Aristotelian Egoism and the Ergon Argument

A few days ago, the latest issue of The Philosophical Review arrived (yes, I actually subscribe to the print edition), and I saw Anthony Skelton’s review of the third volume of Terence Irwin’s gargantuan The Development of Ethics. (The three volumes, published between 2007–2009, amount to some 2500 pages!) Although I was aware of the existence of these books, I knew nothing specific about their content. I was gratified to learn from Skelton’s review that one of Irwin’s major aims in these books is to make a historical exploration and defense of what he calls “Aristotelian naturalism,” the teleological, eudaimonist, realist view which “identifies virtue and happiness in a life that fulfills the nature and capacities of rational human nature” (Irwin 2007, 4). The Development of Ethics traces the fortunes of Aristotelian naturalism from its first articulation by Aristotle through 2300 years of philosophical dialectic. Since I would count myself as an Aristotelian naturalist, this makes Irwin’s project interesting to me (though where I would find the time to read a 2500 page work of philosophy I have no idea). I was struck by Skelton’s casual description of Aristotelian naturalism as a form of egoism (2015, 280). I would agree that it is, but I think of this assessment as being at least somewhat controversial. Bernard Williams in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, for example, insists that Aristotle is no egoist. I don’t find Williams’s comments persuasive, but the point is that the question is arguable. All this started me thinking about Aristotelian egoism and its rationale, and led me ultimately to a startling problem for Aristotelian egoism. The problem is startling, to me anyway, because I had thought that Aristotle’s fundamental argument for his conception of the human good is essentially egoistic and could not be otherwise. I have also long thought that no system of ethics can be anything but egoistic if it is to have a ghost of a chance of being true. To see such longstanding views seriously undermined is startling, but it is also refreshing and rewarding to clarify and deepen one’s understanding of one’s views. Let us see in what way Aristotle is an egoist, what his argument is for his view of the human good, and where I now see a problem for his egoistic conclusion. Egoism is the view that the only reason to do anything ultimately is to confer some benefit on the agent. This rules out, as reasons for action, such things as that God said, that your mother said, that it’s the law, that it’s just the right thing to do, and that it’s required by social norms or intuitions. That is, these are ruled out as ultimate reasons. The mere fact that your mother said you should do something is not a reason to do it, according to egoism. Of course, if you want to please your mother or if you want to avoid being punished by her or if you think she has good judgment and has your best interests at heart, then her say-so can become a reason indirectly. But then her say-so is not your ultimate reason for acting. By this standard, Aristotle is an egoist. Along with every other Greek philosopher so far as I can see, he simply takes for granted that one should act to promote one’s own good and has no other reason for acting. This shows up in his eudaimonism. After arguing in Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics that reasons for action are structured teleologically and all aim at a grand, final end, he declares that it is uncontroversial that the final end is happiness. It is clear that he means the personal happiness of each agent. The difficulty, he says, is to know precisely in what happiness consists, and he proceeds in the remainder of Book I—and really in the remainder of the NE—to develop his eudaimonistic conception of happiness. Of course, Aristotle is not one of those bad egoists like Epicurus who have trouble explaining why you shouldn’t lie, cheat, and steal. Again along with every other Greek philosopher—except Epicurus this time—Aristotle is a good egoist, the kind who doesn’t have this problem. He and they avoid it by including virtuous action as a constitutive element in happiness. You can’t be happy by lying, cheating, and stealing, because to do these things is already to wreck your happiness. What distinguishes Epicurus and his numerous modern successors is that they identify the human good with something other than virtue, something like pleasure or long life or physical well-being or desire satisfaction. Thus they make virtue only instrumentally good. Since the human good (the final end) is, say, pleasure, everything else is good only to the extent that it is useful for obtaining pleasure. As a result they have a problem explaining why one should still be virtuous even in circumstances where one could get more pleasure by being vicious. I believe it is because Aristotle is a good egoist that Williams doesn’t want to allow that he is an egoist at all. If so, I think this is misguided. Egoism should be defined in terms of what is fundamental to it—the primacy of self-interest—not by whether one has trouble explaining why we shouldn’t lie, cheat, and steal when we can do so to our advantage. How does Aristotle link virtue with personal benefit? How does he derive his conception of the human good? He does so by the famous ergon argument of Book I, chapter 7. Basically the argument is that whatever has a function (in Greek, ergon) thereby has standards of its good built in to the function. The function of a flute player is to play the flute; a good flute player is one who plays well. The function of the eye is to see; a good eye sees well. Now, if a human being per se also has a function, then we can similarly derive standards of what makes a good human being. Aristotle decides that the distinctive function of the human being is reason (since it is what most fundamentally distinguishes us from all other creatures) and accordingly that the human good lies in the excellent active employment of the rational faculty. This is all pretty abstract. As Aristotle proceeds, it develops that what he is recommending is that one live one’s life through the constant, excellent, active employment of reason, letting it penetrate all areas of conduct, not just overtly intellectual areas like learning and reasoning and deliberating, but areas having to do with the passions and emotions as well. Passions and emotions cannot easily be controlled directly, of course, but we can train ourselves by repetition and exercise to develop habitually appropriate emotional responses. This is the core idea of his theory of the character virtues, such as courage, moderation, liberality, and even temper. When a person has and exercises these character virtues as well as the intellectual virtues, he has everything: appropriate action comes naturally; it feels good to do the right things; right action leads as a rule to material success, health, and well-being, but even when it doesn’t the happy person is content with the path of decency that reason dictates; he is both admired by others and comfortable in his own skin; in a word, he flourishes. The details of Aristotle’s conception of the human good are less important than the structure of his basic argument for it: The good of a thing that has a function consists in its performing that function well; biological organisms are functionally organized; so their good is to function well. We ought in principle to be able to identify the good functioning of an organism empirically, by analyzing its functional organization and operation. At a gross level, the analysis is intuitive. We know pretty well without training how to spot a thriving flower or tree in the garden. Likewise in the case of our bodies, the concept of health is precisely of this functional, empirical sort. For Aristotelian naturalism, the flourishing of a good person is like the health of a good body. Obviously there are many objections that can be made to all this and many matters of detail to address. I am just outlining the basic ideas here, so I can get on with my problem. This is a blog. I don’t imagine I’m writing a treatise on Aristotelian naturalism. Though if anyone has a particular bone or two to pick with any of this, that could make for good discussion. But there is one issue I do need to mention, concerning the status of functions. They need to be real. For the good of a thing to be derivable from its function, there needs to be a function that it has. This is controversial. Since the work of Larry Wright and Rob Cummins in the mid-1970s, it has become legitimate to take functions with ontological seriousness, especially in biology. According to this view, when biologists say that the heart is for pumping the blood, the eye is for seeing, the wing is for flying, they and we can take it literally. There are scoffers. John Searle comes to mind. On the other hand, both Ruth Millikan’s and Fred Dretske’s theories of cognitive semantics are rooted in this idea, and they have not exactly been laughed off the stage. I propose not to worry too much about this. Whatever the exact ontological status of functions, our empirical investigation of them has substantial objective constraints; that is probably enough reality for the purposes of Aristotelian naturalism. One very helpful constraint in the case of biological functions comes from the Darwinian theory of natural selection. And here at last we come to the problem I see for Aristotle’s egoism. If a trait evolved because it brings about a certain result in the life of an organism, a result which would not exist without that trait, that is evidence that the trait has the function of bringing about the result. If the eye evolved—came to exist—because of the information about the distal environment it supplied to organisms, which they would not otherwise have had, that is evidence that the eye is for supplying information about the distal environment. Wright actually makes this criterial for something having a function. Cummins does not. Either way, it is at least evidence of functionality. Most traits evolve by enhancing the fitness of individual organisms. Of two primeval flatworms, the one with the proto-eye will on average survive and reproduce more than the one without. This is individual or within-group selection. Since the 1960s, it has been firmly believed to be the only kind. If you read Richard Dawkins, that is what he will tell you. But Darwin didn’t think so, and contemporary opinion is no longer so uniformly against it as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, it is beginning to be recognized that natural selection also operates at the level of groups. For this to happen, it is necessary that groups compete as groups. But this does happen. In the human case, for example, two tribes may fight over the same foraging territory. Which tribe will be more likely to win this fight, the tribe whose members exhibit solidarity and discipline or the tribe whose members are looking out for number one? Clearly when tribes are at war, it is better to be a member of the tribe whose members exhibit solidarity and discipline. To be a member of the other tribe is to be doomed to destruction no matter how personally big and strong and brave one is. Thus where group selection pressure is significant, traits like solidarity and discipline will spread through the population. The counterargument is that although it is better to belong to the group whose members exhibit solidarity and discipline than to belong to the group whose members don’t, what is still better is to be a free rider in the former group; that is, best of all is to be surrounded by tribe members who exhibit solidarity and discipline but not to exhibit these traits oneself. To be a member of a tribe full of heroes but to be careful to let one’s other fellow members be the heroes. But this isn’t really a counterargument. It is only a statement of an opposing selective force. Group selection pressure, such as tribal warfare, selects for pro-group traits like solidarity and discipline; individual selection pressure selects for selfish traits like abandoning one’s fellows when the going gets dangerous. Both are always operating, and each tends to drive out the other. If there are never any wars, then selfish traits will inexorably spread through the population by individual selection pressure in the way just described. But if wars are frequent, they will tend to be won by the group with the most robust pro-group membership, and pro-group traits will spread through the population at the expense of the selfish ones. Which process will predominate, group selection or individual selection, depends on conditions and can change with conditions. That’s all I will say about this interesting topic. To find out more, and for a thorough and convincing argument for the reality of group selection in case you’ve read Dawkins lately and don’t believe it, see two papers by David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson, “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundations of Sociobiology” (2007) and “Evolution ‘for the Good of the Group’” (2008). Henceforth let us accept for the sake of argument that group selection operated (and operates) in human evolution and that we have pro-group traits of some kind. It doesn’t really matter for my purposes what they are exactly. I suggested “solidarity” and “discipline” without defining them. Whatever the traits are, they will be ones that economists tell us are irrational, like tipping in restaurants and voting in political elections and punishing wrongdoers. (Need to be reminded why punishment is irrational? Suppose you have been assaulted by some random person you are unlikely ever to meet again. Then the harm is done and will not be undone by having the malefactor spend time in jail. True, if he commits assault and gets away with it, he’ll be encouraged to do it again. But almost certainly not to you, so you have no interest in discouraging him. The rational thing is to save your time and effort: forget it and let his next act of aggression be someone else’s problem.) I hope the problem with Aristotelian egoism is now coming clear. The ergon argument says the good consists in functioning well. This means that our functions as human beings, whatever they are, set the terms of what makes us good human beings. This argument is safe as long as its conclusion is restricted to what makes us good. This is simply the logic that says if the function of a flute player is to play the flute, a good flute player is one who plays the flute well. The trouble is that, as the argument is employed, it goes further. It draws conclusions about what makes us happy. About what makes for our well-being. About what is good for us. From the putative fact that we have the function of reasoning, it is concluded that a good human being reasons well. That is the safe part. But it is also concluded that it is good for a human being to reason well. This assumes that what makes us good instances of our kind is also good for us. But for creatures with pro-group traits, this is not necessarily true. The honey bee that stings an invader and thereby kills itself is being a good honey bee. (“Do be a do-bee.” Sorry, I couldn’t help it.) But its action is not good for it! It costs it its life. That is the nature of pro-group traits; they are good for the group, not the individual. Aristotelian naturalism takes for granted an individualistic metaphysics of human beings that group selection theory implies is false. If it were true, then we could indeed conclude from the fact that something makes one a good human being that it is good for one. This is the implicit premise of eudaimonism: that to be a good human being is to thrive, to flourish, to be happy, to function well as an individual. But with pro-group traits, this is not necessarily any truer of human beings than it is of honey bees. Time to wrap up. As should be clear, I don’t see the ergon argument as the problem. I believe it is sound. The problem is that an unstated assumption of metaphysical individualism—the assumption that all our human traits are pro-individual—led to the (as it turns out) unwarranted conclusion that the ergon argument supports eudaimonism. Well, largely it does, of course. We aren’t honey bees and don’t have particularly many pro-group traits. But I believe we have some, and they are important. To the extent we do, eudaimonism is false. More amazingly, egoism is false. We actually have a reason, in the ergon argument, to do something that does not benefit us. What I would say in all earnestness to a honey bee, if it could deliberate about its actions, is that the most important thing in life is to be a good honey bee. To be a scurrilous honey bee who lets some other worker sting the invader is to live a bad life as a honey bee. I hope there is something intuitive about this. To run away from the fight to save itself is to be a bad bee. I think that is objectively true. To the extent that we have pro-group traits, it turns out, to my astonishment, that it is true (in a much more limited way, of course) for us too. WORKS CITED

  • Cummins, Robert. 1975. “Functional Analysis.” Journal of Philosophy, 72: 741-764.
  • Irwin, Terence. 2007. The Development of Ethics: A Historical and Critical Study, Vol. 1, From Socrates to the Reformation. Oxford University Press.
  • Skelton, Anthony. 2015. “Review of Terence Irwin, The Development of Ethics: A Historical and Critical Study, Vol. 3, From Kant to Rawls, Oxford University Press, 2009.” The Philosophical Review, 124: 279–286.
  • Williams, Bernard. 1985. Ethic and the Limits of Philosophy. Harvard University Press.
  • Wilson, David Sloan and Edward O. Wilson. 2007. “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundations of Sociobiology.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, 82: 327–348.
  • ———. 2008. “Evolution ‘for the Good of the Group’.” American Scientist, 96: 380–389.
  • Wright, Larry. 1976. Teleological Explanations. University of California Press.

18 thoughts on “Aristotelian Egoism and the Ergon Argument

  1. I’d like to write more, but I’m pressed for time. Still, I can’t resist a few brief comments.

    First, it isn’t clear to me that the concept of a function does ir should depend on selection; there is no obvious reason why we cannot correctly identify functions without knowing anything about selection history, or why a given function would be different if it had a different selection history (or none at all). What a thing’s function is seems to be rather a matter of how it contributes to the maintenance and performance of a complex but unified system, not a matter of what reproductive advantage (if any) it gave to a living thing’s ancestors. The ‘systems view’ of functions is elaborated and defended by Mark Bedeau, Paul Davies, and Mark Murphy, and seems to me superior to selectionist views, though I readily admit that I’ve studied this issue less than I’d like.

    Second, I think we should challenge your claim that a bee’s pro-social behavior isn’t good for it because (or when) it suffers harmful consequences as a result. On the one hand, if the pro-social behavior is really so central to the bee’s life as you suggest (and I think it is), then it seems wrong to think that such behavior isn’t good for the bee, even when it has to sacrifice its life to do it; the bee’s life just is a pro-social life, and that behavior is not only what keeps it alive but the chief way in which it exercises its distinctive capacities (which are to a great extent capacities for just that sort of activity), so that living well for the individual bee necessarily involves that pro-social behavior. I don’t think bees are egoists (more on that below), but even an egoist need have no trouble making sense of the idea that commitment to one’s own good can require acting in ways that will get you killed; that’s only a deep problem if we suppose that survival is unconditionally valuable regardless of its quality.

    Finally, I think it’s important to distinguish between egoism as a formal claim about reasons and as a substantive claim about what is good for an individual. Williams, for example, accepts (if I recall) that Aristotle holds the view you ascribe to him about fundamental reasons for action, but denies that Aristotle is an egoist on the grounds that he doesn’t think that individual human well-being is related to the well-being of others only instrumentally; we share goods in common, and part of our own welfare involves caring about and benefiting others for their own sake. As my old post here on this topic shows, I don’t think much rides on whether we use the term egoism or not, but it is important to distinguish between different kinds of claims about reasons and goods.

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      • Sorry, I’m such a newbie at this, I have no idea about tagging — what tags to use or use to make of them once they are applied. Does this mean we could look up old posts by their tags?

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        • I’m not entirely sure that Authors (as opposed to the Site Editor, moi) can see the tagging function. But a “tag” is just a keyword, and it aids in finding articles on a certain subject. When I post, there is a little section for tags, and I can just type them in. But I often forget to.

          One of the downsides of Book Lite (this type of site) is that the aesthetic qualities are better than the search functions. I’ll try and look into improving the search functionality when I get a chance; I’m probably missing something, and there’s more functionality than I realize.

          One way to search an author’s posts is by clicking on their name, but it only seems to work if you click the hyperlinked version of the name that shows up in a post (not the version that appears in the combox).

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    • Hi. Thanks for replying to my post. I had been unaware of your own earlier post, so thanks for mentioning it. I enjoyed reading it. We seem to have a lot of premises in common.

      (Your post wasn’t easy to find, by the way. There doesn’t seem to be any way to look up old posts here. It seems like you should be able to get a list of all the posts by a certain author, for example. If there’s a way to do that here, I haven’t found it.)

      “First, it isn’t clear to me that the concept of a function does ir should depend on selection; there is no obvious reason why we cannot correctly identify functions without knowing anything about selection history, or why a given function would be different if it had a different selection history (or none at all).”

      In my post, I alluded to a disagreement between theories of natural functions that descend from Cummins and those that descend from Wright, but I didn’t spell it out. The Cummins approach says that natural functions depend on the synchronic functional organization of a causal system. The Wright approach says that natural functions depend on causal history, where in the case of biology this usually means natural selection. The way things have developed in subsequent years, it seems to me, is that the Wright approach won out or at least became the strong favorite. The reason it is favored, I suppose, is that requiring a particular sort of causal origin provides a satisfyingly rigorous constraint on talk of natural functions. It gives us a clear criterion of functionality, which reassures us that when we talk about natural functions we aren’t just blowing smoke.

      But I have always thought Cummins’s approach is better. I agree with you: functionality ought to be a matter of what is actually going on in a system, not of what went on (or didn’t) in the causal history of the system. Donald Davidson’s Swampman example illustrates the point. Suppose that one day deep in a swamp somewhere a bolt of lightning struck and as a result there appeared on the spot an exact particle-for-particle replica of you. It would share all your physical properties, all your behavior, and all your causal organization at every level. But since it does not have the causal history that Wright-style theories require, it has no natural functions. Although your eyes are for seeing, swamp you’s eyes are not for anything. Although your heart is for pumping blood, swamp you’s heart isn’t. And if Dretske, Millikan, and others are right that the content of our intentional states (sense-perceptions, mental images, thoughts, etc.) depends on natural functions, then swamp you’s states have no content. Whereas your mind is alive with images, thoughts, and feelings, swamp you’s “mind” is a total blank! This seems like a reductio of the Wright approach to functions.

      That is why in my post I only said that causal history is evidence of functionality. Having a particular causal history does not constitute a thing’s having a certain natural function, but it can be a very good indication that it does. It can point us in the direction of the right functional analysis. That is how I used group selection in my post. The group selection of pro-group traits shows that we have them because of their propensity to increase the fitness of the group we belong to, at the expense of our own fitness. If the account is right, then this is just a fact. And it is bad news for the idea that all of our human traits are good for us as individuals. For, what brought pro-group traits into being was not our good as individuals. Indeed, they were brought into being by a process opposed to our individual benefit. So if they are good for us after all, it seemingly must be in some fortuitous way. They must have evolved to our detriment but then been repurposed somehow. This is logically possible. But I see not much reason to believe it.

      “Second, I think we should challenge your claim that a bee’s pro-social behavior isn’t good for it because (or when) it suffers harmful consequences as a result. On the one hand, if the pro-social behavior is really so central to the bee’s life as you suggest (and I think it is), then it seems wrong to think that such behavior isn’t good for the bee, even when it has to sacrifice its life to do it; the bee’s life just is a pro-social life, and that behavior is not only what keeps it alive but the chief way in which it exercises its distinctive capacities (which are to a great extent capacities for just that sort of activity), so that living well for the individual bee necessarily involves that pro-social behavior. I don’t think bees are egoists (more on that below), but even an egoist need have no trouble making sense of the idea that commitment to one’s own good can require acting in ways that will get you killed; that’s only a deep problem if we suppose that survival is unconditionally valuable regardless of its quality.”

      Hmm. I think the benefit of death is going to be a hard sell.

      It is true that even for an egoist there can be some conditions under which life is not worth living. But that is not the alternative we are considering. The relevant alternative is sacrificing yourself or getting somebody else to sacrifice himself.

      When you say, “the bee’s life is just a pro-social life, and that behavior is not only what keeps it alive…,” I think this may reflect a misunderstanding. Where pro-social, the bee’s behavior does not promote its life, but hinders it. To take the extreme case, to die for the hive by stinging an intruder rather than letting another bee do it does not promote the bee’s life; it destroys it. What such behavior promotes is the hive, not the bee. Hives with more pro-group behaving bees will survive better than other hives. This is a benefit to the hive of having bees that do not promote their own benefit.

      When you say, “if the pro-social behavior is really so central to the bee’s life as you suggest…, then it seems wrong to think that such behavior isn’t good for the bee…,” you seem to rely on the principle that to perform its function well must be good for whatever has a natural function. That is, for a thing to be good at its natural function must also be its good. To be a good flute player is necessarily good for the flute player. To be a good oak tree is necessarily good for the oak tree. I agree that this is a powerful argument. To be a good oak is to perform well the functions of an oak, and to function well—to hum along, be a well oiled machine—must be the happiness of an oak, mustn’t it? But there are two separate steps here. The argument is: For any X having natural functions Y: (a) to be a good X is to Y well; and (b) to Y well is good for X. These are distinct points. In my post, I argued that the ergon argument supports only (a), not (b). What supports (b), I suppose, is the idea that the good of a thing must consist in its functioning well as the sort of thing it is. This seems like a strong intuition to me. But it is not the ergon argument.

      The trouble with step (b) that I identified in my post is that if we have an individualistic conception of what is good for us, as is implied by terms like happiness, prospering, thriving, flourishing, and well-being, then, if we have pro-group traits, the conclusion doesn’t follow. Leaving your trench and advancing toward enemy machine gun fire isn’t liable to make you happy; it’s liable to make you dead. We do it anyway. That’s because we have pro-group traits, not just individualistic ones.

      To the extent that we as individuals are part of a larger whole, cogs in a machine that has an ontological status of its own, which is the way biology looks at bees in hives and to some extent also ourselves in groups, step (b) fails. To be a good cog is to function well as a cog. But since the function of a cog requires it to contribute to a larger whole, its functioning well as a cog may require its sacrifice.

      “Finally, I think it’s important to distinguish between egoism as a formal claim about reasons and as a substantive claim about what is good for an individual. Williams, for example, accepts (if I recall) that Aristotle holds the view you ascribe to him about fundamental reasons for action, but denies that Aristotle is an egoist on the grounds that he doesn’t think that individual human well-being is related to the well-being of others only instrumentally; we share goods in common, and part of our own welfare involves caring about and benefiting others for their own sake. As my old post here on this topic shows, I don’t think much rides on whether we use the term egoism or not, but it is important to distinguish between different kinds of claims about reasons and goods.”

      I like the formulation of egoism in terms of reasons because it highlights the issue of justifying normative claims. Non-egoists are much better at telling us what we supposedly should do than at explaining why. It is true that the formulation in terms of reasons requires a further premise to the effect that one should do what one has most reason to do (or something like that). But this isn’t really that much of a problem, is it? If we didn’t guide ourselves by reasons, there would be no such discipline as ethics.

      Your analysis of Williams’s claims seems to be the same as mine.

      Are you saying there is some particular problem for my argument that is caused by my defining egoism the way I do?

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  2. I’ve really wanted to be part of this discussion; left your email notice up since I first got it, Irfan, hoping to. Just my type of thing. Simply too swamped with other things right now to participate (the usual trite excuse, I’m afraid) and have been away too long from these areas to be able simply to sit down and key in a few useful comments.

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    • Jurgis,

      Take your time. The blog will be here, and you can always comment when you have the chance. I myself have been traveling (still am), so I haven’t been able to respond, but will try to do so when I get back home.

      Incidentally, not sure you noticed, but this post is actually written by David Potts, not me. Confusingly, the email notice probably comes with my name attached to it.

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  3. Pingback: Jury Duty, Moral Horror, Gratitude, and a Promissory Note, All in a Single Post | Policy of Truth

  4. Here’s a very late and lamely incomplete response to other David’s response to my response, or rather to two of the points he makes in it.

    1. You identify a purported gap in the reasoning of the ergon argument from (a) to be a good X is to Y well; and (b) to Y well is good for X. I won’t claim that the letter of Aristotle’s text is abundantly clear on this point, but I don’t think there’s any such gap in his argument. That’s because I take him to be helping himself to two assumptions: (1) that the ergon of X is essential to X, and (2) that the ergon relevant to questions about a living thing’s good is the ergon of that kind of animal as such. By (1), the ergon is not something that we are really at liberty to exercise or not; we may be at liberty to exercise it well or poorly, but not to exercise it. “Essential” here should be taken de re, not de dicto: nobody is essentially a flute player (even though playing the flute is de dicto necessarily the ergon of a flute player), but an eye is essentially an organ of sight. By (2), the ergon relevant to questions about a living thing’s good is not one activity among others that a living thing of a specific kind performs; it is the activity that makes that living thing the kind of living thing it is. So if rational activity is the human ergon, then not only is rational activity something that we are more or less constrained to do in one form or another, it is also the activity that determines the shape that our form of life takes. So it is not like flute playing, which is an activity that we can take up or not, but it is also not like breathing, which is an activity that we are more or less constrained to do in one form or another and had better do well, but not an activity that governs the exercise of our other capacities (similar things can be said, mutatis mutandis about the perceptual/desiderative activities of non-rational animals and the nutritive activities of plants). Taken in this way, it seems to me to be as absurd to suggest that good exercise of a living thing’s ergon is not good for it as it is to suggest that seeing well is not good for an eye. If we want to know what is good or bad for eyes, we need to know what will enable or prevent them from seeing well; obviously animals are more complex than organs, but the same principle seems to me to apply. Or, perhaps otherwise put: if there is some conception of a living thing’s good on which the principle does not apply, it must be a substantive conception; the principle can’t be shown not to apply simply for logical reasons.

    2. The idea that exercising pro-social functions is good for a bee is not at all the claim that dying is good for the bee. On one level, this is easy to see: if I smash the bee with my shoe, it dies but doesn’t exercise it’s pro-social functions; so there is not even a relation of mutual entailment here, and hence not one of identity either. But less pedantically, the idea is that what is good for a bee is to exercise its essential and determinative function well, and that if it does this it will have lived a good life acting in ways that were good for it. The fact that it dies as a result of exercising this function where it might (let’s suppose) have avoided exercising it and stayed alive doesn’t show that it didn’t live well. It may be better for the bee if it is lucky enough to exercise its pro-social functions and not die as a result, but the claim that an animal lives well is not the same as the claim that it lives as well as it might have. We can make adequate sense of the obvious fact that death harms the bee and is not good for it without supposing that the exercise of its pro-social function is bad for it. If I die defending my freedom against people who are trying to enslave me, death is obviously bad for me and I would, ceteris paribus have been better off if I had not been killed; but it does not follow that defending myself against being enslaved is bad for me, even if I’m virtually guaranteed to lose the fight. Maybe it is; maybe being alive, even as a slave, is better than acting to preserve my freedom even at the cost of death. But that conclusion depends on a substantive and rival conception of what makes something good for me; it isn’t a neutral principle to which we can appeal against Aristotle. I won’t deny that it’s counter-intuitive to think that the bee lives well and does what is good for it when it acts to protect its group at the cost of its life. But contrary to what some commentators these days maintain, Aristotle is not beholden to what we happen to find intuitive (and the fact that many ancient Greeks probably wouldn’t have found it so counter-intuitive gives us some reason to doubt the evidentiary value of our intuition in this case). Aristotle’s conception of a living thing’s good is grounded in a metaphysical view about goodness and the natures of living things, and he’s happy to revise common-sense intuitions by appeal to it.

    In any case, I don’t think the bee is really what drives your worries. Maybe certain sorts of bees are just such that self-sacrificial action on behalf of the group is good for them, so that bees, though individual organisms, are not individualist organisms. Your worry seems instead to be what we might be constrained to say about ourselves if we accept this sort of view. Obviously we need not worry that Aristotelian naturalism will lead us to think of our own good in the way that it leads us to think of the bee’s good, because human beings and bees are different kinds of animals. I’m not bothered at all by the thought that human beings might not be thoroughly individualist animals either. But I think the issue revolves in large part around empirical matters, and I take it to be pretty clear empirically that human beings are much more individualistic animals than bees. But I also think that we are much less individualistic animals than some Rand-inspired neo-Aristotelians seem to suggest.

    On a final note, your discussion of Wright and Cummins is superb. Thank you.

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    • Irfan, can we turn on comment-editing with this software? I make so many damn typos and mistakes that I for some reason fail to see until after I press ‘post comment’ (no matter how many times I re-read my post beforehand, it seems) that I will save myself from further public shame if that function is available. So far as I can see I can only edit comments if I am the author of the original post. But I don’t know if there are any other options.

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        • Well, my typos are the product of a kind of indiscriminate promiscuity, so I suppose there’s a relevant similarity. But if we follow the spirit of the times, then nobody should ever criticize my typos for any reason precisely because it is a form of shaming, and shame is bad. Sure, I could just be more selective in what I choose to type, wait longer before deciding to hit the ‘send’ button, carefully consider whether I’m really willing to accept the consequences of what I’m writing, and make sure I’m not being frivolous about serious things. But you shohuldn’t criticize me even if I don’t. It’s not nice.

          I am exercising my ergon. I’m just exercising it badly.

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    • Fixed.

      I always forget that you lowly “Authors” can’t edit your comments, since as a regal Site Administrator, I face no such problem. I edit mine pretty liberally.

      One possibility here is that I could edit your mistakes at your request; we could then set up a Paypal account whereby you pay me a modest fee to be paid per correction (i.e., per keystroke). Have your people call mine.

      Another possibility is that I could acquire a modicum of Site Administrator Knowledge and Responsibility and figure out how to confer comment editing capacities on my writerly proletariat.

      Deliberation is about what promotes ends, not about ends, so what’s my end, again? Ergon something something. Anyway, I’m on it.

      P.S. I had to edit this comment.

      Like

      • Actually, a third (and fourth-ish) option just occurred to me: I had intended to upgrade the site to “Premium” anyway, so I’ll just hurry up and do that this week. With some luck, the extra functionality will make it transparent how Authors can edit comments. If not, I’ll upgrade you (plural) to whatever status has that capacity.

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