Overcoming apparent differences


0742 | [Continuing my study of Lawrence Gavin’s essay, The Function of the Function Argument –]

Here’s one worry in thinking that humans have a utility-functions: it might mean people can be used as means to ends.

Kantians would have the biggest problem with this. Kant has a maxim that says to never consider a person as a means, but only ever as an end. But if humans really do have a utility-function — as Aristotle/Lawrence suggests — then, humans are also useful for something. And this turns them into tools.

I’m not saying that eyes, ears, mouth, hands, and souls don’t have utility-functions. But as I had said last night, the utility-functions of these are determined in relation to the person. The person has no utility-function in relation to herself.

Perhaps what Aristotle/Lawrence means is that other persons have some utility-function in relation to the self. And so, while the individual person herself is an end, other people can be considered as means. If this is what Aristotle/Lawrence means, then I must say that it’s certainly not what Socrates/Plato thinks. And it’s certainly not what I think.

Now, I think that even Lawrence might admit that human excellence need not be tied to utility-functions. Still, Aristotle/Lawrence do think that they are tied to utility-function — but I’m not quite sure why. They keep talking about the soul for some reason, and it’s true that Socrates says something about souls having utility-function. But, the soul isn’t the person herself! I don’t see why just because a soul has a utility-function, the person must also!

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1525 | I finished Lawrence’s essay (The Function of the Function Argument), and I don’t know if it helps Aristotle any. The essay sort of ended with the point that the utility-function of virtue is to lead a person to eudaimonia/happiness. And presumably, Aristotle’s original “Function Argument” is to show how virtue is attained when the human functions well (and so, happiness is an activity rather than a state?).

But I don’t know if I’m convinced that humans do have a utility-function — at least, in relation to themselves anyhow. Of course, it’s possible that what Aristotle meant to suggest was that other humans have a utility-function in relation to each individual person. But if this were the case and I could measure and assess other persons as being of good or bad quality according to their utility-functions, the measurement of others would then have nothing to do with my own personal happiness, except possibly indirectly (eg, the good persons around me give me lots of pleasures and benefits and presumably, these things make me happy?).

And so, that’s that. Now, I’ve started on an essay by Jennifer Whiting entitled Aristotle’s Function Argument: A Defense (1988).

◊ In her introduction, she writes:

“…Aristotle thinks that a good man has the virtues and abilities which enable him to do well whatever it is the function of a man to do. Furthermore, Aristotle thinks that it is good for a man to have these virtues and to do these things; in fact, that mans’ eudaimonia depends on it (EN 1098a12-18). Many commentators have thought this argument obviously mistaken and wrongheaded — primarily on the grounds that men do not have functions, and that even if they did, nothing about their good or eudaimonia would follow from their having these functions. But I will argue that these objections are based on misinterpretations of Aristotle, and that properly interpreted he presents an interesting and defensible (though admittedly controversial) account of the relationship between eudaimonia and human nature.” (p.33)

Already, I have some responses to some of her thoughts. Even if a “relationship between eudaimonia and human nature” could be defended, I still don’t see how this means that humans have a utility-function? (NB: ergon means function, but also means “work, labor, deed, action, task, activity”. But which does Socrates mean?) For, even if we (1) defer to Socrates and allow that souls have an ergon [in relation to a person] and that things-with-ergons can be assessed for their quality by measuring them against their proper ergons, and (2) agree with Heraclitus and some of the poets that the soul is a reflection of the person’s daimon — still, these premises don’t force a logical conclusion that persons have utility-function (at least in relation to themselves). Just because a soul were to have a utility-function doesn’t mean that a person is their soul, and that the person has the same utility-function that their soul has.

Also, I detect a “sleight of hand” in Whiting’s introduction.

Whiting’s introduction:
(s1) “The objection” against Aristotle is that “men do not have functions.” (And by this, I think Whiting means “utility-function,” not “activity-function.”)
(s2) “The objection” is based on misinterpretations of Aristotle.
(s3) The correct interpretation of Aristotle brings forth an account “of the relationship between eudaimonia and human nature.”

Presumably, Whiting is trying to show that (s1) is false. And her evidence for proving (s1) to be false is to show that (s3) somehow makes (s1) false. But even if (s3) were true, I still don’t see how there being a “relationship between eudaimonia and human nature” proves the claim that “men do not have functions” to be false — ie, I don’t see how (s3) being true has any bearing on the necessary falsity of (s1)??? After all, I could agree with both (s1) and (s3), since they don’t necessarily need to contradict.

Given that Whiting’s essay is an older one, likely Lawrence based his own paper on Whiting arguments. And I’ve already found Lawrence’s arguments unconvincing. So, there’s a good chance that I won’t find Whiting arguments convincing about humans having functions.

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2136  | [On Jennifer Whiting’s essay Aristotle’s Function Argument: A Defense ]

In her paper, Whiting tries to defend Aristotle from “his objectors.” In her first section, she writes:

“Aristotle does not suppose that men have instrumental functions or virtues.” (p.35)

In other words, she’s invoking the fact that “ergon” can mean both “utility-function” and “activity-function.” This is why Whiting also writes clauses like this: “the function of a man or what it is to be a man” (p.34) — where the clause implies that the “function” of a person is interchangeable with the definition/essence/meaning of a person. But it makes a difference whether she means to say that the “utility-function” of a person is the essence of a person, or whether the “activity-function” of a person is the essence of a person.

Well, that’s helpful for me in understanding what Whiting et al think about Aristotle’s “function.” (She means “activity-function.”) I still don’t know what Aristotle himself meant — though my hunch is that he means the “utility-function” meaning, since elsewhere, he talks about the purpose of plants and animals in relation to humans… And if Aristotle meant “utility-function,” then Whiting is confused about what Aristotle means and she’s clearly misunderstanding him.

Also, her explication of how she understands “function” is more in line with what Socrates says about “function/ergon” in Republic 353a that (as I had said yesterday) function/ergon is the activity that the thing “alone can do or what it can do better than anything else.”

◊ A first point: Still, the English word “function” has certain loaded usage which implies utility or an instrumental use. And so I wonder whether the English word “function” is the best way to translate “ergon” — just because of the English. Translating and/or using “ergon” as “function” just seems to cause confusion in English. It might be better to call it Aristotle’s “Work Argument” or, Aristotle’s “Activity Argument,” rather than Aristotle’s “Function Argument.”

◊ A second point: Suppose that “ergon” is translated into some kind of activity or action. And suppose that we still do accept Socrates’ definition of it in Republic 353a. Then, presumably Socrates’ point in introducing the “ergon argument” is to show how the quality of something can be measured — and in this case, the thing in question is an activity or motion of some sort. I can see how an activity can be measured according to some standard or purpose, but I don’t see how a person is herself this activity. And if the person isn’t herself this activity but is rather someone who on occasion chooses to engage in certain activities, then I don’t see how the person can herself be measured according to a standard, even if the performance of her actions can be measured according to a standard (of course, a standard that depends on what she thinks that she’s doing). And so, I still don’t see how the person herself is the function, since she herself isn’t the activity which she engages in — is she? My conclusion is still that the person herself cannot be a function, though we might still say that a person has functions. Furthermore, I don’t think that a person has only one function…

nb: When I say that a person “has” a function here, I mean to speak of the sort of having that as when a subject has possession of some object that is external to her. I don’t mean the kind of “has” as when a subject has some attribute or quality that describes or identifies her.

◊ A third point: I don’t think that Socrates/Plato wanted to suggest that the virtues should have the degree of particularity that Aristotle provides in his NE. Given what I take to have been Plato’s greater vision of helping people to overcome apparent differences (which is what most people think of when they use the word, “Platonic”), I think that Plato would have wanted a lesser degree of particularity and specificity concerning the reasoning behind certain customary expressions of the virtues.