The benefit in having a well-functioning soul


1037 | [On Gavin Lawrence’s essay Is Aristotle’s Function Argument Fallacious? ]

On Sunday, I had started with Lawrence’s paper in the morning, and ended that post at night with an analysis of something Glassen had written. I spent all of yesterday studying Lawrence’s paper, but it’s been hard. He certainly doesn’t write for the reader. And he also misunderstands stuff, I think, so it’s kind of hard to follow what he’s saying. Anyways, I’m going to try to focus on Lawrence’s arguments today, and perhaps finish studying the paper today.

To recap…

First, my useful distinctions between 3 kinds of good:
(g1) is the object of the agent’s desire, choice, becoming (γίνομαι), and/or striving; and so, it is what seems “good” (ἀγαθός) to her. Glassen calls this the “good of”.
(g2) is the agent who has been judged by others as being (ἔμμεναι) “respectable” or “pleasing” (ἐσθλός); in short, the agent is believed to be “good”. Glassen calls this “goodness.” Lawrence calls this both “good of” and “goodness.”
(g3) is what is beneficial for the agent, or whatever maintains health or life of the agent; so we say that something is “good” for an agent. Likely, this is what is meant by most people when they say, “to agathon.” Glassen doesn’t mention this good, but Ackrill and Wilkes likely use it.
*Note: the difference between ἀγαθός and ἐσθλός is explored in Plato’s Protagoras, where Protagoras mentions Simonides’ poem.

And, how I think that the agent is qualified in each of these cases:
(a1) The “agent” is qualified by the invisible (transcendent?) 1st-person perspective — eg, the implied I.
(a2) The “agent” is qualified by one or more highly opinionated 2nd-person perspective(s) — eg, convention.
(a3) The “agent” is qualified by an omniscient 3rd-person perspective that isn’t really any particular “person’s” perspective at all — eg, nature.

And the 2 helpful terms:
• (ultimate-g1) means, “the final goal of man’s actions”
• (p) means, “what men always choose for itself and never for the sake of something else”

Now, I suspect that some of the philosophers I am going to talk about today — including Lawrence and Whiting — might have been unintentionally equivocating the g1, g2, and g3. I think this is due to some of the philosophers taking g2 to be an objective and factive assessment, while I am quite sure that g2 is a subjective and doxastic assessment. It’s also possible that Glassen’s objection to Aristotle is this very disagreement, and not what Lawrence makes it out to be.

But here’s an analogy to help illuminate the way in which Lawrence is mistaken. Suppose that one mistakenly thinks that “water” is H2O (and vice versa) — but, it is not. The “water” that we drink and do other things with is not purely H2O but rather a special mixture of things. If people drank too much unmixed H2O, they’d get sick and possibly die. This is because H2O is more properly what people call “distilled water.” But there is another important difference between “water” and H2O: “water” is the label for an idea in our minds of a certain sort of substance with a certain set of functions and certain characteristic traits, while the label “H2O” points to the physical matter without function or traits. And this is very much like the difference between seeing g2 as an objective fact or a subjective opinion. Thinking that g2 is factive is like thinking that “water” is itself that physical substance, and failing to see that the idea of something is a mental creation and doesn’t itself exist in the physical world. Perhaps it’s a bit like thinking that g2 is g3.

In any case, my task today, is to try to catch Lawrence and/or Whiting “in the act” of making their various mistakes.

But first, I should make clear a distinction between first- and second-actuality, which Lawrence uses to make his case:

(r1) First-actuality is an actual “disposition” — ie, a real potential — to perform a function. What Lawrence calls “good of.”
(r2) Second-actuality is the active performance of — ie, actualization of the potential to perform — a function. What Lawrence calls “goodness.”
*To note: For me, both r1 and r2 are simply states of g2 in the same way that “solid” and “liquid” are states of “water”.

Lawrence also makes a distinction between human “goods,” but only in 2 ways — instead of 3, as I have done:

(u2) “The good of man” — ie, “what is his end, point, purpose, use” (p. 336)
(u3) “The good for man” — ie, “of benefit to, a man” (p.336)
*Note: Lawrence’s u2 is my g2, and his u3 is my g3. Lawrence has no u1/g1 because he has equivocated u2 with g1.

So now we can begin.

◊◊◊ Case #1: Glassen against Aristotle. Or, “The Case of the Missing Good-Will” ◊◊◊
(I’ve been watching the tv series Sherlock, and working out Lawrence’s paper has been making me feel a bit “Sherlocky” due to the author’s labyrinthine convolutions.)

According to Lawrence, Glassen thinks that Aristotle means to say that the disposition to function well is sufficient for determining whether a man is rightly judged as being “good” or “bad.” Lawrence thinks that Glassen’s interpretation of Aristotle is incorrect because this would mean that a “good” man is anyone with merely the disposition to function well — and this would be everyone, since everyone has at least the disposition to function well. (Presumably, it would be incorrect to suppose that all men are indeed “good” men.) Per Lawrence, Aristotle does not think this, and so Glassen is wrong.

But note how different this is, from my own formulation of Glassen’s objection against Aristotle based on my own independent reading of Glassen’s paper. I had thought that Glassen’s objection against Aristotle involved the nature of the relationship between g1 and g2. However, on Lawrence’s case against Glassen, Glassen’s objection against Aristotle has nothing to do with g1. It only deals with g2, and whether one merely possesses the potential to behave well or whether one actually does do behave well. Curiously, on my interpretation of Glassen, he and Lawrence don’t disagree that it’s unnecessary to conclude that all men must be “good.” They actually agree on this! Glassen can’t be “wrong” about something that they agree on. Glassen is obviously not arguing for what Lawrence mistakenly supposes that he is.

So basically, on my understanding of Glassen, he’s really asking why Aristotle seems to think that every little boy must want a gold sticker on his forehead. Glassen wants to say that it’s more reasonable to think that some little boys should want a gold sticker on his forehead, and that some other little boys should not want a gold sticker on his forehead.

On Lawrence’s understanding of Glassen, he’s simply trying to show how Aristotle’s conclusion doesn’t follow from his premises. Lawrence’s tactic is to break Glassen’s accusation by showing how Glassen is confused.

But Lawrence himself misinterprets Glassen! When Glassen presses on Aristotle’s failure to make a meaningful distinction between “goodness” and “good of,” Lawrence takes Glassen’s “good of” to mean the disposition to function well, and “goodness” to mean the active performance of functioning well, and points the crime of equivocation back onto Glassen. But Lawrence does this because he himself misunderstands Glassen. He takes Glassen’s “good of” to fundamentally mean “what is his end, point, purpose, use” –ie, the man’s function. But this is a mistake. Glassen’s “good of” refers to my g1. But the notion of a g1 is totally missing in Lawrence’s paper. In other words, Lawrence’s paper only allows the “good of” a person to be thought of from a second-person perspective, while completely ignoring the “good of” the person from her own first-person perspective. Which makes the distinction that Lawrence creates between r1 and r2 are unnecessary and irrelevant, since r1 and r2 are merely different stages of only one of the perspectives — the irrelevant one. Glassen’s real argument concerns g1 and g2. But Lawrence can’t see that, since in his world, there is no g1. There’s only two stages of g2.

I find it curious that Lawrence could miss such an easy thing to spot. It’s as if he’s been marinating in Aristotle for so long, that he can only think in accordance with Aristotelian terms. This is why I myself try to stay away from reading Aristotle if possible. The problem isn’t that Aristotle is outlandishly wrong, but that he misses the mark by just a single premise. And what’s more, I’m sure that Aristotle himself believes everything that he’s saying, so he writes quite convincingly. Lawrence’s paper confused me for a long while. I had to trace all the shots fired — even the ones that missed — but I think that I did it in the end. And so, in the end Glassen is vindicated, and his accusation against Aristotle seems to hold. (I say “seems” because in the last post, I have vindicated something akin to Aristotle’s view though it is not exactly Aristotle’s view. In which case, the view itself is vindicated, but not Aristotle since Aristotle himself rejects that which would save him — namely, pleasure.)

The evidence should speak for itself. I believe that the evidence favors my interpretation of Glassen, over Lawrence’s interpretation of Glassen. And the evidence comes from Glassen himself from his paper A Fallacy in Aristotle’s Argument about the Good:

• “In the preceding discussion concerning the good, Aristotle has told us, among other things, that the good is ‘that at which all things aim’, that it is ‘that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else’, and that it is ‘happiness’ (εὐδαιμονία).” (p. 319)
• “It is a weakness in this argument that I want to point out: namely, the confusion of the notion of the goodness of with the notion of the good of.” (p. 319)
• “Granting that the function of a good man is activity of soul in accordance with excellence, how does it follow that the final goal of man’s actions is just this function?…The most that might be said, with any colour of plausibility, to follow from these premises with respect to the good, is that the good of a good man–and not simply of man–is activity of soul in accordance with excellence; but even this is not strictly implied by the premises.” (p. 320)
• “From the statement that the function of a good lyre-player is to play the lyre well, or in accordance with excellence, what follows is, not that the good of a lyre-player is playing the lyre in accordance with excellence, but rather that the goodness of a lyre-player consists in playing the lyre in accordance with excellence.” (p. 320)
• “Furthermore, Aristotle has given us no reason whatever for accepting the highly dubious proposition that the final end of action resides in the function, and yet he states that ‘τἀγαθόν’ is thought to reside in the function as if it did not occur to him that anyone might question this.” (p. 322)
• “I think, then, that that we have to conclude that the ‘τἀγαθόν’ in this passage is properly the substantival use of the ‘ἀγαθός’ that might qualify ‘lyre-player’, ‘ flute- player’, and the rest; but that the ambiguity of this term then misled Aristotle himself into treating it as if it referred to the final end of action.” (p. 322)

I rest my case.

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1816 | [On Gavin Lawrence’s essay Is Aristotle’s Function Argument Fallacious? ]

Now, I will introduce Lawrence’s next case, which involves two accusations against Aristotle which are similar but different, and shall be defended by Lawrence at the same time. All of the definitions of terms made earlier apply to this case as well.

As a disclaimer, I have not been able to read the relevant Ackrill and Wilkes essays. The bibliography was of little help, and I could not locate those papers. And so, I have to make do with only what Lawrence says. But we all know how Lawrence can sometimes misinterpret the other author. Therefore, I cannot know whether the author truly means to say what Lawrence claims that he is saying, or whether Lawrence has misinterpreted the author and his argument is with a self-invented “ghost argument.” (Come to think of it…. actually, Lawrence isn’t the only one to do this… Aristotle does this too…???!) And so, if I say that “Wilkes says this or that,” what I mean is, “Lawrence says that Wilkes says this or that” — since I don’t know for myself what Wilkes says (even if I have choice snippets of Wilkes courtesy of Lawrence), and I can’t be entirely sure that Lawrence is interpreting Wilkes accurately.

◊◊◊ Case #2: Ackrill and Wilkes against Aristotle. Or, “The Case of the Discredited Accusers ◊◊◊

Some philosophers — eg, Ackrill and Wilkes — suppose Aristotle to be claiming that it’s necessarily beneficial for a man to be “good.” But they find Aristotle to be making a non sequitur in forming this conclusion from the premises he gives in his “function argument.” They say that Aristotle’s premises do no show a necessary relationship between being a “good” man and with being benefited by being so.

But there’s more. Ackrill and Wilkes do share a common accusation against Aristotle, but according to Lawrence, they differ in how they each understand the “function argument” and therefore they each have different notions of what it takes to be a “good” man. Ackrill takes Aristotle to be saying that it’s enough for the man to merely be [r1] disposed to function well in order to be benefited by functioning well, and Wilkes takes Aristotle to be saying that a man must [r2] actually perform the function well in order to be benefited by functioning well.

Lawrence’s strategy for defeating the accusers is basically to undermine their sanity. For instance, in the case of sculptors, he wonders “whether there is any such thing” as “what is good for, or of benefit to, them qua sculptor” (p.350). He points out that “good sculpting is success, or perfection, as a sculptor.” And, since sculpting well is their so-called goal (Lawrence calls it “end,” bulldozing right over Glassen’s earlier distinction), and so “attaining, or realizing, this end — their good functioning — good for them as such” (p.350). While Lawrence can see what it means to speak of something being “good for” a sculptor qua sculptor, he thinks that “it is not obvious what sense such a claim has (other than the possibility of an instrumental loop)” (p.350). Lawrence writes: “There is no way to benefit something that is already perfect; for qua perfect, it stands in need of nothing.” (p.350) In other words, there is no such thing as a “benefit” to speak of in relation to a perfect agent, because a perfect agent cannot be benefited qua agent, being perfect after all. And if there’s no such thing as a “benefit” to speak of, then what in God’s Kingdom is Ackrill and Wilkes going on about? Presumably, some nonexistent figment of their delusions.

And so in short, Ackrill and Wilkes are crazy. And if the accusers are crazy, then their accusations are discredited. That is Lawrence’s strategy for dealing with Ackrill and Wilkes.

(And then he gets into citing crazy Plato stuff, which I won’t get into because it’s going to just make ME crazy. Whatever Lawrence says about Plato and/or Socrates, I just ignore, ignore, ignore, because he’s obviously going to piss me off, piss me off, piss me off, because it’s obviously going to be wrong, wrong, wrong….)

So now, I want to attempt a quick and simple defense of the possibility that there is a necessary connection between well-functioning and what is beneficial for a person. But instead of deferring to Aristotle, we have to defer to what Socrates/Plato say about justice and happiness in the Republic Books 1 and 2. And instead of thinking that it is the person who has the function, we must reject that notion and accept that it is the soul that has the function in relation to the person.

My defense goes like this:
(i) People don’t have functions; they have souls, and their souls have functions.
(ii) Per Republic 353d-e, the soul has a function, and “justice is a soul’s virtue”
(iii) The soul also has three parts, and these three parts of the soul each have its own function and its own virtue.
(iv) Per Republic 357b-358a, Socratic justice is both pleasant and beneficial.
(v) Per Republic 353d-e, “a just soul and a just man will live well”

Conclusion: A well-functioning soul benefits the person with such an excellent soul.

For me, premise (i) is the key. Unlike Aristotle, I never say that it is the person who “functions” well. It is the soul that benefits the person precisely because it is the soul that is something with a function in relation to the person. People don’t have functions — except, maybe, to be someone to whom all functions could exist in relation.

Of course, neither Aristotle nor Lawrence may wish to makes these moves, since they typically tend to reject Socratic wisdom.

Verdict: It’s possible that everyone involved has been discredited — the accusers and the defenders alike. But there’s a difference between a discredited person and a discredited view. There seems to be good reason for thinking that having a well-functioning soul is beneficial to the person who possesses such a fine soul.

Some “amusing” quotes by Lawrence (amusing to me anyways, because I know something):
• “If we take ‘the human good’ as equivalent to the genitive phrase ‘man’s good,’ then the ambiguity is between ‘what is the good of a man?’ (i.e., what is his end, point, purpose, use) and ‘what is of benefit ot a man, good for him?’ (the difference being that between possessive or subjective, and objective, genitive constructions).” (p.336)
• “The truth is that being a good human, one with the excellences, is necessary for attaining the human good, actually R-ing excellently, but it is not sufficient–because, for example, you can be a good human but asleep and not R-ing at all. The human good is a matter of second actuality, of realizing human excellence in actually living a human life excellently.” (p.339)
• “Aristotle has already said that the human good, the X-an good where X is human, is generally agreed to be eudaimonia (I.4 1095a17-20), and he has argued that this agreement is correct (I.7 1097a25-b21). (p.340)
• “It is not obvious why x-ing well (second actuality) — successful or excellent functional performance — is what is good for, or of benefit to, X.” (p.347)
• “The function of the X, x-ing, is the exercise of X’s essence, or quasi-essence (in the case of artisans and artifacts): an X’s actually doing what it is for an X to do.” (p.347)
• “There is no way to benefit something that is already perfect; for qua perfect, it stands in need of nothing.” (p.350)
• “Art benefits, because art is parasitic and other-directed, but nature is ‘at home’ and not in the business of promoting or benefiting anything, just of being itself and realizing itself.” (p.351)
• “When we ask ‘what’s the good of a knife?’ we are asking what its point is, i.e., we are assuming that it has an organizing principle–and is not a mere accidental unity–and asking what that is.” (p.356)

◊ As an aside, I wanted to make note of another kind of equivocation that I’ve seen a philosopher make — one between g1 and g3. In his paper, Lawrence mentions Whiting’s attempt at deflecting Akrill and Wilkes’ accusations against Aristotle. He cites Whiting in her own words:

“From an understanding of the function of a knife, it may follow that being sharp and cutting well make something a good knife: but it does not follow that being sharp and cutting well is good for a knife. Similarly, from an understanding of what it is to be a flute player, it may follow that some things (e.g., perfect pitch and a sense of rhythm) make someone a good flute player: but it does not follow that these things are good for someone who plays the flute. In a depressed economy, an unemployed virtuoso may wish that he had been tone deaf and instead become a doctor.”(Lawrence, p.347)

In slightly different format, here’s what Whiting is saying:
(m1) Functioning well as an P is what makes the A[g2] “good.”
(m2) But functioning well as an P doesn’t have to be [g3] “good” for the P itself.
(m3) Certain qualities that enable P to function well can enable P to be a [g2] “good” P.
(m4) But these qualities don’t need to be [g3] “good” for the P itself.
(m5) A harmed or suffering P may not think that the qualities that enable P to function well are [g1] “good.”

I just wanted to show how the single word “good” can be used in the three different ways. Everything seems legitimate, except for the move from m4 to m5. As I understand it, the statement at m5 is basically a way to “wrap up” the points made in m3 and m4. But if this is the purpose of the statement at m5, then it’s a botched job. If her point with her final sentence was that one may not always wish to be good (ie, to function well) when it’s not good (ie, harmful) for her to be good, then she reveals a hidden premise which she has kept secret from us. She secretly believes that if something is beneficial for a person, then a person should want it. Yet, nowhere in the statements made prior to (m5) is there any mention of what a person wants in relation to what is beneficial for a person. She simply inserts it “out of the blue.” In short, Whiting has implies the hidden premise that it’s right for people to want what’s good for them (ie, beneficial), since it is this presumption that is meant to account for the moral weight grounding the reason why it’s okay for people to sometimes not want to be good (ie, function well).

But this presumed premise can be deadly — especially when it’s without its counterpart, “pleasure.” It can lead to things like paternalism and fascism. It can even justify slavery. For Aristotle, it justifies the exploitation of animals by claiming that they’re “better off” being tame. It doesn’t always do these things. But it can, and it has.

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1125 | [On Gavin Lawrence’s essay Is Aristotle’s Function Argument Fallacious? ]

This last one concerns a claim that Lawrence himself asserts, rather than centered around an accusation against Aristotle.

◊◊◊ Case #3: Lawrence against Lawrence. Or, “The Case of the Unlearned Genius” ◊◊◊

In his essay, Is Aristotle’s Function Argument Fallacious?, Lawrence thinks that in order to be a “good” person, it’s insufficient for the person to merely be disposed to functioning well; she must actually perform well. He says: “The human good is a matter of second actuality, of realizing human excellence in actually living a human life excellently.” (p.339) And the “goodness” of a person is determined by how well she performs her function.

My concern has to do with how much the external environment should be permitted to influence the assessment of a person’s moral character. It’s a concern that I had some days ago, when I wondered whether there could be such a thing as “good eyes” that see badly.

Just for the sake of argument, suppose that a person were a pair of eyes. It seems natural to me to say that a pair of eyes with the first-actuality of seeing well is still considered a “good” pair of eyes. For instance, it feels right to say that so long as I have eyes that have the potential to see excellently in normal light conditions, I have good eyes — even though someone has switched the lights off in the room and it has gone pitch black. I don’t say that I have good eyes when the lights are on, and bad eyes when the lights are off. But I do say that I do see well when the lights are on, and that I don’t see well when the lights are off. And so, I can say something like, “My eyes are good, but I can’t see well.” It would be quite strange for me to say something like, “I have good eyes when the lights are on, but I have bad eyes when the lights are off.” (Well, maybe I might speak that way if I had poor grammar.)

The point is: I might say something similar about a person (if I thought that persons could have functions — which I don’t).

But now, consider the way that Lawrence’s mind works. He writes:

“For a knife doesn’t stop being a knife when it is no longer actually cutting, and a human doesn’t stop being a human when not actually exercising human life-activities, as when asleep. By contrast, the final cause is second actuality–the exercise, or fullest actualization, of essence. It is obviously very important that the end of a knife is cutting as a second actuality. For if its end–the principle of organization of all things knife-ly–had been cutting in the sense of a first actuality, an ability or disposition to cut, then things would be very different: for, given that end, it would, say, be good for a knife to have an unopenable sheath, so that its ability to cut wouldn’t be damaged.” (p.357)

I admire and appreciate Lawrence’s strong advocacy of being “active.” But this isn’t the only way to promote “self-actualization” — and neither is it the best way. For instance, “self-actualization” might be what “justice” requires. There’s no need for “self-actualization” to be dependent on a notion of “second actuality.” In any case, what’s strange about Lawrence’s argument here is that it fails to make sense in such a blatant fashion. If you think about this example more carefully, you’d realize that what Lawrence calls “bad” is the situation, and not the knife itself. And supposing that it — ie, the situation — is indeed bad, would you then say that a perfectly formed knife was itself bad on account of its being in a bad situation? No, you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t think that it’s accurate for you to pass on your assessment of the knife’s situation onto the assessment of the quality of the knife itself — at least, not unless you considered the knife’s situation to be an aspect of the knife itself. Similarly, you wouldn’t think that it was correct to judge a person by their circumstances, their skin color, or anything else, but the content of their characters. But Lawrence seems to think that this is acceptable.