Lesson 5: Aristotle: The Function Argument

Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is still desired. This might perhaps be given if we could first ascertain the function of man. (NE, I.7)

The Concept of Function

Nothing is more characteristic of moral philosophy as we find it in Aristotle and St. Thomas than the assumption that the nature of an agent is a clue to what the good of that agent is. That this assumption is rejected by the mainstream of Anglo-American ethics in this century can be seen by consulting Chapter Three of Ethica Thomistica. The so-called Naturalistic Fallacy was invented to frighten off anyone who would make the common sense transition from what a thing is to what makes it to be good or bad. Earlier in Hume we find surprise that anyone would move from fact to value, from statements about what is the case, to judgements as to what ought to be.

Of course if one thinks that the world is a meaningless given without purpose and direction, factual statements will reflect this view and of course not cast any light on what ought to be. It is a bad ontology or metaphysics that underlies the so called is/ought or fact/value dichotomy and the Naturalistic Fallacy. If I should tell you that I am looking at a black plastic object with a wire emerging from it and then ask you whether it is a good one, you will of course be unable to answer. Your inability is due to the fact that I have not provided you with a description of a kind of thing. But if I complete the description, giving you not only what is material in the thing but that which makes such materials be a thing of a given kind -- a telephone -- then my description will be a sufficient base for you to decide whether this telephone is a good one or a bad one.

We are able to appraise a kind of thing, or an instance of a kind of thing, as good or bad, when we know what it is for, what its function is. The word Aristotle uses here is ergon. When we know the function of the eye, we have criteria that enable us to say whether an eye is good or bad.

For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or any artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the 'well' is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. Have a carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activitites, and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently have a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these? What can this be?

We have started with the second set of examples, parts of a man, his eye, hand and foot. When you know what a foot is, you know whether it is a good one, but of course what it is includes the function it plays. And so with the other parts. Of course, to repeat, if we simply stated the stuff that goes into the make-up of such parts, this would be insufficient for appraising then, but this is because a merely material account is an insufficient or inadequate statement of what a part is. Given the adequate account, given the role such organized stuff plays in the organism, and we are in possession of criteria of appraisal.

It is of course obvious that a view of nature that excludes a priori teleological and functional considerations will as a matter of course produce insufficient accounts of natural things and thus not provide criteria for appraisal. But this is due to the inadequacy of the account, not to any logical barrier between is and ought.

Nothing could be more wrongheaded than to wish this view of nature on to Thomas Aquinas and to argue that, for him as for Hume and Moore and so many others, there is no transition possible from Is to Ought, that the realm of Ought or Value is autonomous and does not repose of knowledge of the way things are. This is to accept as good money a bogus account of the natural world. On such a view, Aristotle's invocation of the function or ergon of a thing as the pivot from which we turn from what a thing is to deciding whether it is a good or bad instance of its kind must be regarded as a great obstacle. It is indeed an obstacle if our intention is to make Thomas agree with later thinkers whose thoughts are quite opposed to his.

If one wanted a phrase or slogan to sum up what has gone wrong in modern thought, and indeed in modern theology, the "Fact/Value Dichotomy" would serve.

This divorce between the being and the good continues to haunt the minds of men. Since the appearance of Peter Geach's essay "Good and Evil," which called attention to forgotten (by philosophers) commonplaces of appraisal, there is no excuse for a philosopher to speak as if we all know there is a unbridgeable gap between Is and Ought. Geach thought the sense of a gap was due to a failure to distinguish between two sorts of adjective, or the way in which 'good,' which is an attributive adjective, is mistakenly taken to be a predicate adjective.

If I say of someone that he is a fat philosopher, I could break this into two assertions, "He is fat" and "He is a philosopher." Both of the adjectives are predicated of the subject directly; the one doesn't belong to the subject because the other does. It just happens that the subject has both characteristics. Examples can be multiplied.

Geach felt that philosophers had been trying to understand "He is a good philosopher" in the same way, as if it were analyzable into two claims, "He is good" and "He is a philosopher." Knowing what a philosopher is doesn't help us understand why the same subject is fat. By parity of reasoning, knowing what a philosopher is does not help us understand what good means.

But 'good', Geach observes, is not a predicate adjective; it is an attributive adjective. That is, it belongs to the subject by way of the other adjective. When someone is said to be a good philosopher, it is his philosophizing that is being appraised: good is attributed to the subject as a philosopher not independently. Rather than look all over the place for some independent meaning of 'good', we look to the adjective to which it adheres for the meaning it has.

Clearly what Geach is reminding his reader of is what Aristotle meant by function. The function provides the criteria for appraisal. This is why good varies so widely in meaning, from category to category, from kind to kind. To look for the meaning of good independently of the things and activities called good is chimerical. Aristotle criticized Plato's Idea of Goodness as just such an attempt to find a single univocal meaning of good. But as Geach reminds us, 'good' will get its meaning from the function to which it is attached. The Oxford English Dictionary will tell us that 'good' is the most common term of commendation, as indeed it is. But that is not its meaning; there is no single meaning of good.

The Function of Man

Aristotle reminds us of the notion of function and the role it plays in our appraisals of things in order to determine the human good, the good for man. We have seen that Aristotle regards the ultimate end as the keystone of moral thought. Only if we know the overall purpose of human life will we be able to appraise action as good or bad and to speak of good and bad men. When he puts the concept of function in play, Aristotle uses it as a springboard to speaking of the good man in two ways.

One way is to move from parts to whole. If such parts as eye, hand and foot have functions which enable us to say whether or not they are good, does not man too have a function thanks to which we will be able to say whether someone is a good man?

Another way is to mention different roles or functions played by the whole man, so to speak. Man as flute-player, man as tanner, man as sculptor. Over and above these particular functions, the suggestion is, there is the function of being a man. And just as knowing the role of the flautist enables us to appraise a musician, knowing the role of a sculptor enables us to appraise an artist, so knowing the role or function of man . . .

It is here that we can begin to lose confidence that Aristotle is on to something. The "function argument" as we might call it seems to provide just the clarification we need in order to speak of the good man or what is good for man.

But Aristotle seems to have in mind some such list as this:

1. Man as a flute-player

2. Man as a sculptor

3. Man as a tanner

And we could extend the list indefinitely thinking of bank-tellers, first basemen, logic instructions, marathon runners, on and on and on. And each new entry on the list will be another instance of the way that knowing the function provides criteria for appraisal. All of this, to be painfully explicit, is meant to help us explicate and clarify the good for man.

Man as man.

Could this be an entry on the above list? When Bernard Williams embraced the point that Geach had made in the article cited, Williams went on reluctantly to deny that it helped make Aristotle's point. Williams just could not see, in effect, how "Man as man" could show up on the list. His skepticism restricts the value of the function argument to particular roles because he denies that there is any discernible role of man as man.

Aristotle thought otherwise and he was right. Williams' difficulty is an important one. But its true role is not to exclude man's function but to clarify how it is like and how unlike particular functions.

What then can this be? Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude therefore the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the horse, the ox, and every animal.

When we know the function of something we know what sets it off from other things. The function will be peculiar to it. If we said someone was a good flute-player because he followed the director well, it would occur to us that the violist, the oboist, the cellist and all the other members of the orchestra also ought to do that. What we have then is what makes someone a good member of an orchestra, not what makes him a good flute-player. For that we need a specific description of the function peculiar to the flute-player. This note of a function is prominently in play when Aristotle searches for the function of man. He is looking for an activity that is peculiar to man.

There are activities exemplified by human beings which are not peculiar to them as human beings. Aristotle mentions life, and by life he means the two most fundamental activities of the living organism, nutrition and growth. These activities may occur well or badly in a human being; if well, we say he is growing well, say. He has good growth. But this is an appraisal we can make of any living thing. Such activities do not provide us with man's function because they are not peculiar to him. If they are going well, this is not sufficient to say of him that he is a good man.

There are other activities which permit a more discriminating sense of the human being, namely, perception -- seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling. But while such activities are found in men, and occur either well or badly, they do not give us man's function, that is, the activity that is peculiar and defining of him as man. Animals see, hear, etc., and do so well or badly.

There remains, then, an active life of the element that has a rational principle; of this, one part has such a principle in the sense of being obedient to one, the other in the sense of possessing one and exercising thought.

The analysis thus far makes it clear that Aristotle is looking at parts of man which, though they have a function, are not peculiar to man and thus are not his function. What sets man off from other living things, plants and animals, is reasoning. The Greeks defined man as a rational animal, citing the capacity to know and reason as his specific difference from other living things endowed with senses.

Very well. By proceeding carefully Aristotle has arrived at a statement of man's function: rational activity. The application of the concept of function to this activity is this: if rational activity is peculiar to a man, then to perform that activity well is what makes a man good as man.

But no sooner do we draw this conclusion that another uneasiness sets in. It is noteworthy that Aristotle, even as he states man's function, speaks of it as having different manifestations. This is what we will be dealing with in the next lesson.

There is as well Bernard Williams' objection. Of course he knows that Aristotle gives as man's function rational activity. Far from being something precise and definite, it could be said that all the examples on the list we were drawing up earlier -- Man as tanner, man as flute-player, man as sculptor -- provide instances of rational activity. That is why we hesitated to add "Man as man" to the growing list. Now we see the basis for our hesitation. If the activity of man as man is rational activity, it is obvious that playing the flute and making a statue and tanning hides, etc. etc. are instances of rational activity. There does not seem to be any rational activity we could simply distinguish from these. Our only recourse would be to go in the direction of the more general, as we say that there is a function of the member of the orchestra which is common to flautists, oboists, cellists, etc. Is some such more general description what Aristotle means by man's function? But what then of the function as what is peculiar, what sets a thing off, etc. etc.

Williams' objection may be stated thus. There are all kinds of roles or functions performed by a human being, activities that can only be performed by human beings, but there is no human function separate from these. The consequence would be that while we can say what we mean by calling a man a good flute player or tanner or sculptor, we could not similarly provide an account of calling him a good man.

We end this lesson with the difficulty. The following lesson will provide us with the wherewithal to address the difficulty.

Reading Assignment

Ethica Thomistica, chapter 2.

Writing Assignment

What is the "function argument" for the human good?


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