Defending a Eudaemonist Account of Virtue Ethics.
Part 2: The Logic and Metaphysics of Normativity.
Normative properties do not tell us how things in the world are, rather — if they exist — tell us about how things in the world ought to be. We have certain expectations about things in the world, and not just in the realm of morality. We have a natural expectation that pens write, and dogs have four legs. Likewise, we expect human beings to pursue their flourishing, even if many within those categories never manage to fulfill our expectations. Our expectations seem to be based on something objective about those things (in their biological or anthropomorphic) design.
Part 1: The Logic of Normativity; or, Getting an Ought from an Is.
In the first part of our series, we looked at the grammar of goodness as an attributive adjective following David Alexander. Good refers to a value, namely the worth of a specific human being. This is something we measure in light of the fact that a human being is doing what he ought. And what he ought to do is what human beings are disposed to doing given their proper functions.
Here I conclude that we can — contrary to Hume — get an ought from an is. In mathematics and logic, we can make inferences from one proposition. These are called immediate inferences. For example, we can infer from the conditional statement,
(1) All emeralds are green
The following is true,
(2) Therefore, there exist no emeralds that are not green
In traditional — i.e. term — logic, we can infer (2) from (1) through an inference rule called obversion.
Likewise, in Math, we can infer “10” from “100”, if we are looking for the square root of the latter. Hence, we can make the following inference.
- I have a heart
- Therefore, I have something that ought to pump blood.
Notice, there is no conditional statement, no categorical statement (all men are mortal), no process of reductio ad absurdum, but just a straightforward inference from (1) to (2).
We can make similar inferences though, which while appearing valid, would lead to a morally dubious conclusion.
- I am a thief.
- Therefore, I ought to not get caught stealing.
While Butch Cassidy was both a human and a thief, he was not a good human precisely being a good thief. This leads to the question of which derivation ought we to go with. However, we must remember it is the character of primary kinds and not kinds simpliciter which we are concerned about within our inference.
As David Alexander notes, the word good functions in telling us that x is an instance of a kind “K” such that it has the *relevant properties required for K-hood* to such a such a degree”. (2012, p. 50). Being a thief is not relevant to our K-hood since it is not useful in capturing all of our relevant properties. As humans, we are more than potential thieves, but we are rational and social animals.
Borrowing from Michael Rea, David Alexander uses the following definition of a primary kind “X belongs to K and any term that refers to K is a metaphysically better answer to the question “what kind of thing is x” than any term that does also refers to K” (2012, p. 57). He elaborates,
if asked “What kind of thing is Julian?” the answer “He is a human,” is better than the answer “He is an animal” or “He is an organism.” Each answer is correct, but the first provides the most fundamental or primary kind to which Julian belongs (2012, p. 58).
Being a thief is not fundamental, and, even if we could validly infer that that comes with certain obligations, it would be negated by our more fundamental obligations as social animals not to steal.
When using goodness to measure the degree to which we manifest the relevant properties required for our primary K-hood, we can generate which actions we ought to do following some knowledge of our essence.
- John is a human
- Therefore, John ought to work and contribute to society [From an assessment of his proper function].
Now, why should (2) follow from (1)? The answer is that (2) is a relevant property of any human qua their social and rational animality. Just like how 100 is the square of 10 qua being the value of the number being multiplied by itself.
This makes perfect sense of Hume’s complaint that,
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not (Hume, 2002 Book III, Section I, Para. I).
Hume expects that the rule whereby we make an inference from an is to an ought utilizes some mediate inference like the one found in the classical syllogism
- All men are mortal
- Greeks are men
- Therefore, Greeks are mortal.
It is only true that (3) follows from (1) given that the minor premise (2) mediates between the major premise and conclusion. However, in our moral inference, we get what a thing ought to be doing, from what its kind’s natural function is like an immediate inference.
Part 2: What Reasons are there in Preferring the Good over Evil?
‘Why ought I be a good human?’. This seems like an intelligible question. And yet, it doesn’t seem like we can appeal to our humanity to provide an answer. At least one unwelcomed consequence follows. Namely, we are failing to ground the normativity of being a good human, and the proper functionalist account just isn’t sufficient to get the job done.
But there are two senses this question could be asked.
(1) Why ought I function properly as a human being.
(2) What reason do I have to function properly as a human being
The first sense is the ontological sense of the question. Namely, what is it that grounds the fact “I ought to act like a human being ought to act”. This can be easily answered by appealing to the same sort of inference earlier and we can.
- John is a human
- Therefore, John ought to function as a human ought to function.
While such an inference does not tell us how specifically a human ought to act, making it rather obvious. But it isn’t trivial since (1) and (2) aren’t semantically the same.
The second sense is epistemic. What reason is there to motivate us in acting like good human beings? If there is no reason, then it does not seem morality is a rational enterprise. Worse yet, if it is desire-dependent, then morality becomes stance-dependent and subjective.
It is here where I would like to distinguish between should and ought. An ought refers to a categorical expectation that comes with properly understanding a primary kind. For example, humans ought to have two legs, they ought to walk up-right, they ought to be sociable. While not all of these are related to ethics — some pertain more to health — the point is, we have some sort of expectation of how something ought to be, grounded by the kind of thing it is.
However, the reason people have for acting in a specific way in light of a goal is due to a goal they often want to accomplish. One example is, “If you want to get good grades, then you should study”. There is nothing normative about this, and, if a practical reason for doing something was a strict requirement for morality, then it would be subjective since one’s desires are stance dependent.
It might be the case we have no practical reason for being a good person. If that’s the case, then it’s no more rational to be like Hitler, rather than like Saint Oscar Romero.
While no doubt this is an issue, it is an issue I will address in my next post on moral epistemology, since I believe it stems from an internalist account of motivation and reason, which I think needs to be rejected in favor of an externalist account.
Part 3: A Normative Account of Proper Function.
Up until now, I had gone forward with the assumption that the proper function of mid-sized entities is explained by an imminent teleologically. Teleology is the idea that things have goals they are disposed to accomplishing, these goals provide the reason for their behavior. The human heart behaves in the way it does for the ultimate sake of pumping blood. Or, to use an example from Aristotle,
For teeth and all other natural things either invariably or normally come about in a given way, but of not one of the results of chance or spontaneity is this true. We do not ascribe to chance or mere coincidence the frequency of rain in winter, but frequent rain in summer we do; nor heat in the dog-days, but only if we have it in winter. If then, it is agreed that things are either the result of coincidence or for an end, and these cannot be the result of coincidence or spontaneity, it follows that they must be for an end; and that such things are all due to nature even the champions of the theory which is before us would agree. Therefore action for an end is present in things which come to be and are by nature (Physics, Book II, Part 8).
Aristotle’s point is that the growth of teeth is not out of necessity — he gives the example of the water cycle (Physics, Book II, Part 8) — where the outcomes are inevitable. Teeth do not grow and appear in everyone in the same way uniformly in all people (or at all in the case of people with Anodontia). Yet, we don’t say because they don’t grow uniformly in all people, in the same way, we have our teeth by chance either. We have some reasonable expectation that our teeth develop in a particular way and that’s because they strive with a particular goal, which is for the better.
Now, this is not a decisive example since the anti-teleologist could say that high-enough probabilities build reasonable expectations. Or the anti-teleologist could claim that if we knew enough information about each particular case, we could formulate the necessary and sufficient conditions required just like we know the sun will rise tomorrow is of physical necessity.
Aside from providing reasons why such alternatives are not likely to work, we need to figure out which entities have a teleology, and what exactly is required to deduce some function as proper (as opposed to improper) to an entity is not an easy task. In this section, I will offer the criteria, and provide Alexander’s arguments against the two competing accounts. I will also provide an argument for the teleology of the mind.
Part 4: Etiological and Statistical Models of Function.
Whereas the normative account of functionality claims that the functions are the activities of entities that strive to finish a particular goal they exist to accomplish, there are non-normative accounts that seek to reduce functionality to something else.
Part 4.1: Statistical Model of Function and Some Counter-Arguments.
Statistical explanations seek to explain functionality by measuring the frequency of an entity’s action. This would be one of the responses someone could take to Aristotle’s claim that the growth of teeth to grow food is an example of teleology. Namely, because we observe most members of the kind ‘human teeth’ chew food, the function of all teeth should be to chew food. It is a matter of luck that some teeth don’t manage to accomplish this because they don’t grow healthily and become too sensitive, but we can still have reasonable expectations about how they will operate (Alexander, 2012, p. 73).
However, there are some counter-examples to this account. One obvious one would be the example of sperm.
The function of sperm is to fertilize an egg. But since very few sperm manage to achieve this result, SNF implies that egg fertilization cannot be the sperm’s function. Yet clearly sperm do have this function (Alexander, 2012, p. 73).
Another issue is that this hypothesis does not sufficiently distinguish between an accidental function and an essential function of a thing.
The majority of hearts make a thumping sound. But making a thumping sound is not the function of the heart. By failing to distinguish between a thing’s function and its accidental properties SNF implausibly attributes far too many functions to at least some things. Since the majority of hearts make a thumping sound, according to SNF hearts have the function of making a thumping sound. But making a thumping sound is not the function of a heart. Hence, SNF is false (Alexander, 2012, p. 73).
Lastly, this definition does not adequately explain malfunction. Alexander gives the following example,
imagine…that the majority of hearts stop pumping blood. It would seem that the correct thing to say is that the majority of hearts are malfunctioning. But the SNF advocate cannot say that the majority of hearts are malfunctioning (Alexander, 2012, p. 73).
Given the above example, I think that the advocate of the statistical model is well within his right to say that even if the majority of hearts from here on out were to malfunction, all the past instances of hearts beating up until then would suffice in providing us a greater sample size. And, with hearts that would no longer beat, the human race would die out where it would not override the past instances.
However, suppose we were to get around this response by tweaking the thought experiment. Suppose an asteroid lands gently on the earth and releases a gas called cardiogen that causes all human hearts to stop beating at age 65. Why not say that the function of hearts is to beat unless it reaches the age of 65 in an environment containing cardiogen, in which case it would stop.
It seems there is no appeal to what a majority of hearts do or would do that the proponent of the statistical model can appeal to distinguish the heart functioning vs malfunctioning, without appealing to some other evaluative criteria.
Part 4.2: Etiological Model of Function and Some Counter-Arguments.
The etiological model of function holds the following,
x has F as its function iff x exists because of its tendency to F and x has a tendency to F because x’s ancestors Fed (Alexander, 2012, p. 75).
Etiological models stress the connection between the functionality of entities and their evolutionary origins. I will be going through some objections provider by Alexander, some objections are given by Edward Feser in defense of the etiological functionalist, and try to respond to them.
The first issue is the first member objection. Suppose that there existed a possible world where a demiurge created the first human-like being. He would have a heart like ours that pumped blood, but he has no ancestors that have hearts that did the same thing. Yet, we would say it had a proper function. Plantinga notes this with God and Adam, but I won’t use that example for the sake of avoiding theological/atheological dispute (Alexander, 2012, p. 76). In the case of human artifacts, we also have the first telephone, which did not have an ancestor when Alexander G. Bell created it.
Edward Feser responds on behalf of etiological proponents by saying,
these examples are unlikely to impress a naturalist like Millikan. In the case of an artifact like a telephone, Millikan could of course reply that its teleology derives from that of the human designer of the telephone, and that his teleology in turn derives from natural selection. And even if the atheistic naturalist were willing to allow that God could in principle have existed, such a naturalist could still bite the bullet and insist that even God could have genuine teleology (and thus impart it to Adam’s heart) only if he had himself evolved (2016, p. 110–111).
Such a response has a couple of issues. Regarding the supernatural case, without ancestors, how can we say the demiurge has a teleology if he did not evolve? He would serve as a counter. Furthermore, refusing the possibility of the supernatural without an argument seems dogmatic, and turns evolution into a metaphysical thesis and not a scientific theory.
Regarding the telephone example, how does it help with artifacts whose proper functions were accidentally designed? The post-it-note is such an example. On their website, they write,
Dr. Spencer Silver, a 3M scientist, was busily researching adhesives in the laboratory. In the process, he discovered something peculiar: an adhesive that stuck lightly to surfaces but didn’t bond tightly to them (3M, 2022).
Presuming the accuracy of this story, how could the function of posted-notes be explained since they are unconnected to the intentions of Dr. Silver, and any other functions he performs properly? Even granting this, Alexander provides other objections from Michael Rea and Alvin Plantinga. Rea’s example involves clay crystals damning up a stream.
Damming upstreams is something that clay crystals do, and damming up streams is involved in their reproductive history. So, according to EA, damming up streams is the proper function of clay crystals. But “no one would want to say that there is any metaphysically important sense in which the crystals are supposed to dam upstreams.” (Alexander, 2012, p. 77).
The example from Plantinga is a bit more complex, but it makes for a rather colorful thought experiment.
Imagine that Hitler’s scientists introduce a mutation in the visual system of non-Aryans. The mutation is such that for those who have it, life is awful. Hitler also begins to wipe out any non-Aryan without the mutation. The mutation spreads and “the number of non-mutants dwindles. But then consider some nth generation mutant m.”
This member’s visual system will meet all of the purported sufficient conditions for having a proper function, but surely we do not want to say that m’s visual system is functioning properly. It is possible to satisfy EA’s sufficient condition for having a proper function without having a proper function. Hence, EA is false (Alexander, 2012, p. 77).
The etiological account is at home with natural selection; however, it seems artificial selection cases make it a lot harder to universally apply to all functions. There might need to be an auxiliary hypothesis added to explain functionality in both cases, but that seems to make the etiological case less probable overall.
For the purposes of this blog post, I will not recount the other objections made, but these would seem to suffice.
Part 5.1: Koons on Proper Function and Teleology.
Robert Koons offers the following normative account of proper function in his work Realism Regained. It should be noted that Koons does not argue that teleology is fundamental in structure to the world such that rocks have a goal of falling to the earth, an outcome Koons is trying to avoid (2000, p.147). But rather, holds that higher-functioning systems have the property of being teleological. Namely, they must have the following two criteria,
A. The fact that things in kind k being in state S is causally explained (at least in part) by the existence of a causal law linking (S and k) to function f as cause to effect (Wright’s condition).
B. The system of functions [S(i), F(i)] meeting condition (1) for k forms a mostly harmonious, mutually supportive whole, and the (s, f) function contributes to this harmony.
And with these criteria, he also adds that,
C. The existence of things of kind k is causally explained (at least in part) by the harmony mentioned in condition (2).
These three criteria, once met, entails that Koon’s neo-Aristotelian conception of a proper function is obtained (Koons, 2000, p. 145).
5.2: Application, Explanation and Argumentation.
Here, I will provide an application to our cognitive systems as a somewhat illustrative example.
A. The fact that things in human beings in a state of knowing some x is causally explained (at least in part) by the existence of a causal law linking (Knowing some proposition x and human beings) to the function of cognition as cause to effect (Wright’s condition).
B. The system of functions [all other functions, all other states] meeting condition (1) for humans forms a mostly harmonious, mutually supportive whole, and (knowing some x, cognitive faculties) function contributes to this harmony.
C. The existence of things of kind k is causally explained (at least in part) by the harmony mentioned in condition (2).
The existence of human beings is explained causally (in part) by our advanced ability to reason learn about the world, which is an advantage we would have over other animals competing for the same resources. This would satisfy condition C.
Condition B is also satisfied because our cognitive functions work to support the harmony of all our other states and functions, and these in turn support the use of our cognitive abilities.
Lastly condition A requires there is a causal connection between beings of our kind and knowing x.
When I speak of knowing x, here I will use it to mean having a true belief that was obtained through a reliable method. What is the causal link between being in a state of knowing some proposition x (in this case “that is an elephant”) and us knowing it in the manner appropriate to our kind?
The causal link can be explained through knowing x through our cognitive functions obtaining visual contact with the elephant in an environment with a close resemblance to those our ancestor’s cognitive functions adapted to if you like an evolutionary explanation, but a design explanation can also work. For theological reasons, I prefer the latter, but not without argument.
As to an argument for this level of teleology, it seems if you remove either condition A, B, or C, knowledge becomes a matter of luck. And luck is antithetical to knowledge. If I guess the right answer on a multiple-choice question, I did not know the answer.
Without condition A, there doesn’t seem to be a link between our senses and the objects of our knowledge. Suppose that humans had a justified true belief that it was 12:00 pm in their time zone because aliens tricked them with a false projection of the sun. Now, somewhere in the world, it is t12:00 pm, the people believe it is 12:00 pm, and they are justified in believing it, but without any causal connection to the sun, we knew this from pure luck.
Rejecting condition B seems to be a rejection of the evolutionary advantage of having knowledge, which just lands us into evolutionary arguments against naturalism.
Rejecting C makes our knowledge epiphenomenal to our evolutionary history, and strikes me as false. Surely, if something explains why humans adapted and survived more compared to our non-human counterparts, our knowledge should be among them.
While this doesn’t show A, B, and C are sufficient, surely it shows they are necessary to knowledge.
Sometime in two weeks, I’ll post part III which will discuss how we are warranted in deriving an ought from the nature of an entity.
In this week’s post I detailed how we can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, and use the term ‘good’ in an evaluative sense to refer to entities that are fulfilling their proper behavioral function. I also gave an epistemic justification normative models of function and provided issues for its two main competitors.
3M. (2022). About Us. History Timeline: Post-it® Notes. Retrieved February 21, 2022, from https://www.post-it.com/3M/en_US/post-it/contact-us/about-us/
Alexander, D. E. (2012). Goodness, God, and Evil. Continuum Studies in Philosophy of Religion. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Aristotle. (2009). The Internet Classics Archive: Physics by Aristotle. The Internet Classics Archive | Physics by Aristotle. Retrieved February 20, 2022, from http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/physics.2.ii.html
Feser, E. (2016) “David E. Alexander, Goodness, God, and Evil (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), 155 Pp., P/b, £17.96.” Ratio (Oxford) 29.1: 106–13. Web.
Hume, D. (2002, March 4). The Project Gutenberg eBook of a Treatise of Human Nature. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved February 18, 2022, from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4705/4705-h/4705-h.htm
Koons, R. C. (2000). Realism regained: An Exact Theory of Causation, Teleology, and the Mind. University Press.