the universal laws of reality. Since goodness and beauty are real entities, there ought to be universal truths about them that we can discover.

There are generally considered two types of sciences – sciences that deal with things as they are and sciences that deal with things as they should be. The first type of science is “speculative” because it deals with the actual states of things and what causes these states to occur, a kind of knowledge that only indirectly deals with practical concerns. For example, the science of physics describes the movements of and the mathematical relationships between physical objects and the causes of these movements and relationships. The other type of science is “normative” because it examines certain actions given an ideal state and determines whether some act is good or bad depending on whether it gets us closer to this ideal or not. Ethics and aesthetics are normative sciences because they require knowledge of the ideal to better understand their subjects – goodness and beauty respectively.

To see how the normative sciences of ethics and aesthetics work, let us examine two other examples of normative sciences. The field of medicine aims to discover the laws of health in light of the end of bodily well-being. The laws of health determine the difference between good and bad health, giving us information such as the proper functioning of organs and the rules of a good diet. The field of logic aims to discover the laws of thought, laws that determine the difference between good and bad reasoning in light of the truth. In doing so, it gives us the rules that determine which arguments are valid, the best way to discover the truth, and other such epistemic norms.

Similarly, ethics aims at discovering the laws of human conduct, laws that determine the difference between good and bad conduct. Human conduct here means the deliberate actions of rational animals that are controlled by reason. Aesthetics aims at discovering the laws of art, laws that determine the difference between beauty and ugliness. Just as the laws of health are formulated given an ideal of health, and just as the laws of logic are formulated given an ideal of truth, the laws of human conduct and the laws of art are formulated given an ideal of goodness and beauty respectively. These norms are as real as the physical processes observed by physics, and the societies that acknowledge them prosper.

Virtue Realism

Now I assume that Tom does not believe that the diversity of opinion among medical professionals and logicians invalidates the objectivity of medicine or logic. People have diverse opinions on every topic imaginable. The argument against realism from diverse opinions is a non-sequitur because it fails to take into account the fact that some people could be wrong in their views. Someone who denies the truths of qualitative judgments on these grounds will have to explain why the truths of medicine, logic and other sciences are somehow exempt from this.

Thus, when Tom argues that “different societies, religions, and cultures have myriad definitions of human flourishing,” he is making the same mistake I’ve criticized before – the tendency to believe that diversity in opinion means that everyone is equally correct. He might as well say “everyone has different views of what counts as scientific success, so scientific success must be subjective.” That some groups of humans resent justice, beauty, and the like is also not an argument against moral realism because it could be the case that such people are wrong to resent justice, beauty, etc. They might be averse to them because of genetic defects, bad upbringing, peer pressure, popular culture, liberal arguments, or something else.

For the argument against realism from diverse opinions to be effective against the ‘no miracles’ argument, one would not only have to show that there is such a diversity among successful theories of qualitative realism, and they’d have to show that the parts that make these theories successful are also diverse. As I’ve pointed out previously, scientific instrumentalists argue that, because so many past successful scientific theories have been abandoned, the success of a theory is no guarantee that the theoretical entities proposed by the theories are real. These arguments all fail for the same reason that Tom’s argument from diversity does – it assumes that the vast majority of abandoned scientific theories in the past were successful, fails to distinguish between the specific parts of successful past theories that were abandoned and those that were retained and incorporated into replacement theories, and whether the abandoned parts had anything to do with the older theories’ successes.

In particular, later scientific theories often preserve the mathematical equations used by previous theories, even when they disagree about the nature of the entities represented by the equations. As pointed out by Edward Feser and many other realists, Augustin-Jean Fresnel believed that light was an elastic solid ether while James Clerk Maxwell believed that light was a disembodied electromagnetic wave, yet despite this, when Maxwell’s theory subsumed Fresnel’s, the equations both theories used remained the same. Another case of this occurring is the shift from Newton’s understanding of gravitation as action-at-a-distance to Einstein’s notion of space-time curvature. Here, both the entities posited by the theories and the equations they use differ vastly, but Newton’s equations are nevertheless taken to be limiting cases of Einstein’s. The mathematical structure of Einstein’s theory approximates the structure of Newton’s (Feser 2019, pg. 158-160).

The reason for this is very simple: the success of a scientific theory comes from the mathematical equations that give its predictions their accuracy. Ptolemy’s view that the sun revolved around the earth may have been wrong, but the math he used to predict the movement of the stars is good enough to be used by modern-day sea captains as it was for sea captains of his day. The success of science in the ‘no miracles’ argument is fully accounted for by the mathematical structure shared in large part by all successful scientific theories. This view of science is often called structural realism.

Now, given the parallels we’ve seen so far between scientific and qualitative realism, it’s plausible to suggest that, between the diverse successful qualitative theories, there are particular parts these theories share that give them their success. Indeed, when we look at radical shifts in moral worldviews that have happened over time, such shifts usually presuppose a deeper level of continuity. For example, the movement from Catholicism to Protestantism happened based on moral premises both traditions have in common, and the modern liberal who rejects Christianity typically does so based on moral principles that developed out of the Christian tradition itself.

I believe that what successful qualitative theories hold in common are the virtues they instill into their believers – imperatives to perform certain habits that, when followed, will obtain human flourishing through the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. The practical actions undertaken by humans lead to human flourishing, and the theories themselves are secondary, functioning to give a better explanation of these actions. This reflects the fundamental Burkean insight that much of our knowledge is found implicitly in common customs rather than explicitly in the eloquently formulated propositions of a philosophical theory. It is paradigmatically anti-rationalistic without being anti-reason. Since this version of qualitative realism takes the recommended virtues or habits to be what drives the success of qualitative theories, it is fitting to call it virtue realism.

How would this work? To start, let’s examine this theory in light of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. In the first volume of Spengler’s work, he posits that a vibrant spirituality that encompasses all aspects of life is a quality of thriving civilizations while atheism portends that civilization’s decline (for more on this, see Auron MacIntyre’s video “Spengler and The Atheisms of Collapse”). It can be argued from this that the presence of a vibrant spirituality is an important part of human flourishing itself. Virtue realism does not by itself posit which spirituality is the best – that is for the metaphysician and the theologian to uncover. However, virtue realists can conclude that spiritual practice is necessary to human flourishing if we take Spengler’s analysis into account.

Another example would be the seven universal moral rules scientists at the University of Oxford claim to have discovered: “help your family, help your group, return favours, be brave, defer to superiors, divide resources fairly, and respect others’ property.” Dr. Oliver Curry, lead author and senior researcher at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology hypothesizes that “people everywhere face a similar set of social problems, and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them.” This makes sense given our shared nature as humans. That said, virtue realism predicts that the reasons why different groups follow the same rules will probably vary considerably. One group might claim that we ought to follow these rules because God said so, while another might claim that to do otherwise would violate human rights, and another might not have a reason at all. However, the virtues practiced by these groups will remain relatively consistent.

I plan on going over this in greater detail in a future essay, but what I want to highlight here is this: what successful qualitative theories captured specifically were the practices that lead to human flourishing. As Edward Feser once pointed out, remote phenomena like abstract metaphysics, the workings of theological realms like Heaven and Hell, the large-scale structure of spacetime, the microscopic realm of molecules, and so forth are remote from everyday human experience, so it’s entirely plausible that people would get these things wrong for millennia. However, where everyday matters are concerned – where opinions touch on our basic understanding of human nature and the facts about ordinary social interaction – it is not plausible for wrong opinions to persist for that long. Evolution would ensure that serious mistakes concerning such matters would before long be weeded out.

The Problem with Darwinism

The weakest part of Tom’s article was probably the paragraph in which Tom attempted to defend the view that a Darwinian account of morality is sufficient as an explanation. Responding to my claim that a Darwinian account of the success of moral theories cannot ultimately explain their success, Tom argues that:

I believe that a Darwinist explanation can help inform our understanding of this sensation of human flourishing. This does not mean I believe that the appreciation of truth, goodness, etc. are necessarily the result of Darwinian evolution, but neither do I agree with AV that Darwinian explanations fail to answer why something is evolutionarily advantageous in the first place. The Darwinian perspective basically follows the line of argument of the moral realist - that moral frameworks orient us towards certain values - but instead of the moral framework, it is an iterative evolutionary process that causes the human flourishing we derive from abiding by these values. However, I am under no impression that evolution necessarily optimises for anything I recognise as Good. Here we can recognise the crucial difference between science and morality in this regard. Science can provide a legitimate Darwinian advantage in contests of group selection. Concepts like justice and truth are, to some extent, disposable. Justice, as far as it creates an appreciable balance and order, can be an impediment to Darwinian success. We might expect some groups of humans to resent justice (justice here meaning the accurate execution of the law, and fulfilment of contracts, not the new Orwellian use of the term) and others to appreciate it, depending on their genetic constitution. In fact, it seems most likely that humans have evolved to appreciate justice for others, but not recognise their own transgressions. Ultimately there is nothing inherent about justice that is relevant to human flourishing, and even in situations in which it is, it is peculiar and not universal. Neither is there necessarily in beauty, goodness, or truth. In fact, many come to resent these qualities for whatever reason. But what if they adopted a moral framework, one that would assist them in appreciating such value judgements?

In other words, Tom believes that natural selection is responsible for having us evolve in such a way that causes us to experience human flourishing under specific conditions. Thus, it is not what we believe that creates human flourishing but evolution. However, there are three problems with this argument.

First (and this is more of a side issue than anything else), I would not characterize moral realism in general as believing that “moral frameworks orient us toward certain values.” This implies that mere theoretical knowledge of what moral is sufficient to guide us into having the right “values” and achieving human flourishing. This rationalistic view of morality has more in common with modern ideologies like progressivism or libertarianism than it does with traditional virtue ethics. Ethics and aesthetics are normative sciences, so the qualitative theories they produce are normative in nature. Thus, following them is more a matter of acting virtuously than of mere valuing based on some abstract moral framework. Any talk of values in the context of morality also subtly begs the question against moral realism because values require a valuer. The standards by which we can judge a person’s character exist outside of whatever subjective values one happens to have.

Furthermore, Aristotelian types like myself hold that moral understanding is more a matter of having the right sensibilities and dispositions than it is having a correct theoretical understanding. The conservative insight that much of our knowledge is tacit and embodied in habit, prejudice, and tradition rather than explicitly formulated in rationalistic philosophical theories is obvious when one looks outside the ivory towers and sees how ordinary people engage in moral decisions. Thus, in terms of deciding if a person is moral, the theoretical moral framework is secondary to the character of the person who holds that framework. Indeed, it’s difficult to see how one could have a correct theoretical understanding if one does not first have the right character to some extent. Someone who is lustful, wrathful, or prideful will likely be blinded by their capital vice and adopt a distorted view of reality as a result.

Second, Tom’s argument here misses the point I made in my original article – that natural selection by itself cannot explain why a given trait is selected for. Tom and I may both agree that Darwinian natural selection will eventually select against groups of people who practice unsuccessful qualitative theories because these unsuccessful theories are not useful to human flourishing, much like how it will select against groups of squirrels who eat toothpaste and lay around waiting for predators. However, I can explain why following these theories leads to human flourishing – namely that these theories provide us with knowledge of how to obtain what is good and beautiful. Tom has no such explanation, which is why he has to say that human flourishing is a mere matter of perception – as though the difference between a thriving civilization and a dying one is a matter of opinion.

Third, if anything, Tom’s subjectivist view of human flourishing only complicates his Darwinian explanation. According to him, the “iterative evolutionary process” causes us to have the perception of human flourishing which “we derive from abiding by these values.” In other words, human flourishing is entirely subjective and perception-based, yet we tend to feel like we are flourishing when we abide by certain values because of how we evolved. Why did natural selection select for us to have this feeling under certain conditions? How do these conditions cause this feeling? These questions go unanswered.

Tom dedicates the rest of that paragraph not to answering these questions or even giving an argument for his position. Instead, he gives a strong reason to doubt the Darwinian explanation for morality. “I am under no impression,” he says, “that evolution necessarily optimises for anything I recognise as good.” He then goes on to argue that concepts like justice and truth “are, to some extent, disposable” because they do not “provide a legitimate Darwinian advantage in contests of group selection,” unlike science. He then concludes that nothing intrinsic to justice or any other virtue has anything necessarily to do with human flourishing. Besides this argument presupposing (as opposed to arguing for) the theory that human flourishing is but a mere feeling caused by an evolutionary process, it only gives us further reasons to reject the Darwinian account. If nothing inherent to these virtues explains why they cause us to have this feeling of human flourishing, then what is causing us to have this “perception” of human flourishing? If evolution is morally indifferent, how could we have evolved a moral sense? Tom claims to have provided an alternative explanation to moral realism, but his account has only multiplied the number of unanswered questions. By contrast, the moral realist view isn’t nearly as mysterious. Under moral realism, people learn what is good through a combination of received wisdom and experience and then act according to it to the best of their ability (or not, in the case of deviants). These theories aim to tell us what is good for us, so a successful qualitative theory will recommend things that are good for us, i.e., things that lead to human flourishing. No mysteries here.


Tom’s arguments are self-undermining, lacking certain nuances, and, in the case of his point on Darwinism, not fully developed. A less charitable interlocuter might put this down to his being an amateur at philosophy, but in all fairness to Tom, I think he did the best he could. The problem is that the neo-reactionary/atheistic traditionalist position is inherently unstable. Its practical recommendations are reactionary (and thus correct), but its underlying metaphysics point decidedly toward liberalism and its concomitant insanities. The tension between the two means that the neo-reactionary could veer either way.

Ultimately, while it is an interesting idea, Gnon can only serve as a placeholder for those who transition out of the darkness of nihilism and into the light of wisdom. People like Tom live in the twilight, struggling to find the right path in the dim light. Practically, they know the light is good and useful, but they regard it a mere useful fiction, an illusion that makes living in darkness easier. The twilight of contradiction is no haven, however. All within it must choose whether to fully come into the light and pursue what is true, good, and beautiful in earnest or to fall back into the darkness.