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Tuesday, November 29, 2016


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Dear BV,

glad to see you're getting into Foot! I tend to agree with you that her characterization of species or life-forms is vague. I too thought that she most likely is refering to Aristotelian immanent universals, however I think I disgree with your comment. If by natural you mean "in space and time at a definite spatiotemporal location, and only there" then I think they are natural, wasn't that the whole point of Aristotle's moderate realism? That universals or forms do not exist independently yet are not subjective in the mind either, they only exist as instantiated in their objects or abstracted in the intellect? I don't see the problem.

As for your second comment, I think the response here would be that a women is certainly defective in some way if she cannot reproduce, but Foot will argue later in the book that human beings have vastly different natures than animals and plants, so while the normative framework that applies to plants and animals also applies to humans, normativity and morality will end up looking much different for human beings. I don't think Foot's account entails that a woman who can't reproduce is defective 'as a woman' , she would be defective as a woman (or more generally as a huma being) if she did not engage in that activity which is uniquely characteristic of the human species (rationality).

I look forawrd to more posts!

Thanks for the comment, Thomas.

I suppose you would say that a species, as an immanent universal, is universal only in the mind but multiplied in things. I doubt the coherence of that. For me an immanent universal is universal in things. But then it can't be natural in exactly the same sense in which a spatiotemporal individual is natural.

I am aware of the passage in ch. 3 where Foot tries to deal with something like my objection. I hope to write a post about ch. 3 soon.

Hi Bill,

Does Ms. Foot make clear exactly why she places the locus of normativity at this intermediate level? (I haven't read her book, and I can't find the answer in your summary.)

The way I would make sense of this is to say that the configuration of the individual is shaped by nature in such a way as to instantiate those characteristics that enable it to survive (and by surviving, to have a chnace to reporduce). There is a huge, perhaps infinite, set of possible solutions to this problems, occupying different positions in what we might call a "design space". A species can be thought of as a tight cluster of points in this space (individuals vary, but if they stray too far from the successful design, they usually die, as with your deformed deer).

So, any large excursion from the viability-cluster of "designs" (which include both bodies and behaviors) that we call a species will be both "bad" for the individual (which will probably die) and for the continued instantiation of the species. If that's the whole picture, though, it's hard for me to see why one should give any preference to either the individual or the species level as the "correct" locus of moral value.

In social species, the picture gets even more complicated, as the individuals will die in the absence of coordinated behavior, and so individuals of these species (because, after all, a species is only instantiated in its individuals) must be wired-up so as to manifest those behaviors. This often includes altruistic behavior that can result in the death, or at least the non-reproduction, of individuals -- which certainly looks like sacrificing oneself for "the good of the species". Why do that if the well-being of the species isn't somehow the greater Good?

That said, I don't think that most critters (or any trees) concern themselves with what's "good". But when you get to humans, who are social animals par excellence, and gifted with reason and self-reflection, we not only have those wired-in behaviors, but we also get to wondering about them, and thinking about what's "good" and why. And of course it is in our interest to foster social cohesion, to act altruistically, to "take one for the team", and so on, because human groups that don't do these things are weak, and they fail, and they die. So it is very natural, I think, for us to understand this species-directed attitude -- as "the Good", in which the individual's worth is measured by his service to the group. And having internalized this, not only by thoughtful effort, but as an intrinsic part of our nature, I think it's also quite natural to extend the model to everything else we see in the living world.

But it's really only one model, built on a foundation of naturalism, both philosophically and intrinsically. The monk who devotes his life to God has a very different model.

Which is correct? That's above my pay-grade, I'm afraid.

Ah, typos. How easy they are to see as soon as one has clicked "Post"!

I meant to write:

"So it is very natural, I think, for us to understand this species-directed attitude -- in which the individual's worth is measured by his service to the group -- as "the Good"."

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