The Biosemantics of Self-Representation: Part 2

Tags

,

Part 1 is here.
With all that theory out of the way we can address our current topic: self-representation, the way we represent ourselves to others. Whether we like it or not, we are constantly giving off information about ourselves to the world. This article is about how to control the way you represent yourself in order to help in our interactions with other people. There seem to me to be five ways we represent ourselves to the world: our vocal tonality, body language, facial expressions, emotional displays, and attire. I covered vocal tonality in Part 1.

Section 5: Body Language
One way we produce self-representation is in our body language. What we are representing in the case of body language is our current inner state. We don’t have direct access to another person’s inner state, or a way to grant access to our own inner state. We can only do this by producing representations of this inner state for our audience to interpret. Saying “I am hungry” is one way we have to representing an inner state to our audience. Likewise with body language, we all know that someone who is afraid to make eye contact, slouching, or fidgeting is doing so because they are nervous or scared. The inner-state of nervousness and fear is represented by slouching, fidgeting, stammering, and the like.

These outward behaviors map onto and represent ones inner emotional state and anyone perceiving this behavior will be interpreting it that way. We are all aware of body language because it is literally a language in that its representations have meaning; they map onto some state of the environment, in this case ones inner emotional state, just as a bee dance maps the location of nectar. On the other hand, think of the way artists draw Superman with his legs apart, fists on hips, chest out, ready for bullets to bounce off his chest. We know without having been specifically told that this indicates a mocking confidence, fearlessness.

But what’s more, body language is a pushmi-pullyu. The indicative side represents our current inner state, so then what is the imperative side? Imagine someone approaching you with open arms. We know that this gesture is supposed to get the intended audience to hug back. Holding out your hand is supposed to produce a handshake. Thugs produce threat displays designed to get their antagonists to back down in a fight, and so on. Why would evolution allow us to slouch, hang our heads, and mumble if these behaviors represent us negatively? You may think that evolution would produce a creature that could only produce signs of confidence if this is so advantageous, and see to it that one could never produce signs of weakness such as that one is frightened or unsure. The answer must be that presenting yourself as weak can aid us in certain situations. Remember, external representations are designed for their effect on the perceiver. Slumping and bowing ones head is likewise designed to produce a behavior in the perceiver. It is designed to say “I am not a threat to you.” It is designed to benefit the producer so as to get the perceiver to not harm it.

In general, confidence/self-esteem is the most attractive thing a man can project (see The Moral Animal, p. 85). We know that a man who stands up to his full height, chin up, eyes forward, is expressing confidence. But just as a bee dance may fail to represent the actual location of nectar if the swivels and turns of the dance don’t map onto the location by the rules of the dance, we mail fail to accurately represent ourselves in our body language. Someone who is arrogant might be trying to convey confidence in their walk and posture, but overshoot the mark in an exaggerated way and come across as “try-hard” and needy. Real confidence is relaxed, non-needy; Cary Grant being the epitome of relaxed confidence.

Section 6: Facial Expressions
Facial expressions are probably just a subset of body language, but I wanted to give them their own section. Smiles, frowns, surprise are all representations of ones inner emotional state. Women typically show more facial expressions than men. My wife constantly expresses herself through facial expressions whereas I’m more typically stony faced. I used to just assume that was just the way we naturally were and that’s that. But if public representations are designed to produce an effect in the perceiver, what effect are facial expressions supposed to produce? Like in the infomercial example from Part I, facial expressions are emotional expressions. They are ways of emotionally pinging off of people looking to produce a reply sign that they have created a corresponding emotion in the perceiver. I now make sure to reply to facial expressions with my own as a sign that the expression has been received and effective.

Section 7: Emotional Displays
Putting this all together, emotional displays are a combination of vocal tonality, facial expressions, and body language. Observe in this video the use of emotional displays and how vocal tonality, facial expression, and body language are all employed.

It worked and had the effect intended as the President of Yale caved in to the student demands. Just as we instinctually believe what we are told, we instinctually and viscerally react to emotional displays. It takes an extra effort of will to not act as the emotional display dictates, to realize that they are just representations, just as there is evidence that people naturally believe what they are told. We seem to instinctually believe that if someone is producing an emotional display they must have good reason to do so, and we take it at face value and react accordingly. Of course manipulators will use that fact to their advantage. Here’s Humphrey Bogart remaining unaffected by the display and seeing through the representations to the reality:

 

7a: A Lengthy Aside about Why Women Cry More Than Men
There has been a mini debate in our corner of the internet concerning the nature of crying (see here  and here ). I think the key to understanding why women cry more than men lies in understanding that emotional displays are pushmi-pullyus. In crying an individual is communicating an inner state of sorrow, and trying to produce behavior in the perceiver. Nature would have kept emotions purely internal if they weren’t meant for public consumption. But what behavior is supposed to be produced by crying? That depends on who is the particular audience at the time. If we see someone crying we are of course supposed to comfort and console them, and usually it is appropriate to do so. That is the behavior crying is designed to produce in the perceiver. There can be lots of reasons for doing this. Perhaps it will invoke pity and forgiveness, or get someone to give in and let them have their way. Sometimes it is an admission of powerlessness or defeat and a plea for assistance or protection. If she is crying to her girlfriends it is probably to invoke sympathy and rally allies.

So why do women cry more than men? I’ve got to think that for most of human history, women had very limited ability to influence men’s behavior. If a man didn’t want to do what a woman wanted him to do, he wouldn’t, and being physically weaker she had no way to influence him. Crying, nagging, and emotional displays became ways of influencing men in the absence of physical strength. This seems to me to be the best explanation if you accept that women cry more easily than men, and that crying is a pushmi-pullyu, and so designed to produce behavior in the perceiver. Why else would women need to influence behavior through crying more than men do?

Section 8: The Meaning of Attire
Styles of attire replicate. First, some fashion designer might draw a sketch. For example, these shoes I’m wearing were designed by some designer. This design probably had to compete with other designs in a conference room where Timberland was deciding which models to send to manufacturing. This particular design probably had some features that were selected for over the competing designs presented by other designers. That sketch survived the selection process and was probably copied into a computer and then copied over and over again as it rolled off the assembly line. When you’re a Darwinist and you notice something replicates, you naturally wonder what effect it is producing that is being selected for replication. It’s whatcha do. The answer is extremely complicated and involves issues of sex, class, culture, climate, and who knows what else. I can’t claim to have all the answers, but I can make a few easy points.

Artistic genres such as architectural, musical, clothing, and literary styles are what Millikan calls “historical kinds.” See here. Preppies, goths, punks, hippies, cowboys, samurai, et al., are all historical kinds. I’ve always been a jeans and t-shirt kinda guy, but after thinking about how style represents oneself I’ve tried to class it up a bit. We are familiar with the idea that people dress a certain way because of what it “says” about us. Thus clothing becomes a way of self-representation. To take a couple of examples, there are certain places in the Islamic world where if a woman goes into public without wearing her hijab she will be stoned to death. In such places the hijab possesses extremely strong imperative and indicative force: it indicates that a woman is contemptible, and carries the prescriptive force to produce stoning it its perceivers. Another example would be the stripes that are worn as a sign of rank in the military. The stripes are a pushmi-pullyu; they indicate who bears what rank and so proscribe appropriate duties to perceivers.

Now, most attire does not possess descriptive and prescriptive force to the extent of these examples, but it does still have it to a degree. We all know that dressing as a punk or hippie means that the wearer is expressing certain social attitudes. Even something as seemingly bland as “business casual” is chock full of meanings. To see this, check out a description of a business casual dress code from here (http://humanresources.about.com/od/workrelationships/a/dress_code.htm) :
–Clothing that reveals too much cleavage, your back, your chest, your feet, your stomach or your underwear is not appropriate…
Translation: I am of no sexual interest; do not behave in a sexual way towards me.
— Torn, dirty, or frayed clothing is unacceptable. All seams must be finished. Any clothing that has words, terms, or pictures that may be offensive to other employees is unacceptable. Clothing that has the company logo is encouraged.
Translation: I am inoffensive; do not react emotionally to me
— Inappropriate slacks or pants include jeans, sweatpants, exercise pants, Bermuda shorts, short shorts, shorts, bib overalls, leggings, and any spandex or other form-fitting pants such as people wear for biking.
Translation: I have no relative class status; do not behave towards me as such
— Casual dresses and skirts, and skirts that are split at or below the knee are acceptable. Dress and skirt length should be at a length at which you can sit comfortably in public. Short, tight skirts that ride halfway up the thigh are inappropriate for work. Mini-skirts, skorts, sun dresses, beach dresses, and spaghetti-strap dresses are inappropriate for the office.
It is interesting that so much of business casual is about controlling how women dress. My guess is that this is to not produce jealousy among other women by showing oneself to have a higher SMV than the other women as well as producing attraction in men.

All of these mandatory imperatives in the dress code are there for a reason, to prevent some interpersonal problem in the office, and so the clothing then acquires the imperative content to get perceivers to not behave in the way the policy is designed to prevent. (Business casual is what the raceless, sexless, classless, history-less, disembodied souls in Rawls’ original position wear.) Although I am poking fun it is a good idea to create a conflict-free working environment (even though it is as much of a uniform as someone working at McDonalds). But I still have enough of an old punk in me to want to rebel. When I look around my city and see the male office workers in their emasculated baby blue shirts and khakis it is clear they are dressing to do the minimum to please the HR Department.

In body language, and facial and emotional expressions, we are representing our current inner emotional state. But since clothing can’t transform moment-to-moment with changes in our inner state the way these other ways of self-representation can, in clothing we represent relatively unchanging things about ourselves such as sex, class, age, status, and character. I say “relatively” unchanging because as we change through life, as we move up or down in class, age, wealth, or culture our style does transform as a reflection. Often the content can be purely negative as in “I’m not an X, don’t treat me the way you treat Xs.”

It is interesting how attire very quickly changes from conveying natural information to being reproduced because it conveys this information and thus becomes a representation. For example, if gold corresponds with wealth, then gold jewelry may be reproduced and displayed because it corresponds with wealth, and so become a representation of wealth. Baggy pants in the African-American community might have started in prisons, and so conveyed the information that one was tough, but then they stared to be replicated because of this association, and so became representations.

In order for attire’s meaning function to succeed producer and consumer need to be co-adapted by learning in order to react to the representation in the appropriate way. This can produce alienation and destroy social capital when they are not co-adapted. See “Alienation and Diversity” and “Why Diversity Destroys Social Capital” for details.

It can make for interesting people watching to wonder why a particular style has been replicated, what it is trying to convey. For the most part, what the man on the street is conveying isn’t all that interesting. Most people are just displaying a kind of camouflage saying “I am of no interest, do not pay any attention to me.” This is a wise policy as almost always unasked-for attention is going to be negative. I once saw a stunning fashion model in a mall dressed to the nines. She was there to promote some product or other. I felt bad for her as she was being trailed by a mob of leering Mexicans. Why we can’t have nice things. Thus, the rich and beautiful have always had to insulate themselves from the riff-raff in displays of status. When the man on the street expresses “I am of no interest” it is usually an accurate representation. High fashion is almost always the domain of the rich and famous who represent their higher status truthfully.

There was a progressive movement in the early part of the 20th century to extend the trappings of the wealthy to the middle classes. And for a few decades the middle classes would get gussied up to go ballroom dancing and the like. But the middle class quickly decided it didn’t enjoy it and now getting decked out for balls and Oscar parties is once again the domain of the elites. Even though expressing “I am of no interest, do not pay attention to me” may be useful in many situations, it might also be useful in some situations to convey more about oneself. For example, young people still do get dressed up when going out to bars and clubs as they advertise their mating value.

Section 8a: A Lengthy Aside Concerning Asking For It.
Feminists have long railed against any claim that a women dressing a certain way is “asking for it.” This is because they subscribe to a subjectivist semantics where an individual’s intentions determine meaning. They do not understand, and which biosemantics explains, that the clothes themselves have meaning aside from any intentions of the wearer. Biosemantics explains how bee dances, stop signs, smoke signals, body language, and yes, attire can have meaning themselves. Remember, on biosemantics, an item’s public meaning has to due with the reasons for its past reproduction, and this is entirely independent from any current individual’s intentions. (Dear Millikan nerds, yes, clothing can have a derived proper function from the wearer’s intentions as well as a direct.) And so maybe a woman dressing provocatively isn’t “asking for it,” but the clothes themselves are (“it” being to be approached by a man with the intentions of short term sexual activity, not, obviously, to be raped.)

Furthermore, it is entirely reasonable to suppose that someone brought up in a culture knows the public meaning of its styles of attire, and so it is entirely reasonable to suppose that a woman dressed provocatively is interested in short term sexual activity with a man she desires. Again, this does not mean she is asking to be raped, only that she is producing signs indicating the possibility of near-term sexual activity, producing sexual desire in perceiving males, with said desire having the function to produce behavior in the pursuit of sex. This does not excuse any males for violating her consent, but it is perfectly reasonable for males interested in short term mating to approach her to see if she is attracted to them, and it is likewise perfectly reasonable to expect a women who is not interested in attracting sexual attention to not produce signs that indicate that she is interested in such attention.

On the other hand, it is also possible to indicate that one is a good long-term mating prospect. Here is a portrait of a Regency woman.

 

Upper-class women during the Regency were famously on the hunt for rich husbands, and everything in this portrait is designed to represent a good long-term mating prospect. The white dress clearly is a sign of virginal purity, and yet it is not a burka. Even though the dress isn’t particularly provocative, the neckline is still low cut revealing the outline of her bust, and the waist is drawn in revealing her figure. It reveals that she is physically attractive, rather than concealing everything as in the case of a burka, and will make an attractive mate long term. Her body language and facial expression is all relaxation and calm, representing an inner feminine serenity in order to convey that her inner state is not an emotional maelstrom, and so will be not be an annoying harridan as a wife.

Unless you are a total fashionista, I can pretty much guarantee that in their heart of hearts your boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife wishes you dressed better. Make them happy. We are always dressing from some audience so it might as well be the person you care most about. The feminist view that if a women dresses to please her man she has somehow violated her sacred autonomy is ridiculous and toxic to relationships. There is a prisoner’s dilemma in relationships where both parties wish they were with someone who dressed more attractively, but neither wants to cooperate, leaving both parties dissatisfied. As always in prisoner’s dilemmas, we wish to defect and have the benefit of cooperation. Feminists urge defect/defect. This is what defect/defect looks like:


Isn’t it wonderful that they were supportive, non-judgmental, tolerant, and respectful of each other’s autonomy? I have to believe that somewhere deep down in their souls there still smolders a dying ember of youthful romantic optimism that they would end up with a dashing or jolí mate. That this isn’t how they imagined things would turn out. Switch to cooperate/cooperate so as to both produce and receive greater satisfaction in your relationship.

Section 9: Phonies
Just as in the case of body language and emotional displays, it is possible to misrepresent oneself through attire. Imagine a poor or working-class neighborhood where someone decides to don the style of the upper class. Very frequently this person will be set upon by the people in their neighborhood and mocked. They know this person and so can see the misrepresentation taking place. They know how style represents status and rightfully see the misrepresentation as a slap in the face.

It is a universal experience that people feel awkward and alienated when wearing styles that “just ain’t me.” A blue collar worker might feel awkward in a suit, a nerd might feel awkward wearing football gear, an urbanite might feel awkward dressing like a cowboy, and so on. This subjective feeling has been designed to alert us that we are misrepresenting ourselves, that representation does not equal reality. It is usually a good idea to listen to this feeling as perceivers might detect the misrepresentation with negative social consequences as in the working-class neighborhood example.

On the other hand, there are of course phonies and con artists who specifically misrepresent themselves so as to gain the benefits from portraying themselves in a certain way. Here is Woody Allen:

The comedy comes from the disconnection between the representation as suave and that the audience knows the reality is quite different.

Here is another phony:

Why does one of the richest men on the planet dress like a college slob? Because of the imperative content: “I am not a billionaire, do not think or act towards me as such.” But of course he is a billionaire but is seeking the advantages of not being thought of as one. These phonies aren’t the phonies from Cather in the Rye. Cather in the Rye is all seething resentment at people who are actually experts at accurately controlling their self-representation. Trump at least unapologetically accurately represents himself as a billionaire nouveau riche huckster.

Section 10: Conclusion
When it all comes together, when members of society learn to be sensitive to the meanings of vocal tonality, body language, facial expression, and attire, and come to master the art of controlling their self-representations to produce a positive effect on their audience, the result can be sublime:

 

The Biosemantics of Self-Representation: Part 1

Tags

,

And now for something completely different. This post isn’t about arguing for some specific thesis, it is more about presenting a way of looking at the world, other people, and yourself. Even though the post is a bit lighter in subject matter, it is still something I find informative so I hope readers will find it interesting as well. It’s just an exercise in looking at social phenomenon from a Darwinian standpoint. A lot of the conclusions are common sense, but I think readers will like coming to understand the mechanisms at work behind common sense.

 

Section 1: Problem of Intentionality

Franz Brentano is credited with reintroducing the Scholastic notion of intentionality to philosophy. Simply put, intentionality is “aboutness.” This mountain, this river, this rock isn’t about anything, but I can think and talk about a whole range of things. To possess intentionality is to possess meaning–words mean things, thoughts mean things—but mountains, rivers, and rocks don’t mean anything. Brentano’s claim was that intentionality was the “mark of the mental,” that intentionality could not be reduced to natural non-mental processes. This, of course, set off many philosophers to do just that. If you watch this video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=GaasITFDQdg), the host (I’m not sure who it is) says:

It is sometimes said that philosophy of mind has two major problems: one of them is the problem of consciousness, the other is the problem of intentionality. I don’t know about democracy, but I think that if you were to take a vote among analytic philosophers today about the latter question, intentionality, the consensus view would be that Ruth Millikan basically solved this problem around 1984 [with the publication of Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories].”

 

Section 2: Biosemantics

Millikan’s solution to the problem of intentionality is known as biosemantics or teleosemantics. Biosemantics in general refers to the study of natural meaning, as when we say that a rabbit thumping its paws on the ground means that there is a predator around, and for listening rabbits to seek cover. But specifically, biosemantics is synonymous with the theory of natural meaning put forward by Millikan. (An article on biosemantics” is available here. I am going to try to present her theory in an easy-to-understand manner, so my apologies to any Millikan purists.)

 

Millikan’s theory is that a sign or representation has meaning (what philosophers call intentional content or just content, for short) when several requirements are met. First, there must be a device that has been designed for its ability to produce signs. By “design” I mean that the item’s ancestors were selected for reproduction because they produced some effect. This effect is what we can say is their function to bring about, or what they were designed to do. Second, the sign that is produced must be designed by the producer to vary in accord with changes in the environment. Honeybees, for example, when they have located a source of nectar return to the hive and do a dance for the waiting bees. The mechanisms in the bee that produce this dance are designed to produce dances that correspond to the location of nectar. The wiggles and turns of the bee dance correspond to the location of the nectar relative to the sun and the hive by the semantic rules of this “language”. If the nectar had been in a different location the dance would have varied in accordance with the mapping rules of the dance. The bee dance is about the location of nectar—it possesses intentionality–and the semantics of the bee dance are capable of representing changes in its location; changes in the location of nectar can be represented by changes in the form of the dance. Finally, there must be a co-adapted audience for the sign, which Millikan calls the “consumer,” which is designed to interpret the structure of the sign for use, say, as a guide for action in retrieving the nectar. In the bee dance the perceiving bees are the consumers.

 

In spoken human languages the producer is the speaker, the sign is what is spoken, the consumer is the listener. The producer and consumer are adapted to one another by learning such as to understand that the spoken sound we associate with, say, the word “dog” refers to dogs. Human languages are extremely flexible in representing changes in the environment–incredibly more so that the mere bee dances that can only vary with changes in the location of nectar and the sun, and can respond to no other environmental factors.

 

Section 3: Pushmi-Pullyus

According to Millikan, there are three kinds of intentional signs. First, indicative signs are designed to communicate a fact about the word such as that there is a cat on the mat, that hydrogen atoms have one electron, or that Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system. Secondly, imperative signs are directions to produce some state of affairs, such as close the door, or take out the trash. Whereas creating true beliefs is the purpose of indicative communication, creating a behavior that alters the world in some way is the purpose of imperative. Finally, there are signs that are both imperative and indicative at the same time. Millikan colorfully calls these “pushmi-pullyus” after the two-headed fictional animal from Dr. Doolittle. When a bee does a bee dance it is both an indicative indicating the location of nectar, and an imperative to perceiving bees to go get it and bring it back to the hive.

 

Pushmi-pullyus are the most primitive kinds of representations; more advanced representational systems (perhaps only human communication systems have evolved to split the two faces) can communicate the indicative and imperative content independently. But often human communication systems are still pushmi-pullyus. Consider, “the house is on fire.” On its face it is an indicative sign stating a fact about the world, but when actually spoken the imperative content will be encoded in the pattern of stress, emphasis, and volume of the utterance. “The house is on fire!” The urgency with which it is spoken conveys that the utterance also has imperative content: call the fire department, get a bucket of water, or get out of the house, perhaps. The imperative face works by creating a desire or emotion in the listener—fear or alarm in this case–and then having the emotion perform its function of producing an intention and then behavior.

 

Section 3a: A Lengthy Aside Concerning Men and Women’s Communication Styles

I was in a doctor’s office one day and there was an infomercial on the TV for a hair curler. The conversation between the female hosts went something like this:

Your hair looks awesome!

No, your hair looks awesome!

Mary’s hair looks more awesome than my hair!

No way! Your hair looks way more awesome!

This kind of inane blather makes a guy want to blow his brains out, but that is because men are more attuned to the indicative than to the emotional/imperative face of language. A perfectly acceptable male conversation can go like this:

Here comes the curveball.

Yep.

Here comes the slider.

Yep.

Here comes the fastball.

Yep.

Millikan seems to claim that human language is either imperative or indicative, but it seems to me that human spoken language is always done via pushmi-pullyus. In “The house is on fire!” it seems pretty clear that there is both indicative and imperative content. In spoken language the urgency of the imperative content can be dialed up and down in degree with the amount of stress we put on what we are saying. In a totally flat affect, the imperative content is dialed all the way down, indicating that no behavior is required. But “and don’t do anything about it” is still an imperative.

 

Men take female-female communication of the sort in the infomercial I mentioned, to be inane, but that is only because we are more attuned to the indicative side. By being so attuned we are missing out that 99% of the conversation is happening on the emotional/imperative side. In speaking with such heightened emotional affect, the purpose of the conversation is to create emotions in the hearer. In saying “your hair looks awesome!” with great emotional emphasis, the purpose is to create a good feeling in the listener. (Remember, truth is the purpose of indicative language, emotion and behavior is the purpose of imperative.) The women are all emotionally pinging off of each other in an extremely complex network until they are all on the same emotional page. The words are largely just strings on which to hang the emotional content. I would guess that if of one of the hosts still thought that their hair didn’t look awesome the rest of the group would redouble their efforts to convince them that it did (truth not being the purpose of the conversation) until the whole group was on the same page. I speculate that the purpose of getting everyone on the same emotional page is to then engage in some communal behavior. It is interesting that men dial up the emotional content of their speech when communicating with women, and women dial it down when speaking to men, to meet somewhere in the middle. (Informal social situations and arguments are about 99% emotion, 1% factual J.)

 

Section 4: Natural Information

There is one last piece of theory I need to get out of that way, and that is the difference between natural information and representations. The best way to explain this is by example. The possession of muscles might contain the information that the bearer is strong, but muscles aren’t representations of strength; the form of muscles is designed for moving things, not to be perceived by consumers so as to indicate the location of strength. Again, smoke might contain the information that there is fire, but smoke isn’t a representation of fire because smoke isn’t produced so as to be used by a consumer to indicate the presence of fire. Smoke signals, on the other hand, are representations because the patterns of smoke produced by the signalers have been reproduced historically for use by consumers so as to communicate the content of the signal. Representations are a subset of natural information. There are causal regularities in natural information that we exploit in navigating the world, and this goes for the relationship between representation and represented as well.

 

We will put all this theory to work explaining self-representation in Part 2.

Sex Is Not A Social Construct

Tags

, , ,

This post is a reply to EvolutionistX’s article “Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one: Sex is biological; gender is a social construct.” Located here:

https://evolutionistx.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/trans-people-prove-that-gender-is-real/

In that post EvolutionistX defends the claim that sex is a social construct, a claim I wish to respectfully dispute. EvoX begins her article with the claim:

“X is a social construct does not mean “X is totally made up.” It means, “The word is defined however the hell people feel like using it.” This is true of all language.”

Right from the beginning you can see that the source of her error comes from being lead astray by certain outmoded semantic and conceptual issues. I discuss these same issues concerning the word “race” here. If I feel like using the word “dog” to refer to elephants it does not affect the meaning of “dog”, it just means I am using it incorrectly. Language consists of a mass of public conventions, each which is reproduced for their ability to often enough meet speaker and hearer common interests. That “dog” refers to dogs in English is a fact about these public conventions, and if I idiosyncratically decide to use “dog” to refer to elephants it does not affect the meaning of “dog.” That terms have their history and proliferate and survive because they successfully facilitate communication about specific things in the world is a fact about the world.

But there is something else mistaken here. Social constructs are usually contrasted with natural kinds. To say that X is a social construct is in part to say that there are no natural kinds X. For example, to say that race is a social construct is to say that race is not a natural kind, that there are no mind or social-practice independent kinds that are races. And so to say that “x is a social construct” means “The word is defined however the hell people feel like using it” is mistaken about the nature of social constructs. That something is a social construct is primarily an ontological claim, not a claim about language (although it might then require an account of how language for constructs works if it is not being used to refer to natural kinds).

EvoX goes on to state:

“200 years ago, people did not define “biological sex” as “has XX or XY chromosomes,” because no one knew about chromosomes, and yet they still had this concept of “biological sex.””

Notice the unstated premise here: there is a single concept of each thing that is shared by all individuals who understand a term and it must be the same through all time periods. Since people had a concept of biological sex 200 years ago, before they had a concept of chromosomes, the concept of biological sex can have nothing to do with chromosomes.

EvoX is here being lead to her conclusion by an old-fashioned view of concepts. The traditional view, descended from Kant, is that concepts are ways of organizing experience, or “carving up reality.” Her unspoken premise is that there is one concept of X, that all individuals who speak a language share this same concept, and that it doesn’t change across time. On the other hand, the contemporary view is that concepts are not classification schemes. Instead, concepts are mental abilities to reidentify what is objectively the same on disparate occasions and under disparate conditions. So 200 years ago people might have identified an individual’s sex by, say, checking for the presence of male or female genitalia, and today we might use genetic testing, but these are just different ways of identifying the same real (that is, not socially constructed) natural phenomenon. It in no way calls into the question the reality of the phenomena.

EvoX then goes into a long discussion of different sexual conditions, abnormalities, and syndromes. Her examples are supposed to loosen up our intuition that essence of sex is the possession of XX or XY chromosomes. The lesson EvoX wants us to draw from these cases is that the existence of these conditions calls into question the reality of sex. How is this supposed to work? The problem is that EvoX is working on the essentialist view that a sex is a class of individuals with some common essential property. If you define being a male as possession of male genitalia, EvoX will show you a male who lacks male genitalia; if you define it as the possession of XY chromosomes, EvoX will show you someone who possesses an XY chromosome but did not develop as a normal male; if you think male is XY and female is XX, EvoX will show you individuals who are neither XY nor XX.

The problem is that biology does not work on this essentialist basis; it works on the basis of function/malfunction, normal/abnormal. The real lesson to draw from examples such as those presented by EvoX is that sex is a functional biological norm, and individuals can deviate from this norm in many different ways. “Biologically normal” means working as designed by natural selection, or being in the condition it is supposed to be in, where “design” and “supposed to” means that the item is in the condition its ancestors were in on those occasions where they actually were selected for by natural selection. I will use “design” and “supposed to” since they are more intuitive to grasp and easier than writing out “as happened historically when the mechanism was selected for” each time.

For instance, take the nectar retrieval system of the honeybee. When a bee finds a source of nectar it flies back to the hive and does a squiggle dance. The turns and pace of the dance indicate to watching bees the location of the nectar relative to the sun and hive. The perceiving bees then fly off to the location indicated by the dance and retrieve the nectar. That is how the retrieval system is supposed to work, how it is designed to work.

Lots can go wrong however. For one, perhaps the bee misidentifies something as a source of nectar that isn’t one. Maybe it is a plastic flower and not a real one. Or perhaps this bee has a brain parasite and its internal mapping system miscalculates the location of the nectar. Or perhaps the system that translates the bee’s inner directions into dance moves suffers from brain damage so that the bee does a malformed dance. Or perhaps the viewing bees have visual impairment and perceive the dance incorrectly and so fly off in the wrong direction. Or maybe environmental conditions are unfavorable and the bees are blown off course by a tornado. All of these are abnormalities that prevent the dance from performing its function as it was designed to. But none of this shows that the dance wasn’t supposed to map the location of nectar, or that a sperm which doesn’t fertilize an egg wasn’t supposed to, or a heart that can’t pump blood wasn’t supposed to, or camouflage that fails to make an animal invisible to predators wasn’t supposed to.  This is how it can be said that camouflage might fail, or that a heart might be deformed, or that there is a right dance for the bee to do given the location of nectar, or that a thalidomide baby developed abnormally.

Thus, that each previous step has been done as designed is a biologically normal condition of each subsequent step functioning normally. That the bee’s internal system of translating the mental map or directions it has in mind is working as designed is a biologically normal condition for the perceiving bee’s mental system of translating squiggles and loops into a mental map. If the dance isn’t performed as designed, the perceiving bee’s translation system can’t work as designed—what is biologically normal for the perceiving system is that the dance actually corresponds to the location of nectar. All of these steps are supposed to line up and work as designed for the entire system to work as designed.

To take another example, when light enters the eye it is focused on the retina. The rods and cones fire depending on the quality of the light and send a signal up the optic nerve to the brain where the information is processed into a mental image of the world. That is how the vision system works when it is working normally. But things can be abnormal at every step. A cataract might prevent the light from passing through the lens undistorted, nearsightedness might make the image out of focus, the rods and cones might be damaged and not fire, the optic nerve might be severed, brain damage might prevent the production of an accurate image. Each of these steps requires the others to be working correctly for the system to work as designed.

And so, being a male isn’t whether you are XY, it is whether you are supposed to be XY; it is whether this is what would have been the biologically normal result had the process that determines sex worked as designed. Like the bee dance example, when a fertilized egg ends up XY this is supposed to kick off a whole series of events that are supposed to line up. If you are XY you are supposed to develop a penis, your body is supposed to develop a certain way (with greater upper body strength, for example), and when your brain develops you are supposed to psychologically identify as a male, and are supposed to be attracted to females. All of these steps are designed to line up in this way in order for one to develop as a normal male.

But also like the bee dance, each step in the developing and functioning of the human sexual system can go wrong. When a sperm fertilizes an egg, for a few moments the chromosomes fight it out to see which ones are going to be expressed. The system is designed to produce either XX or XY, but things can go abnormally and the system fail to produce its selected effect. During these short moments where sex actually hangs in the balance, it might truly be indeterminate what sex the individual is supposed to be. However, none of EvoX’s examples are cases where you can’t determine what sex the individual is supposed to be (I suspect that any individuals whose chromosomes develop so abnormally that it is truly indeterminate whether they are supposed to be male or female, where the recombination of chromosomes truly failed, prove unviable and do not reach birth). As with everything in the biological world, things don’t always go as designed and the process might occur abnormally where we end up with individuals who are neither XX nor XY. But this does not effect whether they are supposed to be XX or XY. The system works correctly close to 99% of the time, which is pretty good for the biological world, and not unexpected given that everything is riding on whether the individual develops in a sexually normal way.

To take some of EvoX’s examples:

Klinefelter Syndrome: person is born XXY instead of XX or XY. People with KS have tiny genitals. The Y chromosome triggers male development, but the two Xs cause an over-production of female hormones. Most people with KS are infertile. KS occurs in 1:500 to 1:1000 live male births.”

This is the case of abnormal male development. The very phrase “over-production of female hormones” and “male births” indicates that there are supposed to be fewer female hormones, that the presence of this many female hormones is abnormal in males.

“Some other obscure conditions with similar names are XYY, XXXX, and XXYY Syndrome. People with only one X chromosome and nothing else have Turner Syndrome. TS affects about 1 in 2000 to 1 in 5000 females, or about 75,ooo to 30,000 Americans.”

Evox X says right in the text that “TS affects about 1 in 2000 to 1 in 5000 females [my emphasis]” as in, we know they are females with an abnormality.

Androgen insensitivity syndrome “is a condition that results in the partial or complete inability of the cell to respond to androgens. The unresponsiveness of the cell to the presence of androgenic hormones can impair or prevent the masculinization of male genitalia in the developing fetus, as well as the development of male secondary sexual characteristics at puberty, … these individuals range from a normal male habitus with mild spermatogenic defect or reduced secondary terminal hair, to a full female habitus, despite the presence of a Y-chromosome.””

This passage is full of normative terms such as “inability,” “unresponsiveness,” “impair,” “prevent,” “defect,” “reduced.” All of this shows that these individuals are not developing the way that is biologically normal. If this condition “can impair or prevent the masculinization of male genitalia” the presupposition is that male genitalia are what are supposed to develop.

“Kallmann syndrome is a genetic disorder in which, “the hypothalamic neurons that are responsible for releasing gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH neurons) fail to migrate into the hypothalamus during embryonic development.”

The most prominent symptom is a failure to start puberty; oddly, one of the other common symptoms is an inability to smell. It affects both men and women.”

Just by saying “It affects both men and women” shows that we can tell what sex the individual is.

These kinds of disorders do not only affect physical development, they are present in psychological development as well. Transsexuals are those whose sense of sexual identity does not align with their biological sex as is normal. I suspect that nature gives us an inborn sense of sexual identity so that we go on to behave as our sex in order to aid us in attracting a mate and passing on our genes. (Many transsexuals go on to produce offspring despite their disorder as other compensating factors such as social pressure come into play.) In homosexuals the psychological mechanism that determines the object of sexual attraction is working abnormally and hooking the individual up with the wrong object. Biological sex and object of sexual attraction are supposed to line up, but in homosexuals this isn’t happening. See my “The Myth of Sexual Orientation.”

In conclusion, sex is real, it can’t be changed, and there are only two of them. The cases that are presented to show otherwise all rely on an unwarranted essentialism, and ignore the fact that biological phenomena are functional in nature. Caitlyn Jenner is still a dude.

Restoring a Virtue-Based Ethics for the 21st Century: Part III

Tags

Part I is here.

Part II is here.

Some Virtues and Vices

Even with all of our increased scientific knowledge and technology, doing a good job at living out the form of a human life is not easy for most of us: school is not easy, getting a good job is not easy, attracting the best mate you can is not easy, marriage is not easy, raising children is not easy.  The virtues are the states of character that aid us in living well. What follows is a list of some of the virtues that aid us in doing so. This is not a complete list; it is just the ones I think are especially important or neglected today.

Excellences of the body:

The organs of the human body all possess etiological functions and the excellences of the human body are those features which allow the body to function properly; what we call health and fitness. Without a healthy body we are severely impaired in living a human life well. Plus, physical attractiveness is important in other relationships such as attracting the best possible mate, and keeping a mate satisfied with ones appearance. So hit the gym.

Institutional virtues:

We spend almost all of our lives as part of functional institutions such as the family, school, marriage, and our profession. Institutions possess etiological functions (I defend this claim here). What allows institutions to achieve their functions are its members performing their obligations or duties. The degree to which an individual can perform their duties excellently–how good they are as a student, worker, husband/wife, mother/father—goes a long way towards the ability to live a good human life.

I discuss the duties of marriage in more detail here but I wish to make one additional point. The existentialist view of authenticity as resistance to outside determinants over the will is toxic to marriage. We are pounded with the message that marriage is about respecting autonomy and individuality, and that any sacrifice in order to make your spouse happy is a violation of autonomy. Hogwash. Marriage ought to be about making each other happy, and we need to revive the notion that you have duties to your spouse.  So actually put in effort at making your spouse happy and forget all the destructive nonsense.

Social Virtues:

As discussed in part II, the social virtues are a subset of virtues that aid us in producing good relationships with other people, such relationships being crucial in living a good human life. Social virtue results when the will resists the push of the appetites and emotions and instead favors the working of the social emotions in producing their characteristic selected effect. In this section I am going to illustrate how this works for some of the virtues.

The way to analyze a virtue is to ask what behavior an appetite or emotion is designed to produce, look at what negative effect this may have on other people, and ask what social emotion may motivate us to resist our appetites.

Moderation:

Appetite/emotion: hunger.

Function: to get the organism to procure food.

There is nothing wrong with letting hunger do its job in getting us to procure food. But excessive eating leads to obesity. Obesity may be immediately disadvantageous to an individual in producing poor health, but obesity also has negative social effects in that it is unattractive. When I am perfectly honest to myself about why it is I work to stay in shape, the answer is that I don’t want to be seen as repulsive and unattractive by others. I don’t want my wife, friends, and co-workers to see me and react to me in that way. (I also work out in order to stay healthy.) And it is the strength of this social emotion to avoid these negative social consequences that motivates me to resist cravings for unhealthy foods and to burn calories at the gym. It is not easy! I really do crave fattening foods, but my social emotions have the function to prevent behavior that would produce negative social consequences, and this gets me to resist the working of these cravings.

Fidelity:

Appetite/emotion: sexual attraction.

Function: As with all the appetites, the appetite for sex is designed to get us to perform a certain behavior; in this case it is to get us to have sex with the object of our attraction.

It is probably best for society if sex if confined to marriage (an argument for another occasion), but as with hunger, I really don’t have a problem with someone allowing sexual desire to do its job of getting the organism to have (consensual) sex. But if the individual is in a committed relationship, fidelity demands suppressing sexual desire in favor of the social emotion of concern for the effects on ones committed girlfriend/boyfriend, husband/wife, and children. In marriage one has taken on an institutional duty to ones spouse to remain faithful, and the desire not to hurt ones spouse or ones children through divorce needs to get you to resist the impulses of sexual attraction.  In a healthy society, fear of social ostracism provides an extra incentive not to violate ones wedding vows.

Self-control:

Appetite/emotion: Anger.

Function: Anger is designed to get us to be violent towards the object of our anger.

The most obvious reason to resist giving in to anger is that violence will end you up in jail. But there is something more than this in modern society. The British, for instance, delight in “taking the piss,” intentionally trying to make someone angry and then mocking them if they do. I confess I don’t really get it, but since those who are good at resisting anger gain status, and those that become angry are marked out for increased mockery, there must be something else going on. Nisbett and Cohen (Missing the Revolution: Darwinism for Social Scientists, 1996) claim that resistance to anger demonstrates that you can be trusted in cooperative endeavors. And since cooperation with others is important in social society, fear of ostracism motivates one to resist anger. As with all other virtues, emotions like anger have been selected for their ability to benefit us, and so in certain situations it is perfectly acceptable to let your anger produce violence, as in self-defense of in defense of ones people, friends, or family.

Diligence:

Appetite/emotion: laziness

Function: We are actually designed to not expend energy unless it is necessary.

It is very difficult to resist the impulse to not expend energy unnecessarily. Perhaps in humanity’s long history as hunter-gatherers this impulse was very useful. But in order to live a good life in social society we are required to get up, go to work, do homework, hit the gym, work on that project, meet that client, do housework, mow the lawn, and so on.

Humility

Appetite/emotion: pride

Function: To keep us from being exploited by others

Pride can motivate us to neglect our obligations and damage our relationships.  I’m a fan of old movies and what comes to mind, of all things, is this old movie called The Women (1939). In it, a man cheats on his wife. Her mother councils that she swallow her pride for the sake of the family. Instead she destroys her family out of pride. In the end though, she decides to forgive her husband and save her family. (Tellingly, in the horrible remake with Meg Ryan the lesson is to never forgive and to destroy your family in order to serve your ego). When pride would cause us to destroy our relationships with others, humility is called for. On the other hand, pride is fine to keep us from being repeatedly exploited by others. It is only where humility would benefit us and our families, and where pride would harm us or our children, where pride should be swallowed.

Greed

Appetite/emotion: desire for material goods

Function: to acquire resources

For the most part, people only become angry at another person’s greed if their desire for material resources is impinging on another’s ability to acquire resources. Letting your acquisitiveness harm others will produce a negative reaction from them. This can take many different forms from social exclusion, refusal to trade, or even violence.

Masculinity and femininity:

Masculinity and femininity are signs that you would make a good mate. It may well be that the historical environmental conditions that produced masculinity and femininity no longer exist in much of our modern technological society. But we are still designed by our long evolutionary history to find these traits attractive. So the social emotion that ought to motivate masculinity and femininity is the desire to be attractive to the opposite sex, in order to satisfy our desire for companionship in attracting a wife/husband, and then, once in a relationship, these traits will keep our spouse happy, and will hopefully motivate them to be attractive in kind.

Loyalty:

I discuss the virtue of loyalty here.

Tactics Going Forward

This series has merely been the first word, not the last. I haven’t discussed many virtues such as Hume’s “qualities useful to ourselves”: intelligence, benevolence, discretion, frugality, honesty. I haven’t discussed envy, spite, resentment, or jealousy. I haven’t discussed the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. I view these later virtues as socially beneficial as they prevent social problems.

In fully functioning virtue-based societies such as depicted in Pride and Prejudice, everyone has been educated in the virtues and seems aware of their vices (even if they continue to act on them) so there is no reason to belabor the point.  But we do not live in such a society. Instead, our current public morality is the unapologetic dedication to acting on ones appetites and the shaming of anyone who dares suggest we not do so.   But tolerance and non-judgmentalism aren’t really doing anyone any good.  To a great extent it is social pressure that produces the social emotions which motivate us to resist our appetites.  All tolerance and non-judgmentalism do is give the appetites free reign to destroy the quality of our life and relationships with others.

In order to kill our current public morality and restore a virtue-bases ethics, I would suggest two courses of action. First, we will need to once again point out and criticize the vices of others. As I mentioned, in a healthy virtue based society, people are aware of their virtues and vices, and they are mostly left to them. But to get us to this point we need to be more critical. People need to once again be educated in the virtues, and until this is done people’s vices need to–gently, if possible, more harshly if not—be criticized. Notice when people are merely acting under the influence of their appetites and what effect it has. Call them out on it whenever possible. Rationalizing acting on our appetites is our national pastime. If someone is flaunting their vices do not hesitate to use a withering comment.

–You were hungry and you ate. Do you want a reward?

–You didn’t go to the gym because you’re a lazy bastard.

–Desiring another person’s stuff isn’t a grand political statement.

–Don’t be so beta.

–Know what would actually be impressive? If you were horny and didn’t have sex.

If you can get away with it, criticize someone’s vices. Be more judgmental. My male friends used to constantly jokingly criticize each others flaws as a way of keeping each other in line. But you should leave strangers and co-workers alone (except on the internet where you can openly criticize someone who is flaunting their vices.)

For women it seems more complicated. Women don’t “take the piss out of” (to use a British expression) each other the way men do (at least not to their faces). Traditionally, girls learned virtue from their mothers and through their religious moral education.

Secondly, do not let people receive the characteristic beneficial effect of virtue without displaying the virtue itself. On the account given in this series, virtue has a selected effect, so if someone is not producing that effect, don’t give them the benefits of acting virtuously. If someone in your military unit or police department is a coward, do not reinforce this vice by giving them the good opinion that is deserved of the brave. The military needs to punish cowardice, and squadmates should not let the coward enjoy the same reputation as a brave man. Do not act like someone who is obese is actually attractive (unless you are married to them🙂 ). Do not forgive cheaters. Don’t flatter a women’s vanity. Do not continue to do business with an unjust man, and so on.

Most of all, work to inculcate the virtues in yourself. Remember, the virtues are designed to aid you in producing successful, rewarding, beneficial relationships with others. Pay attention to the effect you produce on others and learn to control it. Even though resisting our appetites and emotions may be momentarily unpleasant, the exercise of virtue is designed to ultimately produce a good human life.

Restoring a Virtue-Based Ethics for the 21st Century: Part II

Part I is here.

The Revival of Teleology: Functions as Selected Effects

Virtue ethics went out of favor when modern philosophy eschewed the teleology upon which it rested (see my “Teleology and the Dark Enlightenment”). But teleology has undergone remarkable comeback in recent decades in philosophy, sparked by the publication of Millikan’s Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories, in 1984. (Find an article called “The Modern Philosophical Resurrection of Teleology” by Mark Perlman for a nice history of this revival and an overview of the various positions on the issue.) The main issue was that it seems clear that biological items such as hearts do in fact have functions. This is as much a natural phenomena as the things studied by physics. Biology is focused on understanding the functions of the kidneys, the liver, mitochondria, etc., and how these things go about performing them, as well as the reasons why they sometimes fail to perform them. There still remained the problem of understanding which of all the things something can do is its function? Hearts do lots of things: they squish when stepped on, they freeze when put in liquid nitrogen, they take up space in the chest, they have a mass, they make “lub-dub” sound, they pump blood. Of all the things hearts do, what is special about pumping blood?

The modern approach to functions is called the “selected effects,” or etiological, or teleofunctional approach. According to Millikan, to have a “proper function” requires that the features of an item were copied from previous ancestors (the way our genes are copied from our parents’ genes for example, or that manufactured items are copies of a prototype or blueprint) and that they were selected as opposed to objects lacking this feature because it did this thing. And so a hammer has driving nails as a function because it was its ability of previous hammers to drive nails by possessing some particular shape and hardness that caused this hammer get its shape and hardness through our copying these features in manufacture. Similarly, hearts have pumping blood as their function because it is due to that fact that its ancestors pumped blood–not that they squish when stepped on, or make a “lub-dub” sound–that has helped account for proliferation of the genes responsible for making hearts. The possession of a proper function is a purely natural fact of the matter as to whether an item possesses such a history.

To understand something’s function then is to understand what effect its ancestors produced that explained why these features keep getting copied or reproduced. To put it more simply, you can think of an item’s teleofunction as what it was selected for. This approach has the additional benefit in that it allows us to understand where classical teleology went wrong. Atoms, rocks, fire, chemical compounds, planets, and the like do not possess a history of selection and copying and so do not have functions.

As Plato and Aristotle said, the virtues or excellences are the features of a thing that allow it to perform its function. The same account can be given of the etiological functions we have been discussing. Having naturalized function, we have also naturalized virtue. As I mentioned, the etiological account of function focuses on certain features that are reproduced because they historically produce some effect. The structure of the heart is reproduced each generation because this structure has historically been selected for their ability to produce the effect of pump blood. The features of computers are reproduced as they roll off the assembly line because these features can process information. Shoes possess the features they do because these features are good for hiking, or running, or look fashionable (whatever the function of this particular kind of shoe is.) These features selected for reproduction because they historically produced their selected effect are the virtues or excellences of the item in question. Thus, the possession of virtues is just as objective a fact as any other natural fact. (There are philosophical arguments that something normative like a virtue can not be natural properties, but they are wrong. See John Post’s important book From Nature to Norm.)

Strangely, although both teleology and virtue ethics have made a comeback in recent decades, no one to my knowledge has managed to put the two of them together. (Fillippa Foot comes close in Natural Goodness, but chickens out.)  That is the aim of this current series of posts.

Biofunctional psychology

What we now need to do is apply the etiological framework to understanding psychology. I said in Part I that I agree with Plato that virtue involves controlling the appetites and emotions, but I have also agreed with Hume that reason can not produce any action. How can a make these two views compatible? The first step is to present a modern, biological view of psychology which profits from the contemporary view of teleology I just outlined.

Biofunctional psychology looks to understand psychological states—beliefs, desires, intentions, feelings—the way a biologist looks at hearts, livers, and kidneys. That is, it looks to understand what it is these mental processes do (or better yet, what their ancestors did) that has proven to be evolutionarily advantageous.

The same approach I outlined above when discussing the function of hearts can be given to the understanding of psychological states. For example, take hunger. What does the subjective feeling of hunger do for the organism that benefits it? The answer is that the function of appetites like hunger is to get the organism to perform a certain behavior–food procurement in this case. Other psychological processes can be given a likewise functional understanding. The function of emotions such as fear, for example, is to produce certain behavior; to seek safety in this case. The function of beliefs is to be combined with other true beliefs in order to form new true beliefs in the process of inference, and ultimately to be invoked by desires in guiding them in successful actions. The function of desires is to produce the conditions of their own fulfillment. Notice that the function of all psychological states is ultimately to contribute to successful behavior; beliefs are supposed to be true because it is by being true and representing the world in an accurate way that they may invoked by desires as useful guides for behavior. (Those interested in biofunctional psychology should read Millikan’s White Queen Psychology and Other Essays for Alice.)

Even though it is the function of psychological states is to produce certain behaviors, we do have the ability to resist, to some degree, the behaviors that our appetites and emotions are designed to produce. I can resist acting on my hunger, at least for a while, and someone like Ghandi who is fiercely dedicated to a cause can resist it for much longer periods. What allows us to do this?

Social emotions:

There is another class of emotions that we can call the social emotions. For example, does a solitary animal like a bear feel loneliness? I doubt it. They at least don’t display any behavior that would indicate they are distressed by their solitary life. But herd animals like sheep or goats become very agitated when isolated. Humans are similar in that we experience social emotions like loneliness, anxiety, and fear of exclusion. Our long evolutionary history as social creatures has built into our psychology a wide range of social emotions. These emotions are designed to benefit us in our relations with other people.

Take bravery, for example. Soldiers almost universally report that what motivates their bravery is their regard for the opinion of men in their unit. It is not some rational calculation as to whether they are in a situation that ought to be feared, as Plato says. They do not want to let down their squadmates and bear the social consequences. This regard for the opinion of their squadmates allows them to overcome the urging of their fear in acts of bravery. (Sometimes the fear proves to be too much and they neglect their duty. This is why the military always must punish deserters. If their fear of danger proves stronger than their fear of ostracism, then fear of the firing squad will have to be even stronger.)

So this is the function of the social emotions, to produce behavior that is beneficial in our relationships with other people. But what’s more is that the social emotions are designed to resist the appetites. In the soldier example above, the fear the individual felt was resisted by the concern for the good opinion of his squadmates. Our long history as social animals has shown that our relationships with others is often (though not always) more important that the immediate satisfaction of our appetites and emotions. Nature has given us the social emotions in order allow us to restrain the emotions and appetites in social situations where it is beneficial to do so.

And so this is the way to square Plato and Hume. Virtue is indeed the controlling of the appetites and emotions, but it is not the reason that does the controlling. Hume is right that reason alone can not produce or prevent a behavior. But he ignores the necessity to control our appetites in order for virtue to flourish. What controls the appetites in the case of social virtues is not reason but the social emotions which are designed to control the appetites and emotions in order to produce mutually-beneficial cooperative effects on others.

Social virtues:

Putting these threads together allows us to produce an account of the social virtues. There are virtues other than the social virtues, but I will be emphasizing the latter. For example, take someone who resists his fear to make a risky business decision. I don’t wish to enter into a semantic discussion as to whether this really counts as bravery or whether some other term such as “nerve” is more suitable. There are a whole host of these immediately useful virtues such as practical wisdom, intelligence, frugality, determination, and so on. I am going to restrict myself to discussing the social virtues.

Social virtues are the resistance to an appetite or emotion in favor of producing an advantageous effect on other people driven by the social emotions. So social bravery is the resistance to acting on ones fear driven by the desire to produce a favorable, or avoid an unfavorable, reaction in other people. Our concern for our reputation and fear of the harmful consequences of developing a negative reputation–ostracism, alienation, enemies, and the like–drive us to resist doing what fear is prodding us to do.

We will apply this framework to additional virtues in part III

Restoring a Virtue-Based Ethics For The 21st Century: Part I

Tags

, ,

There are three main traditions in Western moral philosophy. Deontological ethics stresses the primacy of more or less inviolable rules such as “do not kill” or “do not lie” or “do not steal.” Consequentialism holds that behavior is evaluated to the extent that it leads to good consequences; good consequences variously described as pleasure, happiness, or preference satisfaction. The third is virtue ethics which emphasizes the cultivation of certain states of character such as bravery, moderation, wisdom, and justice.

Despite these being considered the three main moral traditions in Western philosophy, I don’t think anyone has ever actually lived their lives according to deontological or consequentialist principles, whereas virtue ethics actually has been the foundation of both Western and Eastern moral systems.

For example, take this passage from Pride and Prejudice:

“Certainly,” replied Elizabeth—“there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, so divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can—But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without.”

“Perhaps that is not possible for anyone. But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule.”

“Such as vanity and pride.”

“Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride—where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation.”

The characters of Pride and Prejudice are constantly discussing each others virtues and vices (even in the title). (I don’t know if Pride and Prejudice is an accurate description of life during the Regency, but it at least shows that someone trying to describe life in the Regency has its characters concerned with each others virtues and vices.)

In my experience, people today similarly discuss each other’s character, only that our vocabulary and understanding of the virtues is sadly crude and impoverished. (I am not advocating a return to Regency mores; it is only an example of a society where virtue plays a central role. I could have chosen just about any time period or civilization as examples of virtue-based public morality such as traditional Japan and China, Greece, Rome, etc.).

On the other hand, our current post-1960s public morality practices none of the Western traditions. The current popular ethics is a toxic waste dump of existentialism, Freudianism, post-structuralism, and “critical theory.” It is as if we have gone through a selection process for justifications for doing what our appetites direct.  When The West has gone from this:

to this:

in a century it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there has been a concerted effort to promote degradation.

The public morality of 2015 has it origins in the dispute between two models of autonomy. For Plato and Kant, one is self-ruled when you rule yourself. For Plato this happens when the reason rules over the appetites and emotions; for Kant it is when the reason controls ones inclinations. The opposing view of autonomy has its origins in existentialism in claiming that self-rule is opposed to other-rule. The existentialists believed one needed to be free from all outside influences of church, tradition, parental influence, and social norms if one is to be “authentic.” Instead, one ought to freely choose ones own principles by which to live. (Predictably, Sartre didn’t really want people to actually be able to choose their principles; he wrestled with the consequence of his theory that one could, say, choose to be a Nazi. He could not abide that on his theory there could be an authentic Nazi. Sartre really wanted everyone to choose the principles he wanted them to choose.)

As Plato (or Darwin) could have predicted, the existentialist rejection of any outside influence on the will didn’t usher in a golden age of existentialist heroes, it simply resulted in giving free reign to the appetites. And so today’s attack on “fat-shaming” or “slut-shaming” marches under the flag of freedom from societal pressure, but really just hands the will over to the appetites. Whenever you hear advice such as “do what you want,” “don’t care what anyone else thinks,” “listen to your heart,” “be true to yourself,” “respect my freedom of choice,” or “people ought to be empowered to resist societal pressure to follow their own path” you are being instructed in public morality c. 2015. These imperatives almost always ultimately reduce to “do what your appetites and feelings dictate.” They likewise produce corresponding public duties such as “you may not criticize someone for pursuing their desires” or “do not judge anyone for doing what they want.”

These two views of autonomy remain in conflict. Although the message to “don’t care what anybody thinks, follow your heart” is blasted at us through popular culture, as I mentioned above, people continue to criticize each others character, and many people continue to cultivate excellences in themselves (although their official non-judgementalism prevents them from actually acknowledging that this is what they are doing). I am going to ask readers to wipe their mind clean of all the rules they have absorbed from popular culture over the course of your life and approach the issue from a fresh perspective. It is quite liberating to throw out all the garbage and declare that you will not live by these rules any longer.

The aim of this series of posts is to begin the work of producing an ethical system to replace the current debauched public morality which leaves destroyed lives and relationships in its wake. As I mentioned, virtue ethics was the dominant ethical system for most of the history of Western civilization, but it was all but dead for much of the 20th century where deontological, consequentialist, and relativistic theories battled it out to mutual exhaustion. Deontological and consequentialist theories have their place; for example, the law probably needs to be deontological. But neither of these is suitable for being a basis on which one may live their life.

Although virtue ethics was all but dead in moral philosophy, there has been a revival of interest in virtue ethics in the last 30 – 40 years. There is now an immense literature dedicated to the topic. In order to produce a modern approach I will begin with a quick overview of classical virtue ethics. Then I will introduce some modern elements in order to overcome the objections to classical virtue ethics in order to emerge with a contemporary model.

Classical Virtue Ethics:

Classical virtue ethics was based around three teleological notions: an item’s end (also called a final cause or telos), its function, and its virtues or excellences.

Here is Plato’s presentation of these concepts:

Tell me, do you think there is such a thing as the function of a horse?

I do.

And would you define the function of a horse or anything else as that which one can do only with it or best with it?

I don’t understand.

Let me put it this way: Is it possible to see with anything other than eyes?

Certainly not.

Or to hear with anything other than ears?

No.

Then, we are right to say that seeing and hearing are the functions of eyes and ears?

Of course.

Now, I think you’ll understand what I was asking earlier when I asked whether the function of each thing is what it alone can do or what it does better than anything else.

I understand, and I think that this is the function of each.

All right. Does each thing to which a particular function is assigned also have a virtue? Let us go over the same ground again. We say that eyes have some function?

They do.

So there is also a virtue of eyes?

There is.

And ears have a function?

Yes.

So there is also a virtue of ears?

There is.

And all other things are the same, aren’t they?

They are.

And could eyes perform their function well if they lacked their peculiar virtue and had the vice instead?

How could they, for don’t you mean if they had blindness instead of sight?

Whatever their virtue is, for I’m not now asking about that but about whether anything that has a function performs it well by means of its own peculiar virtue and badly by means of its vice?

That’s true, it does. (Republic, 352d – 353d)

 

In other words, where something has a function it also has a virtue. The function of the heart, for example, is to pump blood so that it may fulfill its end of providing nutrients to the body. Furthermore, where a thing has a function it has certain features that allow it to perform its function. These are the distinctive virtues or excellences of the thing and it is the possession of the excellences or virtues that make an item a good one of its kind. A good heart is one that possesses the features of hearts–the muscle tissue, four chambers, a way to mix oxygen with blood, and so on—that allow it to pump blood.

For Plato, virtue resulted when reason performed its function of controlling the other parts of the soul. When the reason controlled the appetites, the individual possessed the virtue of moderation. When reason controlled the spirit, it possessed courage. This image, that the reason ought to control the appetites and emotions in order to be good and live a good life, is the foundational model for Western ethics. But this has been overturned by our current public morality which celebrates acting on our immediate appetites and emotions.

The great enemy of Plato’s view that reason ought to control the appetites is Hume who held that reason can not produce behavior and always serves the passions or sentiment. Reason can be inductive or deductive, but neither can produce behavior (today we would probably call Hume’s “passions” internal imperative representations). I agree with Plato that virtue involves controlling the appetites and emotions, but I also agree with Hume that reason can not produce behavior. Squaring these two views will be the topic of part II.

Let’s switch now to Aristotle’s presentation of these concepts:

“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. 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 it would seem to be for man, if he has a function. Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these?” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1097b25)

“We must, however, not only describe virtue as a state of character, but also say what sort of state it is. We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of the thing be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well. Similarly the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy. Therefore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.” (1106a17).

So for Plato and Aristotle, evaluating the goodness of a person is a lot like evaluating the goodness of a car, computer, or other manufactured device. The first thing you do is figure out what the things function is; then you figure out if it possesses the features that allow it to perform this function. Take something like a computer. Its end it to produce information for its users, its function is to take input, process it, and produce output. A good computer is one which possesses the features which allow it to do this: a fast processor, fast and sufficient memory, input devices, and so on. These features are the excellences or virtues—the good-making qualities—of computers.

For Aristotle, the end of humans is happiness, its function is reason, and the virtues are the properties of reason that allow it to achieve our ends. Traits like practical and theoretical wisdom, justice, moderation, and bravery are how reason works to produce happiness.

It is potentially misleading to claim that the end for humans is happiness. It threatens to conflate our subjective end with the end of our kind. If humans are designed to seek happiness it is only a means to nature’s further end of survival and reproduction. Darwin would therefore agree with Aquinas that preserving life and having offspring are the precepts of Natural Law, and that the subjective pursuit of happiness must not be the final end for humans, but a means to these more fundamental ends.

Human lives have a form determined by nature: to grow and learn as children, to find a mate, to bear children, to work to support them as adults. In order to increase the chances of doing this successfully, humans work cooperatively with others and form institutions to further shared interests. Striving to live out the natural form of a human life as excellently as possible is the end for humans. Luckily, nature has also designed us to find happiness in successfully reaching these milestones: marriage, childbirth, friendship, and successful labor are pretty much universally celebrated sources of happiness in human cultures. On the other hand, behavior that takes you away from doing a good job at successfully living a human life—excessive drug use, promiscuity, childlessness, laziness–ought to be shunned.

I can hear people shouting “naturalistic fallacy!” Just because human life has a form doesn’t mean we ought to live it! We reactionary types have an answer to objections like this: we allow you to go against nature, if you want, but such values can never endure, the world is always inherited by those who live by enduring, survivable, principles and live by nature’s rules. (We sometimes colorfully put this as allowing “gnon” to devour those who would leap into his jaws.) We are only interested in reaching those who wish to subscribe to enduring values and happily allow others to take the path of extinction, as long as they don’t take us with them.

This teleological framework of virtue ethics all came crumbling down with the advent of modern philosophy. Part of the problem was that Plato’s definition of a function as “that which one can do only with it or best with it” is severely inadequate. The function of sperm is to fertilize an egg, but that is not what they only do or do best, seeing as most fail. Furthermore, Aristotle tried to apply teleology to physics, and so his explanation for why, say, fire rises, was that it was the end, or final cause, of fire to go up. His explanation for why stones move downward when you drop them was that it was the final cause for stones to move downward. In other words, it was not much of an explanation.

Rejection of final causes paved the way for the magnificent success of atomism and Newtonian physics as they swept away the teleological approach which had dominated for millennia. The movement of objects could now be explained by natural forces and laws without having to refer to final causes at all. As Hume writes: “all causes are of the same kind, and that in particular there is no foundation for that distinction, which we sometimes make betwixt efficient causes, and causes sine qua non; or betwixt efficient causes, and formal, and material, and exemplary, and final causes.”

We will see how virtue ethics may avoid these problems in part II.

Why The “No True Scotsman” Fallacy Isn’t a Fallacy (And Why It Matters)

Tags

This post will show why the “No True Scotsman” fallacy isn’t a fallacy. Wikipedia describes the alleged fallacy as follows:

No true Scotsman is an informal fallacy, an ad hoc attempt to retain an unreasoned assertion.  When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim (“no Scotsman would do such a thing”), rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original universal claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule (“no true Scotsman would do such a thing”).

Origin

The introduction of the term is attributed to British philosopher Antony Flew, who in his 1975 book, Thinking About Thinking, wrote:[2]

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton (England) Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen (Scotland) man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion, but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says: “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”.

To understand why it is not a fallacy I need to explain the difference between classes and kinds. (see Millikan’s Language: A Biological Model, p. 107). A class is a group of individuals who possess some property or set of properties in common. An example would be something like blue objects on Main St. This class could include houses, bicycles, cars, toys, shirts, signs, chairs, and so on. The members of this class don’t need to be like each other for any reason. Because of this we don’t learn about classes by experience; there is no way to predict anything about the next member of this class we may encounter on our walk down Main St other than that the object will be blue and will be on Main St. (information contained in the class itself). The next object in this class we encounter could be a balloon, or a bird, or a truck, and nothing we have learned on our walk would be useful to us in our dealings with this object.

As opposed to classes, the members of a kind have properties in common because there are natural forces that have produced similarities among members. Because of this, knowledge of kinds is useful in making predictions. Knowledge I gain on one occasion about, say, lions is useful in predicting the future. If I know that one lion is a dangerous predator this information will be useful to me in predicting the behavior of the next lion I encounter. The reason why lions are dangerous predators is not because the word “lion” means “dangerous predator”; lions are dangerous predators because of the natural forces that produced lions.

For one, lion genes are copies of one another. The copying of genes that happens in sexual reproduction guarantees similarities between generations. Secondly, lions must remain sufficiently alike genetically so that when their genes are combined in sexual reproduction it will produce viable offspring that have a chance of survival. This need for sufficient genetic similarity between the parents keeps the nature of lions relatively stable across time. Finally, the environment itself guarantees that lions remain similar in that any extreme deviations from the well-established lion form will not survive in its environment. Because of the working of these forces, the knowledge I gain on one encounter with lions is useful, though fallible, for encounters on other occasions.

Millikan calls these kinds that are alike because of these historical forces that work to ensure similarity “historical kinds.” Ethnic groups, like the Scots, are historical kinds (On Clear and Confused Ideas, p. 22). Picture historical kinds as groups of properties that tend to clump together and stay together over time because of the working of these forces. Things like wearing argyle, playing the bagpipes, drinking Scottish whiskey, eating haggis (this is just an example for argument’s sake; today, I assume, very few Scotsmen actually do these things as the homogenizing process of modernism has flattened many historical ethnic groups). These behaviors, characteristics, and properties tended to clump together in Scottish people for historical reasons. If you plotted all the people in the world on a massively multidimensional graph that had dimensions like frequency of eating haggis, frequency of wearing argyle, frequency of listening to bagpipes, etc., you would find a clump on this graph which denotes the Scots. Other dimensions like speaks German, eats sauerkraut, wears lederhosen, celebrates Octoberfest, etc. would form a German clump (again, for sake of argument).

Now, switch your vision, as it were, and look out on this landscape of clumps kinda like how a geologist looks at a landscape.  What forces formed these clumps?  Why are there these valleys between clumps?  Why are some clumps closer to others?  Why are the Scottish and English clumps closer together in this space (whether they like it tor not) than the Scottish and Somalian?  Why are some big and others small?  Why are Angus and Bonnie close together in this clump centered on Scotland, and Toshiro and Mikayo close together in this clump centered on Japan?  Like a geologist, the answer to these questions will be that natural historical forces produced these clump and explain their features.

So the pro-fallacy side is arguing that to the anti-fallacy side, “Scotsman” is a class that means something like “lives in Scotland and isn’t a sex maniac” (to again use the Anthony Flew example). But–aha!—the pro-fallacy side proclaims, here is someone who lives in Scotland and IS a sex maniac. Therefore, your definition of the class is false.

But this is itself a fallacy in that it attacks a strawman; to the anti-fallacy side “Scotsman” isn’t a class, it is a kind. The anti-fallacy side is asserting that the word “Scotsman” is ambiguous; there exists the kind “Scotsman” and the class “Scotsman.” A true Scotsman is one who upholds the historical traditions of Scots, and being a sex maniac ain’t it. So no fallacy is committed.

Saying that x is no true Scotsman is not to make a claim about kind membership. It is to claim that a certain trait is central to being Scottish–that it is part of the Scottish clump of properties–and that x has violated this trait. Compare with the claim that a dog with three legs is not a well-formed instance of dog-kind. If some poor dog has lost its leg you are not claiming that this animal is no longer a dog. You are claiming that some characteristic historical feature of dogs is missing. The same goes for the “no true Scotsman is a sex maniac” example.

So why does this matter? Always pay attention to how terms are being used and whether they are referring to a class or a kind. Terms like Scottish, German, Polish, and American used to refer to kinds but liberals have succeeded in turning them into classes. These terms now simply mean, at best, “is a citizen of Scotland” (or Germany, or Poland, etc) and at worse merely “lives in Scotland,” or “lives in Germany,” or “lives in America.” The idea that Germans, or Russians, or Poles might be historical kinds denoting a common history or tradition is verboten. There was an article not long ago about how a gang of “Swedes” had raped a woman on a ferry. See here. It turned out these Swedes weren’t even Swedish citizens, they just happened to be living in Sweden at the time. I remember after 9/11 there was an ad on television called “I am an American.” It showed a wide variety of the class “American” proclaiming that they were American. See here. Even if they were members of the class “American” they weren’t members of the kind-formerly-known-as-American. I suppose “European-American” is now the name of that kind. These kinds of word games are always politically motivated to claim that there is no difference between true Swedes and nominal Swedes, and attempt to manipulate the affections people naturally have for their kind, and extend it to a class.

What’s worse is that the Left will not allow the kind “European-American” to exist. The Left seems to tolerate Irish American cultural centers (or German, or Italian, or Polish, cultural centers), but any attempt to create a European-American cultural center would be met with protests. European-Americans are definitely a distinct kind; European-Americans are not Germans, or Irish, or English, or Italian. We have our own history, our own traditions, our own style, and so on. But you can just imagine the reaction if European-Americans tried to have European-American celebrations, festivals, parades, or holidays.

I don’t give a damn about the class “American.” Why should I? (This is not to say that members of this class aren’t entitled to basic human respect). You can be a member of the class American and care nothing for baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet (to use the slogan from an old commercial). You don’t need to celebrate the 4th of July, give a damn about the “land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrims’ pride,” or the Civil War, or World War 2. You don’t even need to care about the Constitution, or life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to be a member of the American class. My patriotism, affection, or loyalty contributes nothing to a class. One’s affection for their people means you love something and want it to endure and be passed on, to be inherited. I do feel a loyalty to my kind because loyalty helps your kind to survive and endure.

 

 

Why Diversity Destroys Social Capital, part 3

Tags

, , ,

In this section I will discuss the way in which social capital is compatible with diversity. As I mentioned in part 2, in the social capital literature there is a distinction between micro and macro social capital on the one hand, and between bridging and bonding social capital on the other. The topic of this post is bridging social capital.

Throughout these posts I have assumed that there is only one model of diversity, what we might call micro-level or inter-personal diversity. But since the world has always been diverse, and high levels of social capital have existed in the past, and still do persist in many places around the world, it shows that social capital is compatible with diversity. The question should be what kind of diversity is compatible with social capital. Start by considering that every kind of diversity is also a kind of homogeny. For example, if every street containing one-hundred houses contained representatives of one-hundred different cultures, in one sense this would be diverse, but in another sense it would be entirely homogenous in that every street would be like every other street. A diverse street could be a homogenous collection of streets; diversity is always relative to a reference class. But there is another type of diversity, intercultural diversity. Whereas interpersonal diversity is disruptive to social capital (as discussed in part 2), intercultural social capital is compatible with social capital of a different kind: what Putnam calls bridging social capital.

Bridging social capital is what exists between groups and allows them to cooperate to promote shared interests. To understand how the social capital that exists within groups is different from the social capital that exists between groups, it is important to first understand what these groups are. Millikan writes: “Many kinds of interest to social scientists, such as ethnic, social, economic, and vocational groups are historical kinds” (2000: 22). As might be expected from their name, historical kinds are constituted not by some essential properties or essence, but by the possession of certain shared historical relations between members (2000: 23). A common such historical relation is that one item is copied or reproduced from another (as discussed in part 1); behaviors, language, customs, traditions and the like are copied from person to person through family and cultural traditions, and through education. Similar to the way genes are copied across generations, these behaviors and ideas are copied into new generations and will promote historical continuity.

 

For example, school teachers, doctors, and fathers form historical kinds when these groups are studied as limited to particular historical cultural contexts. Members of these groups are likely to act similarly in certain ways and to have attitudes in common as a result of similar training handed down from person to person (reproduction or copying), as a result of custom (more copying), as a result either of natural human dispositions or social pressures to conform to role models (copying again) and/or as a result of legal practices (2000: 22).

 

A second historical relation between members is a shared environment which sees to it through natural and cultural selection that features and practices that do not provide a benefit to the individual will not get passed on. Cultures existing in the polar region, or a dessert, or a rain forest, or a city, or in proximity to other cultures will have persisting factors that will need to be dealt with by behavioral and cultural adaptations by successive generations.   Thus the stability of natural and social environmental conditions will contribute to the stability of the group over time. These factors will contribute to the stability, or “homeostasis,” of the group over time.

The final factor that promotes the stability of social groups are the stabilizing cooperative conventions discussed in part 2. Take as an example the Normal conditions for visual perception of color. If one is in abNormal conditions for color perception, say, it is too dark, or there are colored lights instead of sunlight, and one is unable to judge accurately an object’s color, the solution is to bring the object into Normal conditions, to bring it outdoors, for example, and look at it under the sun. Millikan writes “One knows how, physically, to maneuver oneself into conditions [N]ormal for making accurate perceptual judgments of a given kind” (2000: 103). Either by instinct or experience people are quite good at bringing about Normal conditions in order to ensure successful functioning of their visual or linguistic or other teleological mechanisms. When trying to see something, we bring objects into Normal conditions for visual perception, when trying to hear a sound we might turn our head in order to sense from which direction the sound is coming, or move closer to the sound, and so on.

Similar to these cases, people naturally will seek out conditions that are Normal for the interpersonal stabilizing functions of language, appearance, customs, morals, tastes, and other stabilizing functions. We naturally attune ourselves to one another to enjoy the benefits of successful interpersonal coordination. We need to do so if we are going to succeed in communicating and in other day-to-day interactions that require coordination and cooperation amongst members of a community in the performance of stabilizing functions. In the case of coordinating behaviors such as the American convention of driving on the right hand side of the road, the stabilization keeps the cooperating partners behaving in conventional ways; in the case communication, the benefit afforded by stabilizing proper functions serves to keep producers producing in historically Normal ways, and consumers consuming in historically Normal ways.

Just as the stability of biological species results from the maintenance of compatibilities in the gene pool, the need for Normal inter-personal coordination is what keeps words meaning the same things over time, or keeps traditions alive, or keeps moral practices in existence. Without the forces of cultural homeostasis cultures and social groups would be unable to persist (or exist) and there would be no cultures or cultural diversity. In the United States, drivers must coordinate with one another such that Normally people drive on the right, people shake hands when greeting rather than, say, bowing to one another, we start work at 9 a.m., we have standards for dress, we use dollars for currency, etc. These and innumerable other historical co-adaptations are what create, constitutes, and maintains a culture; they are the bonds that hold a culture together. And just as homeostasis preserves the diversity of biological species, this process of cultural homeostasis is what preserves cultures and cultural diversity; it keeps cultures in existence and stable over time and safe from dispersal. But notice that if the argument of the second section of this article is correct, interpersonal stabilizing proper functions that contribute to cultural homeostasis just is bonding social capital. Thus is explained the grounds of the often-invoked metaphor that bonding social capital is the “sociological superglue” that keeps groups together (Putnam 2000: 23).

 

Historical kinds can be more of less “rough” depending on the regularity of the causative factors between copies, and by the number of commonalities that go together (2000: 26). For example, like biological species, cultures and other social groups have stability through time. They are not as stable as species, and in many places the speed of cultural change seems blindingly fast, but many features of a culture do persist through time. Not too much emphasis should be given to the “stasis” in homeostasis. The world is always changing through environmental changes, technical innovations, new scientific understanding, and communication, and this prevents true stasis. Nevertheless, all of these things also have a resistance to change due to the forces of homeostasis. Americans still predominantly speak English, celebrate Christmas, drive on the right, conduct elections, and so on. Despite the radical changes that have occurred, these features have remained constant over the decades and centuries. None of these traits are universal, but neither is it the case that all swans are white, all birds fly, or all hearts pump blood. Nevertheless, the social sciences that study these kinds can persist in doing empirical studies on these groups that result in justified yet fallible inductions concerning these categories because these real historical relations promote the possession of commonalities between members. If there were no such forces there would be no possibility of the social sciences for there would be no forces promoting likeness among members resulting in social groups. “If social groups were not real, there could be no gain in empirical studies concerning them, for example, studies of the attitudes of American doctors towards herbal medicines, and so forth” (2000: 22).

Too much diversity on an interpersonal level destroys social capital by introducing the too frequent abNormal conditions and thus disrupting the process of cultural homeostasis. Were the process of cultural homeostasis to somehow break down either by members ceasing to produce the Normal coordinating behaviors for that culture–perhaps they adopt the behaviors of another culture as in the case of cultural imperialism or invasion, or perhaps the members of the culture are widely dispersed by a hostile outside force–the culture would cease to exist and the world’s cultural diversity lessened. Thus micro-level interpersonal cultural diversity, if carried to an ultimate extent, undermines itself by disrupting the forces of cultural homeostasis that make the existence of cultures possible in the first place.

Fortunately, the forces of cultural homeostasis as constituted by stabilizing proper functions are so fundamental to the ability of people to get by in the world, the necessity for co-adaptation so strong, that people will seek out Normal conditions, as we have seen, and cultures will generally remain safe from dispersal unless acted upon by an outside force. People will either adapt to the prevalent language and customs of a place, and thereby integrate, or they will seek out those with whom they are already adapted and congregate. But there is no irrational bigotry or prejudice involved in seeking out those with whom one can coordinate and communicate Normally. These vices themselves destroy social capital by preventing the successful performance of the stabilizing function of the indicative mood, and so result in one not benefiting by acquiring new knowledge, or lead to the malfunctioning of the imperative mood by preventing one from doing what is in their best interest because one blindly refuses to believe or do what is said by someone against whom one is prejudiced. But preferring the presence of those one can expect to communicate and coordinate with successfully is not irrational or a vice. The reasons for avoiding meaning decay are the same as those for having language, culture, and communication in the first place, namely the benefits that accrue to the functioning of language and culture. It is part of the job of social science to study the factors that foster or impede the reception of these benefits by preventing the assimilation into a given history.

With this understanding of the forces that keep historical kinds together, we can proceed to discuss the interactions that exist between historical kinds through bridging social capital. As indicated previously, the difference between bonding and bridging social capital is in the kinds of things that are related: individuals within an historical kind in the former, and between historical kinds, or between individuals belonging to different historical kinds, in the latter. But the nature of social capital as stabilizing proper function is the same for both.

This present account explains why “bridging social capital is intrinsically less likely to develop automatically than bonding social capital” (Putnam 2003: 279). Stabilizing functions come to exist because the parties have a common interest. In the case of groups with a function, such as the promotion of a specific political, or social, or economic goal, if there is no common interest between groups, there would be no need for a stabilizing function to bridge them. On the other hand, different groups or cultures might have common interests, such as trade, or a common antagonist, and so derive a set of diplomatic (bridging) conventions in the pursuit of this common goal, only to return to their respective kinds afterwards, or, as in the case of organizations such as NATO, continue to exist as a loose homeostatic group of groups itself. Bridging social capital is more likely to exist between sub-groups of a larger group where there are already many shared conventions–language, or values, for example–than where there are few or no shared conventions. But even here diversity would destroy bridging social capital if it prevents the adoption of common standards and conventions by which the groups can cooperate.

In conclusion, since social capital is possible within a culture to the extent that the coordination of stabilizing functions proceed Normally, and cultural diversity is possible in the sense of a diversity of cultures each maintained through the cultural homeostasis that is produced by bonding social capital, they are compatible as long as cultural homeostasis is allowed to persist and not disrupted by too frequent abNormal conditions. The promotion of diversity should not become mere neikophilia—love of breaking the bonds that bring a people together–for it is by these bonds that cultures can exist and persist, and that individuals can enjoy the benefits of cooperation that social capital bestows.

References:

Allen, Colin, Bekoff, Marc, Lauder, George, eds., (1998), Nature’s Purposes, (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press).

 

Boyd, Richard (1989), “What Realism Implies and What it Does Not,” Dialectica, 43.1-2: 5-29.

 

Coleman, J.S. (1988), “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” American Journal of Sociology, 94 Supplement: S95 – S120.

 

Dronkers, Jaap, and Lancee, Bram (2008), “Ethnic diversity in neighborhoods and individual trust of immigrants and natives: A replication of Putnam (2007) in a West-European country.” Paper presented at the International Conference on Theoretical Perspectives on Social Cohesion and Social Capital, Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts, Brussels, Palace of the Academy. May 15, 2008. Online at http://www.eui.eu/Personal/Dronkers/English/trust.pdf

 

Eldredge, G. and Gould, S.J. (1972), “Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism,” In T.J.M. Schopf (ed.), Models in Paleobiology, 82—155 (San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper and Company).

Godfrey-Smith, Peter (1994), “A Modern History Theory of Functions,” Nous 28: 344 – 32.

Halpern, David (2005), Social Capital, (Cambridge: Polity Press).

Hero, Rodney E. (2007), Racal Diversity and Social Capital, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Millikan, Ruth (1984), Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories, (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press).

—– (1993), White Queen Psychology and Other Essays for Alice, (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press).

—– (2000), On Clear and Confused Ideas, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

—– (2004), Varieties of Meaning, (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press).

—– (2005), Language: A Biological Model, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Putnam, Robert (2000), Bowling Alone, (New York: Simon and Schuster).

—– (2003), Better Together, (New York: Simon and Schuster).

—– (2007), “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” Scandinavian Political Studies, 30: 137 – 174.

 

 

 

 

Why Diversity Destroys Social Capital, part II

Tags

, ,

With the framework presented in part 1 in mind we can now begin to address the nature of social capital. It is important to understand that stabilizing proper functions (as discussed in part 1) can be destroyed by abNormal conditions. If a producer consistently fails to receive the Normal response from its intended consumers, consumers will eventually come to cease trying to get their purpose across by means of using language in conventional ways. And if speakers do not use linguistic forms Normally, a hearer will soon stop trying to extract useful information from them from which to form beliefs (1984: 31). To take an obvious example, just think about being placed in a country where the inhabitants speak a different language. If you approach a person and try to get information from them by using the inquisitive mood, but they do not respond by using language forms that you understand, conditions are abNormal for the use of the inquisitive mood in ones language and meaning has broken down. In such a case the stabilizing function that coordinates speaker and hearer fails since the speaker and hearer are not adapted to one another. You may try your luck with a few other people hoping that one of them will be adapted to respond to your language production, but after a few tries you will soon stop trying to communicate with others by the means of your native language. The same goes if someone approaches you and begins producing sounds to which you are not properly adapted for interpreting. You will soon either try to communicate in some other way, by gestures perhaps, and thereby try to direct the person to someone who may be able to help, but you will eventually cease to try to communicate by using your language.

Meaning can be destroyed in less extreme cases as well. Take the case of the use of the indicative, or fact-stating, linguistic mood. Its stabilizing function is to produce true beliefs in its listeners and it does this Normally when the speaker/producer has a true belief, communicates this fact to the listener/consumer, and they then come to possess a true belief (1984: 53). If listeners were not liable to obtain true beliefs from speakers sufficiently often they would soon stop forming the belief that corresponds to the utterances of speakers, and if listeners were not going to convert ones utterances into beliefs, speakers would stop trying to communicate by using these language forms. The stabilizing function of the indicative mood can thus be undermined by abNormality when the speaker does not have a true belief (but thinks they do), has true beliefs but intentionally spreads a false statement (lies), or when the consumer misunderstands or refuses to believe the statement (1984: 55). For example, if a group or individual has been shown to have spread false information sufficiently often, people will longer trust what is being told to them. And someone who is so stubborn that they refuse to believe anything that is told to them will soon find that few people will make the effort to tell them anything. This discussion of how the successful functioning of the indicative mood both requires and reinforces honesty on the part of the speaker, and requires and reinforces trust on the part of the listener should begin to illuminate how this approach applies to the study of social capital where honesty and trust have been central topics (2005: 16).
We are now in a position to address the nature of social capital and how diversity undermines it. The result of the preceding discussion is this: social capital exists to the extent that interpersonal stabilizing functions proceed Normally, and is lost to the extent that abNormal conditions prevent successful functioning. Social capital just is the presence of Normal conditions for interpersonal stabilizing function and diversity destroys social capital by preventing the successful performance of this function. The study of social capital should thus be the study of how people coordinate and cooperate and so arrive at stabilizing functions, and what factors inhibit or prevent successful coordination.
In the social capital literature there is a distinction between society-wide macro social capital, and interpersonal micro social capital, and another distinction between “bonding” social capital within groups and “bridging” social capital between groups. The account I have presented here cuts across the bridging/bonding and micro/macro debates in the social capital literature as it equally applies to all these types. As far as bonding social capital, the value of biosemantics to the study of social capital is that it allows us to understand what the bonds of bonding social capital are, how the mechanism of bonding occurs, what its function is (see Putnam 2000: 22). These bonds have previously been taken as primitives, as automatic, with vague gestures towards a supposed brute fact that “birds of a feather flock together.” The existence and nature of interpersonal stabilizing proper functions provides us with a detailed account of this bonding mechanism and how stabilization may be achieved.

Macro-level stabilizing functions–society-wide cooperation among those who “can hardly be said to know each another” (Halpern 2005: 16)–have stabilizing functions as well. The societal conventions involved in obeying the rules of traffic, sharing standards of attire, cooperating with other pedestrians, or sharing a common language by which to communicate, are all stabilizing functions. The difference between micro-level and macro-level social capital lies not in the type of substances involved, but in the nature of the concepts involved. The concepts involved in these macro-level interactions are temporary and are discarded once the interaction is over; as when we only possess the concept of the individual car in front of us for as long as we need to track it while driving. As soon as the car moves out of our vicinity we discard the concept like we discard the concept of our individual glass at a cocktail party when we can no longer keep track of it (2000: 80). Because of the fleetingness of these interactions it would be very inefficient for us to retain a concept of each individual we encounter. Thus macro-level social capital must involve society-wide stabilizing functions that do not rely on enduring concepts of individuals. The way to make sure these conventions are followed is to have them widely adopted so that each individual can be assured that others are following the conventions without needing information about the distinct individual with whom we need to coordinate (2005: 12).

Micro-level interactions such as the strength and reliability of an individual’s personal networks are equally stabilized, the difference being that the bonds can be stronger to the extent that one can form enduring concepts of the individuals involved and thus track those involved in the recurring cooperation, and through experience build degrees of trust that would be impossible when dealing with strangers and the many individuals that are encountered in traffic or crowds. In high social capital, tight-knit communities, the subjects might possess a concept of an individual that lasts for the subject’s entire life and includes information stretching back for decades to include familiarity with the individual’s family and ancestors.

The nature of bridging social capital will be discussed in part 3.
I will now provide some examples of how this argument may be applied to the problem of diversity. This is not meant to be an exhaustive inventory of the ways that diversity undermines social capital and other cases surely exist. We have already discussed case 1,  how the alienation that results from being in the presence of those who can not understand ones language—that is, where a producer reproduces a linguistic form in the absence of a Normal consumer—will eventually result in the producer to stop producing. This is what Putnam refers to as “hunkering down” or “drawing in as a turtle” (2007: 149). But it is not only the failure to possess a common language that can produce this effect.  Case 2: the collection of distinctive inflections, phonemes, and emphasis that we call a regional accent has its stabilizing functions. Accents standardize the pronunciation of words so that they may be reidentified by the listener each tome they are spoken.  Simply not possessing the accent that is commonly used in a region is alienating. If one feels that ones listeners are not picking up on the subtleties that are conveyed with an accent, that they are not adapted to the conventions on how words are to be pronounced, meaning decay is the result of this breakdown in the stabilizing proper function of this use of language, and one will quickly either adapt to and adopt the regional accent, or go find others with whom one is already coordinated and so are able to appreciate it. What usually happens is that people who move to a new region come to adopt the local accent as a means of coordinating with those with whom one must communicate and thus remove the alienation and enjoy the benefits of coordination.
Dysfunction can occur among intentional representations other than spoken human language. For example, case 3, one way people adopt conventions is in the way they coordinate their appearance. In schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and any other group or sub-group you will find a high degree of coordination of appearance. The way new styles of attire are selected and reproduced and thus spread through a population are extremely complicated and varied. Yet enough can be said here to make the point. One benefit of this coordination is that individuals are thereby able to blend in with one another in order to not attract unwanted attention. (On the other hand, there are those who take advantage of the coordinating conventions and intentionally violate them specifically in order to stand out and attract attention.) Another reason for adopting these conventions is the same for having spoken language; people are capable of communicating things about themselves by their choice of attire. You can communicate wealth, or sophistication, or even political and social views, or kind membership (see section 3) by choice of attire. In your appearance you wear your history on your sleeve, as it were. The phenomenon of people coordinating their appearances by adoption of common styles of dress because of what this “says” about you qualifies these items as intentional icons, and members of these kinds are in on this language just as much as they are in on the co-adaptations involved in speaking the shared language.

I have already mentioned as an example the stripes that are worn by soldiers to indicate rank and proscribe appropriate behavior. When one displays an intentional icon amongst those who are not the Normal consumers, meaning decay will result. For instance, the meaning of the stripes on a soldiers uniform decays when worn among civilians who do not know their significance. It is being produced, but the Normal consumers (other members of the military) are missing. From the consumer’s side, seeing someone wearing something with obvious meaning, but for whom you are not historically attuned, causes alienation and meaning decay as well. Examples of this are the Muslim head scarf and other religious and/or cultural garb when worn among those brought up in different traditions. The head scarf is a sign of modesty, and it indicates this Normally when the wearer and perceiver are historically adapted to interpret it is this way. In such a case meaning decay and alienation does not occur merely because one does not understand the meaning, something which might quickly be corrected by doing research or by asking, it is that when worn amongst non-members it also indicates that you are outside the Normal producer/consumer pair. It thus produces alienation and its corresponding destruction of social capital.

Further examples are, case 4, how different cultures have different conventions for the proper distance to stand from one another when conversing. Having someone stand closer or further away than you are accustomed to when having a conversation is a result of miscoordination, and produces that awkward uncomfortable feeling which results from alienation. Offering to shake hands when your consumer is prepared for a bow produces a similar result. Listeners that react to you in unexpected ways, have different habits, or mannerisms—all of which have been replicated and selected–will produce similar results. And just imagine the effect on social capital if cultural diversity was allowed to the extent that individuals could retain varying customs regarding which side of the road on which to drive.

The most extreme case is case 5, where moral standards differ between populations. Whatever account one may accept of the origins of morality, moral behavior remains in practice in a population for a reason. In other words, moral behavior has a stabilizing function. Someone performing an act which they believe to be moral, but others believe to be immoral, destroys this stabilizing function of moral behavior and is a more devastating blow to social capital than any other case. Being in the presence of those behaving in ways that one deems immoral but others find perfectly acceptable is a very alienating experience. The presence of female genital mutilation, homophobia, abortion, animal cruelty, or any other practice that is deemed immoral by some in a population will cause severe destruction of social capital.

The conclusion is that since different cultures possess different accents, languages, standards of humor, reactions, morals, norms, gestures, etc., the greater the degree of cultural diversity, the greater the frequency of abNormal conditions and the corresponding destruction of social capital. It should thus be clear why social capital and diversity are incompatible, and why efforts to make diversity and social capital compatible are bound to fail. If we wish to bring about Normalcy of interpersonal stabilizing proper functions, this can only be done by co-adapting the partners of the stabilizing coordination. There are several ways we can do this: one way would be for the consumer to adopt the conventions of the producer’s language and customs and thus adapt to the producer. On the other hand, the producer could learn the language and customs of the consumer and so succeed in stabilization. Or, both the producer and consumer can abandon their coordinating conventions and adopt new ones. Or, the cultures can merge. All of these solutions would help to eliminate alienation by removing the signs of historical differences that cause it. But in all of these cases, the solution is to get rid of the diversity that is causing dysfunction and alienation and instead adopt common conventions that bring the producer and consumer into coordination. If social capital exists by the Normal performance of interpersonal stabilizing functions, and a diversity of differing conditions for interpersonal coordination will inevitably cause malfunctioning, it is only through the elimination of this conflicting diversity by both participants coming to adopt Normal partner roles that social capital can be maintained.

We conclude this discussion in part 3.

Why Diversity Destroys Social Capital, part 1

Tags

, ,

In 2007 Harvard researcher Robert Putnam published the long-awaited results of his research which showed that increased diversity lead to a reduction in social capital. Putnam’s massive study concluded that:

…inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the colour of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, to give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television (2007: 150).

 

In the presence of diversity, we “hunker down”, he argued, “we pull in like a turtle” (2007: 149).

These results have been echoed in other studies as well. For example, Dronkers in his study of immigrant neighborhoods in the Netherlands finds that:

1) neighborhoods’ ethnic diversity reduces individual trust in neighborhoods; 2) those with neighbors of a different ethnicity have less trust in neighborhoods and neighbors 3) a substantial part of the effect of neighborhoods’ ethnic diversity on individual trust can be explained by the higher propensity of having neighbors of a different ethnicity. We conclude that ethnic diversity can have a negative effect on individual trust. (Dronkers 2008)

 

And Hero concurs that “When we considered the interaction of diversity and social capital, a powerful dampening effect of the former on the latter was shown” (Hero 2007: 157).

The explanations for the findings of Putnam’s and other similar studies have usually been couched in moral terms: liberals see it as confirmation of persistent prejudice; conservatives see it as a confirmation that multiculturalism is destructive to society. Both sides see social capital as an important good in society, but they differ in that whereas liberals believe that social capital and diversity are compatible, and that the promotion of social capital is frustrated by prejudice, conservatives believe that social capital and diversity are incompatible and that the good of social capital can only be achieved by reducing diversity through integration. My hope here is to resolve this dispute by offering a non-moral explanation of the mechanism by which social capital is created and maintained, and thereby come to understand how this mechanism is in turn undermined, so that ultimately we can come to judge the compatibility of social capital and diversity.

In his groundbreaking account of social capital, Coleman wrote that “Social capital is defined by its function” (Coleman 1988: 96). If so, it should prove fruitful to consult the literature that has been dedicated to the understanding of the notion and nature of natural function, and see how this may be applied to social capital. This might provide insight into the distinctive function of social capital: what is its function, how it performs its function, and how it fails to perform it. Specifically, I will apply the teleofunctional framework developed by philosopher Ruth Millikan to these ends. There are other accounts of function in the literature, but Millikan’s is specifically geared towards understanding the nature of interpersonal cooperation and communication, and as such is equipped with a set of conceptual tools applicable to the study to social capital.

 

  1. Teleosemantics

Millikan’s great insight in her landmark Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories was to look language, thought, and behavior from an evolutionary frame to apply this to the philosophical problems of mind and semantics. Starting from a naturalistic account of the phenomena of teleological function, Millikan is able to move up into the spheres of intentionality, meaning, representation, and interpersonal communication. For Millikan, functional items like hearts and kidneys get their functions not by what they currently do, or have a disposition to do, but by possessing a certain history. Specifically, there must be a history of both reproduction and selection. “Reproduction” is to be understood counterfactually as had the ancestor differed in some respect, the descendent would likewise differ in that respect. Picture the way the words on the paper that comes out of a copying machine are copies of the words on the original, or the way that children’s genes are copies of their parents’ genes, or the performance of social customs such as shaking hands or bowing when greeting are copies of previous performances of those gestures, or the way manufactured items on an assembly line are copies of a blueprint or prototype (1984: 23).[1][1]

The second requirement is that the item must be selected for the possession of a feature. “Selection” here is to be understood not as conscious choice, but in the Darwinian sense that the reason an item or feature exists is that this feature has correlated sufficiently often with some effect, and this effect helped account for its reproduction as opposed to things lacking this effect (1993: 35). The effect in question is the proper function of the item. In the case of biological items such as organs or inherited behaviors such as mating displays, the proper function is that effect an item’s ancestors had that accounted for the proliferation of the genes responsible for its production (1993: 14). Put more intuitively, a specific animal mating display, for example, has proliferated because this behavior corresponds more positively with the ability to attract mates than some other behavior. This behavior was selected by natural selection over some other behavior at least in part because of that correlation; those who performed this display were more likely to attract mates, and thus to pass these behavior-producing genes into their progeny, than those who didn’t. Hearts, to take another example, have pumping blood as their proper function not because they currently pump blood, or have the capacity to pump blood, but because the genes that produce hearts are copies of an ancestor’s genes, and the reason these genes have proliferated is because they correlate with the production of things that pump blood (1993: 35). Thus diseased, malformed, and damaged hearts that lack the ability to pump blood still have the pumping of blood as their proper function because the genes that produced them are copies of genes that have proliferated because they sufficiently often produce things the pump blood, whether or not the current item in question has this ability. Many mating displays fail to perform their mate-attracting function, maybe they even fail more frequently than they succeed, but they succeed often enough to make it worthwhile to pass on the genes.

It is not only the case of the copying and selection of genes that thereby have proper functions in this sense. The account of selection merely requires that a feature be reproduced because it correlates positively with some effect more positively than if it were lacking this feature. Thus things may have proper functions that exist for reasons other than natural selection working on genes. Manufactured artifacts are also copied and selected because they produce some effect (1984: 28). Hammers have driving nails as their proper function because it was the ability to drive nails that has lead to the copying of these artifacts by humans in manufacture. In addition to innate behaviors, a learned behavior can have a proper function if it is reproduced because it leads to a reward; it being the function of the behavior to bring about this result. Behaviors learned through trial and error or through imitation, for example, fall into this category (1984: 28). When a child first learns to imitate (reproduce) light-switch-flipping behavior because they have observed the correlation between light-switch-flipping and room illumination, the proper function of this behavior is to illuminate the room. The proper function of taking the bus is to arrive at ones destination; the proper function of opening the refrigerator is to get food, and so on.   Likewise, saying/reproducing language items such as words, sentence syntax, phonetic accents, and so on have proper functions; the child learns to iterate tokens of “ba-ba” because this correlates sufficiently often with the reception of a bottle and thus food.

In some cases two items have a common purpose that has been achieved in the past by each party reproducing their share in a pattern of behavior. This serves to coordinate each one to the other in order to cooperate in the achievement of this common purpose. For example, drivers have a common interest in avoiding collisions, so, in the United States and many other countries, a convention was instituted whereby drivers drive on the right. Drivers thus coordinate with one another in order to cooperate in the achievement of their common goal. Other countries of course may have instituted the similar convention of driving on the left. Producing and maintaining this mutual adaptation whereby each party contributes to the shared goal is the “stabilizing” function of the item or behavior; it is what keeps both parties to the coordination responding in standard ways (1984: 31, 2005: 54).

One such case are the reproduced patterns involved in certain animal mating dances where both the producer of the dance and its audience (called the “consumer” by Millikan) have a common purpose and have come up with a convention in order to coordinate with one another in order to reach it. The intended audience “expects” a dance of a certain form to be performed, its conventions followed, and the producer expects the audience to react in a standard way to its performance. Because consumers often enough respond to the dances in a way that benefits them, producers are encouraged to keep producing. And because responding to the dances aids consumers, they are likely to keep responding in the standard way. Despite the fact that often the dance may fail in its purpose, it is more likely to succeed than some random motions, and that makes it worthwhile to keep it in use.

Language devices have their stabilizing functions as well. For instance, if the listeners of an utterance reacted randomly to ones speech it would be pointless to continue to make those utterances, and the speaker would soon stop. Likewise, if speakers’ utterances never communicated useful information, or if the hearer was too often manipulated against their best interest, hearers would soon stop believing what is said (1984: 31). Speakers and listeners thus arrive at a convention to which each is attuned in order for each of them to succeed in performing the stabilizing function. Speakers must produce forms that the listener is prepared to accept, and the intended audience, the consumers of the language form, must react in ways that reinforce the speaker in so speaking. For instance, it is a convention amongst English speakers that we utter “dog” when trying to discuss dogs. Likewise, it is a convention amongst English writers that we write the characters d, o, and g in order when we are trying to discuss or refer to dogs. Ones hearer must be coordinated with this convention and so be prepared to respond to the utterance of “dog” such as to know that it refers to dogs. It will do no good to utter “dog” amongst those who are not coordinated with the speaker by the possession of a common linguistic history so as to respond to this utterance in a predictable way.

Speakers within a language community are, simply, adapted to an environment in which hearers are responding, sufficiently often, to the forms speakers produce in ways that reinforce these speaker productions. Correlatively, hearers in the community are, simply, adapted to conditions under which speakers, sufficiently often, produce these language forms in circumstances such that making conventional responses to them aids those hearers (2005: 57).

Thus, people continue to utter “dog” in order to draw attention to dogs only insofar as listeners often enough continue to respond to this utterance appropriately. It is in both the speaker’s and hearer’s interest to continue to respond in this way since the hearer is liable to gain useful information and the speaker is liable to meet his goal of spreading such information. “Dog” has been copied from person to person for generations because it is successful in doing so in relation to dogs. The stabilizing function a linguistic form performs is one of the aspects of the term’s meaning (2005: 58).

There are ways of communicating besides through the use of spoken human language. There is the common phenomenon of non-spoken communicating signs that have been designed to coordinate between producer, consumer, and environment. In these cases items with stabilizing functions may attain intentionality. To use a now classic example, after finding a source of nectar, a honey bee returns to the hive and does a dance. Other bees watch the dance and so learn the location of the nectar relative to the sun and the hive. They then fly off in the direction of the nectar in order to retrieve it and bring it back to the hive. Millikan calls items such as the dance of the honey bee “intentional icons” because they are about the location of nectar (1984: ch. 6). In order to be an intentional icon the sign in question must, firstly, be able to vary in accordance with variations in the environment. Secondly, it must be a function of the producer of the sign to produce it for a consumer in accordance with certain mapping rules by which the sign maps its intended environmental feature. Finally, it must be a function of the intended consumers of the icon to use it in the way the mapping relation indicates (1993: 106).

For example, the form of the dance of the honey bee varies depending on the location of the nectar relative to the sun and the hive, it is produced by the dancing bee in order to indicate this relation, and the watching bees then use the mapping relation indicated to direct their direction of flight. In another example, soldiers wear their ranks on their uniforms where they can be clearly perceived by their intended audience. The insignia varies according to the soldiers rank and both tells consumers what the rank is and so prescribes appropriate behavior. Finally, beavers slap their tails on the water when danger is near in order to tell listening beavers of its presence. The slaps vary with the time and place of danger, and the listening beavers use this icon to initiate hiding or other avoidance behaviors.

For each item that possesses a function in the sense described here there will be an explanation of how the item has historically managed to perform this function. This explanation will mention how the structure of the item in question has managed to “do its job” historically, what conditions were in effect, what the environment was like that allowed the item to successfully perform it function. Millikan calls such an explanation a “Normal” explanation and the conditions that have historically held in order for the item to succeed in performing its function “Normal” conditions (1984: 33). “Normal” is capitalized to prevent confusion that might occur if one was to think that Normal conditions are average or frequent since “normal” often has that connotation. For example, just think of how few sperm manage to perform their function of fertilizing an egg, or how infrequently the skull needs to perform its function of protecting the brain from impacts. It might be helpful to think of Normal conditions as “activation conditions” or “enabling conditions.” In abNormal conditions an item will fail to perform its function, or at least fail to accomplish it in accordance with a Normal explanation. Diseased hearts are in abNormal conditions, being underwater for extended periods is an abNormal condition for otherwise healthy lungs, and whatever it is that prevents a specific sperm from fertilizing an egg is also an abNormal condition.

We will put all this theory to use in part 2.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 39 other followers