Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Group impairment and Aristotelianism

Aristotelians have a metaphysical ground for claims about what is normal and abnormal in an individual: the form of a substance grounds the development of individuals in a teleological ways and specifies what the substance should be like. Thus a one-eyed owl is impaired—while it is an owl, it falls short of the specification in its form.

But there is another set of normalcy claims that are harder to ground in form: claims about the proportions of characteristics in a population. Sex ratios are perhaps the most prevalent example: if all the foals born over the next twenty years were, say, male, then that would be disastrous for the horse as a species. And yet it seems that each individual foal could still be a perfect instance of its kind, since both a male and a female can be a perfect instance of horsehood. Caste in social insects is another example: it would be disastrous for a bee hive if all the females developed into workers, even though each one could be a perfect bee.

The two cases are different. The sex of a horse is genetically determined, while social insect caste is largely or wholly environmental. Still, both are similar in that the species not only has norms as to what individuals should be like but also what the distribution of types of individuals should be. There is not only the possibility of individual but of group impairment. But what is the metaphysics behind these norms?

Infamously, Aristotle interpreters differ on whether forms are individual or common: whether two members of the same species have a merely exactly similar or a numerically identical form. Here is a place where taking forms to be common would help: for then the form could not only dictate the variation between the parts of each organism’s body but also the variation between the organisms in the species. But taking forms to be common would be ethically disastrous, because it would mean that all humans have the same soul, since the soul is the form of the human being.

Here’s my best solution to the puzzle. The form specifies the conditions of the flourishing of an individual. But these conditions can be social in addition to individual. Thus, a perfectly healthy and well-nourished male foal would not be flourishing if it lacks a society with potential future mates. And while each worker bee can internally be a fulfilled worker bee, it is not flourishing if its work does not in fact help support a queen. These social conditions for flourishing are constitutive. It’s not that the lack of a queen will cause the worker bee to die sooner (though for all I know, it might), but that the lack of a queen is constitutive of the worker bee being poorly off.

Once we see that there can be constitutive social conditions for flourishing, it is natural to think that there will be constitutive environmental conditions for flourishing. And this could be the start of an Aristotelian philosophy of ecology.


Omar Najjarine said...

Very interesting and useful analysis.

Emanuel Rutten said...

Consider the mereological sum of all individuals of a certain species. This sum can be considered an individual itself. This individual, say the species-individual, persists through time even though members of the species come into or go out of existence. The species-individual has a form. And this form could ground proportions of characteristics in the species population.