Thursday, May 29, 2014

Notes on "Natural Goodness"

My notes on Natural Goodness by Philippa Foot, which I'm taking up on the recommendation of Richard Carrier. I expect that I'll probably do something with these shortly.

Anscombe is pointing here to what she has elsewhere called an 'Aristotelian necessity': that which is necessary because and in so far as good hangson it. We invoke the same idea when we say that it is necessary for plants to have water, for birds to build nests, for wolves to hunt in packs, and for lionesses to teach their cubs to kill.... And it will surely not be denied denied that there is something wrong with a freeriding wolf that feeds but does not take part in the hunt, as with a member of the species of dancing bees who finds a source of nectar but whose behavior does not let other bees know if its location. These free-riding individuals of a species whose members work together are just as defective as those who have defective hearing, sight, or powers of locomotion (Pp. 15 - 16).

The free-riding wolf is certainly behaving contrary to type, and contrary to the interests of its pack, but it doesn't follow from there that wolf is necessarily "defective". Lack of hearing, or sight, or locomotion affects the individual organism, but free-riding can conceivably benefit the organism.

I'm withholding judgement for the moment, but I suspect that this is going to turn into a problem later on. What is good (in the sense of promoting wellbing) for a single organism might not be good for the group as a whole; unless we equate the good of a single organism with the good of the group there will probably be tension between the two.

We start from the fact that there is a basis for the Aristotelian categorial that does not come from the counting of heads.... What is crucial to all teleological is the expectation of an answer to the question 'What part does it play in the life cycle of things of species S?'

This would seem to imply that mere deviance from the norm is insufficient to classify something as "bad" or "defective". Going back to the example of the free-loading wolf, this would indicate that the "free-loading" is not bad simply because most wolves do not free-load, but must be bad on account of some deleterious effect it has on the organism.

The way an individual should be is determined by what is needed for development, self-maintenance, and reproduction: in most species involving defence, and in some the rearing of the young. (p. 33)

An important consideration is tucked away in the accompanying footnote:

In most cases we speak of what each member of the species needs to be and to do in order that it should flourish. But of course what is needed may be needed in a group, like cooperation in a pack, or obedience to a leader, and what a member of the species is or does may advantage others rather than himself. (Footnote 13, p. 33).

Let's consider the free-loading wolf again in light of the previous two statements. It would seem that free-loading is defective to the extent that it hinders what is needed for "development, self-maintenance, and reproduction". Now here's a question for consideration: Does free-loading always provide a hinderance to "the good", or are there situations where it may actually redound to the organism's benefit?

This is a question of fact which is best answered by someone who studies wolves, but let me proffer a plausible (though possibly incorrect) scenario: If a wolf free-loads all of the time the other wolves will eventually learn/recognize this, and cease to share in the kill. However, a wolf who free-loads judiciously (something significantly less than all of the time) may continue to receive a share of the kill while avoiding expending the associated effort. It thus is not outside the bound of reason that free-loading might promote the well-being of the wolf in certain circumstances.

So, far from being obviously defective, as claimed previously, the free-loading wolf might have a slight edge on its non-freeloading cousins. If we continue to identify "the good" with what benefits an individual organism then by that metric the free-loading wolf is "better" that its cooperative peers. This is in no way contradicted by the fact that all the wolves, free-loading or not, generally benefit from pack-hunting. But it does highlight that, by the rubric of "natural goodness" which Foot has proposed, cooperative behavior is only "good" to the extent that it helps the individual. When such behavior can be subverted to the individuals benefit this too is "good".

No doubt an individual bee that does not dance does not itself suffer from its delinquency, but ipso facto because it does not dance, there is something wrong with it, because of the part that dancing plays in the life of this species of bee. (p. 35)

I just don't see how that follows from the prior definition of terms. Dancing can be established as a "good" at the group level; all bees benefit from the group tendency to dance. However, that a single bee fails to dance doesn't harm the bee, and probably has negligible impact on the group. If the non-dancing behavior does not undermine the individual bee's well-being then it seems hard to say that there is something "wrong" with the bee in the moral sense; the bee is different from its peers, to be sure, but this difference appears to be morally neutral.

There seems to be a strong desire to conflate the good of the individual with the good of the group, even though the rubric of "goodness" is applied at the individual level. Foot doesn't seem to have been able to resolve the tension that I noted earlier, even at the level of non-human animals. I don't have a whole lot of confidence that she'll be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat for the human ones.

Similarly, cooperation is something on which good hangs in the life of a wolf, and the free-riding wolf is not behaving as it should. (p. 35)

This statement is easier to grapple with. "Cooperation" is not an all-or-nothing thing; if a wolf can cooperate most of the time and free-ride a little bit of the time, thereby furthering its individual well-being, then it is absolutely behaving as it should per Foot's original definition. It is also true that, if all the wolves were to free-ride then they'd all probably suffer, but that seems to be irrelevant to determining the well-being of an individual wolf in a particular, fact-bound situation.

This is not nitpicking; this is the heart of social morality for human beings. As I wrote elsewhere: "If I kill someone, steal his stuff, and then sell it to finance a college education and a gym membership" that seems to work to my benefit provided I don't get caught. Being able to rebut this proposition effectively seems to be high on the list of requirements for any "natural" system of ethics such as Foot proposes.

More generally what is "good" for the individual, by any metric, may not necessarily be "good" for the group, or vice versa. A moral theory needs to provide clear guidance as to how conflicts are to be arbitrated or it ceases to be of much value due to simple lack of utility.

Lack of capacity to reproduce is a defect in a human being. But choice of childlessness and even celibacy is not therby shown to be defective choice, because human good is not the same as plant or animal good. The bearing and rearing of children is not an ultimate good in human life, because other elements of good such as the demands of work to be done may give a man or woman reason to renounce family life. And the great (if often troubling) good of having children has to do with the love and ambition of parents for children, the special role of grandparents, and many other things, and many other things that simply do not belong to animal life. (p. 42)

Defining "human good" is clearly going to be very important, but if I may hazard a guess the above quote foreshadows that the definition thereof is almost certainly going to become mired in hopeless subjectivity.

Thus the idea of a good life for a human being, and the question of its relation to happiness is each deeploy problematic. And, moreover, there is so much diversity in human beings and human cultures that the schema of natural normativity may seem to be inapplicable from the start. Nevertheless, for all the diversities of human life, it is possible to give some quite general account of human necessities, that is, of what is quite generally needed for huan good, if only by starting from the negative idea of human deprivation. (p. 43)

Ok, I'll buy that. I'd go so far as to call that particular tack "clever".

For then we see at once that human good depends on many characteristics and capacities that are not needed even by animals, never mind by plants. There arem for instance, physical properties such as the kind of larynx that allows of the myriad sounds that make up human language, as well as the kind of hearing that can distinguish them. (p. 43)

Eh... not compelling. I can turn that around and say that animals depend on many characteristics which are not needed by humans (enhanced senses, claws, venom, flight), nevermind plants. Or that plants depend on photosynthesis, which is needed by neither animals nor humans. At best this shows that humans have unique requirements, but so do many other animals.

Moreover, human beings need the mental capacity for learning language; they also need powers of imagintion that allow them to understand stories, to join in songs and dances -- and to laugh at jokes. Without such things human beings may survive and reproduce themselves, but they are deprived. (p. 43)

I don't dance and don't really care to do so; it would be laughable to categorize myself as "deprived" in either a absolute or relative sense as a result. I don't sing very much, and don't greatly value the ability to do so, but all else equal it would be nice to carry a tune so maybe I'm "mildly deprived" in that regard? More tellingly, however, my feelings on the subject would likely be much different if I found myself in a milieu where those talents were highly valued. As it stands I live in a slice of the world where singing and dancing just doesn't come up much.

Given the variety of human behavior it seems totally unjustified to say someone is "deprived" by virtue of not singing or dancing, or not having the capacity to do so. Certainly such arguments as can be made seem to be highly subjective, or at least culture bound, so it's hard to see in what sense they are "natural" except at a exceedingly broad level of generalization. But there's nothing particularly special about singing and dancing; the same arguments can be made about virtually any human endeavor. To call an individual "deprived" without considering the totality of their circumstances seems unjustified.

And what could be more natural than to say on this acccount that we have introduced the subject of possible human defects; calling them 'natural defects' as we used these terms in the discussion of plant and animal life? (p. 43)

Well, how about because you haven't demonstrated that they are "defects" by your earlier definition? Or that they apply to all humanity? You're just asserting that humans "need to X" or "need to have the capability to X", and have had the bad fortune to pick some examples which seem easily rebuttable. At this point in the argument I can say "need to have the capability to solve differential equations" with exactly as much justification as you say "need to have the capability to dance", so you're going to have to fill in the details a little bit first.

As some species of animals need a lookout, or as herds of elephants need an old she-elephant to lead them to a watering hole, so human societies need leaders, explorers, and artists. Failure to perform a special role can here be a defect in a man or woman who is not ready to contribute what he or she alone -- or best -- can give. There is also something wrong with us if we do not support those of genius, or even special talent, in their work.

Where to begin? Random thoughts in no particular order:

  • Foot has a very specific teleology in mind, one that is focused on the flourishing of society as a whole.
  • What is the "natural" boundary of a society? Assuming such a thing exists, and can be coherently spoken of to have "needs", to what level do we look? Local communities? Cities, states, countries? The globe? However you define "the good" of society you'll get different, probably irreconcilable answers at different levels. There doesn't seem to be any principled way to make this decision.
  • How does one incur an obligation to perform a particular job? How can this obligation be squared with the notion of "the good" of an individual?

I have to admit that seeing these sort of highly contentious statements tossed out as if they were self-evident makes me want to abandon the whole project right now. Natural Goodness is a slim volume; there's almost certainly not enough room for Foot to develop an adequate justification for that sort of thing.

It is worth remarking that in considering reasons for action in the earlier chapters we seemed to move quite naturally between the example of somoen kept in bed by flu and that of the explorer Maklay bound by his promise to his servant. Various observations were made about the relation between the concepts of goodness and reasons with no distinction of 'non-moral' and 'moral' examples. Was this a mistake? (p. 67)

What to say about this except to disagree with Foot's assessment that the flu example (p. 59) is 'non-moral'. Foot has not treated it as a moral dilemma along the same lines as the Maklay example (p. 47), but I think that just goes to show that Foot is importing normativity without even realizing it. For the individual in question to stay in bed rather than deposit a check is to prioritize that individual's well-being over the external obligations to other represented by checks which have been written but not funded. This is not even to argue that such a decision is improper, or that I wouldn't do the same thing myself in the situation, but merely to point out that prioritizing individual well-being over external obligations is a moral choice.

First, goodness can come from the nature of the action itself -- from what it is that is done. So, in general, an act of saving life is good in this respect, while an act of killing is bad. (p. 72)

Yes, but why is an act of killing bad? That's the hard bit, isn't it? This is especially interesting in light of Foot liking to use wolves as an example. An alpha wolf, when it grows old and slow, may be killed by a member of its pack. This is what wolves do; it is normative in the statistical sense. But it is also "good" using Foot's rubric, since a wolf which kills the alpha wolf gains power, a bigger share of the kill, access to females, and so. In fact, using Foot's rubric it's pretty easy to argue that a wolf which fails to kill the alpha wolf, when given then chance, is actually defective.

Here's the thing... its entirely possible that we, homo sapiens, exhibited similar behavior during our own pre-history. At what point during our emergence from the ooze did it go from being "good" to kill in this manner to being "not good"? What specific set of bits had to get flipped to switch the rule from "kill" to "do not kill"?

I almost feel like we're talking past each other at this point. Foot has been discussing J.S. Mill and Aquinas and voluntary/non-voluntary acts, and I keep waiting her to show how the nebulous notion of "human goodness" can be derived from natural considerations.

That we tend to speak in moral philosphy only of volitional faults that impinge particularly on others gives the whole subject an objectionably rigoristic, prissy, moralistic tone that we would hardly care to take up in everyday life. (Pp. 79 - 80)

I disagree vigorously, but I think this only serves to emphasize that Foot and I stand on opposing sides of a vast chasm. She believes in the existence of "virtues of the will", and of virtue in general, and reasons accordingly. I, on the other hand, can see no reason why I, or anyone else, should care a whit someone does in isolation. Morality, in my view, is solely concerned with the mediation of conflict that arises due to social interation. That's the opposite of prissy; it's the natural outcome of "And it harm none, do what thou wilt". It seems far more "moralistic" to me to render judgement on someone's private business.

For there is a way in which a good person must not only see his or her good as bound up with goodness of desire and action, but also feel that it is, with sentiments such as pleasure, pride, and honour. (p. 98)

Foot has been discussing of what "human good" could possibly consist and, after considering "happiness" in light of Wittgenstein (who, by her reckoning, lead a "good" but not "happy" life), seems to be identifying "the good" with a set of internal mental states. This is interesting in that it at least points to something "natural", something that we could, in theory, measure. But it also points in a direction that she would surely find disagreeable, seemingly implying that it's only wrong to kill someone if doing so induces (or fails to induce) a certain set of internal mental states.

[Nietzsche] represents human good in terms of individuality, spontenaity, daring, and a kind of creativity that rejects the idea of a rule of life that would be valid for others as well. Members of 'the herd' are, by contrast, conforming, fawning, propitiating, 'dog-like' creatures. They settle for a banal kind of happiness; they 'have little pleasures for the day and little pleasure for the night; and they take good care of their health'. (p. 106)

This is interesting in that Nietzsche seems to regard 'the herd' in the same way that Foot regards the lobotomized patient content to rake leaves all day (Pp. 85 - 86). In fact, Foot goes on to say something in this regard that could just as easily be Nietzsche's commentary on his human sheep:

But the example shows that when we talk about a happiness that is supposed to be humanity's good we cannot intend pleasure or contentment alone. As Aristotle remarked, we should not wish to continue in the pleasures of childhood at the cost of remaining a child. (p. 86)

The main difference, as far as I can tell, is merely where they're prepared to draw the line.

Is charity really mostly a sham? sometime, of course, it may be a sham, and Nietzsche, with his devilish eye for hidden malice and self-aggreandizement and for acts of kindness motivated by the wish to still self-doubt, arouses a wry sense of familiarity in most of us. But this is not to say that there is not a great deal of genuine charity -- of genuine verture -- in people who do not at all fit the picture Nietzsche draws of those master types who hold themselves at a distint from the Christian 'herd'. (p. 107)

So how are we to identify 'genuine' charity? Through introspection perhaps? But if Foot believes in 'depth psychology' she must also be aware of the various issues surrounding the accessibility of internal mental states to the introspector.Final motivations may not be accessible through introspection, the exact reasons for which depend on who you ask. I raise this issue merely to show the difficulties in separating the wheat from the chaff in this case.

Thinking of the ordinary unpretentious men and women who seem to find special happiness in working for the relief of suffering, one must surely find Nietzsche's dismissive views on compassion rather silly.

Ummm... no. You're going to have to do better than "silly".

In The Geneology of Morals, published in 1887, [Nietzsche] wrote:

To talk of intrinsic right and wrong is absolutely nonsensical: intrinsically, an injury, an oppression, an exploitation, an annihilation can be nothing wrong, in as much as life is essentially... something which functions by injuring, oppressing, exploiting, and annihilating, and is absolutely incomprehensible without such a character.

The reason given here as to why no action ca be intrinsically wrong is not one that we can take very seriously, because it depends on an illicit identification of features of the plan and animal worlds with humans acts of injury or oppression.

Then why the fuck have you been nattering on about "natural goodness"? You're the one making the big deal about how we can examine human behavior in exactly the same way we evaluate the "goodness" of the roots of an oak or the "goodness" of pack-hunting behavior in the wolf. Why is Nietzsche's identification illicit when it seems to be pretty much in line with the whole premise of the book?

There was, I am arguing, no sound basis in psychology for the Nietzschean denial that descriptions of what was done, such as 'injury', 'oppression', or 'annihilation', mark out examples of acts contrary to the virtue of justice -- unjust actions -- that in themselves are morally wrong. This denial seems to me to be a totally mistaken and moreover poisonous doctrine. It is of course contrary to the principles of natural normativity as expounded in the present book, because there is nothing human beings need more than protection from those who would harm and oppress them.

Eh... that's halfway true. Widespread rapine is in no one's interest, so to the extent that a widely adopted Nietzschean ethic would prove socially destabilizing it does go against "natural normativity" as defined. But Foot has yet to respond to Adeimantus' challenge, that "the best policy will be to be unjust and not be found out" (Pp. 100 - 101).


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