Friday, November 11, 2022

Species flourishing

As an Aristotelian who believes in individual forms, I’m puzzled about cases of species-level flourishing that don’t seem reducible to individual flourishing. On a biological level, consider how some species (e.g., social insects, slime molds) have individuals who do not reproduce. Nonetheless it is important to the flourishing of the species that the species include some individuals that do reproduce.

We might handle this kind of a case by attributing to other individuals their contribution to reproduction of the species. But I think this doesn’t solve the problem. Consider a non-biological case. There are things that are achievements of the human species, such as having reached the moon, having achieved a four minute mile, or having proved the Poincaré conjecture. It seems a stretch to try to individualize these goods by saying that we all contributed to them. (After all, many of us weren’t even alive in 1969.)

I think a good move for an Aristotelian who believes in individual forms is to say that “No man or bee is an island.” There is an external flourishing in virtue of the species at large: it is a part of my flourishing that humans landed on the moon. Think of how members of a social group are rightly proud of the achievements of some famous fellow-members: we Poles are proud of having produced Copernicus, Russians of having launched humans into space, and Americans of having landed on the moon.

However, there is still a puzzle. If it is a part of every human’s good that “I am a member of a species that landed on the moon”, does that mean the good is multiplied the more humans there are, because there are more instances of this external flourishing? I think not. External flourishing is tricky this way. The goods don’t always aggregate summatively between people in the case of external flourishing. If external flourishing were aggregated summatively, then it would have been better if Russia rather than Poland produced Copernicus, because there are more Russians than Poles, and so there would have been more people with the external good of “being a citizen of a country that produced Copernicus.” But that’s a mistake: it is a good that each Pole has, but the good doesn’t multiply with the number of Poles. Similarly, if Belgium is facing off Brazil for the World Cup, it is not the case that it would be way better if the Brazilians won, just because there are a lot more Brazilians who would have the external good of “being a fellow citizen with the winners of the World Cup.”

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