Saturday, February 24, 2018

What Determines The Good of a Creature: Its Life-form or Life?

In The Perfectionist Turn, Den Uyl and Rasmussen point out that a creature’s life-form plays a crucial role in determining what is good for it. In Chapter 6, “Because,” they use the example of a praying mantis to explain that the good of a creature must be understood from  the point of view of its life-form and not its mere existence. Here’s an excerpt:
For example, consider the legendary account of the male praying mantis submitting to being devoured by the female in order for mating to be completed. If for some reason the female praying mantis dies after mating, but does so before she can devour the male (or is for some other reason prevented from devouring him), then the male praying mantis not only continues to exist, but continues to exist as a male praying mantis. It would then seem that the actions of this male praying mantis will neither help propagate the species to continue, nor live up to the kind of behavior appropriate to a male praying mantis. Yet, so long as this male struggles to continue to exist in its own right, it would seem that it benefited by the demise of the female praying mantis. Thus, her demise (and his not being devoured) is good for this particular male praying mantis, but not good for the kind of thing it is.  
In fact, however, the premature death of the female is not a benefit to this particular male. It only seems so, because we import an illicitly abstracted notion of good and ignore the life-form in question. It is not the case that “survival is always good” is simply true. It might seem to be true because, generally, being alive is better than not being alive. But as we have noted, that ignores that the good for a living thing must be being alive as the kind of thing it is. Having been left alive would be no more beneficial to this male praying mantis than having its legs cut off or being subjected to some other deforming act. One might think the situation is different if one considers the efficient cause separable from the final cause; so if the male praying mantis is not contributing to the continued existence of members of its species (final cause), it can nevertheless take actions to continue living as a male praying mantis (efficient cause) and thus have the benefit of living on. In other words, it may seem that failing to achieve a final cause does not alter the character of the actions needed to continue as the efficient cause of continuing to live on (for example, eating). In fact, however this is false. Failing to die does alter the character of the actions. Under the celebrated account with which we have been working, the male praying mantis’s conative propensities would be thwarted by remaining alive and must be understood in a new light—namely, as a deficiency of this praying mantis. This deformity may merely express itself in disorientation or frustration of basic tendencies; but it means that if given the chance to mate again, it will do so, and it will then submit to its demise, as it endeavored to do in the first place. 
(From The Perfectionist Turn: From Metanorms to Metaethics by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen; Page: 222–223)
The view expressed by Den Uyl and Rasmussen is similar to what Aristotle has preached. Aristotle  held that for living things and processes final causes are more important than either material or efficient causes. On page 226, Den Uyl and Rasmussen offer a paragraph from John Herman Randall’s Aristotle which elucidates Aristotle’s views on natural teleology:

“No kind of thing, no species, is subordinated to the purposes and interests of any other kind. In biological theory, the end served by the structure of any specific kind of living thing is the good—ultimately, the “survival”—of that kind of thing. Hence Aristotle’s concern is always to examine how the structure, the way of acting, the “nature,” of any species conduces toward the preservation of that species, and enables it to survive, to exist and to continue to function in its own distinctive way.” ~ John Herman Randall in Aristotle (Chapter 9: "Aristotle’s Functionalism Illustrated in Biological Theory"; Section: "Aristotle's Natural Teleology versus “Design”")

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