Friday, January 12, 2018

Four grades of normative actuality

Here are four qualitatively different grades of the normative actuality of a causal power:

  1. Normative possession (zeroeth normative actuality): x has a nature according to which it should have causal power F. (An adult human who lacks sight still has normative possession of vision.)
  2. First normative actuality: x has a normal (for x’s nature) causal power F. (The human with closed eyes has first actuality of vision.)
  3. Second normative actuality: x exercises the normal causal power F. (The human who sees has second actuality of vision.)
  4. Full (third) normative actuality: x exercises the normal causal power F and achieves the full telos of the causal power. (The human who gains knowledge through seeing has full actuality of vision.)

What I call normative possession is close to Aristotelian first potentiality, but is not exactly the same. The newborn has first potentiality for speaking Greek—namely, she is such that eventually she can come to have the power of speaking Greek—but she does not have normative possession of speaking Greek, since human nature does not specify that one should be able to speak Greek. However, the newborn does have normative possession of language in general.

I think each of the four grades of normative actuality is non-instrumentally valuable, and that the grades increase in non-instrumental value as one goes from zero to three.

Grade zero can carry great value, even in the absence of higher grades. For instance, normative possession of the causal powers constitutive of rational agency makes one be a person (or so I say, following Mike Gorman). And it is very valuable to be a person. This may, however, be a special case coming from the fact that persons have a dignity that other kinds of things do not; maybe the special case comes from the fact that persons need to have a fundamentally different kind of form from other things. For other causal powers, grade zero doesn’t seem to carry much value. Imagine that you found out that (a) normal Neanderthals have the ability to run five hundred kilometers and (b) you are in fact a Neanderthal. By finding out these things, you’d have found out that you have normative possession of the ability to run 500km—but of course, you have no actual possession of that ability. The normative possession is slightly cool, but so what? Unless one has a higher grade of actuality of this ability, simply being the kind of thing that should have that ability does not seem very valuable. And the same is true for abilities more valuable than the running one: imagine that Neanderthals turn out to have Einstein-level mathematical abilities, but you don’t. It would be a bit cool to be of the same kind as these mathematical geniuses (maybe this is a little similar to how it’s cool for a Greek to be of the same nation as Socrates), but in the end it really doesn’t count for much.

Grade one is also valuable even in the absence of higher grades. It makes for the difference between health and impairment, and health is valuable. But I can’t think of cases where first normative actuality carries much non-instrumental value. Imagine that I know for sure that I am going to spend all my life with my eyes tightly closed (e.g., maybe I am hooked up to machine that will kill me if I attempt to open them). It is objectively healthier that I have sight than that I do not. But it seems rational to sacrifice all of my sight for a slight increase in the acuity of touch or hearing, given that I can actually exercise touch and hearing (second or third actuality) while I can’t exercise sight. Even slight amounts of second or third normative actuality seem to trump first normative actuality.

Grade two seems quite valuable, even absent grade three. Here, examples can be multiplied. Sensory perception that does not lead to knowledge can still be well worth having. Sex is valuable even absent successful reproduction. Running on a treadmill can have a value even if does not achieve locomotion. While it seems to be generally true that a great amount of first actuality can be sacrificed for a small amount of second actuality, this is not as generally true with second and third actuality. One might reasonably prefer to run two kilometers on a treadmill—even for the non-instrumental goods of the exercise of leg muscles—instead of running two meters on the ground.

All of the lower grades of normative actuality derive their value in some way from the value of full normative actuality. But full normative actuality does not always trump grade two. It seems to generally trump grade one. Grade zero is special: most of the time it does not seem to carry much value, but it does in the case where it constitutes personhood. (Maybe, though, the dignity of personhood shouldn’t be thought of in terms of value.)


Helen Watt said...

This is interesting but I'm troubled by the suggestion that grade one can be so readily sacrificed - would that apply to deliberate serious attacks on it as well?

After all, grade one amounts to 'health' (functionality as opposed to actual functioning) and leaving aside war/self-defence cases of causing some degree of deliberate serious injury, health is something that can call for absolute respect - the so-called 'principle of totality' according to which it is wrong eg to castrate or sterilise even those who will never be sexually active or nontherapeutically inflict brain damage on those a machine is keeping under sedation in any case.

So the person linked up to the machine which makes it dangerous to open his eyes shouldn't donate his eyes to someone else even to help that person see, let alone to get a large sum of money he can then use to do a Braille course etc. etc. Of course, there is such a thing as preventive health care, and if the person's environment makes it dangerous to open his eyes, that might conceivably justify an operation to help him keep them closed - but that would be for his own health benefit, not for some benefit which does not help compose health.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Exactly right, and thank you for saying it. I didn't think of the danger of the suggestion.

I think it's one of those cases where promoting/repairing/protecting, on the one hand, and respecting, on the other, come apart. We have strong reasons to respect health, and hence not deliberately damage it, but when considering the intrinsic value of health itself, apart from cases where the health impacts grade two or three actuality, our reasons for promoting/repairing/protecting health are not all that strong.

Another such case is the communication of truth in minor matters. If I hear a friend tell a little white lie or if I make a mistake about a minor matter, my reasons to repair that lie or mistake are very weak. But it is nonetheless always wrong to lie, even about minor matters and to obtain a great good.

Even apart from deontology, I think we have many cases where intentional damage is significant but the reasons for preventing and repairing non-intentional damage are pretty weak. Intentional breach of etiquette has a significance disproportionate from the disvalue of non-deliberate breaches. Or consider a priest celebrating a liturgy in a foreign language. If time is limited, he need not put in much effort into ensuring he pronounces every word right (e.g., asking someone ahead of time how to pronounce everything), but to deliberately mispronounce is apt to be a form of sacrilege. Or consider playing a friendly game. There is no point to checking and rechecking that one is following the rules all the time. But to deliberately cheat, even if it is permissible in some circumstances (I am not 100% sure) requires very strong reasons.

Helen Watt said...

Yes, I think you're quite right about the difference between these which is really important (though I do think it's OK to cheat in social emergencies! so soon after Christmas we all know tactful deception though not lying can be a good thing to do).

Of course we still mustn't undervalue healthy functionality even when it comes to protection/support - after all, life itself is made up of healthy-to-some-extent tendencies to function that compose the human being, who will often have a claim on at least low-level care and not just the absence of attack. But yes, fixing functions you never use comes a poor second to fixing functions you use a lot - though not sure the same is true of enhancing above the norm useful healthy functions at huge cost to healthy unused functions.

Alexander R Pruss said...


By the way, I am worried whether we know much about what counts as enhancing. It may be that before the fall our faculties were much superior to what they are now. Could it not be that, e.g., Einstein-level intelligence is below the norm for humans, but we have fallen and are all impaired?

Of course, there are clear cases of enhancing: the giving of functions that don't seem to be properly human (e.g., giving a human the ability to fly).