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Ends and the Nature of Things

October 14, 2013

I was half-listening to a lecture by Alasdair MacIntyre this evening in which he talked about inferring the ends (as in telos) of things based on their natures. For example, the proper end of a frog is to be fully a frog, to achieve the fullness of frogness. (He said it more elegantly, but that’s the basic idea.)

This is fairly standard natural law reasoning, and I’ve heard it before. But as I listened to it tonight, I realized that this notion of “the nature of a frog” tacitly assumes that there is some essence of “frogness” – but this is inconsistent with the statistical nature of how species (in particular, and things in general) actually work. We humans define a category called “frog” and we classify individual animals as in or out of that category. But if we measured all the relevant froggy characteristics of each animal, they’d show a normal (Gaussian) statistical distribution.

So what is the essence of “frogness”? Is it the mean (peak) of the distribution? Are those frogs more froggy than the frogs that are a half-sigma away from the mean? That doesn’t make any sense… and it would have some pretty vile implications if extended to human beings.

It doesn’t have much room for the notion of evolution of species, either. Was the proper end of Homo erectus to be a protohuman, or to evolve towards Homo sapiens?

Furthermore, this reasoning involves, in Daniel Silvers’ memorable phrase, the valorization of the normal. James Keenan reflects on this in a 1999 paper:

we inadvertently “valorize the normal” (Silvers, 1999), because lacking the notion of end or perfection we have no other standard for what humans ought to be other than what they normally are. Of course, one reason that we valorize the normal is because we rightly fear whatever else we might endorse in the absence of an adequate anthropological vision. In this “endless” context, we classify persons with disabilities as not normal and therefore we believe that they will not become full human beings until they become normal. This prejudicial assumption is based in part simply on the fact that we have failed to articulate what it is that all human beings ought to aim at becoming. Is having hearing, four limbs, and being at least five feet tall what we consider what all humans ought to become? Hopefully not, but in lieu of any discussion of an anthropological goal, i.e., what the generations prior to us called perfection, we continue to live with unexamined presuppositions that valorize uncritically the normal. In turn, the normal emerges as an undynamic but definitely biased standard which enjoys tacit approval.

— James F. Keenan, ‘“Whose Perfection is it Anyway?”: A Virtuous Consideration of Enhancement’, Christian Bioethics 5:104-120, 1999

I’m lifting his argument a bit out of context here: he’s intending to show that for human beings, our proper ends ought to be conceived of as more than simply physical, because we are rational and spiritual creatures that can make choices and so forth. But I think the underlying argument doesn’t depend on the distinctive properties of humanity: valorizing the normal makes no biological or physical sense. The normal is simply the most common expression of the distribution: don’t we usually valorize the exceptional, rather than the common?

Anyway, all of this leads me to doubt the validity of this approach of inferring ends from nature, because it seems to be built on a metaphysical notion of nature that is inconsistent with the actual nature of Nature.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dana Ames permalink
    October 14, 2013 1:09 pm

    Ah yes – back to the difference in the views of Plato and Aristotle 🙂


  2. October 15, 2013 11:15 am

    Dana, thanks for your comment. 🙂 Aristotle seems updatable in principle: look at the world around you to discover things about it. Do you think the continued use of Platonic metaphysics can be justified these days? Would we be in danger of “losing” some fundamental Christian doctrine if we jettisoned Plato?

  3. Dana Ames permalink
    October 15, 2013 12:58 pm

    I don’t know either of them that well; I’m reading about the major differences as relates to another arena, but yes, A’s seems to be what we actually do. It seems they were trying to get at the same thing (What does it mean to know?), but in different ways.

    I’m Orthodox. We are neither “Platonic” nor “neo-Platonic” – we appreciate that Greek philosophy contributed vocabulary that helps us say whatever can be said about God. Those words got “baptized” and may not mean exactly what they meant to Plato, so sometimes from the outside it is mistakenly thought that O. is much more “Platonic” than it actually is. Ultimately, there may be dualities, but there’s no dualism for us 🙂


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